News & Features
The Dilemma of High School Tennis
by Tim Donovan, 14 March 2011
Special from Donovan Tennis Strategies
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For years, accomplished USTA junior tennis players have grappled with the question of whether to play on their high school teams. While they want to support their team and school, they don't want their level of play to deteriorate over the course of the season. Strong high school teams with 4- and 5-star caliber players and accomplished coaches do exist, but they are the exception and not the norm. Strong players on weak high school teams are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, there's much to be said for the friendships, camaraderie and school spirit that comes from competing on a high school team; on the other hand, the level of play on many teams is considerably weaker than the tournament training to which these players are accustomed. If high school coaches are inflexible about allowing highly successful junior players to practice outside of the team, the players often feel like their team participation jeopardizes their tennis development.
The dilemma is further magnified during the all important junior year. College recruiting ramps up during the junior year in high school and further accelerates during the summer between the junior and senior years. Players, especially those who qualify for Level 1 and Level 2 nationals in the summer before the senior year, are looking to be in peak form and post strong results in order to garner interest from top programs at all three NCAA Divisions. And while some high school seasons take place in the Fall, in many parts of the country the high school season is in the Spring. So at the very time when a player needs to be peaking, they are coming out of a high school tennis environment that is often less than optimal.
So how important is playing high school tennis? We polled a number of coaches from all 3 NCAA divisions, and as one might expect, their answers varied dramatically. Our expectation was that as the level of the college team improved, the coaches would be less inclined to care whether or not a recruit played for his or her high school team as long as they met the desired standard of play. While this was true to some extent - several coaches from nationally-ranked D1 schools said it had no bearing on who they recruit - we were surprised at the number of D1 coaches of teams that we would consider "top 100" programs along with highly ranked Division 2 and 3 programs who felt that a player's participation on their HS team was important. Some expressed that they value leadership skills and that high school tennis is a good opportunity to learn and show such skills. Others mentioned that the creativity needed to maintain a high level of play in a less than ideal training environment is the type of skill that makes players more successful in the long run, even if there is a temporary decline in the level of play. Others alluded to fact that most junior tennis players are never in a team environment if they forgo their HS program and therefore are lacking the skills necessary to be a good teammate in college.
What should players consider when making this decision? The big question is: can I get better or at least maintain my level of play participating in my high school tennis program? The answer starts with an honest assessment of your own level of play relative to the level of others on the team. As long as the gap is not huge, then the player should be able to maintain their level of play. The proper attitude, however, is essential. With a good attitude and open mind, there is no reason why a 4 or even 5 star player could not get a meaningful workout with a 2-star player. Conversely, with a poor attitude and a willingness to make the excuse that you can't get better unless you practice and play with others at your level, your game and confidence will no doubt deteriorate.
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