With the Kentucky high school tennis season having just begun, I am looking back on my coaching start. I became a teacher in August 2002. I mentioned to my co-worker and athletic director that I would like to help both the boys and girls’ tennis teams. He said that would be fine because each team practiced 4-days per week so I could just split time.
I had been a modestly ranked USTA junior player in the Kentucky rankings, had never sniffed a regional or national junior ranking, had played a lot of singles during my time working at a monastery, and had just gotten into playing doubles at a local tennis club. My game was as well-rounded as it had ever been, and I thought I could contribute something while wading into the world of coaching.
Two days later, the athletic director said, “Dan, the varsity boys’ tennis coach just resigned. If you want the job, it is yours.” I said yes not really knowing what I was saying yes to. The tennis side of it was one thing, but permission slips, mandatory physicals, rules clinics, and coaching clinics were all new to me. Dealing with hurt feelings from not putting a player in the line-up or even worse from having to cut a player was not high on my priority list. There was a reason I wanted to wade into the job. I was 26, in a new city, in a new job, and had no idea about which area schools were good or how good my team would be.
Doing Things the Way I Learned
My former high school tennis coach is a legend in Kentucky tennis. When he was inducted into the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame, he had 16 state title teams and 8 state title runner-up squads through 24 years of coaching plus a 90% winning percentage in dual matches. He did not do tennis half-way. I told my team that we would be practicing 6-days per week instead of 4. We would start on February 15th instead of waiting for the weather to get warm. We were going to practice any day above 35 degrees. This is how I was coached so I was not aware of how brazen this might sound. In retrospect, this helped me a lot because I needed to establish an identity with my players despite the former coach leaving me with a really solid core of players.
I learned that I did not have a single year-round tennis player on my roster before the season started. I sold the program as best I could to some younger basketball players on campus urging them to consider that tennis footwork would help their movement in basketball. This paid off with one additional basketball player joining the team.
We had access to a local park for tennis practices. It had two passable courts at that time as well as a third court missing one of its baselines due to water damage leading to the surface peeling up. That court became the drill court as I could feed balls from the bad side. The other two courts would be reserved for match play and drills. I did a lot of 6-ball drills in which I would feed a forehand, a backhand, a short-ball, two volleys, and an overhead.
I noticed two things. First, I had an athletic team even if it was not a team with year-round tennis players. Second, I had a young team without any 12th-grade players. Kevin, our best player, was a soccer-playing sophomore. Steve was a junior, our second best singles player at the time, and played basketball. Tyler and Ryan were juniors who had two-years of doubles experience behind them. I had first and second singles as well as first doubles in good spots. All four of these leaders were extremely coachable and good students off the court.
Kentucky still largely uses the three singles and two doubles format for dual matches with the school winning 3 or more matches winning the dual match. Finding possible second doubles teams and third singles players were of paramount importance in this early stage of the season. I had a crew of roughly 8 enthusiastic, novice ninth graders from which to fill these 3 spots. I wanted every player to play in at least one match, but I also wanted to win whenever possible. Two of the eight were strong enough athletes that they were picking up tennis fairly quickly. They also were friends. Our situation at second doubles was looking pretty solid as Michael and Jimmy were rising to the top. Jimmy was a cross-country runner, and Michael was that one basketball player I had nabbed.
Third singles … that was a tougher call. I could have always split up one of my doubles teams, but then I would potentially have chemistry issues as each doubles team seemed to mesh well and also would have a weaker doubles combination.
I had a good mechanical understanding of pre-polyester string stroke production. I had enough time to look back at my own difficulties as a junior player and understood that I often performed worse than I should have because I needed to lighten up. We were practicing 6-days per week, but I made sure that we were having fun. I tried to limit advice to one topic even if a player had ten deficiencies in his strokes so as to not bury him under the weight of criticism. I felt like I understood the psychology of tennis much better than I ever had as a teen and wanted to pass along those insights.
The 4 leaders on the team were such good students that the 9th-grade players paid attention. Everyone was athletic enough to be picking up more and more about the sport. I was excited to see how we performed against other schools. Of course, we could not host a single school so every contest would be played on the road. I recall thinking bring it on …