Brian Held Interview: 8 Year Tennis Coach at Loyola High School in Los Angeles

1. How did you get into playing tennis after being a college track and field athlete as well as a high school track and field coach?

I always loved competing in sports.  It often didn’t matter what sport, I just really really liked working at a sport, and then letting it all out in a game or match.  When I got to Georgetown, I tried out for the soccer team.  I made the first cut, and practiced with the team for a week.  I was the last player cut.  It was at that point that went to walk on the Track team as a pole vaulter – a sport I had done in high school and scored in the sectionals.  I met with the Head Coach, and made a strong case for why he should give me a chance.  And he did.  I loved Track in college.  I was able to travel and compete, and it was under those competitions that I did my best – I hardly could come close in practices.  I PR’d (personal record) a number of times throughout the college career, and that was rewarding.  When I graduated college, I still wanted to “compete,” but doing so in pole vaulting became unrealistic for a lot of reasons.  First, having the equipment and time and proper coaching proved too difficult.  Also, I was older, needed to work and start a career, and it would be hard to dedicate the time needed to do any better than I already had done.  So, I searched out a new sport.  I wanted one that I could play until God Willing, I was old and gray.  I wanted one that was technical and physical and chess like.  And practically, I wanted a sport that didn’t seem to need as much “start up” cost the way pole vaulting did.  All you needed, it seemed, was one other player, and a racquet!  Simple!  Well, it turned out that the equipment and strings were more costly than I had anticipated, but the seeking out of tennis players was a fun pursuit, and always led to a challenge.  I found that there is always something to learn in tennis.  It is a sport you can continually learn and grow and improve – at any level.

2. You were a pole vaulter in college. You mentioned in an event like the high jump there is one technique and the contest comes down to who can do that technique best, but that tennis allows for multiple techniques. This is a great insight on tennis in my view. Care to expand on it?
It seems that the high jump has moved in the direction of the Fosbury flop technique, and mastery of that, along with natural jumping ability is a great key to success.  With pole vaulting – there is some variation in technique, but given the end result has such a singular goal, it is hard to have too much variation.  With tennis, it is not solely a “technique” sport – in that improvements in technique are important but not always sufficient to have improved performance results.  There is more going on in tennis, because there is an opponent, and you are always having to deal with different situations and different types of players.  At the professional level, there has been success with different styles of players – look at the serve and volleyers: Sampras, Edberg, etc;  the counter punchers: Agassi.  The physical grinders: Nadal;  All court artist: Federer.  The emerging goat of everything except serve/volley: Djokovic.  At the level below these greats are folks that have a weapon, sometimes unique – Wawrinka’s backhand.  Roddick Serve.  Santoro’s spins.  Ferrer’s fitness.  Bryan Brothers’ hands.

3. What has coaching tennis taught you about the sport?

I have tried to implement the team atmosphere that I was around my entire life growing up playing sports from my own youth, through high school and college.  I was involved in a team sport of some time every season from the time I was like 5 years old.  Many of the junior tennis players come to high school tennis only having done individual tournaments on weekends, traveling around with mom and dad and sometimes a coach – but never teammates, never people who are rooting for you, never people that you might have to support and even sacrifice (Playing time) for.  It is a different atmosphere when this happens.  There is a camaraderie and bonding.  Although the sport is inherently (in singles) an individual sport – it can be aided with teammates.

But I will also add that in coaching the sport, I have further discovered just how many different factors go into making a successful player.  There is fitness, technique, strategy, decision making, shot selection, dealing with pressure, having variety, amongst other things as well.

4. How has doubles factor into your evolution as a coach and as a player?
I really like coaching doubles.  Team mentality comes much more into play.  It is not a solo game.  You have to help your partner.  You have to rely on your partner when you aren’t doing well.  I have found that there are many more momentum swings in doubles than in singles.  In singles, the better player usually wins.  In doubles, there is the added factor of using the strengths of each other well, and sets that start 4-1 or 5-1 can still swing back around.   

5.  Have you had players go onto college tennis?  If so, how many?   What role have you played in this process?
A few players have.  Making division 1 college tennis ALMOST requires a player to basically be home schooled, and to dedicate so much in their youth to pursuing it.  There is so much global competition and so just making a college team is a great accomplishment.  Also, unfortunately, playing high school team tennis does not influence a players path to making a D1 team.  I say unfortunately, because I have seen that the players themselves grow a lot as people, as leaders, and as individuals by being on a team, and their games get better also.  But unless everyone on the team is on D1 caliber path, it is a tough sell to a kid who is desperately seeking that next level.  My take though is that if they are good enough to be someone who makes an impact in D1 tennis, playing high school team tennis will not hurt them.  Jack Sock famously played in every single high school match in his high school career.  You hear about how most of the first round NFL football picks are multisport guys.  Putting all your eggs in one basket – by dedicating everything – – including NOT playing high school tennis, can MAYBE help that fringe guy just make a D1 college team where he can keep that bench warm for a couple years.

Of course, the reality after that though is that so few of the D1 college guys have a chance of being able to make a living playing pro.  Many can and do try playing on tour, especially the successful ones.  But recently, the top collegiate players, like a Stevie Johnson have yet to break into the upper upper echelon of the pro levels.

But the bottom line is that getting into college tennis is completely a function of the player’s USTA ranking.  The high school coach does not play a role in that pursuit.   

6. What do you think could be done to grow high school tennis? How do you see yourself contributing to that growth?
USTA should allow more high school tournaments to count toward USTA.  Currently, there are 2 tournaments in our section that count toward high level USTA. But there should be more.  It is a shame that USTA has not partnered more here.  Kids at this age need to have fun and be connected with their peers.  The traditional USTA route has not been successful in the past 20 years grooming any players to be number 1.  Perhaps they should broaden their ways to be more inclusive, to attract more players at younger ages.  By opening up the quick start for the younger players was a bold move to get more athletic kids excited about the sport – in that spirit they could have more partnerships with high school team tennis.

Tennis Abides rocks!
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