Countdown: Trending Toward Early Verbal Commitments
by Christine Gray and Tim Donovan, 21 October 2014
Special from Donovan Tennis Strategies
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In the college tennis recruiting scene, it is becoming more and more common to hear of verbal commitments to colleges occurring far earlier than in recent history. In tennis, it is no longer unheard of to see a player committing to a college during the first half of the junior year, following in line with other sports where it's even more extreme with verbal commitments taking place during freshman or sophomore years in high school. The prevailing message in the past has been to take one's time in weighing all of the options, visit as many campuses as possible, and only apply Early Decision or make an early commitment when 100 percent that sure a school is the proper fit athletically, academically and socially. While that remains sound advice, many admissions and/or scholarship spots at premium schools and tennis programs are being offered and accepted earlier and earlier, forcing recruits to either adjust their timelines or risk losing opportunities to attend and compete for their dream schools because they were beaten to the punch.
This trend of earlier commitments in tennis seems to be more prevalent at the elite Division I programs in the major conferences - and even more so on the women's side, where more significant scholarship packages are on the line. There seems to be an acknowledgement with relation to scholarship money that there are only "so many cookies in the cookie jar" and that players need to grab them when offered. But increasingly, even at the most elite academic, non-scholarship schools in all three NCAA divisions, a recruited spot on a roster, and potentially needed admissions support from a coach, is carrying a similar caché to a scholarship spot. Non-scholarship players are even needing to secure spots early so they don't lose chances to play for their schools of choice.
The recent rule change in Division I and Division II that allows coaches to start calling recruits at the start of their junior years (September 1st) instead of the summer after their junior years (July 1st) may also exacerbate the trend toward earlier commitments at schools in those divisions. Early indications are that college coaches are pursuing players at the start of their junior years more aggressively than ever.
The obvious benefits associated with early commitments include a sense of security for college coaches and recruits alike, knowing that the stress and uncertainty inherent in the recruiting process can be shortened or avoided. With early verbal commitments, players and coaches avert the fear of losing their top choices of players or programs to competitors. One coach in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) said, "It's always nice for coaches to have a commitment in hand early in the process. It allows them a 'pressure off' peace of mind in knowing that they have a top recruit on board regardless of how the rest of the recruiting season unfolds." For many recruits, early commitment is also seen as an effective way to improve chances to be accepted to a desired college if they can present themselves as a viable candidate who is ready to commit early. A Big 10 men's recruit shared, "I had great guidance, so I started unofficial visits late in the sophomore year and had seen all of the schools I was seriously considering by March of my junior year. As a matter of fact, I saw the school I decided on twice before committing in March. Despite how early I committed I was not even the first commitment the coach had for my year."
Some players have also cited a new level of motivation and pride that comes along with training for a team that they know will be expecting a positive impact from them. As the Big 10 recruit said, "I was more committed than ever because I knew that the team and conference was so competitive - if I didn't work harder than ever and didn't improve, I wouldn't get playing time." Additionally, knowing that the recruitment piece is complete and stepping back from the feeling that college options hang in the balance with each match they play, players feel they can focus, without risk, on improving aspects of their game that may lead to short-term losses but long-term gains. As one NESCAC recruit reported, "With the tennis pressure off after my early commitment I started to play so much better, and my tournament results improved a lot. I knew I couldn't let my grades slip or my commitment from the school would have been in jeopardy. So I worked very hard academically at the end of my junior year and the first quarter of my senior year to make sure my early decision application was all set even though the commitment had been made."
The early commitments seem to present important trade-offs to consider, as well. No matter what the timing, the recruitment process can be a stressful one for players as they try to 1) determine the best overall fit for them and 2) garner the attention and interest of the coaches at their programs of choice. Some critics of the earlier commitments cite the need for recruits - teenagers still developing the maturity to make such an important decision - to be extremely thorough and take the substantial time necessary to compare and contrast a variety of campuses and programs. The constricted timeline associated with an early commitment often requires recruits to make decisions based on experience and information gathered on unofficial visits that typically do not involve an overnight stay on campus, thereby offering less time to get to know the coach, the school, and future teammates. (By NCAA rules, the "official visit" in which a recruit can stay up to 48 hours on campus cannot happen until the senior year). The NESCAC recruit pointed out one potential drawback to committing during the second half of the junior year, "I improved so much after I committed that part of me wonders whether an Ivy League coach would have been interested had I waited another six months. I'm very happy where I am, and doubt I would have changed my decision, but you do forego any chance at the next tier tennis programs when you commit so early."
College coaches also face interesting and challenging risks and dilemmas when considering an early offer. After tremendous time and effort over several additional months, a coach may be able to get a better player; but, if after all that effort the better players choose other schools, they may look back and wonder if it may have been better to "take the bird in hand" early and avoid the extra effort and uncertainty only to get a player modestly better. One Ivy League coach who has made junior year commitments presented the following concern: "Committing early to a prospect means having less information to base decisions upon and therefore taking greater risks in the recruiting process." Additionally, a Division I coach in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) suggested that coaches have to be cautious of recruits potentially becoming complacent and losing motivation after achieving the goal of locking in a tennis commitment so early on.
All in all, for most coaches and players we interviewed, there is less concern about the potential benefits and flaws in a system of earlier verbal commitments, and more of a practical realization that the trend is likely here to stay, and coaches and recruits simply need to adjust their timetables accordingly. As the same Ivy League coach put it, "I don't look at this trend as good or bad; it's just the way the recruiting landscape is now. I have to start watching prospects at an earlier age in order to be in a position to make a commitment by the spring of their junior year. I strongly encourage prospects to visit schools during their junior year as the official visit during one's senior year is becoming moot." A Big 10 coach, echoing those sentiments, added, "From my side, there is not a positive or negative to a recruit deciding early. It is just a different timetable." Players and coaches still have to do their research on each other, but may simply have to do it earlier in the recruits' high school careers.
Ironically, despite the trend toward earlier commitments, both coaches with a history of early commitments and players who themselves made early commitments still encourage current and future recruits not to rush their final decision and commitment, and to stick to their own practical and comfortable timetable as much as they can. However, there is agreement that some flexibility and readiness is required to potentially accelerate the information gathering and unofficial visit planning if the pressure of an early commitment situation arises. Being prepared to pick the right school early can be a successful and rewarding experience, but picking the wrong school early, or missing out on an opportunity due to a lack of information and readiness, can be disastrous for a recruit.
It is important to remember that while some schools, conferences and divisions will undoubtedly continue to present opportunities and pressure for early commitments, the fact remains that the large majority of verbal commitments still happen early in a recruit's senior year, after official visits have been done. Each school and program may have its own philosophy, needs and timeline with regard to recruiting, so the best resource for information about early commitments at particular schools remains the coaches themselves. It will become more and more important to ask coaches at schools of interest what their timelines are and if they are, in fact, anticipating early commitments. Asking early on about items such as scholarship and roster availability, interest level of the coach, and opportunities for Admissions support will give players a sense of the timeline they'll need to adhere to.
The best advice is the old cliché: "start early". There is no downside to doing research and starting unofficial visits early (late sophomore/early junior year), even if the coach at a recruit's top choice school says that he/she is not ready to commit to a player yet. Conversely, there is major downside if a player is slow to start the process and eventually falls in love with a school only to find that all of the recruiting and/or scholarship spots have already been filled. The key to managing this process will be gathering appropriate information promptly so that an educated decision on a perfect school and tennis "fit" can be made, whether that decision comes early or not.
Since 1997, DTS has been helping tennis players and their families navigate the college recruiting process to find the program and school best suited for their tennis and academic goals.
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Our Countdown continues tomorrow with a look at 4-Star recruit Yuki Asami from Irvine who has committed to University of the Pacific for next fall. Check out that article - and all the other great ones we have in our Countdown to Signing Day!