I had the privilege of competing against Barry University in my college time ages ago and I always thought that they were an extremely well-coached team. Now, all these years later, I am using their facility to train with Amanda Anisimova, and I have spent a lot of time hitting with their head coach Thomas. Below is a conversation I had with Thomas on various subjects, and I sincerely hope any tennis player, parent, or coach can find it valuable.
Hleb: Congratulations on your team's national championship win! Can you describe the journey that led to this victory? What were some of the key factors that contributed to your team's success?
Thomas: Thank you for the congratulations! I am extremely happy about the result. This year and last year went pretty similarly, we struggled in the regular season, and we turned it up in the postseason. There were a few factors that led to that. First, we are the national champions, and everybody plays better against us. Without a doubt, it's always the highlight of the opponent's season, thus we always get the best version of our opponent. Another factor is my team is very experienced and had a lot of success throughout the years and at times regular season matches are not really that intriguing to them, so we were using the regular season to gear up for the postseason since that is what matters most. What contributed to our win is not only that my players are very talented for the division two level but also, they are very experienced. Most of the players this year have been in the final for two or three years in a row and are prepared for the competition. We had a great schedule during the regular season, we always had to play hard against all of the teams because they were super fired up against us. At the end of the year, when you get into the national tournament everybody wants to win and feels the pressure. I felt that we were prepared to handle it.
Hleb: Division 2 tennis at the National Championships is highly competitive. How did you motivate and prepare your team for that trip? Were there any specific strategies or techniques you employed to help your players perform at their best?
Thomas: Yes, great question. I am in charge of a successful team and those teams tend to get complacent. Therefore, it is extremely important to stay motivated. Every day we're pushing them in practice in preseason, and we make them aware that every year is a new year. That is why you have to respect every opponent. Moreover, when you win everyone looks up to you, and then they study your game and then it gets harder to win in the future. I am a big fan of Kobe Bryant's Mamba Mentality. I enjoy sending the team a video or quotes of athletes that believe in that philosophy. Just because we are winning doesn't give us the guarantee we (will) win in the future. I also believe that if you stay the same in the sport, you're getting worse, so you always have to look for ways to improve. As I mentioned earlier, everyone wants to beat us in the regular season, so it primes us well for the postseason. At times a tough loss is not a bad thing, guys can be more motivated in practice, and they get fired up.
Hleb: Winning a national championship requires a strong team dynamic. How did you foster a sense of camaraderie and teamwork among your players? Were there any team-building activities or exercises that you found particularly effective?
Thomas: As you mentioned college tennis is a team sport, thus we need to develop strong team chemistry. Throughout the year when we have a little bit more practice time, we add things to our regular tennis activities. Some examples are beach tennis, conditioning at the beach, play soccer. All of these things cultivate team chemistry. Another essential thing is relating to my players on an individual level. I advise all college coaches to take the time to talk with their student-athletes since they can be having problems with school or at home. Additionally, we are very firm with the expectations we have for our practices, the body language, and the consistent mental and physical effort that is required. In college, when a player is not doing well, he needs to try not to show it as they can affect the players next to them.
Hleb: During the intense competition, athletes often face mental and emotional challenges. How did you support your players' mental well-being and help them stay focused and confident throughout the championship tournament?
Thomas: This is an excellent question that dives a little bit more into individual coaching. This year (for me) was easier to coach the team because I knew them from last season. My first year back was more for the learning phase: which player I had to push in what way. Some players just want you to sit next to them and support them, and encourage them, some they want to have more technical things, some they need to be calmed down. As you can see it's important to know what works with each player. A crucial piece of advice for college coaching: as a coach, you must have confidence in the player, never show doubt, be convinced this is the right strategy, and be convinced that the player can do what you're coaching them.
Hleb: As a coach, you play a crucial role in player development. What are some of the key skills and techniques you focus on during training sessions to help your players improve their game?
Thomas: As you know, in a college team you don't know to have players that are on the same level. However, we believe that all of the players practicing with each other keeps things fresh and allow them to learn how to improve in different areas. Furthermore, if the players only practice and don't compete things get mundane and boring. The team can get a false perception of what they're good at and unaware of the weaknesses that do not get exposed without competition.
Hleb: Championship matches can be highly pressured situations. How did you prepare your players mentally for such high stakes matches? Did you have any specific strategies or approaches to help them handle the pressure?
Thomas: This year the team was very experienced, so I have to give them credit I didn't have to do as much. However, we do a lot of drills during practice that simulates pressure moments in matches. Some of those things include playing under physical stress to simulate long matches, scoring pressure moments, bonus points, or negative scoring. I advise all coaches that have players that struggle in matches to try those exercises to bridge the gap between practice and performance.
Hleb: Tennis is an individual sport, but it also requires strong doubles partnerships. How did you cultivate successful doubles teams within your roster? Did you have any specific methods for pairing players and developing their chemistry?
Thomas: Great topic. I feel that the players are less equipped to play well in doubles right away because most of the players have good ground strokes and can serve but the net game is a little bit underdeveloped. They need to learn the movement at the net, how to poach, where to position themselves, and what to pay attention to to make the right move. We like when the players are coming to the net and play aggressively. We teach to take the second serve on the rise and use that first opportunity to move to the net. My philosophy on doubles pairings is that they must complement each other's game. For instance, a guy that has the touch with the guy that has power, an aggressive guy with the one that doesn't miss. The preferred return side is an important point to consider as well.
Hleb: Reflecting on your championship-winning season, what were some of the most memorable moments or matches that stand out to you? How did these experiences shape your coaching philosophy and approach?
Thomas: I think the biggest thing in the national championship is that you never give up. The beauty of tennis is when you are playing you always have a chance. So many times at the national tournament we were down, and it didn't look good and then we were staying resilient, and kept fighting. Because the hardest thing is to close out the match and, it's even harder to close out the match that is going for the national championship, so you always need to believe you can come through no matter how bad the score is. For the first hour and a half, Columbus (they) looked like the stronger team: they got the doubles point, had energy, and were winning four first sets when we didn't even win one. The two first sets we won were long and late in the match. After an hour and a half the tide seemed to turn, and we got stronger and I kept telling my players to believe, stay in there, just play hard after every point - this kind of started the comeback. In two matches we could turn around, we won the second set and in the end, we won four matches.
Hleb: Winning a national championship is a significant achievement. What advice do you have for aspiring coaches who aim to achieve similar success at the Division 2 level? Are there any key lessons you've learned along the way that you would like to share?
Thomas: College coaching has a different coaching relationship than the pros because in college the coach is the boss and is paid by the university or by the organization. That makes it a little bit easier for college coaches to have the proper coaching relationship. My first piece of advice is that when you are the leader, you need to have a clear coaching philosophy. The second piece of advice that I have is to play the toughest schedule possible from the beginning. That will help you motivate the players and help them improve their tennis. And then the third piece of advice is you need to recruit the best talents that you can have. When you have a program that has a good history that helps, but sometimes you need to start from somewhere and you cannot get the championship level players right away. You need to find ways to recruit that the team is getting better year to year and continue building from there.
Hleb: Looking ahead, how do you plan to build upon your team's success and maintain a competitive edge in future seasons?
Thomas: Just keeping a competitive edge in terms of recruiting. During the recruiting process I'm telling the prospective players what our program is all about, I'm telling them about the values that we abide by (we have core covenants for our team). I make them aware that our program is defined by titles, and we are looking to win. This is also the reason why great players are coming to us because it aligns with what they want. We bring former players back to the team to practice, often players that just graduated want to train, they can talk to the players and give back a little bit. Their knowledge, how they looked at things and dealt with various issues is so valuable.
Hleb: Tennis is a constantly evolving sport. How do you stay updated with the latest trends and strategies in the game? Are there any resources or professional networks you rely on to enhance your coaching knowledge?
Thomas: I stay updated through coaches like you, through my extensive network. I'm just trying to talk to as many people that are in the tennis industry as possible and if you run into somebody that is doing well in tennis then ask them some questions. At big tournaments like the Miami Open, I'm often not watching the matches but going to the practice courts. I want to see how the top players practice, and what drills they do. I'm talking sometimes to professional players that are in my network for example Dominic Koepfer. Just chatting with him he keeps me updated with things that are going on in the tennis world. That free-flowing exchange of information is very helpful as you get to challenge your ideas and views. I do a lot of research on the mental side of sports and listen to audiobooks. Since I'm in college, I'm running a team that's why I'm also reading up on things from team sports. Drawing inspiration from other team sports and their famous coaches helps me do my job better.
Hleb: Finally, what does it mean to you personally to be a national championship-winning coach? How has this achievement impacted your coaching career and your relationship with your players?
Thomas: Winning a national championship means the world lot to me. The main reason why I came back from Flagler College (I was the head coach there; I like my time in Saint Augustine at Flagler College) it was very difficult there to win a national championship. We just didn't have the resources Barry has and obviously, I've played that Barry before, which made also a little bit of an impact. The nice thing about college is that I'm preparing my players for life after tennis. Most of our players become professionals not in tennis, they become professionals in something that they studied. Our program serves as an avenue to teach them life skills: how to be on time, to set goals, and to be disciplined. Importantly, how to handle failure, and how to handle criticism are all things that can be learned through the sport of tennis and college sports in general. I would like to think that I am preparing them for life.