Beginning September 1, 2018, the NCAA instituted new official and unofficial visit guidelines for Division 1 tennis programs. (Rules for Division 2 and 3 remained unchanged.) The changes moved the first possible date for official visits (generally defined as overnight stays for up to 48 hours, allowed at five D1 schools, and in which some or all of the visit expenses are subsidized by the college) to September 1 of the junior year in high school. The previous regulation allowed for official visits starting the first day of a prospective student-athlete’s (PSA) senior year in high school. The rule surrounding unofficial visits (visits consisting of a day or part of a day to tour a campus, meet with a coach, observe a practice or match, but paid for exclusively by the player) still allows for those visits to happen at any time from a high schooler’s first day of ninth grade forward. However, the new legislation no longer allows for any contact between a PSA and a coach on an unofficial campus visit until a recruit’s junior year. See NCAA Bylaws 184.108.40.206.1 and 220.127.116.11
The new ruling impacts the recruiting calendar for D1 collegiate tennis coaches, and there is varied opinion among coaches about the value of the recruiting experience and recruiting outcomes from these changes. DTS interviewed D1 college coaches from multiple conferences, regions, levels of play, etc. to get an initial sense of how the new rule is impacting their recruitment efforts and the experiences and decisions of PSAs who are being recruited. While there seems to be strong reaction to the rule change across the board, the perceptions about the positive or negative value of the rule change is not completely consistent across the board.
A number of coaches cite the fact that the trend of PSA’s looking at colleges, considering athletic programs, and even making verbal commitments before official signings has been getting earlier over the past several years. In their eyes, this amendment to the visit rule is simply responding appropriately to the existing reality of recruitment. Under the previous timeline, it was not uncommon for recruits to make unofficial visits to schools and make their verbal commitments based on those interactions, making official visits in the senior year more of a formality, or even obsolete. Many coaches support the ability for a PSA to have the opportunity for a more extensive official visit before verbally committing, assuming the trend of early commitments is not going to shift any time soon. A coach representing a top 50 program in D1 explains: “For a lot of prospects, they want to be able to take an official visit during junior year because they are making decisions before the fall of senior year. Ultimately, the new legislation reflects what has been going on with recruiting for some time, and now it allows prospects to spend more time on campus before making a decision, which also allows our program to get to know our prospects better earlier in the process.”
In addition to responding to the current trends, some coaches see a financial benefit to PSA’s under the new rule. Under the former rule, if a player was unable to afford the cost to take unofficial visits to campuses, and had to wait until a college could subsidize a visit in senior year, a player might be under pressure to make a commitment to a college and program sight unseen in order to avoid potentially losing an opportunity in the time that they would need to wait for the senior year visit. One Ivy League coach argues that “it evens out the field for players who may not have the resources to pay for an unofficial visit and may have been left behind in the past due to lack of resources.” Some coaches see this result of the new rule as a way to expand the range of schools for recruits to consider and visit, regardless of socio-economic status. In the big picture, however, that same coach simultaneously laments the fact that the change, while positive in theory or intent, has “definitely been challenging on the recruiting budget, especially in this first year of adjusting to the new rules.”
In contrast, there is a significant sampling of coaches feeling strongly that these recent changes will have negative impacts for both recruited athletes and some tennis programs. Their general argument opposes the acceleration of the recruiting calendar which may put inappropriate pressure on young student-athletes to make an early commitment to a school without engaging in a more holistic approach to the college search. One Missouri Valley Conference coach considering the impact on the recruit’s process warned that “anything that speeds up the calendar is not healthy, in my opinion.” While there may be a few select recruited athletes who are very clear on their desires and opportunities by early in the junior year, opponents of this measure argue that the vast majority of students at this age and stage of schooling and maturity have not had the proper time to figure out what truly fits for their overall collegiate experiences. One Patriot League coach expressed clear opposition to the rule change and the affected timeline. “I think it is too early for a student-athlete to know what he/she wants. Some students are sure of the school they want, but most see the process as overwhelming.”
Another argument against the new rule parameters centers around belief that from junior to senior year, and even beyond, so much can change with a player’s development on and off the court. With personal priorities and situations commonly shifting in this stage of life, a recruit making a visit and commitment early in the junior year may be a different student-athlete entering college. This presents questions of whether PSAs may be pressured to make a less than fully informed decision to avoid the risk of losing what might be perceived as a fruitful opportunity, or if coaches will even be getting the well-fitting recruit they expect. Yet coaches who see the rule changes as simply reflecting what already happens in the recruitment process explain that some students and coaches were making verbal commitments after unofficial visits which were allowed in the same timeframe as presented in this new rule. In their opinion, this rule change does not significantly enhance pressure on those student-athletes looking to commit early, nor coaches understanding of the types of players they are getting.
Programs that may be inhibited by this recruiting change express displeasure with the new system. It is understood that the nation’s most highly sought after programs will always get early looks by highly sought after recruits and vice versa. But, for schools that may linger behind the leaders of the pack in terms of recruiting due to a variety of circumstances, this rule arguably makes it even harder to compete. With the expectation that more recruits may commit earlier in this new system, some coaches feel as though they will have even fewer recruits to select from with this new timeline if other coaches are more capable of honoring an early visit and commitment. One coach expressed frustration that the presentation of the new rule may not have considered the effect on the entire span of levels of D1 programs and how recruiting efforts outside of the most sought after schools may be affected. “Realistically, at a school like ours, it is difficult to get very early commitments. Therefore, this makes it even more difficult on our recruiting and we typically have to wait until things shake out. We’ll certainly try and schedule earlier visits, but only because we’ll have to keep up with the Jones’.”
Whether for or against this NCAA rule change, there seems to be agreement among coaches that it is too soon to definitively state that any predicted acceleration of recruiting outcomes and timelines will come to pass. Some coaches have noticed seeing fewer unofficial visits now that official visits are happening earlier. However, the earlier official visits have not yet necessarily translated into earlier commitments across the board. Just because the timing in the rule has changed, it has not clearly demonstrated that the coaches’ recruitment cycle will change. Even coaches who will look to make a timely commitment after an official visit whenever it happens, there is acknowledgement that even with an early commitment, there needs to be surety that a recruit is truly ready for that commitment. There is still value in both coaches and PSA’s taking the time to make sure the fit is right, tennis-wise, academically and socially to avoid an “early mistake” instead of an “early commitment”. A Big Ten coach framed it like this: “It will be important for us to make sure that our time frame is aligned with our prospect. If a kid isn’t ready to make a decision in the near future, does it really make sense for both sides to start exploring the options early in their junior year? Probably not.” So, while the official visit and resulting commitment timeline may be accelerated to some extent, there seems to still be a concentrated effort to avoid any rushed outcome.
Also, some coaches have good reason to reject the assumption that earlier visits will equal early offers from coaches. Even if a recruit might like to commit to a particular school early, not all coaches will be allowed to move forward on such an early timeline according to their individual school’s restrictions. Particularly where the academic fit is just as important as the tennis and personality fit, early in the junior year will simply be too early for many admissions offices to get a proper gauge of the likelihood of a student’s admissibility. Hurdles like that will hold up the commitment process at some schools no matter how early an official visit is made or how sure a recruit is that he or she would like to commit.
Consensus also exists around the opinion that regardless of the change in the NCAA official/unofficial visit rules, there is no quick shortcut to finding the right school and tennis program and locking in a commitment. Recruitment remains a very personalized process according to a student-athlete’s age, maturity, tennis level, academic level, research, etc. While the rule change may allow an official visit to happen earlier, it will not necessarily shorten the process or make it less complex.
Without exception, every coach we interviewed affirmed that what hasn’t changed along with the rule is the necessity to do thorough research on a school and program. Most coaches confirmed that they want significant contact and “getting to know you” time with a recruit before an official visit happens. The broad expectation is that student-athletes will develop a relationship with a coach through e-mails, phone calls, and when possible, unofficial visits, after September 1 of junior year yet before an official visit. This means that an official visit, even though allowed by the rule, may still not happen at the beginning of the junior year. Just one official visit early in the recruiting process is not generally viewed as providing sufficient information for either side. There certainly is more work to do to find a good fit and move toward commitment.
This is where the restriction on coach-recruit contact on unofficial visits before the junior year comes into play. Since reciprocal contact between recruits and coaches is not allowed prior to junior year, even on unofficial visits, the development of the desired connection and relationships between coach and PSA’s can be hard to accomplish prior to junior year. As a result, even while an official visit is allowed earlier, the desire to have more time to get to know players before having them on campus may stall the implementation of the early visit and the earlier commitment. The restricted PSA contact with coaches on unofficial visits prior to junior year seems perplexing to some coaches. One coach expressed support of the restriction of contact on an unofficial visit prior to junior year if the intent is to help players be “kids” longer and not worry about college until the junior year. However, there is also some expressed concern that the NCAA missed an important piece of the puzzle in conjunction with the amended official visit rule. Those coaches feel as though it would make more sense for kids and coaches to get to know each other during unofficial visits in freshman and sophomore years before deciding whether or not they would like to explore a particular option further and more seriously in the junior year with an official visit. For this reason, DTS, experienced in its consulting role, helps clients to navigate and manage recruitment and relationship development with coaches prior to the junior year within the allowable parameters set by the NCAA.
With the rule only in place since September of this year, there is still much experience and observation that has to happen to confirm whether this rule accelerates and/or enhances the college tennis recruitment experience for coaches and student-athletes alike. While the efficacy of the rule is figured out, it is in any recruit’s interest to do what is right for themselves in terms of fitting recruitment and visits into their academic and tennis schedules, their families’ financial budgets, and their stage of personal maturity and readiness to determine an appropriate all-around college fit. Communicating with coaches of interest clearly and openly, early in the junior year, after sound independent research on the school, is paramount. As our research suggests that not every school or coach will approach the new earlier official visit rule, and the potential resulting commitment process, in the same way. It is imperative to communicate transparently and early in the process in order to learn about the recruiting timelines and expectations at schools of highest interest, and take the appropriate steps at the proper times for each unique situation.