The title of this article may be precarious for a full-time collegiate tennis coach, a guy who teaches college courses and has taught tennis for more than 30 years. I returned to coach a college team after a 12-month hiatus from competition because of the COVID- 19 pandemic. It was great to get back to some semblance of normalcy and coach a collegiate team and prepare for competition again. There was nothing better after a year off, and nothing has me made me feel normal again like being around young people and hearing the ball hit a racquet.
During the 12-months that passed without competition I met with my collegiate team once a month via Zoom to let them know the importance of staying in tennis shape and practicing using all the resources they had. Then we ended the meeting, and I sent the athletes on their merry way and checked on them every week individually followed by our monthly ZOOM get-togethers. After the weekly check-in and monthly Zoom, I could only hope that they were following the protocol which was designed for them to succeed when we eventually returned to practice and competition.
I had the student-athletes keep a journal and report in. However, did I really know? Was their journal a novel of sorts? Time will tell.
We now fast forward to March 2021, one year since our last match competition and practice. I said to myself at the first practice, “Now we will see who likes to put stories in a journal and who really does the work.”
After just one practice for the men and another for the women, it was easy to see. The ones who were motivated did the work and those who like to coast did so for a year hoping to retain their roster spot that they had the year prior. As a coach you can find out a lot about your players in these uncertain times. With the game of tennis, we were fortunate in that one can still practice social distancing and play as our game shut down for just a few months. As a coach I would often say, and still do, “Sports (tennis) does not build character, it reveals it”. The first practice after a year was certainly the day that the rubber met the road and we were able to separate the college varsity athletes from those who just wanted to be on a team. One day is all it took. I cut two players from the men and one from the women’s team after the first practice, which might sound harsh after a year away from varsity tennis to take such a drastic measure.
We were about to embark on a four-week season, short yet intense, and there was little time for a training camp to prepare. We hit the ground running and there were no shortcuts to be found. In addition, we had to follow strict COVID testing and protocols that took time and stretched my budget to the limit. I just could not afford to pick up the slack for stragglers while also investing time and energy to those who were committed. I think it might have been one of the most important lessons I could teach the student- athletes. The nation was going through a deep recession and a pandemic, and we were all affected in some way. We all knew someone who had the disease and may have even died. As a nation, adversity hit us all in the face and HARD! It was a coaching and teachable moment for those players who lost a roster spot for lack of preparation which paled, quite frankly, in comparison to the heap of COVID-19 madness that was thrown at all of us. If you think I was hard on these young people who only lost a roster spot, it is certainly an opinion you have the right to own. However, the roster spot will be given back to those same individuals in the fall if they do the work over the summer in preparation for our 2021-22 season. That seems fair enough to me.
John Wooden, who was one of the most famous collegiate coaches of all time and whose players won 10 National Championships in a 12-year span including seven in a row, had a quote that really resonates with me: “Discipline yourself, and others won’t need to.” I cannot think of anything that is more powerful to present in this piece.
“If it is going to be, it will be up to me,” is something I also share with my students.
It is not the coach; it is you the player/student/pupil that will bring success. The coach is a vitamin supplement, but the supplement is not good unless you eat meals that are nutritious. The metaphor is the work you put in will yield results. I have so much experience with people and parents who pay money for lessons for their children, and then wonder why the lessons are not getting the result that you would hope for. Why? It is practice! It is the time you put into it away from the coach. So many juniors who take lessons at clubs will at many times have very cheap access to court time to practice. It is always the same individuals that take advantage of this. Those are the ones who improve rapidly and excel. I am just the coach, but I need a partner in the goals that we set together. I plan the work and the student works; the plan is in partnership with the coach. If the partners are not in sync, I promise it will not work.
Do not expect from your coach...expect from yourself!
Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.