Official visits made by juniors or seniors to colleges of interest are a first-time experience for most prospective student athletes, yet there is often the assumption that they should know how to conduct themselves properly on overnight visits to campuses.
Unofficial visits, generally taken as a day trip, often involve a campus tour, information session, meeting with the coach and perhaps an introduction to the team. Usually these visits are done with a parent who can sometimes prompt the desired behavior from the student-athlete, and can provide comfort and reassurance. But official visits, standardly done without a family member, can last for up to 48 hours, involve extended periods of time with team members they may not know, and put them in unfamiliar settings of team practices/matches/meals, college level classes, independent entertainment, sleep in a dorm setting, etc. While this extended time can be very valuable in providing a true sense of the college experience at particular schools, it can also put a lot of pressure on the recruits, and their hosts, to “be on” and handle themselves appropriately in a variety of shifting settings and over a long period of time. And, if a student athlete is shy or is not comfortable being outgoing, this can lead to awkward interactions and possibly a negative impression of the recruit by the team. Following are some observations and recommendations provided by college coaches and players who see recruits in this situation on a regular basis, as well as some tangible strategies to put into play to help to insure a positive visit experience, and hopefully an invitation to join that team and school community.
When soliciting coaches for their thoughts on the official visit process, there are overarching themes that abound across the NCAA divisions. “Engage” tends to be a message that comes through all of the time. Coaches find it most comfortable when recruits talk, whether it is about tennis or even elements outside of tennis as they are getting to know a recruit better. Asking pertinent questions (after doing your research on the school) and answering questions in more than 2 words are easy guidelines for coming across as engaged. But if you are not the most talkative individual, there are non-verbal ways to be engaged such as showing positive energy, smiling, being respectful and polite to all people on campus (not just the tennis staff), being on time or early for meetings/classes/team events, being complimentary of positive things about the school, and most importantly, keeping the cell phone away or turned off during any team or coach interactions.
The other consistent recommendation from coaches across the board is to be your true self on the visit. Coaches and players already know quite a bit of who you are as a tennis player which is why you are on the visit in the first place, but they are wanting to get to know you as a person and teammate. Being genuine and honest about who you are, what your interests are, how you operate, etc. is very important. One Division 2 men’s coach said that the worst thing a recruit can do is “sell a product you have no intention of living up to.”
Engaging and being your true self are the elements which draw rave review from coaches but there are some definite pitfalls for recruits as well. The common deal breakers which have resulted in the end to the recruiting process for some recruits have been being late, having low energy and coming across as tired or bored and even falling asleep at practice or a class, spending a lot of time on social media, dressing inappropriately, ditching a student host to do something “more exciting”, being critical about the school or program when some of the items are certainly known to the coach and team and may be out of their control (such as facility issues, campus location, etc.), talking badly about other recruits who may have already visited the school, and overindulging in alcohol. One coach shared an anecdote of setting up a special practice for his team on a Saturday morning since that was the only time a recruit could get to campus. The recruit ended up showing up 45 minutes late after obviously just waking up. He had a very careless attitude and never even offered an apology. Thirty minutes into the practice, the coach spoke with the recruit who had very little to share or speak about. Their “conversation” lasted only about 10 minutes and at that point, the visit ended and the coach did not make an offer.
Following are some tangible activities that can help to put a visit on the right track and avoid unintended negative impressions and outcomes:
- Be organized about speaking with a coach a couple of days before arriving to confirm when and where to meet, the planned itinerary for the visit, to ask questions regarding what to bring, etc. While many coaches are organized and will have planned the visit and communicated well with the recruit, others are not as organized and, despite the recruit’s efforts to confirm the meeting time, location, length of stay, etc, do not hear back from the coach even a few days before the scheduled visit. Being respectfully persistent is often the only solution in these cases. Some coaches respond to text messages much more than to e-mail. If you don’t get a response to your e-mail and have the coach’s cell phone number, try texting instead.
- Be on time when showing up for the visit. Plan for traffic, weather, etc. that may throw a wrinkle into your travel time. It is hard for coaches and teams to shift and adjust if the itinerary is solidly mapped out.
- Dress appropriately and conservatively…not too formally (suits and ties or dresses and heels) or too informally (pajamas or ripped, dirty, skin tight or overly baggy clothes). Wear comfortable shoes as you will be doing a lot of walking on campus. Also bring layers so that you are not cold at schools which may have dropping temperatures on fall afternoons when most practices and matches take place. Showing that you are responsible and prepared off the court can often suggest that you are similarly responsible and prepared with your equipment on the court.
- Restrict your phone use! Put it away at practice, dinner, at any entertainment the team brings you to. You should really only be checking or using your phone in an urgent or emergency situation, and if you have to use it, keep it short! Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and your friends will survive a maximum of 48 hours without your involvement. If your host has to do some studying, or you find that you have some down time completely to yourself, it is then fine to be on your phone.
- Be friendly, smiling and saying hello to all coaches, players and staff that you come across, even office assistants, interns, student workers, athletic trainers, etc. who might be at a practice or a match. Each one of them could potentially have a say in what the coaches and teams impressions are of you.
- Listen well at practice and or matches. Don’t just sit on the outside rim of what is going on or just sit on the bleachers uninvolved. You don’t have to necessarily contribute to a team conversation if not asked, but you should make yourself close enough so that you can hear what is going on. This will help you to know the coaches style and how the players respond which can be important information. It also shows that you are interested in the inner workings of the team process.
- Take the initiative in helping the team and coach in some way to show that you are a team player. Offer to carry equipment or ball hoppers, pick up balls, get water, etc. Help can also come in the form of saying good job to the players if they do something you are impressed with or even cheering on a good shot in a drill.
- Be prepared with questions and make sure to ask questions of the top players and the ones lower on the roster as they may have different experiences and interpretations. Ask questions of non-tennis people too to get a sense of the larger culture of the school. You might want to chat with a player’s roommate or friends who might not be athletes or might be involved in other activities. Someone in line in the cafeteria, a student worker at an event, a professor after a class, another recruit visiting at the same time, etc., may provide some interesting and valuable tidbits.
- Be humble, respectful and appreciative even if you know you may be a very high level recruit for the team and be better than a lot of the players you are watching. Compliment the coach and team on their work and level. Try to avoid bragging remarks that suggest you are better than the current team members or sharing stories about players you have beaten who the team may know, etc. If a team member asks you something directly about your tennis, you can certainly answer honestly, but avoid offering up unsolicited assessments of where you would play and how much of a contributor you would be to the team. Be conservative with your statements and be sensitive of not offending a player that may not be of the same level as you. Those are all assessments for the coach to make, and you can always use that as your way of answering…”I think I will fit in well, but that’s really for the coach decide if I end up playing here.” Remember that the team will inevitably have some insight or input for the coach since the coach will not be with you the entire time, so remember to be on your best behavior when the coach is and is not looking.
- Remember to say thank you often and show in some way that you are having a good time and appreciate the effort that they are making to show you around. (Hosting is not always an easy job for a player who might have homework and other activities that they are passing up on to include you into school life. Remember that it can be as awkward for them as it may be for you). Being engaged and smiling is always an easy non-verbal way to provide information to your host. Show positive energy even if you are a little tired or stressed. Even if you are not feeling great about how things are going, while you are there, try to do your best to keep trying to make a good time of it and show on the outside how you want to feel on the inside. The visit is not the time to share disappointments with the school or program. After leaving the school and talking to the coach later, you can certainly say “thank you again for the visit. It was really helpful to get to know the team and the school more. Right now, I am not completely sure that it is the best fit for me, but I will take some time to think about it.”
- Send a thank you note via e-mail (not text) to the coach and your hosts. If you don’t have e-mail addresses for the hosts, you can request them from the coach.
- Give thought in advance to how you would handle a scenario where the coach makes you an offer at the end of the visit. There are a few possible situations/strategies:
- The school was your clear #1 choice before the visit, and everything that happened during the visit reaffirmed that the school and tennis program is perfect for you. While you might have another visit left to go, it’s not at a school that was one of your top few considerations. In that instance, it’s best to make the strong statement to the coach that no other thought is required and that you are accepting the coach’s offer. There’s then no risk of anything occurring in the upcoming days/weeks whereby another recruit comes into the picture, or others make stronger statements of interest, and the coach decides to make the offer to another player. Often offers are not for an indefinite period of time, so allowing time to pass after an offer is made can be risky.
- You had a really great visit, but the school is not your clear top choice and you want to complete your remaining visits. Let the coach know that you had a great visit and that it truly is a top choice for you, and that you have another/other visits to complete, and that you can let them know for sure on a certain date shortly after your final visit. It’s sensible to ask if the coach has any problem with that timeline and ask if the offer would be good until then.
- The school was not one of your top few considerations going into the visit, and nothing that happened changed your view on the school. After going to the effort to extend you the visit, it’s best to say that you will talk things over with your parents and coach and will let them know within the week. Once your parents/coach/counselors are in agreement that the fit at that school is not right, and you have one or more options you can rely on, it’s important to let the coach know that you really appreciate the interest and the visit, but that the fit is not right for you. While they may be disappointed, that information is valuable so that they can perhaps adjust their approach with other recruits they are serious about.
Of course each recruit’s case is unique; therefore it’s impossible to outline every scenario. Following these suggestions however, should help you have successful official visits, and will likely improve your chances of getting offers from your schools of choice.
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 three College Prospects Showcases to help players get exposure to college coaches.