Players’ reasons for considering a post-graduate (PG) or gap year are manifold: poor grades and/or testing earlier in the high school career are making them inadmissible at their top choices of schools; being young for their class is creating a feeling that an extra year of maturity may allow them to get more out of their college experience; a late growth spurt is affecting their tennis development; a late commitment to tennis after playing multiple sports is showing stronger potential than might be expected given their current rankings. A PG year or gap year can certainly provide extra time to improve academic standing, physical or emotional maturity, and/or level of play with the hope of providing more college, and college tennis, options. But once the decision to take the extra year is made, the question becomes, “What do I do?” There are several ways to focus one’s time and efforts in post-graduate years, and each requires much consideration of the implications on the recruiting process, eligibility, and playing time in college. Knowing the rules and planning ahead is critical in making a sensible decision about PG years.
Several years ago, there was no rule preventing a player from taking a gap year, regardless of the reason for doing so. But, in April of 2010, the NCAA voted to reduce the grace period for a gap year from 1 year to 6 months for Division 1 schools. (NCAA Divisions 2 and 3 still allow for a full 1 year grace period between high school graduation and enrolling in a college without using a season of eligibility.) The rationale and spirit behind initiating the D1 legislation was to encourage continuity in the educational process and to level the playing field in college tennis based on age and experience.
The exact wording of the NCAA Bylaw for Division 1 that went into effect August 1, 2012, and is still in place, is as follows:
126.96.36.199.2 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)
- 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.
- 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.” i
In summary, starting college in January of the year following high school graduation will not affect a Division 1 player’s eligibility or playing time in terms of the NCAA rules. Additionally, a player may start in the following fall without penalty, but only if they do not take part in any organized competition of any sort after the 6 month grace period from the high school graduation date has expired. Training is still allowed after the passing of the grace period, but participating in any tournaments (USTA, ITF, ITA, etc.), club play, or any events where matches and scores are recorded, a schedule is posted, uniforms are worn, etc. (even high school tennis) is in violation of the rule and can result in ineligibility and a loss of playing time.
Players and families who are strongly considering taking a gap year still need to consider how the coaches who are recruiting them feel about late starts. We have found that few coaches would be deterred from recruiting a player taking a gap year provided that the player is training hard and playing practice matches during the official break from competition. However, there are still a considerable number of D1 coaches who feel that an extended layoff from competition is problematic and it may affect whether they recruit that player. Some coaches strongly prefer for players to start on time 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. There seems to be a tendency for coaches from higher level Division 1 programs to be more concerned about the layoff from competition than coaches at lower level Division I programs. The coaches at the more elite D1 programs often question how taking an extra year will make a player better when he or she will not be competing in any official capacity for 8 or 9 months.
For players considering Division 1 schools, it is important to know that choosing to repeat a year of high school (instead of taking gap time or a PG year after graduation) is not a way around the 6-month grace period rule. For Division 1, players are required to stay on track with their class for graduation once they begin the 9th grade. While graduating with the class is not technically required, players need to have fulfilled the requirements laid out by the NCAA Eligibility Center within 4 years from the start of high school. If the NCAA core requirements are met in that prescribed timeframe, a player may take the extra 6 months (after the anticipated graduation date) for further academic, physical, emotional or sport development before matriculating at a college without penalty. (Repeating a year of high school has different implications for Division 2 and Division 3. The Division 2 rule, 188.8.131.52.1.1.2, entitled Late High School Graduation – Required Repeat Year states: “If an individual is required to repeat an entire year of high school, he or she becomes a member of that class and the date of graduation for the individual is the expected date of that class.” ii Division 3, while it does have a grace period rule governing how long a player can wait before playing college tennis, it does not use the core course and GPA scales as Division 1 and Division 2 do. Each school determines the athlete’s minimum academic eligibility.)
The required Core Courses, along with a minimum combination of standardized test scores and GPA for Division 1 and 2 schools, can be found at www.eligibilitycenter.org.
Following are two scenarios to illustrate some of the points made above:
Scenario #1: A player graduates with her class “on time” on June 5th, four years after the start of ninth grade and in completion of all of the NCAA required core courses and minimum scores. But, she still feels she needs more time to develop and prepare for college and college tennis. She decides to continue schooling (either at a school or on-line) to improve her academic standing and take more time for training and tournaments. Since her extra year for development will be her 5th year after her ninth grade start, and she is considering starting at a Division 1 program in the fall, she will need to comply with the 6-month grace period rule by refraining from organized competition between December 5th of her PG year and the start of college that next fall.
Scenario #2: A player decides to attend a new school after his freshman year of high school. For various reasons, he decides to repeat Grade 9 at the new school. After the junior year of high school, his 4 years from his initial start of high school at his previous school will have expired. While it is not necessarily a problem that he won’t be graduating from high school at this time, he does want to consider a Division 1 tennis program so he will need to have fulfilled the requirements laid out by the NCAA Initial Eligibility Center for the number of classes taken overall, the number of years of various class subjects, and the minimum GPA and standardized testing scores. His high school tennis season is in the spring, but the player needs to refrain from any organized competition from 6 months after what would have been his original high school graduation date until he starts college in September. This means he cannot play for his high school team. (Please note that Scenario 2 would apply to a player repeating any year of high school and considering a Division 1 program.)
Once the implications on recruiting, training, competition, and eligibility have been considered and a decision has been made to take a gap year, there are several options for how to fill that extra time. A player’s plans for the extra year should reflect his or her specific goals for further development. Following are examples of how students might spend their extra years’ and the reasons why. While we are hesitant to mention specific academies and schools as we know we can’t mention them all, we think it’s important to give some concrete examples:
- A player who primarily needs to improve academic standing, take more challenging classes, improve standardized testing (not necessarily to simply meet the Clearinghouse standards, but to be admissible at more selective schools that they may be targeting), have further time to develop maturity, confidence and independence, and would function best in a more structured and traditional educational setting might consider a post-graduate year at a school that has a formalized PG program. These schools are most commonly private boarding schools with rigorous academic standards. Approximately 145 boarding schools around the United States offer PG years. A full listing of those programs can be found at www.boardingschoolreview.com. (Examples on the east coast include schools such as Choate Rosemary Hall, Deerfield, The Hill School, Hotchkiss, Phillips Andover, Phillips Exeter, Lawrenceville and Taft.) While these programs may provide strong opportunities for academic and personal development, the focus on tennis training may not be as intensive as in other settings. Players will need to consider whether there are solid opportunities for tennis training in the form of other competitive players being present, the school having facilities on campus or nearby, transportation to an off-campus tennis club, accessibility of coaching and tournament play, etc.
- Those players looking for reputable schools offering somewhat traditional academic setting and intensive tennis training should consider schools that work in concert with a dedicated tennis academy. Some of the most nationally renowned tennis academies with established options for formalized schooling are: IMG/Bolletieri (IMG Academy) and Saddlebrook (Saddlebrook Prep) in Florida, Ross School Tennis Academy (Ross School) in New York, Austin Tennis Academy (ATA College Prep) in Texas, Gorin Academy (Sierra Academy) in California, Smith Sterns (Hilton Head Prep) and Van de Meer (Hilton Head Prep) in South Carolina, Weil Academy (Weil College Prep) in California, etc. (Again, we apologize for others we left out!)
- For players whose primary goal is to improve their level of tennis before playing college tennis, but wanting to stay fresh with academic habits, might consider a tennis academy with extensive time on court and more flexible on-line schooling as a supplemental activity. Many of the aforementioned nationally recognized tennis academies, as well as numerous regional academies, will have extensive training and on-line schooling options as an alternative to more traditional “bricks and mortar” schooling.
- Tennis training can be the sole focus of a gap year. Academic work is not a required element of a gap year or the NCAA grace period. For those wanting the singular tennis focus should engage in full-time training, either with a private coach or with a full service tennis academy that can provide coaching, training and competition (up until competition has to cease to remain in compliance with the 6-month grace period rule). High level, intensively tennis-focused academies can be found worldwide. (Spanish academies like the Barcelona Tennis Academy and Bruguera Tennis Academy have become destinations for some American players.) Examples of notable tennis academies in the United States are: Evert, IMG/Bolletieri, Saddlebrook, Saviano, Celsius, Sanchez-Casal, and Rick Macci’s all in Florida; Advantage, Weil, Gorin and Eagle-Fustar in California; Junior Champions Tennis Center at College Park in Maryland; Center Court in New Jersey, John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York, Smith-Stearns, Van de Meer and Ivan Lendl Junior Tennis Academy in South Carolina, Austin Tennis Academy and John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in Texas, No Quit Tennis Academy in Nevada, etc. Again, it is impossible to list all of the options here, so be sure to do some research on the best programs and places for players to meet their individualized post-graduate goals.
Having to sit out the first year in college can be a catastrophic blow to a player’s college career; therefore players need to be fully aware of the rules affecting gap years and the consequences. Now, more than ever, extensive thought needs to be given to the decision of whether to take a gap or PG year, and what to do with that year for those who decide that it is the sensible thing to do. We advise players, their parents and their coaches to be very cautious in making this decision. Players need to 1) have a clear plan for what they will do with the extra year to meet their developmental goals, 2) factor in how an 8 or 9-month gap in competition will affect their development and recruitment for Division 1 programs, 3) be absolutely certain that the coaches at the schools they are most interested in attending are on board with that course of action. With all of these question marks and strict rule parameters, the sensible decision for most high level Division 1 prospects is to stay on the standard educational and recruiting track and start college on time. However, for lower level D1 prospects along with Division 2 and 3 prospects for whom the right factors and consideration are in place, post graduate time may provide those players with enhanced personal, academic, tennis and recruiting opportunities.
i. NCAA Academic and Membership Affairs Staff, 2010-11 NCAA Division 1 Manual, Indianapolis, IN, 2010.
ii. NCAA Academic and Membership Affairs Staff, 2014-15 NCAA Division 2 Manual, Indianapolis, IN, 2014, pg. 108.
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.