In tennis there’s a precipice faced by many players regarding how and where to continue playing the game after the junior level. For a rare few that choice is to take the leap and turn professional. For others, opportunities change as they follow personal, educational and career goals. However, the best of both worlds approach can be found by pursuing tennis and education at university. It is important to note that moving to college in the US is not the only option. There are plenty of university programmes in the UK that have emerged over the past few years, which include tailored practices and matches comparable to those in the US. Notable programmes include Sterling and Durham who compete in the national BUCS leagues.
However, from my perspective (albeit a rather biased one), there is no better option than to gain a combined athletic and academic scholarship and move to the U.S. A player’s scholarship doesn’t have to come all from sports. The majority of my scholarship for example was built from academic money stemming from the result of my SAT test. As I progressed through the years, I was able to incrementally build up the rest of my sports scholarship too, so by my senior year I was paying very little. Why wasn’t my sports scholarship initially that large? Well, in all honesty I was not the best of players, and I certainly wasn’t setting the junior tournaments alight with my skills. Before leaving for the states I was a lowly 6.1 rating. However, college coaches who viewed my video decided that I could populate the lower positions in the team. This was a role I was more than happy to play as my overall aim was to focus academically and use the tennis to continue to do something I was passionate about athletically. In essence, tennis was, and has been the facilitating agent in my education, work and travel during these past four years.
The college life as a student athlete (that’s what you’re known as) is one which is significantly difficult to replicate anywhere, even the UK. In my own experience, the opportunities that presented themselves are almost priceless. Never did I think I would play a match at Flushing Meadows or fly across the country to simply practice and compete. All the while I was being taken care of by the university for every possible expense. I was waiting for the catch, but there was none. In short, to train five times a week in an environment tailored to each athlete’s own needs whilst continuing higher education is an opportunity that is hard to turn down.
Of course there are sacrifices to be made as there is with anything worth doing. Spending the majority of the year away from family and friends whilst bedding into a new culture is a big task. Facing illness and injury are difficult prospects as well, particularly when taking a short train or car ride home is out of the question. However, issues such as these are character building and can be tapped into to diversify oneself among the thousands of graduates looking for jobs out of university. I believe that the variety of challenges I faced during my time in the states has allowed me to grow and develop in a way I wouldn’t necessarily have done if I’d stopped tennis and stayed in the UK. In my senior year I was lucky enough to be named captain of the team. This allowed me to work closely with the coach and also experience a leadership role that came with the responsibility of caring for a large team and address all manner of issues. This particular opportunity has also aided my own personal development and I will certainly use this experience in future challenges.
Moving forwards, tennis has enabled me to gain roles working at Wimbledon with IBM and continue coaching during my time off during the summer and winter breaks. In October I start an MSc in Management at the University of Bath. Again, tennis has enabled me to gain a coaching role so I can continue earning whilst in education. The US college route is certainly a challenge. I firmly believe that this route provided me with opportunities, but I still had to go out and take them. The journey was what I made of it, and in the end, the more I practiced, the luckier I got.
Joe Smithyman, Former STA Student-Athlete
NCAA Division 1 – Niagara University
Bath University – MSc in Management
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