Coach Not, Lest Ye Be Coached

As I prepare for (watching) Wimbledon, taking in the grass court tune-up tournaments from Germany and England on television, I am prompted to think about coaching the sport again. As our county has announced that masks will be optional on campus in the 2021-22 school year, a return to what was so rudely interrupted by the pandemic is on the horizon.

Having been tapped to coach our high school’s boys and girls tennis teams, based on my playing a couple of years in college and on and off in adult leagues and tournaments (as well as no one else coming forward), I think about my principles and preparation for the assignment. Teaching and coaching are not so different and if you look back to how much time a football team spends in their playbooks, classroom meetings and film study, it makes sense. In fact, the last class I taught at Florida State University was in the Seminole football film theatre because I had so many students! I sure miss that huge video screen and wall-to-wall whiteboard.

So, I approached the job with a core set of standards that I presented to the athletic director. I posted them in my classroom where I had devoted an extra board just for tennis team announcements, schedules, and handouts. My “Four C’s” were Conditioning, Commitment, Courtesy, and Coachability. I went over these in my first meeting with prospective players and parents and kept coming back to them during the season.

Puerto Rico’s Monic Puig in action from the 2017 Miami Open at Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park.
Photo: Ron Thomas

Conditioning: Outrun, Outhit, Outlast

You may have heard that it gets hot in Florida. You might also be aware that the humidity can make the air potable. The hard courts in high school are basically painted parking lots that reflect heat. Tennis has no clock, so you play until the last point has been won. If each coach has followed the rules and set the roster from strongest player on down, every contest should be pretty evenly matched and likely to be longer than a blowout.

Every daily practice started with a lap around the tennis complex. It had to at least be a healthy trot. No walking and, if necessary, I could give chase to pick up the pace. I have a three-mile course in my neighborhood that I use. Considering that I am at least four decades older than my players, I need to be able to jump in and hit with them or even be the fourth player if a doubles player is missing at practice.

After the lap, then every player had to run the lines of the court to develop lateral quickness and agility in changing direction. Again, I had to be able to demonstrate the exercise until they had learned the pattern: sideline, service line, back to sideline, to far sideline, back to service line, back to far sideline, all the way back to near sideline at a sprint (including having to squat to touch each line before changing direction).

From there, on to the furthest court (more running) where I had set up a basket of reused balls for serving practice. Everyone gets 20. After your 20, you go become the receiver (and ball retriever). This let me correct technique, but it also meant they took some “warm up pitches” for arm conditioning before I dispersed them to start playing singles and doubles. What they didn’t see was that, before practice, I had already served several baskets’ worth so that I could confidently demonstrate serving to both courts, flat and slice and kick, wide and down the “T”. Do as I do, not just as I say.

Well, not everything I do … In many of my own matches, during the change of ends when my opponent might sit down and chug Gatorade with a wet towel over his head, sometimes I would just stand there for the requisite minute and then go to my end of the court to resume play. My unspoken message was “My legs are fresh. I don’t need water. I need to beat you. Are you ready yet?”

In my late 1970s college days, four decades and 40 pounds ago! Photo: Ian Barker

Commitment: Earn Your Spot

In the classroom, I have always been proud to say that I have never “given a grade.” I lay out the work, show how to do it, and total up what was performed by the students. Have I ever rounded up a final average of 79.6 to 80? Of course. That’s “professional judgment” and when I look at end-of-term portfolios I can see if a student has put in effort and made improvement. Did they kick at the finish or coast across?

It is a long-established coaching aphorism that “if you don’t practice, you don’t play.” Unless there’s a documented school activity or illness, I expect to see everyone on the courts at a scheduled practice or, if we have inclement weather, in the classroom for film study, rulebook review, and strategy discussion on the board. Yes, attendance was always taken.

During tryouts, even though I knew all the players, they got a sticker on their shirt that said “Hello! I’m …” with a number on it. I called the numbers which were randomly assigned, and they had to demonstrate a series of shots for rating purposes. This let them feel they were getting an objective evaluation and I had some data on which to make initial rankings.

They are called “initial” for a reason. During pre-season, with no match results, a challenge ladder was the only fair way to adjust the rankings. If you are ranked #5 singles and you think you’re better than that, you can challenge #4 at practice. If you win, you move up. If you lose, you stay put for the time being. This also lets #4 know that the position isn’t a right but a privilege to be defended. Once the season is underway, there is more data available to me like win/loss and scores and observation under competitive conditions. However, the challenge ladder remains in effect between scheduled competitions.

Coming from someone who dove for a ball on a cement court during his college tryouts, I have a respect for demonstrating desire…

Courtesy: Country Clubs and Public Courts

Wimbledon whites. Gentlemen’s and ladies’ champions. Tennis, anyone?

There is still a perceived upper-class prestige associated with tennis, as well as golf, despite the concerted efforts to create more opportunities to access the game. I didn’t want any of my players to be constrained from participating due to a lack of access to gear. So, I prevailed upon my local Dick’s Sporting Goods to work with me on a selection of Prince racquets in differing grip sizes (and coincidentally featuring our main school color). These racquets carried an endorsement by American pro John Isner (about whom I’ll say more later) but that made me extra glad to get an arsenal of those for my team. While awaiting the purchase order, I went into my garage and assembled a dozen or so loaner racquets, Yamaha and I having had a long relationship. In college, my doubles partner and I would get an armful of demo racquets from the pro shop and try to find what felt right for us. I wanted all of my players to have a similar experience and I was ready to advise on anyone who wanted to purchase their own equipment.

Team uniforms were still a long way off until we had some successful fundraising, but I knew something of the situation some of my players were experiencing. I never forgot that time when my grandmother and I were in a store and she asked me what the other players were wearing. I showed her some of the adidas shirts that were in vogue. A few weeks later, I had some bootleg shirts that she had made (being a professional seamstress) with the three stripes but minus the logos.

So, I just told my players that, to make a good appearance, just have gear in blue, grey, or white and put any serious funds into good shoes. Since most students already had some blue shirts from various campus clubs and activities, we were good to go.

Looking the part was one thing but acting the part was another. On television, there are match referees and linespeople and kids to chase down balls after points. For the rest of the world, you chase your own balls (one can per match, not a supply of new balls every six games) and call your own lines. Unless you have the eyesight of Ted Williams or John McEnroe, seeing a ball in or out while you are playing a sport is quite the challenge. There are some things you can do in how you position teammates in doubles to make it easier but in singles you are on your own.

This is a sport in which you hold up a hand in apology if you win a point by your shot accidentally hitting the net tape and dribbling over. It is as if you are saying “I’m sorry you didn’t get a full chance to hit it back.” If you had intentionally hit a drop shot that died over the net, you’d just take the point won by guile and not power. Tennis can be funny like that.

If, as a player receiving the opponent’s shot, you didn’t see it clearly because you were running and swinging and your head was bobbing, but it might have been in or on the line, the code of conduct says that you should call it good and give your opponent the benefit of the doubt. If your opponent is equally honorable, the close calls should even out, and you have a fair contest.

I added a competitive spin to that admonition. “If you have to concede one point, bear down and win the next TWO.”

Coachability: Always Be Learning

In addition to required coursework and examinations to get a teaching certificate, there are more to be a coach. Some are state requirements that are predictable about rules, regulations, rosters, reporting results, player safety, practice restrictions and so on. Understanding heat illnesses, concussions and cardiac safety also make sense. The United States Tennis Association has further requirements and recommendations including SafeSport certification which is training about the all-too-prevalent exploitation of young athletes.

The National Federation of High Schools provides a great variety of courses on sports and interscholastic activities, most are free, but some have a reasonable fee. The list of what I needed wasn’t bad but there were more if you wanted to be nationally certified. As long as I was going to be teaching from home, I might as well be learning, too. Give me all of them. They’re business expenses and I need the tax deductions anyway.

However, the physical aspect of teaching the game had to be taken into account, as well. Many of my players were beginners and a few had some youth tournament experience and aspirations. This meant I had to be part physical education teacher and part private coach.

After a scrapbook of scars and injuries from other sports and a spinal fusion, I was not physically the same 20-year-old player I still thought I was. After the back surgery, I invested in a few sessions with a personal trainer (a tax-deductible medical expense, right?) to find out what my new range of motion, core strength, and lifting capability were going to be. Later, I hired a tennis hitting partner to do the same with my game (a potential tax deduction I was not as comfortable is trying to justify) and to adjust it to my new footspeed and flexibility. The patience she showed with my shot production was something I needed to absorb and emulate as a coach.

One thing I could do was go watch the pros. I was fortunate enough to attend the Miami Open a few years ago which, along with Indian Wells, one of the top tournaments that isn’t a Grand Slam event (Australian Open, French Open at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open). Strolling the outer courts and even running into friends allowed me also to watch several junior matches. Then, taking in the stadium court night matches increased my appreciation of the speed and power of the pro game. Top American player John Isner came by the box and that gives me a built in rooting interest for the future, especially when he was in some of his legendary long matches!

I’m 6’3″ but American pro John Isner at 6’10” dwarfed me at the 2017 Miami Open.

World TeamTennis, of which I had been a fan since its founding by Billie Jean King in the 1970s, was running its season at the USTA National Campus in Orlando. Amazingly, tickets were readily available in the front row, and they had no problem with photography. So, I captured stills and video of men’s and women’s singles and doubles, as well as mixed doubles. Even though we don’t (but should) play mixed in high school, that was one of my favorite formats in leagues and tournaments and I enjoyed some success in it. Getting stop motion and super slo-mo video of top stars like Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend, and Darija Jurak (with whom I struck up a few online conversations) and fully played points gave me a treasure trove of material for rainy day team meetings.

Croatia’s Darija Jurak in doubles action for the Orlando Storm of World TeamTennis in 2019.
Photo: Ron Thomas

In the midst of summer break from school, I had to go to a week of meetings at the Boca Raton Resort and Club (I know, tough life, ain’t it?) so I packed along my gear. I booked some lessons while I was there, and I had two DVRs running in my head. I wanted to recall what I was picking up for myself but I also wanted to record how he ran the lessons, what drills he did, how he gave feedback, and how he fed me shots to hit back. The fancy word is “metacognition,” to be aware of my learning process while doing the learning. I just wanted to coach like I had been coached.

The payoff came when the school principal was doing the morning announcements during first period and she announced our team’s first match win.

About drronthomasjr

Dr. Ron Thomas, Jr. heads Thomas Consulting Group, a consortium of professionals in leadership, crisis management, and media relations.
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