Updated: Feb 17, 2020
Right Team, but Wrong Guy: How making the starting lineup can backfire
One of the biggest decisions a junior tennis player has to make is choosing a college. Everyone assumed I would go to Gustavus Adolphus College, a highly-ranked NCAA Division III school in my home state of Minnesota. My dad had been an All-American there and I knew their coach, Steve Wilkinson, well, so it seemed like a logical fit. However, I wanted to try something else: playing Division I tennis. Due to my low national ranking, very few coaches would take my phone call; I wrote to schools like Duke, Notre Dame, and Michigan, but none of them wrote back. One coach who did return my call and give me a shot was Bill Richards at Ball State University in Indiana.
Bill Richards had everything I wanted in a program. A competitive schedule, a motivated coach, and a team of guys from the Midwest I could relate to.
I started there low in the lineup as a walk-on player with a small academic scholarship. I was doing what I hear so many kids say they want to do—going to a school where I would have “better” players to hit with every day, where I also had a chance to earn a starting spot in the lineup. Hitting with better players would automatically make me better...right?
“Earn a spot in the lineup” is pretty much what I did. I spent my first year playing at numbers 5 and 6, but also sitting out some matches. It was a more stressful position than I had imagined. After earning my spot in the fall, I felt that I had to defend it (probably more than I actually did) all year long. I felt the stresses of dual matches, challenge matches, and practice sets, and even losing a baseline game made me worry about being sent to the bench.
I have a vivid memory from that first spring season. I was playing #6 singles and was in a bit of an April slump, which is somewhat normal for freshmen who are experiencing their first long college season, but also an unfortunate time to play poorly, because it’s when you play all of your conference rivals. It was an important match for me personally, because the following week we were playing Notre Dame, and my mom was flying down to watch. I certainly didn’t want to be on the bench when she came to town. I was down a set and a break and the match was getting away from me. I remember looking around at my teammates playing at the #5 and #7/exhibition positions and thinking to myself, “Man, I hope they both lose, too.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wasn’t cut out to be in that environment. I was so concerned about whether or not I would be starting on Saturday that I couldn’t practice properly during the week. I was too sensitive to block out those pressures and too shy and embarrassed to actually speak to anyone about them. Deep down I didn't even want my teammates—whom I really liked—to win because it could jeopardize my own position. So many people tout college tennis as the first real opportunity young tennis players have to be part of a team, and I wanted that for myself, too. What I felt that day when I hoped my teammates would lose embarrassed me. It wasn’t supportive of my team, and it also disappointed me to learn that I still felt as much as ever like a soloist out there—all because I wanted so badly to be sure that I would play. It occurred to me that in order to be the teammate and player I wanted to be, I might need to consider making a change.
I felt horrible about leaving Ball State, but I knew it wasn’t the right fit for me. I couldn’t sleep the night before I went in to tell my coach. My choice was certainly no fault of his. He'd built a competitive program and created an all-encompassing experience for his players, whom he treated and cared for like an extension of his family. I loved the guys on the team and have remained good friends with them to this day. It took me years to understand the psychology behind why I felt the way I did. At the time, it felt like I was failing the program, because the program definitely wasn't failing me.
When I decided to transfer, the only school I considered was Gustavus, and the only person I really consulted about it was my friend Kevin from the juniors, who was a sophomore there. But no one urged me to make the move, which made it fully my choice. In fact, both Coach Wilkinson and my parents (who I assumed would be delighted with the choice) told me to take some time before going through with it. Ironically, when I explained my decision to friends, I used to say that since I wasn’t aiming to be a pro tennis player, I might as well spend my last few years enjoying the collegiate tennis experience.
I quickly became the top player in the Gustavus program. I felt relaxed in practice and had the freedom to work on things where the outcome didn’t matter. My confidence improved dramatically and despite being at a “lesser” program, my level did too. I also felt free to be a more supportive teammate, because the pressure of fighting for a spot was gone. Practices were shorter than they’d been in Division I, but I spent more of my free time practicing.
Brian Boland, coach at top-ranked Virginia, says there are often three categories of players on a team. Impact players: top of the lineup. Role players: in or out of the lineup. Prestige players: players who will likely never play in the top six, but are there to be a part of the program. An understanding of one’s level and having an aspirational but realistic outlook help make the perfect fit for the player, the coach, and the program.
I’ve had a number of opportunities over the past few years to speak at college showcases around the country. Usually I share this story, because I think it’s important for kids to hear that the “best” or most impressive offer on the table isn't necessarily the best option for them personally. The arrival of UTR has given the college recruit an extremely accurate means of assessing their level as well as that of a team they may hope to join. Many kids think they can “work their way” onto a team or into a lineup, but doing that is difficult when you don’t start in the top six. Some players are able to do this and are very happy, but I worked my way onto a college team…and then realized that the experience I’d earned didn’t actually suit me.
In that initial school-selection process, I underestimated two things about myself. One was my sensitivity; surrounding myself with better players actually hurt my confidence. The other thing was my own drive to be better. I was a very motivated athlete, but it took me four full years of college tennis, playing in two drastically different divisions, to realize that I didn’t need a better school or better players to make me better; I needed to take responsibility for that myself.
In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell says, “The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them…It’s the Little Pond that maximizes your chances to do whatever you want.” I wouldn’t classify myself as a “really bright student,” but being a big fish in a small pond certainly fit my sensitive, self-motivated personality. If I hadn’t been a top player, and if I hadn’t won an NCAA title, I’m very sure I wouldn’t have tried my luck on the pro tour.