The question of whether playing high school tennis is a critical step in preparation for college tennis is a question that I have been asked often in my role as a college placement advisor with College Prospects of America, and before that as a college tennis coach for 10 years in both NCAA D-3 and NCAA D-1. I find this to be an interesting topic, but one without a “right” or “wrong” answer. If you were to poll college coaches, you would get a variety of answers with each coach basing their philosophy on personal experience (and experiences of players they have coached). Without a doubt, though, high school tennis can teach many valuable lessons that potentially give players a leg up on others that choose not to play for a high school team.
I’ll start by mentioning some benefits of playing high school tennis, and finish with a couple of other thoughts. High school tennis can teach several things that are difficult to learn when relying solely on USTA tournament play. High school tennis offers a great opportunity to take on a leadership role on a team. This can be in terms of leading by example with strong work ethic, or in encouraging and doing “extra” practice with teammates. This can be in the form of cheering on teammates, and celebrating team successes even when an individual player may have personally played poorly or lost. This can be demonstrating great coachability and effort (even if the high school coach is not your private coach). This can be excelling in the classroom and demonstrating great sportsmanship. This can be dealing with a coaching or lineup decision that you disagree with in a positive way. Each state has unique rules for high school tennis, so this can vary, but many high school tennis players get the experience of playing a lot more doubles than those who don’t play high school tennis.
All of these things I just touched on are situations/characteristics that are important as a college tennis player, and doing these things will be expected of a player by their college coach. If a player can demonstrate that they excel in the above areas, they increase their value to college coaches as a recruit and potential team member. But as a side note, one cannot say that they do these things and expect that to be enough to impress a coach. If actions are not noticeably different from most other student-athletes, high school coaches and others are not going to be able to honestly tell college coaches that a specific player stands out in these areas. It is one thing to say a person has good sportsmanship; it is quite another to demonstrate on-court sportsmanship that others notice as being above and beyond the norm.
Ultimately, though, it is critical for each student athlete and family to weigh their options and find the best path for them. It really is not the same for everyone. I had an unbelievably amazing experience playing high school tennis! I had a wonderful coach and teammates, and it was a time of great learning and maturation for me. I’ve coached many players that had similarly positive experiences with high school tennis. On the other hand, I’ve coached many players that had difficult circumstances with high school tennis, such as having a football coach that was assigned tennis as an extra duty, and student-athletes being asked to coach teammates because the coach’s tennis knowledge was so limited. Other difficulties are sometimes lack of court space or high level teammates for productive practices or lack of challenging opponents. Ultimately, players have to examine their situation carefully, and choose the best path for them.
Good luck in choosing a path, and feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have!