The rewards of talking between fences in springtime

You'd think that the most rewarding part of coaching high school is winning. I mean, we win to play the game right? But not for me.

Tennis is an unusual sport because the high school & college format takes a sport that's wholly individual (even in doubles, it's just two of you) and turning it into a team thing. That said, individual matches are played by the players themselves. The competitive part is in practice, because most teams have more players than there are spots in the lineup, meaning you are cheering on your teammates but they can also take your spot.

Unlike team sports with subs, tennis lineups are finite in a particular match. So if you're left out of the lineup against East High School, you don't play at all that day and have to work to get into the next match. As you can imagine, this can be frustrating for players, parents and coaches who have to figure out how to encourage kids who work hard with positioning the team to win.

As a coach, I've always managed a decent job at this. Partially because I had a unique experience getting to coaching myself. I've also had the fortunate of playing & coaching both really good teams, but also bad ones. My freshman year of high school, our team was in a transition stage. A lot of the seniors were graduating, we were a year away from getting an 8th grade phenom (and his brother the year after) but the seniors were tired of our (late 70-year old) coach and started quitting. By the end of the season, there were only 3 of us, the bare minimum for a high school team in New Jersey.

Needless to say, it wasn't a good season and we only won 3 matches that year out of 17 matches. (One additional was a tie, but I forget why. Maybe darkness?) The following three years, we were extremely good. We made the state tournament three straight years, won our conference my senior year & tied the school record for wins. I only played a year of college tennis, but it was for a college that was rebooting it's men's tennis program after several decades. Needless to say, we were a motley crue of players who mostly hadn't played in years and it showed.

We didn't win a match that season. I learned a lot about my game though. Because my high school team was so good -- I played with at least 4 dudes who played D1 tennis -- I had a really distorted idea of my own level. I was usually among the stragglers on those teams, though by my senior year I really tied it together and my game went from being a bit of liability in doubles to a real asset.

These experiences shaped me as a coach. I've always found practice kind of boring, but if you're going to be a tennis coach you have to find ways to get kids excited about playing tennis. That's part of the job description. The first time I was in charge of a tennis program at a camp in Connecticut, I created an entirely different way of doing camp tennis. At most summer programs, it's just a lot of rote lessons and perhaps an intra-camp tournament here or there. The diehards always show up, a few kids who are bored do it too. But hot summers and standing on sunny tennis courts don't always mesh. So I had to find new ways to engage them.

I came up with a three-tiered structure that took the best players into one group, mid-tier players in another group, and finally, a bottom tier that was just "mini-tennis" for beginners. Kids would work their way up the ranks. The beauty of this model -- along with my enthusiasm and a co-counselor from Australia who bought what I was selling and embraced it -- was giving all sorts of kids the opportunity to try out tennis. Every kid will tell you they've tried it before, most will tell you how bad they are. It's not an easy sport to master, but it's relatively easy to pick up if you're willing to give it a whirl. What we found that summer, was that more often that not, kids would get enthusiastic about doing something if you provided incentives, encouraged them, and it seemed like something other friends were doing too.

Taking over school tennis teams is a different animal altogether. At camp, you get to build rapport over time because you and the kids live and share meals together. Whereas with scholastic tennis, everything you teach them could be in one ear and out the other by the time they go home. When I first started coaching school teams, I had to adapt my methods to reflect these differences. There are also some boundary differences from being seeing as a bit of an "elder peer" at camp to being more of a "legitimately authority figure" as a coach. Coaches have a lot of influence, parents and kids respect them and you can't take that lightly. A coach can kill a kid's confidence unwittingly, if they're too direct and discouraging and if their focus is on outcomes -- wins and losses -- versus the lessons embedded in the game and providing incentives for kids to grow into those shoes.

Besides coaching JV tennis for two seasons in Colorado -- a boys team, followed my by first real stint coaching girls -- I last worked at a summer camp as a tennis director in 2011. Ironically, that was a whole summer of coaching girls after years of only working at boys camps or coaching (or playing on) boys teams. I thought the adjustment would be bigger, but it turned out that I enjoyed the girls more because they listened better and it seemed easier to get them to buy into the team concept for whatever reason.

Still, nothing really prepared for me getting back into coaching after an eight year hiatus in 2019. My high school coach died at age 96, and a year later, I think as a homage I wanted to get back into the game. I was also new to Oregon and it gave me something to do. I underestimated how much work it was to be a head coach, being there every weekday for a few hours when I work remotely was kind of a slog at first. I also just didn't really have the mental model for everyday high school coaching at first. It helped that I had a group of patient boys were just happy to have a coach at all. I was hired two days before the first practice began, and it was a worry that they might not have anyone to coach them at all.

By necessity, I was a bit forced to make them full partners in their lesson experience. I wasn't sure who the opponents were, I had no idea that I took over a 6A team that had moved from a very winnable league where we'd have been super competitive, to one of the two toughest 6A leagues in the entire state. I knew the task would be difficult, I had no idea how significant the gap was between our team and the teams we'd be playing at the top half of our league.

I think we lost like 7 straight matches before we won our first match. We did tie a team once, but the two biggest problems with had despite the resource issue, was 1) losing our best player to an academic issue and 2) our German exchange student had hurt himself in the JV football season (why did someone let him do this lol) and it meant we were short two of the players we really need to be even more competitive than we were.

We ended up winning 4 matches that year and losing 10 (and the aforementioned tie) but each of those wins were actually quite rewarding because even when were getting punched in the mouth by teams that outgunned us, there was a strategy to what we were doing. I was also learning on the job. In retrospect, there are things I'd do now that I wouldn't have done then. But on balance, I have few regrets about how that season sewed up. To win our final match of the year, we needed a senior who most teammates regarded as "the worst player on varsity" for three years, step up and win a singles match against a not-bad opponent. He was able to muster this because a light went off in his head halfway through the year. I'd been asking him to play higher than his actual talent level for most of the year, partially so that it'd protect the rest of our players and give them a chance to play more winnable matches. This act is technically called "stacking" but depending on what state you're in, and what league you play in, there are few (or tons) of rules against it.

Stacking when you have a bad team isn't really a threat to anybody, because nobody expects that you're going to win anyway. Much like football teams with a physical advantage, you're just not going to have a team lose 5 out of 8 matches in a given day to a way worse team unless they're all hit with food poisoning or there's a full moon. Still, by having this kid face such tough competition, it made his improve and he started to take my advice about using these opportunities to make himself better. He was also a gym rat who would stay after practice and work really hard.

So when it was the last match of his high school career (not counting the season-ended district tournament) he understood what his task was. Did I tell him that we needed him to win in order to clinch this last win of the year? On Senior Night? No. I think I lie and said we'd already won. Maybe I did lie and he figured it out anyway, I don't remember. Still, I wanted the win for him and for us. The reward of playing a whole year, of coming to practice and working hard doesn't always result in trophies. (Despite what the internet said...) Sometimes, the reward are the intrinsic Ws you earn that no one else will ever remember or know about.

Winning a state championship three years after that match wasn't more rewarding. It was satisfying, because it'd been something I always knew was possible. However, it was only possible because I was fortunate enough to take over a team that had the previous year -- the season when I coaching those boys -- ended up just short as state finalists. COVID took away two of our opportunities to claim a state title, and it also robbed our two best players of a chance at state title glory as individuals. For the team as composed, we had one shot at doing this together and it came in 2022.

The entire year was a reflection of my own journey and how I'd made particular decisions to get here. One of those key decisions was trying to recruit one of my own players. A freshman when I took over the team decided that high school tennis didn't sound fun to her and wasn't going to play. I talked to her mother about it and after several conversations, she was going to let her play. Then the pandemic hit and we had no more season to play at all. The following year, she told us she wasn't interested. This was okay, because the state tournament was again canceled due to the pandemic.

This year, I appointed a captain who knew her and was willing to recruit her too. Between the two of us, we managed to get her to come out for the team. Why was this so important? Because while we had no doubt two of the best players in the state, after last year, we lost one of our linchpin doubles stalwarts and needed someone of her caliber to replace her. We would've won state without this girl, but having her made us pretty unstoppable.

One of the tasks of taking over a team that has several high-level tennis players, coupled with a bunch of "very good" normal high school level ones, is figuring out how to strategize practices to engage them all. My task here was sort of done for me. I allowed my best players to mostly work with their own coaches and training, and to use our team practices mostly as a chance to work with their peers on specific skills. Some coaches would have problems navigating this, because it seems like favoritism. After all, why should everyone else have to come to practice if those two don't most of the time? They weren't the only players I made deals with. One girl was a club volleyball player who missed probably half our slate of games, due to scheduling conflicts. I didn't kick her off the team over it. She told me she'd be available from mid-April and she did exactly what she said...and ended up going to state in doubles. A feat none of us expected when the year started.

Well, they did show up a few times a week. But the real difference is, because those two never lost a high school match before a state tournament in 3 years of high school tennis. We don't play at the highest level, because it's a small school, but even when we played high-level schools this year, the end result was the same. I won my last match with the public school boys team, and then came here to coach a private school girls team and we won 22 straight matches before losing. The loss was to a 6A school that finished 6th in the state. But get this, our lineup for that match -- due to the timing and scheduling conflicts -- only had 5 varsity players out of our 12 in the lineup. Had a JV player I brought up for that day to play singles managed to steal a victory at 4th singles, we'd have tied them and that's absurd.

Still, I've learned more lessons since this year's state title. Would I never make affordances for new players who are super talented like I did for those two years? Probably not. I think there are better ways to make accommodations and you have to do it in a way that sets the importance of showing up to kids. High achievers will always stack their plate with lots of things, and I've learned the past few years, that if you don't set the standard and help them prioritize, they'll mistake my flexibility for apathy. 

You can only talk to tennis players during changeovers and at the end of each set in high school tennis. You cannot step foot on the court, it has to be between the fence. I have no idea why these constraints exist, other than to speed up the game because coaches can sometimes talk too long to players. I've always opted to be a minimalist during my changeovers. Players can get tactical advice, a pep talk or they can just ask for a joke. (I used to be a lot better at the dad jokes, but taking over a good team means they only rarely ask for the jokes and I'm out of practice. I'll be ready next year though.) 

I think the best part of being able to help a kid gain perspective between points is helping define what's actually important. Kids get nervous because they're afraid to lose. Losing sucks. But it's not the end of the world. I like to remind them that if the worst thing in the world that day is that we lose a tennis match, it's okay and we'll still get to go home and eat dinner. 

We'll reflect on what we're doing wrong and live to see another day.

A compendium of stuff I don't want to forget