I get this question all the time: What do college coaches look for in players? Recruiting, and how college coaches go about identifying prospective talent, is a primary interest of mine and one that influenced my line of research while in graduate school for sport psychology. The following is a short summary of years of actual research, along with hundreds of conversations with the nation's top tennis coaches at all levels. Keep in mind, these anecdotes are from coaches of top 20 programs and their answers reflect their own needs in terms of talent, character, and intangible abilities.
Can the player....play?
Not surprisingly, prospects need to have talent and be able to play at a high level. As one coach told me, "If he can't play at this level then I simply can't recruit him. He might be a great guy, but if he doesn't have the skill set required to win then he can't really help us." Improve your skills and then back it up with results. Rankings and results are simply a ticket to get into the show, but there are other factors that ultimately influence recruiting decisions.
Can I trust him/her?
The word "trust" permeated countless conversations I have had with coaches over the years. In short, coaches want to know that they can trust you if they decide to put you in the starting lineup. They want to know if you will compete, regardless of the circumstances. They want to know if you will have a good attitude and fight through adversity. They want to know if you can handle pressure and not let it define your performance. They want to know what will happen over the course of 10 matches. As one coach once told me, "The worst feeling is putting a guy out there and not knowing what he will give you that day. Will he fight? Will he tank? Will he put it on the line? Will he crack under the pressure? If I can't trust you, then how can I start you?" Build trust by bringing your bottom end up. Bring a consistent effort and fight level to each competition. In doing so, you build trust in yourself and others will be able to see it as well.
Does the player care?
As one DI coach told me, "I look at how a player responds after losing a tough match. Does she take it hard and is visibly upset? Or, does she drop the loss quickly and laugh it off with her friends 5 minutes later? For me, I want the kid who is visibly upset and hates to lose. I can't love the game for the player, nor can I make her care about doing well." Simply put, coaches want to see your passion. Prove that you care about doing well by putting a good product out there each time. Work hard in practice each day and invest yourself. The more you invest, the harder it will be to accept a loss or poor performance.
Do I want to be around this player? Would my current players like this player?
It might seem strange, but coaches are human beings too. They don't always like everyone simply because they are on the team. A player's attitude and character can greatly improve the team culture and make the experience unforgettable. On the other hand, a player's attitude and character can rip a team apart and make it no fun for anyone. Which player are you? As a DI coach stated, "I like to watch a player interact with his family, with his friends, with the tournament staff. These interactions give me a lot of information. Is he well-liked? Does he have any friends? Is he personable? Is he respectful? Is he humble and gracious in success and defeat? Most players don't realize we are watching a lot more than just the time you spend on court during competition."
So, what does it all mean? College coaches want the complete package - talent, character, personality, resiliency, etc. So, what can you do? Here are 3 things to be working on or aware of as you work your way towards recruitment:
1) Practice and compete as though you are being watched each and every day. What would a college coach see if he/she watched one of your practices or matches? Before you can become consistent in attitude and effort, you have to be consistent in your attitude and effort. Make the right choices each day and become the constant, not the variable.
2) Be a different player 2 weeks and 2 months from now. Will a college coach see improvement since the last time he/she saw you play? Create short term goals and keep yourself accountable to them each day. Stack quality practices on top of one another and realize you won't get those bad practices back.
3) Be open, be honest. When talking with college coaches, be honest and ready to explain your plan to improve. Answers like "I just need to keep working hard" are not good enough. What do you have to improve? Is it mental? Physical? Tactical? Talk about your player development plan and tournament schedule, along with your upcoming goals. Coaches love to see a player take ownership and be self-motivated to improve.