30 College Tennis Coaches Reveal Top Character Traits of Successful Student-Athletes

College Tennis Coaches Collage

There are hundreds of character traits that make up an individual's personality and determine his or her level of success.

I used to wonder which of these character traits were the most crucial to reaching one's potential in sport and in life.

So I asked the top college tennis coaches in the nation for the answer.

I contacted 70 head coaches from the top-ranked college tennis teams and asked them the following question:

"What are the most important character traits of successful college tennis players?"

30 of them responded, including 16 coaches from top 20 ranked DI programs (based on the 2015 final standings).

The responses that I received below were very powerful and motivating. If you take these quotes to heart, you will dramatically improve your personal, professional, and athletic success.

[Note: Some iPhone users who visit directly from Facebook report incorrect images loading on this page. If so, open the link in a separate browser. Problem solved!]

Top Character Traits of Successful Student-Athletes

Brian Boland – #1 University of Virginia (Men)

“As I reflect on the great student-athletes I have had the opportunity and privilege to work with over the years, they have a number of character traits in common, but three distinct ones come to mind.

First, they have a strong work ethic and ability to push themselves, both mentally and physically, to limits they once felt were not attainable.

Secondly, they embrace suffering and uncomfortable situations because it provides them with the best opportunity to grow. This is why they choose to do the work that they do; why work hard to have things easy?

Finally, they are disciplined in all facets of their lives, and because they understand that discipline is everything, it will not only benefit them on the court, but in their future endeavors and any situation they will come across.”

Brian Boland - UVA Mens Tennis

Photo credit: Virginia Athletic Media Relations

Richard Gallien – #2 University of Southern California (Women)

"A few attributes of a successful college player would be:

1. A real love of tennis in general, and a keen competitive spirit.

2. A person who enjoys being part of a team.

3. Someone who is coachable.

4. An organized and disciplined student, who is curious about learning.

5. Self-motivated

6. Pleasant attitude

7. Humility

8. Emotional maturity"

Richard Gallien - University of Southern California Womens Tennis

Photo Credit: University of Southern California Athletics

Stella Sampras-Webster – #3 University of California, Los Angeles (Women)


Work ethic


Stella Sampras-Webster UCLA Womens Tennis

Photo Credit: UCLA Athletics

David Roditi – #4 Texas Christian University (Men)

"In my opinion the 5 most important character traits that are found in most successful college players are:

Competitiveness- Hate to lose at anything

Organized- been able to handle school, tennis, travel and social life

Ability to focus- When the chips are down they can focus on the task at hand

Sense of playing for something bigger than themselves- Appreciative

Coachable- Ability to receive information, process it, train it and apply it. This whole process without getting defensive. I guess you could say 'Confident.'"

TCU All Sports Photo Day

Photo courtesy Michael Clements, TCU Athletics

Jeff Wallace - #5 University of Georgia (Women)

"I would separate character traits into two areas – On court and Off court.

My most important on court character traits would be: Ability to win (Competitive), Drive to Improve (Hardworking), Ability to learn (Coachable), Ability to adjust (Resilient), and Positive court demeanor (energetic).

My most important off court character traits would be: Relationships, Loyalty, Honesty, Appreciation, and Encouraging."

Jeff Wallace - UGA Women's Tennis

Photo credit: John Kelley, University of Georgia Athletics

Brad Dancer – #6 University of Illinois (Men)

"It's always fascinating to examine the character traits of our most successful players. One thing you learn in coaching is that there are no 'set' rules for how to gain success in college. Having said that there are many commonalities among the best, including:

1) Self-belief - this doesn't always have to be tied to tennis - some people might not believe in their tennis ability, but feel destined to do great things in life - these individuals under the proper tutelage become great winners in college tennis.

2) Balance of now/long term - successful players always seem to be obsessed 'in the moment' of training or competing, but don't get too high or low based on the results of that moment - they can engage themselves fully committed to a moment and walk away with a vision for where they are going regardless of the outcome."

Brad Dancer Illinois Mens Tennis

Photo Credit: University of Illinois Athletics

Manuel Diaz – #8 University of Georgia (Men)

"I think the most important character traits are:

1. Love of Competition

2. Willingness to work hard.

Those are two of the biggest character traits I look for."

Coach Manuel Diaz - UGA Men's Tennis

Photo credit: John Kelley, University of Georgia Athletics

Michael Center – #9 University of Texas (Men)

"How the player conducts them self when no one is watching is the most important characteristic.

These choices will most often determine which direction a person goes."

Michael Center - UT Mens Tennis

Photo credit: University of Texas Athletics

Mark Guilbeau – #9 University of Virginia (Women)

"Honesty would be at the top of the list. Being honest regarding all of the day to day activities - on and off the courts, as well as honest in communication with teammates, coaches, parents etc.

Also having an honesty toward your sport and the work ethic it takes to compete successfully at a top collegiate level. An ability to honestly evaluate your own level.

An "abundance mentality" within your team - possessing a true and genuine ability to pull for your teammates and celebrate and honor their individual success just as you do your own.

Removal of jealousy.

This can be a major challenge within a sport that is so highly individually emphasized.

A positive attitude. Respect and appreciation for all that we are given in any collegiate program. Courtesy towards others. A grateful heart and attitude.

Self-motivation and a desire to work at your skills. Self security to develop and work at new skills and improve deficiencies. Confidence to use your strengths and take ownership of your game.

Lastly, a "golden rule" mind-set. Treat others and your process well, so that it in turn treats you well."

Mark Guilbeau - UVA Womens Tennis

Photo credit: Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Ty Tucker – #12 The Ohio State University (Men)

"Competitive desire- is something we look for in a student athlete. Our best players have won 90% of their practice sets during their entire career.

Maturity- these guys are 18 years old when they start as a freshman, so I believe overachieving that first year is due to maturity especially during long practices that first semester."

Ty Tucker - OSU Mens Tennis

Photo credit: Courtesy of The Ohio State University

Chris Young – #12 Oklahoma State University (Women)

"I believe the characteristics would be:


Hard Working




Chris Young - Oklahoma State Womens Tennis

Photo credit: Oklahoma State University Athletics

Tony Bresky – #13 Wake Forest University (Men)

"To me the most important trait of a successful college tennis player is consistency. Not consistency from the baseline (although that also helps), but consistency in your daily habits.

The best players I have coached consistently have great attitudes at practice, enjoy going to school and are consistent in their class attendance, preparation for exams, papers, etc.

In general, they are in good moods, fun to be around, easy to get along with. They don't sleep too much or too little, they have a social life but they don't over do it, in general just very consistent in everything they do on a day to day basis."

Tony Bresky - WFU Mens Tennis

Photo courtesy Wake Forest Athletics

Ronni Bernstein – #13 University of Michigan (Women)

"The two most important traits I am looking for is someone who works hard and who competes!

I feel like those two things will be very successful at the college level."

Ronni Bernstein - Michigan Womens Tennis

Photo courtesy University of Michigan Athletics

Bid Goswami – #14 University of Columbia (Men)

"The #1 character trait (by far) that determines long term success relative to potential in every field of endeavor is GRIT

Grit = the combination of Perseverance and Passion.

Grit= the ability to "keep going" in relentless pursuit of one's long-term goals, without excuse or blame, regardless of the perceived obstacles."

Bid Goswami - Columbia Mens Tennis

Photo courtesy Columbia University Athletics

Nancy Harris – (#18) University of Clemson (Women)

"Highly driven to achieve

This character drives everything


Willingness to train hard and prepare

Willingness to battle through fear

Willingness to take risks

Willingness to fail"

Nancy Harris - Clemson Womens Tennis

Photo credit: Clemson University Athletics

Rodney Harmon – #20 Georgia Tech University (Men)

"Strong Work Ethic

Ability to handle adversity

Willingness to add new aspects/strategy to their games

Love of the Game

Desire to be the best they can be"

Rodney Harmon - Georgia Tech Womens Tennis

Photo courtesy Georgia Tech Athletic Communications

Matt Roberts – #23 Mississippi State University (Men)

"Some of the character traits we look for in recruiting players for our team are:

1) Self-driven and goal-oriented for their future. They need to have a vision for their life and use our resources to help accomplish and develop. Time management is also a huge part of this.

2) They need to have the ability to think of their teammates before they think of themselves. This is important for their contribution to our team system and it also helps them in their development process.

3) Talent is also very important so that they can play at the level we require and also get to where they want to go. They have to have a competitive level in the main areas of tennis, which are Physical, Mental, Tactical, and Technical."

Matt Roberts - Mississippi State Mens Tennis

Photo credit: Mississippi State University Athletics

Peter Wright – #26 University of California (Men)

"The most successful players we’ve had in our program have been excited about learning and accepting new challenges. They tend to embrace the big moments, in part because they know how hard they had to work to create the foundation for their performance.

Our most successful players develop their leadership skills over time, first learning from their peers, and then developing their own style. They tend to be people who set high standards for themselves on and off the courts – all of our top players have been academically successful. They tend to be caring and compassionate people who give back off the courts."

Peter Wright 2015-16 head shot

Photo courtesy University of California Athletics

Claire Pollard – #26 Northwestern University (Women)

"The desire, hunger and thirst for greatness from themselves.

The ability to work through and to learn from disappointment and failure to reach higher levels.

All success is a result from failing – successful players get that. Successful players push coaches – not the other way around."

Claire Pollard - Northwestern Womens Tennis

Photo credit: Northwestern University Athletics

Kevin Epley – #29 University of South Carolina (Women)

1. The "will to win". A competitive spirit is the foundation to the best college players.

2. Consistency.

3. Proactive/assertive personalities.

4. Pressures teammates to give more. Leads.

5. Emotional resiliency/Mental toughness.

Kevin Epley - South Carolina Womens Tennis

Photo credit: University of South Carolina Athletics

Dave Fish – #34 Harvard University (Men)

"Character has been described as how one acts when no one is watching. At Harvard, we value character (and integrity) above all other traits in our student-athletes.

We do so not because we have proof that it makes the best tennis player, but because a young person of good character is more likely to act with integrity in the classroom and in line calls, is more likely to act respectfully towards his peers or someone he dates, toward referees and opponents, and make a better and more loyal alumnus.

Fewer rules are needed when a student-athlete has developed good character. Whether or not someone is the best player matters less than whether he is the right "fit" for our program. Character determines one's behavior across the entire spectrum of daily life. Good character eliminates the need for too many rules.

In the end, one player or team wins and the other loses. In the contest of character, everyone can be a winner."

Dave Fish - Harvard University Men's Tennis

Harvard Athletics

Daria Panova – #67 University of Maryland (Women)

"I think that the most important character traits for successful college tennis player (and tennis players in general) are confidence in what they are doing and absolute hatred for losing.

I heard it from one of the coaches a really long time ago that there are 2 kinds of athletes, ones that like to win and others that simply hate to lose. The ones that hate to lose will always be more successful because they will fight no matter what, even if it is not their day, even if their game is not working, even if they hurt.

Another thing, and it is something that we been working on a lot: for a team to be successful, there needs to be a leader that not just leads by example but is also not afraid to call out their teammates when they are not doing well. It is really rare for a women's team but most of the teams that are successful have someone like that."

Daria Panova - Maryland Womens Tennis

Photo courtesy University of Maryland Athletics

Sean Holcomb-Jones – #67 University of Maryland (Women's Assistant Coach)

1. Competitiveness

2. Hardworking

3. Honesty

4. Focus

5. Clutch Gene

The first four I feel are self-explanatory but the last one is "Clutch Gene." You hear so many tennis players talk about how they played better players close. I played so-and-so to 7-5 in the 3rd set but I lost 10-8 in the super tiebreaker. I always look for players that seem to live for the moment and step up their game at the critical moments in a match.

Sean Holcomb-Jones - UMD Tennis

Photo courtesy University of Maryland Athletics

Keith Puryear – U.S. Naval Academy (Women)

"I think some of the same qualities are necessary for success in both tennis and life:

1) Work Ethic

You have to be willing to do the work, and do the work as long as is needed. It not just about how hard you work, but its also about how long you can work hard...Work ethic can be seen as drive or passion as well. I think that they both play a part in a person’s work ethic.

2) Attitude, Attitude, Attitude.....

It is your attitude that will drive the ship, so to speak. You know that you will sometimes have hard times, setbacks, and disappointments. How will you handle them? It is your attitude toward these things that will allow you to persevere. Without it, setbacks can become roadblocks, stumbling blocks to your future successes.

3) Character

We recruit character. I always have and will...

Looking up a definition of it, it lists the following:

"Moral character or character is an evaluation of a particular individual's stable moral qualities. The concept of character can imply a variety of attributes including the existence or lack of virtues such as empathy, courage, fortitude, honesty, and loyalty, or of good behaviors or habits."

Each of the listed traits is equally important to the success of the athlete on the field of battle, as well as in life. For instance, empathy helps you to be a good teammate; Courage and fortitude helps you to be a good and consistent competitor. I will include one other, integrity. Which is, you are who you say you are. It implies honesty.

Character is important because it will define who you are, what you will do, and how you will accomplish it. Success without character, is not really success at all.

John Wooden says, Character was more important than reputation. Reputation was what others thought of you, character on the other hand was who you really are...

4) The ability to set goals and to follow them. Setting your goals is your road map, your blueprint, your GPS to your success. Without settings goals, an athlete is just getting exercise and not truly focused on the task at hand.

They are like a ship, with no rudder..... The seas will then take them wherever the wind and/or waves will take them...."

Keith Puryear - Hi Res - Navy Womens Tennis

Photo courtesy United States Naval Academy

Doug Neagle – Towson University (Women)

"One question I always ask recruits is "do you love tennis?" I ask this because many tennis players are burnt out by the time they get to college and they'll ride out their scholarship. I feel I can get a good read on if they still truly love playing, competing, and training.

Players that interact well with their teammates, coaches, trainers, and really people in general succeed in college tennis. The successful ones accept coaching. Lastly, persistence/effort on and off the court breeds success.

To sum it up: players that love the game of tennis, accept coaching, and strive to get their teammates and themselves better with effort all the time succeed in college tennis."

Doug Neagle - Towson Womens Tennis

Photo courtesy Towson University Athletics

Cristina Moros – University of South Florida (Women)

"Things that come to mind are:






Cristina Moros - University of South Florida Women's Tennis

Photo credit: University of South Florida Athletics

Bob Hansen – #2 Middlebury College (Men - DIII)

"Great question! I would say the following:

Openness to learn

Motivation to master the game

Willingness to do what it takes

Enthusiasm, joy, and appreciation for the path."

Bob Hansen - Middlebury College Tennis

Photo credit: Middlebury College Athletics

John Browning – #5 Emory University (Men - DIII)

"These are some of the traits that I have seen over the course of coaching:

  1. Solid technique in every aspect of their game
  2. Athleticism: being able to be explosive and quick on the court
  3. Incredibly fit, to be able to last on the court for a long period of time
  4. Willingness to learn and wanting to improve every aspect of their game.
  5. Prioritizing their academic, tennis, and social schedule
  6. Being a team player, desire for individual achievement, without sacrificing what’s important for the team
  7. Taking responsibility, owning up when making a mistake
  8. Resilient, handling adversity
  9. Love of competition
  10. Understanding how critical the mental aspect of the game is.
  11. Emotionally consistent"
John Browning - Emory Mens Tennis

Photo credit: Emory Athletics

Chuck Willenborg – #12 John Hopkins University (Men - DIII)


Work ethic


Chuck Willenborg - JHU Tennis

Photo courtesy John Hopkins University Athletics

Dan Greenberg – #13 Williams College (Men - DIII)

"In my mind, the most important traits are hunger (always wanting to learn and improve) and resilience (being able to bounce back from tough times).

The guys I’ve coached who have both these traits are seemingly unstoppable and a great inspiration for their teammates. But I also think a sense of perspective and humor go a long way in tennis and life, so keeping things balanced is important."

Dan Greenberg - Williams College Mens Tennis

Photo Credit: Kris Dufour, Williams College

Results: What are the most important character traits?

The following is a list of the Top 7 Character Traits based on the responses above (feel free to double-check my math):

1. Work Ethic - 11

2. Competitive - 11

3. Battle Adversity - 10

4. Integrity/Honesty - 8

5. Self-Motivated - 7

6. Passion - 6

7. Team Player - 5

Mental toughness, confidence, and a positive attitude were also mentioned several times in the responses.

These character traits, when combined, will produce exceptional, top-tier results, as evidenced by the accomplishments of the coaches and their tennis programs.

If you possess or strive to develop the character traits above, there is no doubt in my mind, or the minds of the top coaches in the country, that you will be extremely successful in your personal, athletic, and professional career.

I want to thank each and every one of the coaches and their media/communications staff for working with me to produce this unbelievable goldmine of tennis and life advice. I know you are all quite busy and I really appreciate your time.

Take the advice from these experts seriously. Choose one of the top character traits above that you need to improve upon and concentrate on developing it. If you do, your chances of success and happiness will improve by leaps and bounds.

If you enjoyed this article and want more helpful tennis advice, subscribe to my newsletter below and get your free eBook!

About the Author

Leave a Reply 1 comment