So these days, I’ve gotten pretty accustoming to coaching teams that compete for state championships. It’s quite fun and I adapted to it a lot better than I thought I would.
But in the past, I’ve coached teams that were just excited to win at all and before that, I coached sub-varsity level teams that are not going to state and comprised largely of rosters of kids who’ll never make varsity because of the depth of their school’s tennis program. For those teams, you have to set your expectations and be realistic to get buy-in or else, it’ll be a slog.
If you’re just starting out or someone who is naturally competitive, and needs to find ways to keep yourself engaged, these tips will potentially help you reframe how you communicate competition to your teams so the milestones are set appropriately as the season progresses.
- The goal is to make progress throughout the year
If you team is getting bageled (6-0, 6-0) in most matches to start the year, the goal for the kids is to work on finding ways to grind out games. That means learning how to hold serve or winning points however they legally can. For some players, this is just cutting down on the unforced errors. Especially in states/leagues where there is no-ad scoring, it’s very possible to win 4 points, but those 50/50 balls can cost kids close matches or make a score look worse than it was watching it.
By mid-season, hopefully the team can start to improve on those early season performances. If not, it’s figuring out other ways to motivate them. I find this usually involves finding competition at your team’s level when possible, interspersed between your normal competition, because you can treat those matches almost like playoff games for the kids. After getting beaten up all year, it’s a lot of fun for them to play someone they have a chance to compete with, but it can also cause them a lot of grief if they don’t win, so setting measurable expectations helps a lot.
But ultimately, it’s about ensuring their confidence isn’t destroyed because this is how programs cease to exist over time if it’s a consistent issue.
2. Don’t be afraid to mix things up
If you’re getting beaten in every dual match without winning one, then clearly there’s something wrong with your lineups or perhaps you lack any depth to do any real challenges to mix up doubles teams. But this is where I usually start. It’s not stacking outside of your top players to mix up doubles teams and have them challenge each other (if required) so you can try different iterations of your talent.
The key here is keeping things fresh and helping the kids learn. I’ve been able to patch doubles pairings together that have gradually had success this way, but it’s also useful when the season gets stale to try kids in different contexts. In some states, your top player can choose to play singles or doubles, in those situations it could be a good opportunity for a slumping #1 getting thumped to try the doubles game out.
Alternatively, in states where you have to play a straight lineup, it’s still worthwhile to create goals within the season to motivate the squad however you can.
3. Sometimes, you just need a team bonding experience
Over a decade ago, I was coaching a JV girls team and we had a Saturday tournament to play. It was Friday, we’d had a hard week and I knew many of these girls were not that jazzed to be required to play on Saturday. At this private school, sports came with a grade and so…the moral wasn’t where I would’ve liked it. Understanding that I was asking them to give me a weekend day for tennis, I asked the AD if I could borrow a school bus and take the girls to Dairy Queen.
I didn’t tell the girls where we were going until we got there, but the surprise went over great and we actually had our best showing of the year the next day at that tournament from kids I didn’t expect. Some teams need to be conditioned to the ends of the earth and others might not respond well to things being too relaxed.
This sometimes takes time to discover, but especially for sub-varsity level when there is no “state” milestone and the wins matter only to you and them…you’ve got to find ways to keep them engaged and keep things fun.
4. When you do have a chance to win, have them ready
Whenever we were facing an opponent I expected us to beat, I’d ensure our practices in advance of that match were maybe a bit more serious. My pre-match pep talk would also emphasize that there was no pressure, but admonishing them to remember the previous week’s challenges against tougher opponents and to bring that energy to these games.
By mixing up the lineups through the early parts of the tougher competition, I also found that it would prepare kids to play people at their level. Not every kid could handle this, but I’ve seen seniors who willingly take on what seems like a “punching bag” job, only to turn around and win pivotal matches for us later in the year because they’ve gained a lot.
Honestly, this requires you to be the kind of coach that maybe over-communicates between changeovers and can help them contextualize their frustrations post-match, because otherwise…you might kill their confidence.
5. Develop talent when you have the chance
I like enlisting underclassmen whenever I can, even if it means that a senior doesn’t play varsity. Some parents feel that seniors are entitled to a varsity spot, even if they’ve never been on varsity before. I’m extremely loyal to seniors who dedicate themselves to the program and ensure that even JV seniors get at least one varsity match before they graduate (if I’m able to do it, though sometimes our schedule doesn’t allow for it.) but I’d always prefer to give a 9th or 10th grader a chance to play up.
I’ve been in states where JV matches don’t really happen or in situations where I’m the only coach and can’t schedule JV, so those players development essentially atrophies for a whole season if you can’t find ways to get them playing against non-team competition over the course of a season. Some teams don’t have a choice but to play underclassmen, but I’ve had teams where unmotivated upperclassmen expected to be rostered, skip practices and would be dropped in favor of more raw players that might eventually help the team down the road.
Giving them those experiences early helps them understand and be prepared for getting better in off-season, sometimes those underdeveloped players work and come back to become standouts. It’s also a way to ensure the continuity of your program, because all it takes it one or two bad seasons and no talent influx to kill a program for a decade.
At the end of the day, coaching is about teaching life lessons and having fun. While winning is certainly fun, it doesn’t have to be end game for what we’re doing. Helping kids learn and value the lessons throughout the year, however it goes, is the most rewarding part of coaching for me.
As fun as winning championships can be, I had some of my most fun moments as a head coach when I was coaching a team that started the year 0-9 and rallied to win 3 of their last 4 matches of the season. It’s all about perspective, understanding the circumstances and appreciating the growth that happens on and off the court.