It is almost that time again. Every November, student athletes from around the globe and college coaches from all divisions and leagues get ready to sign the "National Letter of Intent" (NLI) or equivalent. This is a document which commits the student for the season starting the following fall semester. This early signing period is increasingly gaining in popularity, both among players and coaches, but is it best for everyone to sign early?
I argue that it isn't. Working closely with numerous student athletes each year, I say: it depends. For some, it is the best move possible. But it is not the best for others. And by others, I mean the majority of players.
Let's begin with a few facts about the early signing period and the NLI before we go deeper into who it may benefit and who might be better off waiting until the regular signing period, which occurs between April and August the following year (next available regular signing period: April 15 - August 1, 2015):
1) Next early signing period dates are: November 12 - November 19, 2014
2) Coaches tend to utilize the early signing period mainly to lock in the players who they believe to be top-tier student athletes - those who were scouted to strengthen their team the most. Therefore, it is crucial for all you passionate "early committers" to find out whether the coach really deems you to be the top-tier student athlete they are looking for.
3) The NLI is a binding agreement between a prospective student athlete and an NLI member institution. Here, the student athlete agrees to attend the chosen university full time for one academic year and the university agrees to provide a mutually agreed upon athletic award for that same academic year. Some athletic conferences and universities now also offer 4-year athletic scholarship agreements, but this new approach is still rather rare. I suggest you discuss this option with the universities on your shortlist.
4) Once an NLI is signed, a student athlete is bound to this agreement. Not fulfilling it will almost certainly cause him/her to sit on the sidelines for a year as a penalty if the athlete attends another NLI-participating university. However, if they decide to attend a non-NLI institution, the penalty does not need to be served. That's important to note for those who plan on signing early.
5) Not all universities utilize the NLI process of committing student athletes. For example, NAIA and NCAA Division III member universities, two-year colleges and Ivy League colleges are not members of the NLI program. All other NCAA Division I - and most NCAA Division II schools - are members that utilize the NLI. Ask the particular college coaches you are in touch what - if any - form of written commitment is utilized at their universities.
6) The NLI is a commitment to the institution, not the coach. Whether you sign early or during regular signing period, if the coach who signed you leaves the university, you are still bound to that institution for the duration of the signed agreement.
7) One of the most recent rule changes in regards to signing with a university (early or regular) is that coaches of NCAA Division I and II schools now have to put you on their Institutional Request List (IRL) and ask the NCAA Eligibility Center to clear you for competition. If coaches do not contact the NCAA for you to be cleared via the IRL, your eligibility will not be determined. Please take note of this important rule change and speak to the college coach about that.
Now, whom would signing early benefit and who is better off waiting until the regular signing period begins in April? There is no "one answer fits all." What's imperative for each student athlete is to know how wanted you are by coaches and how you match up with your competition for the open roster spot(s). In other words, do not place your eggs into only one basket. Have a few options of colleges ready. Know that college coaches nearly always have at least 5-10 players in the works at the same time. According to one of the most prolific Ivy League men's tennis coaches, here are the basic ground rules when deciding whether to sign early or not:
- Know where you stand in the eyes of the coach and whether he wants to sign you early and under what conditions - get it in writing, if possible, and ask the tough questions
- Make sure you have visited all of your options before deciding where to sign. The best visiting time is September and October when universities are in session.
- Get to know: your possible teammates, campus, housing options, social environment, training conditions, coaching philosophy and most importantly academic program options during your visits - write down your experiences
- Make your decision based on the university, not your teammates or coaches alone; they are likely to change during your college career, while the university will likely remain as is
The most common problem I encountered with student athletes signing early seems to be that they make their choice because they feel the "pressure of having to make a decision early", since otherwise no good universities and scholarships will be left. That is not true, plain and simple. Consequently, transferring colleges, especially in college tennis, is very common. Not enough research and thought is put into choosing a university if parents and athletes are rushed. Of course, transferring is a good idea sometimes, for example when you "outgrow" your current university athletically or you change your mind and decide to study a topic your current university does not offer. However, more often than not student athletes transfer because they did not consider all the necessary decision-making factors properly before signing with a university.
Fact is, there is plenty of life after the early signing period is over. As one can imagine, many student athletes decide to go to colleges other than their original considerations, and coaches do not get all the "top-tier" athletes they scout; therefore, plenty of roster spots open up, and those of you who decided to wait will not only find universities that have everything you want and need, but you will also have several more months before you have to commit, allowing your chances to make a sound decision to improve.
Lastly, many college coaches share the following very common "disappointment" with us on an annual basis about what some student athletes - domestic and international alike - do. Some players who sign early do not keep up with their practice and/or tournament schedules after they put pen to paper. Reason: they are now contractually bound to attend and receive scholarship money for at least 1 year.
In other words, be sure that you are the right person to sign early before you do. Sometimes taking your time and waiting for the regular signing period is not a better option for many student athletes. There are plenty high quality universities out there. There are many great options that neither you nor your family have heard of in the past. That does not make them sub-par - families come to that realization every single year! Judging a book by its cover does not do most universities any justice. At the end of the day, what's important is that your university fits your needs! Do your research, talk to all people involved in your process (high school guidance counselors, tennis coach, parents, consultants, friends), begin looking at your options as early as freshman year in high school, and form your own opinions along the way.
Looking forward to your inquiries,
Yours in Tennis,
Owner at WAM Sports