Monday, January 11, 2010

Discussion: What makes a good D3 coach?

I received an e-mail a few days ago asking how a good coach makes a difference in D3. I have never coached so this is just my view on how a program should be run. I'm going to break this down into four categories: recruiting, player development, motivation and match preparation. I see each of these four as the most important things for a coach.

Recruiting: Compared to 5 years ago, D3 has become much more recruit happy and we now see as many as 30 kids in a given year enter D3 who were top 250 in the country as juniors. Over the past five years I think this number has nearly tripled. You take a look at your current top 10 teams, and 9 of them are filled with highly ranked juniors. How Santa Cruz competes I'll get to later. 5 years ago, D3 coaches didn't go out and recruit aggressively, rather they waited for players to come to them. This doesn't work anymore. I'm going to use two opposite examples here. The first being Swarthmore. This was a perennial top 15 team for many years up until 2007. What happened was other teams got better and Coach Mullan didn't go out and recruit. They are now unranked 3 years later. You look at the opposite situation at Amherst. Amherst was always a respectable team hovering in the 10-20 range. Chris Garner comes in and recruits a whole team in one year. They were national runner-up a year after missing NCAAs. All you need is a few good players and the kids just start coming. If you want a a top D3 program, I think these coaches need to be at Clays and Kalamazoo and maybe some Sectional Championships. The majority of the top D3 schools are very attractive places to get an education, so it's really on the coach to go after these top players. With the exception of the Ivies, it shouldn't be hard for D3 coaches to pull kids away from academically strong lower D1 schools. In conclusion, I think we've seen that you need to recruit well to be competitive. A couple of 2-stars each year just doesn't cut it anymore.

Player Development: So you have your team full of top 200 recruits. Now what? I want to touch on a couple big issues. In men's tennis, just recruiting a team only gets you so far. You have to develop your players once you have them because your competition is improving every day. Now this is tough with your players being students before athletes, but it certainly can be done. I ask the question, why are players in D3 and not in big time D1 tennis at an academically strong school? Maybe they didn't play a lot of junior tournaments or they were undersized or lacked a weapon on the court. Whatever it may be, they must be very talented to be in the starting lineup at a top D3 school and I'm sure they knocked off numerous D1 players during their junior careers. A good coach needs to know how to coach at this level. It's as simple as that. Clearly, Roger Follmer and John Browning are doing something right. Yes, they have good players but they also work with their players once they get them. I want to look at the 3 biggest underachievers the past couple years. Carnegie Mellon, Chicago and Johns Hopkins. They all have had top 10 quality rosters for at least the past two years but haven't seen the results. What do these schools have in common? Two things come to mind. The first is that they are academically challenging research universities. So are Emory and Wash U, so this can't be the issue. The second is that they also have elite women's teams under the same coach as the men's team. This is just unacceptable in my opinion. A top D3 men's team should have a head coach and an assistant coach just for the men. It's impossible to compete otherwise because your players don't get the attention they need. You can't meet the needs of 20 players, both guys and girls (two completely different games I might add). Part of the job description of being a college coach is meeting the needs of your players and helping them to improve their tennis. Bob Hansen does this better than anyone else in the country. Yes, the Slugs put in a lot of time on court, but he knows exactly how to make his players better and that's why they win national championships. I won't get into coaching specifics, but the best teams have coaches with good track records who can coach at the level of top D3 players.

Motivation: This is where the job of a D3 coach is arguably harder than the job of a D1 coach. If you look at the rosters of the top 30 D1 schools, I would say 75% of those kids want to try their hand in the pros. Their future and keeping their scholarship are enough motivation to work hard on the court every day. We don't have scholarships in D3, so where does the motivation come from? Yes the players have to be self-motivated but I think the true motivation has to come from the coach. A coach needs to get his players to buy into his system. You can't have your kids not caring in practice and matches or the results won't come. A coach needs to be an intense, up-tempo, motivating figure. I don't think a laid back personality succeeds in big time college tennis. I think teams often reflect their coaches, so the best teams often have the best coaches personality-wise. These are still young, fragile minds you are dealing with and a coach needs to convince his kids that they are playing for something. Why spend all those hours on the court and those weekends traveling? What's the end result? A good coach has an answer to that question and he convinces his players that it's the right answer.

Match Preparation: This involves conducting productive practices, properly translating what you have learned in practice to a match and making sure your players are ready in the hours leading up to a match. Your players are constantly studying and you have a limited amount of time for practice so it must be worthwhile. Coaching both singles and doubles is difficult, but it's a must. Players at this level need to have good feet and be able to sit at the baseline and never miss. You rarely see huge forehands in D3, it's mostly grinders. Your players need to be in good shape and very solid all around. Once they have things down in practice, they need to be able to execute under pressure. Coaches have the luxury of coaching during matches and I think college tennis would be so much different without that aspect. You also need to make sure your team is well prepared and this is where the managerial aspect of the job is important.

I don't know if there is any coach out there who does all four of these things perfectly. I think they are all equally important and the best coaches will excel in all areas.