There are many reasons why prospective college tennis players, in partnership with their parents, might consider taking an extra year before starting college. One reason is that a player’s poor grades earlier in their high school career my not make them admissible at their top choice schools. Taking a post-graduate year will allow them to improve upon their grades and standardized testing, and thereby increasing their likelihood of admission to their top choice school. Another reason is that some players are young for their grade and their parents may feel that an extra year of maturity will allow them to get more out of their college experience. Other reasons might include a late growth spurt or a late commitment to tennis after playing multiple sports. However the vast majority of those considering a “gap” year do it simply because they feel the extra year will help them become a better player and therefore give them more and better college options.
Prior to this year there was no rule preventing a player from taking a gap year, regardless of their reason for doing so. In April of 2010, the NCAA voted to reduce the grace period from 1 year to 6 months for Division 1 schools. Here is the exact wording of the Bylaw that is effective August 1, 2012:
188.8.131.52.2 Tennis. In tennis, a student-athlete who does not enroll in a collegiate institution as a fulltime student in a regular academic term within six months (or the first opportunity to enroll after six months have elapsed) after his or her high school graduation date or the graduation date of his or her class (as determined by the first year of high school enrollment or the international equivalent as specified in the NCAA Guide to International Academic Standards for Athletics Eligibility and based on the prescribed educational path in the student-athlete’s country), whichever occurs earlier, shall be subject to the following: (Adopted: 4/29/10 effective 8/1/12; applicable to student-athletes who initially enroll full time in a collegiate institution on or after 8/1/12)
(a) The student-athlete shall be charged with a season of intercollegiate eligibility for each calendar year after the six-month period has elapsed (or the next opportunity to enroll) and prior to full-time collegiate enrollment during which the student-athlete has participated in organized competition per Bylaw 14.02.9.
(b) After the six-month period, if the student-athlete has engaged in organized competition per Bylaw 14.02.9, on matriculation at the certifying institution, the student-athlete must fulfill an academic year in residence for each calendar year after the six-month period has elapsed (or the next opportunity to enroll) and prior to full-time collegiate enrollment during which the student-athlete has participated in such competition before being eligible to represent the institution in intercollegiate competition.
The goal of this legislation is to encourage continuity in the educational process and to level the playing field in college tennis based on age and experience. Some years back it was not uncommon in the higher levels of Division 1 tennis for a 24 year old player to be competing against an 18 year old player.
Starting college in January of the year following high school graduation is perfectly fine. While this is a viable option at many Division 1 schools, there are many others that do not allow students or student-athletes to start during the January term. There are also coaches at schools that do allow a January start who strongly prefer their players to start in September so that they can go through the normal orientation period that affords students the time to get to know the school and to ease themselves more comfortably into the campus environment.
While the rule does not take effect until August 1, 2012, those players currently in the midst of a gap year will need to be in compliance with the rule when starting college in September of 2012 (meaning that they will need to refrain from organized competition from January 1, 2012 through the start of school this fall). Those failing to comply will lose a year of eligibility at the start of their college tennis career.
Having to sit out their first year in college can be a catastrophic blow to a player’s college career. Therefore players currently in the midst of a gap year and those considering this route in future years need to be fully aware of the rule and its consequences. Some players consider repeating a grade in high school as a way to give themselves an extra year to improve. This is not a way around the 6-month grace period rule and needs to be carefully considered before choosing this option. Part of the above rule states that players are required to stay on track with their class once they begin the 9th grade. While graduating with their class is not technically required, they need to have fulfilled the requirements laid out by the NCAA Eligibility Center within 4 years from the start of high school. For Division 1 schools, 16 Core Courses are required along with a minimum combination of standardized test scores and GPA (this is a sliding scale that can be found at www.eligibilitycenter.org).
For example, a player decides to repeat her sophomore year in high school, so that 4 years after the start of the 9th grade she will have just completed the 11th grade rather than the 12th grade. In order to not lose eligibility she will have to complete the 16 Core Courses and have met the minimum standard for test scores and GPA by the end of her junior year. Since her senior year of high school will be her 5th year, she will also need to comply with the new 6-month grace period rule by refraining from organized competition between January 1 of her senior year and the start of college that fall.
So what does organized competition encompass? Well, everything outside of a practice match would fall under that category. USTA junior events, ITF events, ITA summer circuit events, campus showdowns, adult tournaments, futures events…even high school tennis.
Players and their families need to consider one important thing beyond all of the rules, and that’s how the college coaches who will be recruiting them will feel about them not competing for an 8-month period. The reaction from coaches we spoke with varied considerably. Some said that if they were otherwise interested in a player they would not be deterred from recruiting him or her provided that the player was training hard and playing practice matches during the break from competition. A considerable number of others, however, felt that an 8-month layoff from competition was problematic and would affect whether they recruited that player. Coaches from higher level Division 1 programs were more likely to say that they would be concerned about the lay-off from competition than coaches at lower level Division I programs. Many of those coaches question how taking an extra year will make a player better when they will not be competing for 8 of those months.
Knowing the rules and planning ahead is critical in making a sensible decision (to reiterate an important point, this applies only to Division 1). Prior to the new rule being adopted there was not much risk in a player deciding to take a gap year between graduating from high school and starting college tennis. But now, much more thought than ever needs to be given to the decision of whether to take a gap year. We advise players, their parents and their coaches to be cautious in making this decision. They need to have a clear plan for what they will do with the extra year, need to factor in how an 8-month gap in competition will affect their development as players, need to factor in which schools they are most interested in and how likely it is that an extra year will make them a viable recruit for that school, and need to be absolutely certain that the coaches at the schools they are most interested in attending are OK with that course of action. With all of these question marks and stricter new rules, the sensible decision for Division 1 prospects is often to stay on the standard track and start college on time.
Donovan Tennis Strategies
Donovan Tennis Strategies has been helping prospective college tennis players and their families navigate the recruiting process since 1997. In addition to consulting services DTS runs two College Prospects Showcases to help players get exposure to college coaches.