How to Make the High School Tennis Team – Advice from Top Tennis Coaches in the Princeton Area
“When you do something best in life, you don’t really want to give that up—and for me it’s tennis.”
Tennis is a popular sport for all ages. To scope out the top tennis programs in the Princeton area and learn the best ways to train and kindle your passion for tennis, Princeton Tutoring spoke with Sarah Hibbert, the head coach of the Princeton High School (PHS) girls’ and boys’ tennis teams, and Stuart Woody, the varsity girls’ head coach at The Hun School of Princeton.
For students interested in pursuing tennis, either as a hobby or more rigorously in high school and beyond, these insights are a great place to start.
Sarah Hibbert – PHS Girls and Boys Head Coach
Hibbert started coaching 14 years ago. She played in high school and college and joined the Princeton district as a new staff member right out of college. She then began as the head girls’ tennis coach at Princeton High School in 2004 and two years later became the boys’ head coach.
According to Hibbert, PHS is usually one of the stronger programs in the area. Although the competition calendar and respective divisions change each year depending on the size of the school, PHS is always one of the competitors.
“We have better years and slightly rebuilding years, we can call them, but we are always in the top third of the schools,” she explained. “Sometimes we are the top school. We have won the Mercer County tournament for both the boys and the girls.”
PHS players have been recruited to play in college both at the intercollegiate level and on club teams. In 2013, PHS’s Christina Rosca won the NJ state girls’ singles championships and is currently playing at Vanderbilt.
Tryouts at PHS happen 2–3 weeks before the season starts. The girls play the fall season (September–October), and the boys play the spring season (April–May).
Students first play singles challenge matches to qualify for a spot on either the varsity or JV team, and then they start competing for positions on those teams. A cutting process was put in place around 20 years ago, due to a limited number of courts and not enough space for players. To try to make the best use of students’ time, they limit the team to about 20 players, according to Hibbert.
Stuart Woody – Hun School Girls Head Coach
Woody grew up in Virginia, playing golf and tennis in the summers. He became interested in tennis early on. “I started with a ball, a racquet, and a wall,” he said. He received his first lessons when he was nine. At first, tennis was just for fun, since he was more of a competitive golfer. But later, he gave up golf and pursued tennis in high school.
“My coach just elicited something in me that I didn’t even know I had,” he explained. “When you compete in golf, you compete against the golf course. When you compete in tennis, I’m competing against [another person], so my job is to bend [the other person’s] will and I love that.”
Woody started coaching after working in finance after graduation. He says coaching was fun and a great lifestyle for him. It was an opportunity to do what he enjoyed—playing tennis—and to give back to players who might not have gone as far as possible in the game without someone helping them with technique and strategy.
“It’s teaching. It’s passing on your expertise to the next generation in hopes that they will pay it forward just like I’m paying it forward from my coach back in the day,” said Woody.
Last year Woody was asked to come to the Hun School. He inherited a group of 21 girls, including one who had never played tennis before. Nevertheless, she went from being a novice to being able to play a JV match by the end of the year.
“We are a young team,” Woody said. “The kids have great attitudes, their energy is good, and they’re only going to get better.”
The Hun School has six courts, two tennis coaches, and a volunteer assistant. Woody estimates that about half a dozen of the girls who joined the team this year are relative novices, and would likely not be playing matches.
“But they were out there every day practicing,” he said. “That’s kind of what it’s all about.”
Woody said that he will probably have to whittle things down next year depending on interest, “which is really going to be painful.”
His team practices every day after school, from the pre-season at the end of August to around Halloween.
“I like more practice and fewer matches,” Woody said, explaining that he prefers spending more time working with the kids and seeing them improve.
The Hun School has graduated collegiate-bound players and in previous years was best in the county, winning their division and league, according to Woody.
Starting Early and Playing Often
“Most of the people who are on the varsity team have played for a while and do play out of school as well,” Hibbert said. “There are very few people who come on who’ve just picked up the sport to make the team.”
However, it does occasionally happen. “We had a student last year who switched sports, and because they were an athletic individual, they were able to pick up the game quickly,” she said.
But in general, people have been playing for several years at least, or since they were quite young.
“It depends on the level of commitment and the level of effort and athleticism,” Hibbert said.
For a while there was a tennis club at PHS for students who didn’t make the team and still wanted to play for fun, but it became a logistical challenge to get interested people adequate court time with only a limited amount of courts.
“We certainly want to give people interested the option to play,” Hibbert said, adding that she hopes to see a club program in place again in the future.
Hibbert also noted that although it may not be a strong possibility for a freshman without any prior tennis experience to become a top player, people interested in playing tennis should take advantage of the lessons and training opportunities in the area.
What Makes Top Players Stand Out From Others?
The amount of time and effort students put into how hard they train and how much they compete are factors that make top players stand out from others, according to Hibbert. There’s a difference between those who are competing at the very top level of the state and those who would like to join the JV program. However, it’s always good to go out and compete, she said.
“A lot of people just take lessons, but then never play matches. It’s a good idea for people who are interested in trying out for the team to play matches, even against friends, against parents—just to go out to get some competition,” she said.
Match-playing is important for students to learn how to put the strategies they learn in their lessons into play.
In theory, top-level players train almost every day or at least several days a week, Hibbert said.
“During the season we practice every day,” she said. “Out of season, it’s on the individual student how much they work, but most people who are at the very high level do practice at least 3 or 4 days a week.”
People who are just interested in playing on the JV team at least practice a little bit in the off-season and keep up with their lessons, but not at the same level of intensity as those competing on varsity, she continued.
Princeton is a Tennis-Rich Environment
“There are so many schools, so the talent really gets spread out,” Woody said. “We’re a pretty concentrated area for tennis.” Therefore, depth is the real issue, and it’s hard to create a great team from top to bottom, he explained.
It’s cyclical, Woody said. The performance of teams changes every year, depending on who decides to continue playing, players who graduate, and the new recruits, so there is no way to predict outcomes.
“If you want to be good, you’re probably going to have to be involved in a club somewhere.”
The High Performance Tennis Academy is the best, according to Woody. There is also the Windsor Athletic Club and Hopewell Tennis and Swim Center, in addition to the Pennsbury Racquet Club in Pennsylvania.
Talent and Heart
“I’m looking for attitude,” Woody said. “If you have talent, that’s great. But if you don’t have heart, your talent is not going to take you that far.” For those close matches, he’s looking for girls with better grit more than girls with better talent.
“It is always about the attitude—what they’re willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team,” he continued.
Woody said he looks for positivity and coachability in a student learning tennis. “I’m going to push you to try to get better. I might tell you what you don’t want to hear, and I might say it in a way you don’t want to hear it.”
How to Improve and Make it to Your Definition of Top
“You’ve got to hit more balls,” Woody said. Anytime, anywhere.
If your goal is to make varsity, you’ve got to havea certain level of strength, he explained. And that comes with putting in more hours.
To train at a high level, a student will need court time, lessons, and drills. It becomes almost like a job.
“It’s a part-time job. Your full-time job is school,” Woody said. “You go to the Hun School for the academic experience. Tennis is on the side, and it’s supposed to enhance your experience.”
The balance between academics and athletics is not easy. How many students have been competing since Halloween all through the summer and are really ready by the time pre-season starts? Or is it more of a hobby for them? Especially, for freshmen, there’s an adjustment from middle school to high school, and overall there is a lot of balance with a new semester and new experiences.
However, tennis training may also be bottlenecked by opportunity and means.
“It requires time and money,” Woody said. “That’s why they call it a country-club sport. It’s biased in its own way because if you don’t have the opportunity or those means it’s very difficult.”
Tennis is an individual sport, so it is not necessarily being subsidized by a team, according to Woody.
But can you do it? Absolutely, says Woody.
The USTA Foundation provides grants and assistance for young tennis players, in addition to college scholarships. However, a lot of students might end up opting for team sports like football, baseball, or softball before they get into an individual sport because the pathway is not very obvious.
Almost every school has a camp over the summer, mostly for all skill levels. For higher-level players, the Lawrenceville School hosts a renowned Nike tennis camp each summer.
Otherwise, students may train at academies like the IMG Academy and the Evert Tennis Academy, or head to resorts and practice there. Additionally, there’s a high-level camp at every club over the summer for at least a week.
When searching for camps, Woody recommends finding a person who’s right around your level, though a little better or a little worse doesn’t matter.
“It’s never about the person teaching you; it’s always about the rapport you have with that person,” Woody said. Each club has a tennis pro on staff that’s perfect for your kid, he continued.
He especially encourages beginners to try tennis. There are group, semi-private, and private lessons, any of which could be a great fit for your child. “There’s no way to know until you try.”
Find a Way to Play Year-Round
It’s not enough to just play on the team for two and a half months.
“If you want to separate yourself from the pack, you’re going to have to find time,” Woody said.
At the Hun School, it’s in the student contract for varsity players to practice year-round. Although that doesn’t mean playing every day, if a student is going more than a week during the off-season without a racquet that’s too long, Woody said.
“Once a week is maintenance. Twice a week you can get better.”
Woody explained that in the off-season, students get the chance to work on things like changing their grip, improving their weakest stroke, or making their serve a weapon. Without the stress of competition during the off-season, there is time to work on technique and ramp up to become a leader in the next year.
Conclusion: Why Tennis?
“You know they always say tennis is a life sport,” Hibbert said. Tennis is something you can do at any age, and it’s a sport that doesn’t require many people to join. You can just go out and hit with a friend. Plus, it’s a great opportunity for exercise, and it’s fun, involving both the mental game as well as physicality.
Both coaches recommended playing as often as you can, and most importantly, playing matches.
“Every time you go play, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but at the end of the day, if you know you competed as well as you could, that was good enough,” Woody said.
As such a rich environment for tennis, Princeton has plenty of resources, training facilities, and camps for people of all ages.
More Information About Team Divisions and Leagues:
The Mid-Atlantic Prep League (MAPL) consists of private preparatory schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Schools participating in MAPL include Blair Academy, The Hill School, the Hun School of Princeton, Lawrenceville School, Mercersburg Academy, and the Peddie School.
All the teams in Mercer County compete in the Colonial Valley Conference (CVC) under the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA), which hosts the state competitions. Fourteen schools compete in the CVC, including Lawrence High School, West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North and South, Princeton High School, and Allentown High School.