One of the most consistent messages we hear from college tennis coaches about the recruitment process is that they wish that student-athletes would take more ownership of their own recruitment. Coaches often perceive the initiation of contact and the following consistency of communication from a recruit as a mark of maturity, independence and sincere interest in the program. Working with a player directly gives coaches very valuable insight into how that individual may work within the team’s system, both on and off the court. To most coaches, taking ownership of the recruitment process is a suggestion that the player may possess motivation, confidence, and care which are highly desirable characteristics of a future team member.
No matter how many times this message seems to be shared, coaches report that they often have to manage player communication amidst heavy parental involvement in the recruitment process. This forces coaches to assess a player’s potential contribution without surety that they are dealing with a player who is truly interested, desirable and capable of being a responsible team member. Examples of “red flags” prompted by parental involvement can be very subtle or overt, from sending an introductory letter on a player’s behalf to speaking for a student when sitting in on a meeting with a coach.
Across the board, it is understood that a parent’s intentions are good when helping to guide a player’s recruitment. Parents most often cite student athletes’ demanding schedules with school, training, test prep, etc., as their reason for wanting to help. Having been an important part of a student-athlete’s development until this point, it is natural for parents to transition to providing significant aid in this subsequent part of the journey. From the coaches’ perspective, however, college life (particularly the life of a collegiate student-athlete) is busy, too, and presents significant challenges to time and task management. Coaches know that they will be spending a lot of time with the student-athlete (likely more than any other professor or administrator on campus!) and depending on them to be a reliable and productive part of the team, both on and off the court. Outside of monitoring a player’s rankings and results, coaches want to get a sense of how a potential team member may manage themselves both practically and emotionally when presented with challenge and adversity. Certainly, students of recruiting age don’t often have the highly honed skills or experience in managing a process like this, but coaches feel as though this a great opportunity to start developing and practicing those skills.
An esteemed Ivy League coach presents this mindset as follows:
“Although all coaches want successful teams, our real goal is to use our tennis team as a vehicle for preparing our players to handle the challenges that they will face after college. We all want to find players for our teams who have the maturity and ability to take responsibility for themselves. First, because it helps them to become valuable members of the squad. Second, because it helps them develop into young adults who can successfully manage a full academic, athletic, and social schedule. The college application process itself – sending out resumes, communicating with the coach, arranging visits, making travel arrangements, collecting information, etc. – is the ideal time for your son or daughter to demonstrate to coaches that they have this quality!”
It is important to understand that when a coach desires a player’s ownership of the process, it is not a suggestion that parents have no interaction with the program or throughout the entirety of his or her recruitment. On the contrary, many coaches feel as though getting to know the family on some level also provides insight into a player’s background, development, and character. Coaches oftentimes like to get to know the parents or family of a high-priority recruit to start establishing the bonds and a level of comfort for a potentially long-term relationship. Finally, many coaches, especially if in a parental role themselves, understand that it is unrealistic that a parent or guardian will have no role in a player’s thought process and decision making when it comes to a major life decision such as the selection of a college.
Parents will ultimately have some type of relationship with the college coach of their child, but it will be a different and separate relationship than will develop between the player and the coach. A player will be on the team, and a parent will not, so by definition, the context of the relationship with the coach will be different and should be treated that way. Student-athletes will be acting on their own accord and will not simply be an extension of their families. A parent’s involvement should never diminish a recruit’s opportunity to have his or her own voice, address his or her own questions, or develop his or her own relationship with the coach. Likewise, it should not be used as an opportunity to discretely (or overtly) “sell” the player. We recommend that parents use restraint and good judgment in the amount of communication with the coach about their child. An occasional e-mail or phone call is reasonable over the course of the entire process, but more regular weekly or monthly contact is certainly not necessary, nor desirable. By extension, the same restraint and judgment should be used once a player is on a college squad, especially when it comes to issues such as coaching approaches, line-ups, playing time, etc.
There are some pretty clear “do’s and don’ts” for parents and recruits which can significantly impact the success and enjoyment of the recruiting process, for all involved: the recruit, the family and the coach. Coaches garner a lot of comfort when certain benchmarks are met by the recruit:
- Introducing themselves appropriately: The first introduction to a coach, either in person or electronically, should be initiated by the player. A player approaching a coach for a handshake with confidence and eye contact and sending his /her own introductory letters are much more well received than scenarios initiated by parents (even with good intent). Letters coming from parents (either coming from a parental e-mail address or using language that is clearly not the player’s), or parents introducing a child at a tournament or in some other setting, is not an ideal first impression when it comes to a player’s ownership of the process.
- Being realistic about program knowledge and self-assessment: Players should demonstrate that they have done their own research and are aware of the level of the program and where they might fit into the program based on their demonstrated results (either as a program changer, a potential starter and impact player, or a player potentially playing a support role lower on the roster.) Coaches want to know that players are invested enough to do their own research on programs of interest and have a realistic, non-exaggerated sense of their own capabilities and potential. Players should avoid asking questions that can easily be answered with some basic research on the website or outlets such as UTR and TRN.
- Being consistent with updates: As with the initial contact, recruits, not parents, should be scheduling and sending updates of the on-going performance in school and tennis, and keeping track of those communications.
- Showing that they are invested in their own training and development: Evidence of players’ loving tennis enough to play an active role in choosing their own training plans, scheduling their own tournaments, engaging in off-court training, and even demonstrating tasks as simple as carrying their own tennis bags and being prepared for an event, is very attractive to any coach!
- Calling in addition to e-mailing or texting: Being willing to establish a more personal relationship with a coach through actual conversations shows a level of comfort, confidence and ability to conduct oneself in a people centered team environment. “Hiding” behind a keyboard leaves out a major part of the recruitment process and may withhold an opportunity for a player and coach to understand each other on a more dynamic level.
“Red Flags” are raised for coaches when:
- A meeting with a coach is dominated by a parent’s discussion: Answering questions addressed to the player, always supplementing a recruit’s response, correcting the recruit’s answers, or explaining what the student “actually meant” deprives the student of the opportunity to share themselves with the coach in an open and meaningful way. The best way for parents to assist a recruit is BEFORE a coach meeting, making sure their son or daughter has done research and has thoughtful questions prepared. If a student has the tendency to not speak with parents around, or is likely to be overshadowed by parent participation, it is best for a recruit to have the opportunity to meet with a coach independently.
- A player’s demonstrated level of play and record are overstated by a parent or personal coach: College coaches spend their daily work watching and assessing tennis and are, as a result, more savvy and knowledgeable about their team’s level of play, and their desired level of recruitment, than anyone else. Exaggeration of a player’s results or level, or an unrealistic prediction of their future potential, can prove to have the unintended consequence of losing trust in the recruit’s advocacy. Coaches lament at the number of times they hear that “my son is really better than his results suggest”, or “my daughter’s ranking is not completely accurate and is not indicative of her level”. Hearing that a player has “a serve like Federer” or “a return like Agassi” or “could likely take a set off Serena in a year or two”, while perhaps humorous, provides no useful recruiting value for a college coach. A well-meaning parent trying to advocate for his or her child may tout the fact that despite losing sets and matches, a player “goes to deuce” often with better players, while unintentionally raising a red flag for coaches about a player’s inability to close out games and mentally manage opportunities. Coaches know what they are looking for in players and will determine that for themselves in their own assessments of the player. Parents will usually best serve their kids by letting them present themselves where they actually are on their path of tennis development, and trusting the judgment of coaches regarding whether they may be a fit for the program.
- A coach receives excessive phone calls or correspondence from an individual other than the recruit: Depending on the relationship that a recruit’s family or private coach may have with a coach, it is impossible to define “excessive” for every situation. But if a coach feels like their listening on behalf of a recruit is requiring more time than necessary, or if there is continual contact when there is nothing new to update from either the school’s or recruit’s side, those contacts may become bothersome and have the intended consequence of worrying about the level of parental interruption or involvement during future experiences with the team.
- There is consistent and strong pressure for recruitment, admission or scholarship: If a coach is strongly interested in a player as a high priority recruit, and has explored the possibilities for supporting admission and/or scholarship, the coach will most often communicate that clearly to the recruit. If a coach states that a player is not within range to be admitted or is not of the level they need for future impact on the program, re-approaching several times will not likely change a situation, and that intense level of pushing for a particular outcome may not reflect well on a player who otherwise may still be under consideration for that program.
- A recruit’s family or other advocate pursues another avenue of support at the school for a player without consulting or including the tennis coach: In some cases where legacy or some other personal connection with the college may exist, going above or around the coach (for example, to a board member, influential alumnae or athletic administrator) to address a player’s recruitment, without making the coach aware of that process, can have an unintended consequence for the recruit. Actions like that do not allow for the coach to work in concert with other advocates to make the most convincing case possible on behalf of the recruit. Operating in other university realms on behalf of a tennis recruit without the coach’s knowledge may also erode the trust that a coach would have in a recruit’s open and honest communication.
After articulating a long list of do’s and don’ts, it is important to note that many recruits and their support systems manage this process seamlessly. In evaluating the proper balance of ownership in the recruiting process, instinct plays an important role. If a recruit or parent is feeling uncomfortable or uneasy about the other’s level of participation or initiation, there may be something to that! In a competitive setting like college admissions and athletics, some parents are responding to a stated (or unstated) pressure to do whatever they can to push for their child’s advancement. They perceive not “selling” their child as a disservice. But, parents who feel discomfort in the potential of being overbearing and hindering should be cognizant of that instinct. Even with very little parental involvement and primarily student driven ownership in the recruiting process, and some reliance on the lead of the coach, wonderfully successful college placements happen all of the time!
All in all, the recruitment process should provide a wonderful, exciting and fun opportunity for a recruit to imagine his or her desired future and step forward to showcase his or her best and real self in an attempt to reach that goal. It is important to stimulate confidence in these college bound players, reinforcing that just as they succeed on the court, they can transfer similar elements of time, work, dedication and courage to this next competitive phase. There is no question that the recruiting and application process and all of its requirements and expectations can be very demanding and sometimes intimidating for a college bound student-athlete, and it is natural to want to be a child’s best cheerleader, assistant and protector. However, as one Division 1 coach of countless stellar recruiting classes stresses to all parents going through college tennis recruitment with their kids, “You will be most effective when you realize that you can best “help” your children by stepping back from the process, being ready to listen and suggest thoughtful questions that may help them get the information they need to make the sound decisions about the next phase of their lives.”