Participation in high school tennis is not thriving on Long Island. That's too bad because school tennis is not just an extracurricular activity, it's an essential part of a well-rounded tennis experience for 98 percent of all young players. It develops teamwork, school spirit and socialization. Participants learn cooperation and sacrifice and what is discovered on the tennis court can be taken to the classroom and onward to life. Furthermore, you get to practice and compete representing your school and community. The experience that most juniors dream about enjoying in college is the very same one they often shun in high school.
It should be noted that non-participation is not a universal practice. In fact, in many parts of the country, high school tennis is thriving. In Ohio, for example, it's almost unheard of not to play high school tennis, and Ty Tucker, the renowned Ohio State Coach, will not recruit you from in-state to his top team if you don't play for your school team.
The great Columbia Coach, Howard Endelman, who I am proud to say is a former long-time student and friend, spoke recently at my High School Coaching Clinic and said, in no uncertain terms, that he believes the high school tennis experience is "invaluable."
Max Schnur, a recent Columbia graduate, was with Endelman at my annual High School Coaching Clinic. Schnur was ranked in the top 100 in the world in doubles last year and a New York State High School Tennis champion. As Coach Endelman explained, “I don't just recruit on ranking, I look for personal qualities, and the willingness of a top player like Max to sacrifice for their school team shows character."
While some terrific players still do represent their schools, it is becoming increasingly uncommon. So why the trend of high school tennis participation attrition on Long Island?
Let's start with the short-sighted greed on the part of Long Island tennis clubs and private coaches. They sell to a trusting audience that often lacks a sense of history and they present a self-serving argument for not playing goes something like this, "Who are you going to play with? The competition is weak. It's a waste of time, you will improve more if you take your lessons and clinics."
Of course the irony is that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because the competition is weak only because so many buy into this logic. If players were encouraged to play, then the competition would be great. From my personal experience as a High School State Champion over 40 years ago and as the coach of more than 18 State Champions since, I can assure you that the quality of high school tennis has been uniformly stellar, except for most recently.
High school coaches share a great responsibility to reverse this unfortunate trend. They need to be flexible and accessible by reaching out to hear the concerns of private clubs and coaches.
The most informed high school coaches I know understand that private coaches and clubs are sacrificing in the short term by encouraging players to compete for their schools. If a private coach trains a player year-round, it's unrealistic to expect there will be no push back if a high school coach cuts them out of the loop for two months. As such, enlightened school coaches recognize that to teach teamwork to players, they must first display teamwork by working with the players’ private support team. A good place to start is by both groups making compromises to encourage players to play with their year-round coaches, as well as their high school team.
Together, clubs and school coaches can make “High School Tennis Great Again.”
Steve Kaplan is the Owner and Managing Director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as Director Emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and Executive Director and Founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 state high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.