The following article was originally written for a coach’s forum and subsequently published online. I tackled the concept of culture in high school tennis. It details my time as head girls coach at Wawasee High School.
1. My Coaching Origins
Culture was this term used in sports that was often associated with grading a team or school’s quality, the system in which a coach, team or school could develop competitive athletes and teams. It was also the term that intrigued my interest that led to my high school coaching career in tennis.
In a local tennis club’s locker room, a few older gentlemen were discussing coaching vacancies. The group present consisted of long-time rec players, former coaches and myself. Someone in that group (I don’t remember who) started a conversation about the unfilled coaching position for the girls team at a nearby high school. There was a back and forth between two gentlemen, joking that it was a perfect job for the other. As I listened to both of them joust, it occurred to me as if each were presenting the coaching opportunity as if it were a vat of boiling lava that each had to pour down their backs. If I could accurately summarize the dialogue into a game of ‘What Would You Rather Do?’, it would go something like this:
“Would you rather: stick a hot poker in your eye or coach that particular team?”
“That’s a silly question; of course, I’d go with the hot poker!”
I was an ex-baseball coach, so I knew of the frustrations of coaching youth, but also of the rewards. So I injected myself into the conversation. “Come on, it can’t be that bad!”
I remember the responses came in waves from two of the three men which I will summarize below:
- “The culture of that program is horrible.”
- “You’ll never win there.”
- “They don’t care about the sport.”
Now the third, quiet man in the mix just happened to be a former coach to that very team. He glanced my way, shook his head almost sadly and simply said, “They haven’t had a winning season there for more than a decade.”
“I could do it!” I informed them.
The former coach smiled at me, pulled me aside as I was leaving and warned me, “If you’re serious about applying for that job, you’ll never win…they don’t want to win there or will work to ever compete. It’s an impossible job! The culture there is really bad!”
Seven months later, I was the new head coach. During my interview, the Athletic Director commented (as if forewarning me), “This program has been down for a long time.”
2. History Repeating
During the next 4+ years of my life, I fought a war on sports culture. I really learned what culture is. Culture is like an invisible entity created by actions that promote success or the lack of action which allows for failure. When you hear the term, “Success breeds success,” the same concept can also be true of failure and losing. “Losing begets losing; failure breeds failure.” These can be vicious cycles, extremely hard to break.
Sports teams that have bad cultures have many commonalities:
- Mediocrity is embraced.
- A lack of program support.
- Scapegoatism (excuses to justify an acceptance of failure).
- Lack of responsibility, commitment, initiative and work ethic.
- Historical low bars (losing seasons become acceptable norms).
One of these 5 points would ultimately lead to my resignation.
After my high school coaching ended, someone asked me to describe a coaching experience within a bad culture. My response was that it reminded me a lot of when I used to go visit a childhood friend in elementary school. He lived out in the country, between farmlands, and each summer I visited I was almost overwhelmed by the stench of what naturally is released in those areas (manure and animal waste in fields). My friend and his family were oblivious to the odor; they had lived there so long that it became the norm. To me, it was a rather horrible smell. How can they not notice this? I often wondered.
A poor-cultured sports team has no real clue of the foulness that leads to failure. Much like nose-blind farmers between fields of waste, the air smells just fine there.
I encountered all of the 5 commonalities when I took over the head coaching job.
- Mediocrity—Top players on the team were comfortable just being tops on the team. That was the feat of accomplishment: to better a fellow player on a losing team. There was little thought to the aftermath of perennially losing every match to conference competitors. In fact, winning conference matches seemed unlikely to most everyone on the team. Therefore, a varsity letter was paramount to most players. (Just sign up and get rewarded.)
- A Lack of Program Support—One parent complained about the fact that I demanded that players not engage in other sports during our tennis season. When someone asked her, “But isn’t that the norm for most schools?” her response was: “Maybe, but not here.” When I took the head coaching position, I had no assistant coach, no middle school program, no feeder system. In an area where there were upscale lake properties and tennis courts abound, the courts were almost always empty; tennis was a ghost sport.
- Scapegoatism—Players would commonly point out that they were only seasonal players or that our school was smaller than some others, or simply: “everyone before us lost, it’s just how it is here.”
- Lack of Responsibility, etc.—Although each player voluntarily signed up and thus committed to become a team member, the sport wasn’t their primary sport, so offseason training was oftentimes non-existent.
- Historical Lows—38 seasons in the school’s history in the sport ended in 22 last-place finishes, 81% of the seasons finishing in the bottom half of the conference, never a conference championship, and not a single winning season for the past 13 years when I joined.
3. The War Begins
Hellbent on changing the culture to a winning one, I would often tell others jokingly that I traded in my tennis shoes for combat boots. It wasn’t far from the truth.
We in society do not embrace change very well. Especially when the air seemingly smells just fine. I did vast research on the history of the program (documented above). Thirty-eight seasons, most of which consisted of kids at this school subjected to coaches leading them to slaughter.
Why? Was there something in the water around the community stunting tennis skills? Of course not. Was it a scenario much like a D4 college team getting mistakenly placed in a D1 conference? Nope! Peers were peers and historically past teams in this program had the commonality of one thing: being inferior.
But there were major support issues around the sport of tennis. No summer programs, no middle school programs, no elementary school programs, no tennis club centered in the community.
In the next few years, I created variations of all of them. Founded a summer academy, ran a summer youth camp. I joined the USPTA and went through years of training, became a certified professional, to be the best coach I could be. I spent 400+ hours on court each summer, running drills and training players.
Each year, our record improved, we achieved feats no other team had accomplished in decades. My goal was to deliver to the school and its players the first winning season in more than a decade.
Behind the scenes, I fought with parents and players who didn’t agree with my coaching vision. The biggest disconnect was that tennis was still a secondary or even third sport to many athletes. And while I couldn’t reorder their priorities, I could make it a part of the program that if you commit to tennis, in-season you’re focused on the sport. Still, I had volleyball parents wanting to pull their kids from weekend tennis tournaments so they could attend a ‘more important’ volleyball tournament.
In the offseason, I stated that if players wanted to come back the following year, they better commit to as much offseason training in tennis as they did in other sports. It was part of growing a team that is responsible and dedicated to the sport and team they opted to play for.
Player turnover grew, as I pushed, due to the fact that many athletes didn’t want to put in any extra work; others saw that varsity was no longer easily attainable. We won more matches during this span, all the while I became a far less popular person because of the changes I needed to implement to get there.
4. Mediocrity Hates Excellence
“Mediocre people don’t like high achievers, and high achievers don’t like mediocre people.”—Nick Saban
During this period of my life I became hyper-vigilance of the fact that you become loathed in a broken system where you push for excellence. Players and parents who have grown accustomed to mediocrity and are content with it grow to dislike you. As a coach, you are dissecting those who linger with and accept the program’s past inadequacies from your future vision of enriching and changing the culture.
At this time I was attacked by a few parents, stating that I was disconnected from reality, when pushing their kids to achieve greater things, to work harder. (“My kid’s not going to Wimbledon any time soon!”) My end goal as their high school coach was simply to make them competitive with their peers, to be able to hold their own against their seasonal opponents (something for decades they had not, in fact, achieved). To do this, I had to attempt to create an atmosphere that would bring out the best player from each individual no matter how that might vary from athlete to athlete.
The problem with a sports team that has had a losing culture for so long is that the problems are ingrained in multiple generations, including some parents who were a part of the same culture, some on the very same team growing up. This is also a cause and effect with schools who hire past players (now parents) within the community to coach the same team. These coaches grew up in a bad culture, and most likely the program seemed normal, so the familiar results are accepted as commonplace, expected. Small communities also have a way of shaping people (keeping the flock in line). Connected to this issue is the fact that most humans are wired with the yearning to be accepted and liked by others around them, to please the status quo (try to please everyone).
The easiest route for a coach to please parents and kids is not to inconvenience them in any manner. In other words, don’t demand greater work ethic or responsibility and give them praise for mediocre feats of achievement (respective to their differing talent level, athleticism and skill sets). Many parents are the same with their kids: it’s not popular to take the video game controllers from your kids, make them go out to the court and put in time because they’re part of a team whose goal is to win.
With all this known, I decided early on to be an effective coach rather than the all-too-common teenage chaperone, because I had one core principle that drove me: push for excellence, not popularity. Shape athletes to achieve greater things than they thought possible. The last thing any of my players needed was a nice guy to drive the mini-bus to the next school for them to get another beat-down. Players at the high school level, on the brink of being adults, need to prepare that life is one big competition, and learning to win in sports is a process that can be repeated in many different areas of life. But first they needed to learn how to compete and work hard now at everything they committed to.
5. Casualty of War
This story does not end like the movie Hoosiers, unfortunately. There is no real happy ending. The summer before season number #5 I called a meeting with the A.D. At this point, we were set to have our first winning season in almost 20 years. I was set to prove those locker-room guys wrong in the beginning: yes, I actually led this team to a winning season! They said it couldn’t be done. But the hours on court and the struggles I faced in the previous years were piling up. I was playing the part of high school coach, the community programmer, running the feeder system and everything else without much outside help. All of this would play its part in finally giving the school a winning season—one of few in its history. But in doing this, I had burned myself out.
I planned to resign around moratorium the summer before, but in my talks with the A.D. the concern arose that the position would most likely go unfilled. It was at this point everything became so clear: no matter how the next season went, I had changed everything and nothing at the same time. We would undoubtedly be on the course for the best season in many years, but the core of the culture problem still existed.
It was clear that if I was to really make a difference, I needed to become part of the support network and not the entire network itself. The best action was to continue to train area kids as a community coach and develop programs to initiate kids in the sport at an earlier age, so that more players and families had an investment in the sport over time. So that tennis wasn’t always a second or third sport for most of the players when they arrived at the high school level.
I made it through the midpoint of season five and did something that shocked everyone familiar with the local tennis scene. I resigned midway through a season where we had only lost one match at the time. We had just won a tournament we had never won before. But beneath the surface, the same negative culture still bubbled. My public statement of resignation can be found here for reference.
At this point, I knew I had to focus on the bigger issue: creating a support network for the culture. On resigning, I took on a bigger responsibility and role within the entire system, and also coincidentally solidified myself even more as a villain, in the eyes of some parents and players. One step forward, two steps back for the greater overall good of the program I had spent years building. My assistant coach took over for the remainder of the season; I had already committed to one more season than I should have, went through all the early season chaos such as establishing the team, the seeds and all the administrative things a head coach needed to deal with. I would relinquish my position, negating myself the privilege of being able to stand on the courts in the final match of the season as the first coach to head a winning team in decades.
This becomes the typical story along the lines of the saying that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. At this point, I had sacrificed the better part of 5 years of my life, working year-round, with the intention that I wanted to bring the first winning season to a team, a group of players who were cast aside, counted out. Which that very first conversation in the locker room of a tennis club sparked into action (“The culture of that program is horrible.” “You’ll never win there.” “They don’t care about the sport.”).
You’ll never win there, Shane. This mission impossible statement reverberated in my mind. Back 5 years earlier, I had this grand illusion that everyone would be ecstatic, that this would be a feat players and coaches would remember well into their lives. Help change the direction of the program for years to come.
The girls team did finish the year with the first winning season in decades. But I was back at my academy. I did attend the sectionals as a spectator, but at that point I had been informed that the players held a meeting and many decided that if I would be attending, they wouldn’t speak to me, due to my resignation.
A few of the players and parents I was in conflict with had jumped on my resignation and stirred up resentment spotlighting the fact that I had resigned mid-season. The bubbling of old culture still was infecting some of these same parents and players, all-too eager to tear down any legacy I had earned. The lack of support in the program caused strife because I was wearing all the hats. I was most of the girls’ trainers and their coach, two very different hats to wear, because, as a trainer, I worked for the family, developing the individual athlete; as a coach, I was constantly at war with a team’s culture, often a disciplinarian of change. This bi-polar dual position in players’ lives cost relationships, even within my own family.
Out of the 5 bad culture points I mentioned at the beginning, it ended up being the lack of program support that ended my coaching career. It was really the only point of the five that was out of my control.
So now this becomes a cautionary tale to all coaches, one of heartbreak. Many coaches have such a passion for their sport, a passion for teaching their sport, but they forget one important thing along the way. We build these imaginary worlds where everyone around us is as passionate as us. But that’s nowhere near the reality of it. Even though that very passion is what separates great coaches from the mediocre ones, there is often a heavy price to pay.
But, in the end, what I did in those 5 years didn’t seem to matter to many people. And it about broke me.
Throughout my five years as a coach, I loved my players. I made this known many times in team meetings. This was strange to some of them, particularly those who didn’t share the same passion I had for the sport of tennis. It was trivial to most, some high school coach in some unknown school leading a team on a mission to simply win more matches than they lost in a given season.
One of my top players once asked me, “Why do you even love us? I don’t get it!”
“You’re my teammate,” I simply replied.
Years later as I type this post, I reflect on my feelings back in those days. Why I wanted my players to know how much I appreciated them. We as humans are just a blip on the map of the universe. It is a special thing for people to come together, at a certain time, at a certain place, to share a space towards a common fight or goal. As the world around everyone turns and buzzes with a multitude of stories, plots and the entire weight of our existence, it is actually a special occurrence that only we, as a team, right there, right then, have. Every team member was somehow led in life to be together as a part of something bigger than themselves. Through the hardships, through the glory; our union and situation was unique only to us.
That’s why I loved my players. In a world where people act quickly to tear down and divide people, we were united and each player worked for me as a coach, to share my passion in them to be able to achieve something greater than those before us.
But this world is not kind to those who showcase passion and pursue greatness in themselves. Others are quick to tear it all away, stomp it down, especially if they don’t share that same passion. This is why it’s so difficult to become great at anything. You open up to share passion, or you strive to be excellent, then you are strange, your ideals questioned, or you are ridiculed by others who are passionless, jealous, or skeptical.
Everyone goes through life looking for meaning. To impact the world, to be special, in some way. What many don’t realize is that the only way to achieve this is to simply impact those around you. Sometimes the way you impact them may be positive, sometimes what you do may be misunderstood or misconstrued as being negative or intentionally hurtful. I gave everything I had during those years, loved each player I coached, and fought for them to give them something that no other coach had given that program in a long, long time.
Yet, there I was. Now on the outskirts. Disliked by a number of players and parents.
I learned through all of this that culture is invisible. It’s a perception shared by players and coaches. It can act like a disease, infecting people negatively; or it can be inspirational, changing people positively, enabling them to achieve things they never thought possible. Allowing them to win, or to achieve what no other team before them ever could. More importantly, developing a good culture starts with communication, sharing a vision, a goal, and reaching out to those connected in that special time, that special place, that the entire world will never get to experience exactly the same way.
But there needs to be outward support for this culture to thrive and last. One passionate coach can do a lot, but when facing a poisoned culture, change is almost always fleeting.
For years, the negativity of my coaching experience, the war I fought, eclipsed any sense of reward. It led me to believe I had failed. Again, that nagging drive we humans have to be accepted and liked often blinds us to the reality of what we actually achieve.
Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t popular. Sometimes you’ll give everything to a cause deemed trivial, overlooked, and possibly misunderstood. Sometimes you’ll be disliked for your decisions or actions, or possibly even hated.
I believe the best coaches can change lives. Each coach has the power to affect a culture, to change the course of a team and the lives of its members. Although I was imperfect in my pursuit, I gave my all, as trivial as it may be perceived and as difficult as it may have been, I regret nothing.
This summer will be my 3rd year removed from high school coaching. When I left, it was for a greater cause, to work at my summer academy, as stated in my resignation letter, to be part of the support network for future teams and coaches. This is part of my continued contribution to supporting a better sports culture for local tennis teams, something I was lacking when I coached.
Whether the program I once coached ever comes together to shed its toxic culture will depend on support for it to change, from coaches, parents, players, and the school. I’d like to imagine there was some seed or blueprint planted somewhere, noticed by someone, from the struggle I took on during those 5 years, and from the statement made during my resignation. That one day I’ll look in the local news and see the team winning the conference for the first time, or taking sectionals from the far bigger school who has historically held that honor.
Until then, I will continue to do my part, for however long I can.