The Coaching world has been in the news of late, with the merry go round at the top of the WTA Tour, as well as many notable comings and goings among the elite of the ATP. I can not personally remember a time in professional tennis when the coaching industry has garnered some much attention. But with players looking for any edge they can combined with an ever developing impatience in our society as a whole, turnover in the coaching ranks has reached almost farcical proportions
Tennis.Life caught up with tour coach Marc Lucero for a little Q and A about his life on the road as a coach on the WTA Tour just before he and his player Shelby Rogers headed down under for a couple warm up tournaments and then the Australian Open. Marc proved to be a superb interview; I think you’ll really enjoy his thoughtful insights throughout this interview. We certainly hope we can revisit with him throughout the year for more give and take about the increasingly important role of the Professional tennis coach in the Tennis Life.
TL : Greetings Marc. I see Shelby got a tough draw right off the bat, catching former top ten player Genie Bouchard in her first match of the season. Thoughts on starting the season off with such a formidable first foe.
ML : With Shelby’s ranking where it is, at 57, there’s going to be some draws that are tougher than others. Obviously Bouchard’s ranking is down a bit from her fantastic 2014, but as it pertains to match preparation, nobody out here is looking at the rankings. Genie is wildly talented and always very dangerous, so we try to prepare for all matches the same. When you’re living this life, you get an appreciation for the level of talent out here. Everybody is very good out here, there is no such thing as an easy match.
(Rogers got her season off to a great start, beating Bouchard first road, then losing a heartbreaker to WTA #14 Svitolina 7-5 in the third)
TL : So I’ve been in tennis a long time. The game is very hierarchical. There’s something of an invisible food chain out there. Slam Champions, Successful Tour Players, those who played the game at its highest levels get treated differently. And as a player, you’re always slightly aware of where you stand among the players around you.
There seems to be a built in assumption that those who played the game the best know the game the best. The tennis media will only employ former elite players, otherwise they’re fighting an uphill battle for the viewer’s respect. You played College tennis and a few years of the Futures. You play tennis better than 99.9% of the people who’ve ever picked up a racket. But you’re not what would be considered a “name” in tennis. Do you feel looked down upon, or treated differently, by any of the other career coaches because you never played on Center Court?
ML : I do not really. Part of it has to do with my interactions with many of them, and to be honest, the best former players are some of the most humble people you’ll ever meet. The other part of it has to do with being secure in who I am as a person and as a coach. Definitely there were times earlier in my career as a coach that I was more sensitive about this, particularly as you try to coach at levels higher than you may have played, but as you establish yourself via hard work, passion, and desire, and ultimately helping the players that you work with, the people who know the game recognize this and treat you accordingly. I actually think its more common at maybe the club level for coaches to treat each other better or worse based on their playing background, I think at this level most people recognize that if you weren’t capable as a coach, you wouldn’t be here.
TL : Is there a pecking order among the Coaches? Those who have Slams on their resumes, or whose players make big jumps where they seem to be getting a lot of good press. Do they flex those accomplishments?
ML : With any industry, there is an inherent pecking order that goes along with accomplishments. I think that’s normal. If we were lawyers, the ones that argued cases in front of the Supreme Court or earned huge class action settlements would probably be regarded differently from public defenders or second year associates. Not that the public defenders or associate attorney are not good lawyers – he or she just hasn’t had the same sort of accomplishments or worked on the same stages.
Regardless of what your field is, if you want to be the best at what you do, you probably aspire to be on that big stage. As far as how everyone interacts with each other, I think it entirely depends on the individuals. I think most people also realize that the game is fickle and a winner one week can be a first round loser the next. So humility is an important asset in our business.
TL : Yeah, no kidding. I wrote a piece on this a year ago, about the WTA being in an era of incompleteness. Fascinating how in the past decade how many players have made great runs toward the top 10 of the rankings, some even higher, and just haven’t been able to sustain the levels of achievement like players from past eras. For another conversation we can delve deeper in to that.
I’d like to ask you about your peers, about the full time coaching fraternity you are a member of. On one level, you share a challenging unique experience and should be the best of friends, supporting each other through the turbulence that the pro coaching life can embody. On another level, you all are competing with each other for the best jobs. How is morale among the Coaching class?
ML : I think its similar to the players. Everyone has their own little cliques – usually based on nationality. The coaches I hang out with are usually some of the younger American coaches, guys who I got to know well when we worked for the USTA, or the guys who live in the LA area, or maybe some of us who played together back in the day. There is a good crew of us currently from LA, in particular from the South Bay, players and coaches, most of whom we see everyday at Carson when we are home, so we will do a lot of dinners and things on the road, hang out in the lunch room between practices, etc, particularly at the combined ATP/WTA events.
These events are the most fun for me just because there are so many of my friends who are on the mens tour coaching. Or sometimes the player you coach is good friends with another player and you end up becoming good friends with her coach or team and hanging out with them. The tournaments can also get pretty busy with practices and matches and night sessions and stuff so a lot of times there isn’t time to hang out and socialize. I don’t really see the competition for jobs as much as I see the competition for results with the players that we coach right now. I think as a whole there is a good level of support for each other, particularly when someone gets good results, I think you would be surprised with the amount of props a guy gets from other coaches on tour the next week.
TL : No, I see it. Especially here with the Americans. Social media has been great at allowing large numbers of supporters to express their congratulations, enhancing your good fortunes exponentially. That has to feel good, and it starts at the top with Patrick and Martin and Katrina. The support is infectious.
Changing gears a bit. Tennis player/coach relationships are unique ones. Essentially, your client is also your boss. Does that create unique challenges in how you conduct yourself on the job? I mean, I reflect back on my private sector work and know my self-preservation instinct kicked in more than I’m comfortable admitting at the time, invariably not getting the most out of my players that I could have. I could have asked for more, put up with less, been a little tougher. How do you balance all that out?
ML : Its definitely a unique dynamic compared to other sports. But if you’re constantly worried about being fired, you aren’t going to do your best work. I believe that. I’m not saying that I haven’t felt the tension of if I’m pushing too hard before, because I definitely have. It takes some perspective to realize though that all you can do is your best.
Players that want to be good usually want you to be honest with them. They want to be pushed. They want to get better. So they understand usually what that means on your end as the coach. All that being said, you have to understand the player as a person in order to figure out how to balance it all out to get the best from them. You can be honest and deliver it like Bobby Knight. Or you can be honest and deliver it like Mother Theresa. Or you can be somewhere in between. Often, it’s not what is being said, but how it is being said. Takes time and experience to understand which voice will be most depending on the situation.
Not all personalities will match up, and thats ok. I think understanding that not every coach-player relationship is the right fit is important. But being true to yourself, your values as a person and as a coach, and what you believe is important, to me is paramount. We can compromise or come to an agreement on methods or execution of these things. But I don’t believe in sacrificing or compromising on the intrinsic values that I truly believe are important.
TL : With all the coaching turnover, especially with the WTA. Is it a little unsettling to you as a full time Professional coach to see such volatility in your industry? What do you attribute it to?
ML : I actually don’t think its unique to tennis. In pro sports, coaches are constantly hired and fired. I’m a fair weather Chargers fan – they fired Marty Shottenheimer a few years back after he went 14-2 but lost in the playoffs. So when pro tennis players make changes, I don’t think its that much different. We are in a results-driven business. There are also other issues that result in changes being made: financial disagreements, personality conflicts, tactical or philosophical differences, other personnel that may have become available. All of these are the same in any professional sport.
Also similar across the board to other sports: there is a lot of money at stake and the window to play at this level isn’t open forever. If you have a bad year, you don’t just get benched and continue to make whatever salary you signed for; in tennis if you have a bad year you keep playing but you make way less money. So there is a certain level of urgency to see progress. The only difference in tennis is that many coaches don’t always have multi year contracts that provide some financial protection if they are fired at the end of the season. And in tennis its inevitably more personal and can be quite impulsive, because its usually just the player ultimately deciding to hire or fire one coach. There is no insulation from it with a General Manager or Front Office making these decisions.
TL : I’m sure Shelby has goals, and you two have goals together. As a Coach, what are your goals? What did you work on in the off season? How do you keep your continuing education? Who do you look up to? Who’s work do you respect the most and why?
ML : For me personally, I want to see how good the player can get. So I want to do everything in my power to make it happen. My goals never involve winning or results. Which is funny because that is how we are judged. But that’s not what I ever talk about. My goals involve my player playing in the way that we agree she should play. I want her to make decisions on court that are in line with that and try to play every single point as well as she possibly can. I don’t worry about them missing shots. I want her to be brave and choose to hit the shot when it’s there. I want her to know that, so she feels the freedom to let it rip when the opportunity arises.
In the off-season we agree to prioritize certain things. I don’t believe in just killing the player in the off-season. I want to be smart and make the best use of our time. So our time on court is planned and specific. Her time off court is also planned and specific. Everything translates to on court performance. I saw a great quote from Mark Kovacs the other day- it was basically about the difference between training smart and then just training to make the athlete tired. Which I think is what I see a lot of people doing. Don’t get me wrong- December was a tough, tough month. But everything was with a purpose and we didn’t do things just to do them.
As far as education goes, this is a year round pursuit. I will study everything and everyone. I like to seek out people who are innovators in their field and doing things outside the box. My background is in economics. I am pretty academic. I like numbers. I like science. I will leave it at that.
I look up to a lot of people. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be exposed to so many great coaches. Nick Saviano is an amazing coach technically and biomechanically, being on court with him is fascinating. Peter Smith does an incredible job of getting his players to play freely and aggressively in the biggest moments. David Roditi and Jose Higueras have been huge influences on me in all areas, David’s enthusiasm is infectious and Jose’s command of the court and ability to simplify and clarify things for the player stand out to me. These are just a few people – there are so many more. I feel like I’m shortchanging others but I could go on and on.
TL : It’s a Long season. Do you map out all 12 months ahead of time? Or take it section by section?
ML : We map out the season but then take it section by section and adjust as needed. There are so many variables and inevitably things happen along the way. You can win a lot and need to play less or not win enough and need to play more. Sometimes injuries force changes to the schedule. But in general we stick to the plan assuming things are going ok.
TL : Players today have several influences upon them, coaching, parents, significant others, management groups, sponsors. Can it get complicated fleshing out whats best for Shelby over whats best for all the various interests when they’re so much at stake now
ML : It can initially – until we go back to what we have agreed upon is most important for her. Together we have a couple things that we have agreed to value and prioritize above all else.
And we can use this almost like a mission statement. I’m into ideas and I love mission statements because I think they help guide people or organizations anytime they have to make a tough decision; you look at the mission statement and that almost takes away any doubt about what the decision should be. And it always comes back to on court performance because without that, all of the other opportunities go away.
TL : People don’t realize how much down time there is on the Pro Tours. Lots and lots of waiting around. What is the most important part of your job that the average tennis fan would never know? I mean, you must wear so many hats. Coach, Mentor, Disciplinarian, Therapist, Friend, Manager
ML : Concierge, travel agent, and sommelier!!! Just kidding. I think the average fan wouldn’t realize how important it is to have fun. So that can be figuring out something fun to do on an off day. That could be arranging a practice with one of the players she is friends with because you know they are going to have fun sitting and talking on the breaks.
The human side is so important. It can’t be all tennis. So yeah, all those other things come into play. One role I would add would be Equipment Manager, i.e. providing advice on when to go up in tension, go down in tension, maybe try a new weight on the racquet, maybe a new string set up, etc. Tennis changes so much according to the conditions, i.e. weather, court surface, balls, humidity, roof open or closed etc. You want the player to be able to play the same or as close to the same as possible. So you have to be proactive anticipating how conditions will affect the match today or tomorrow and then adjust accordingly.
TL : Your first time sitting in the Player’s Box at Center Court Wimbledon. A somebody pinch me moment? How did the seat feel? Like you had paid your dues and belonged? Or was going to take a little getting used to Coaching at that level?
ML : The day before the match I didn’t really think much of it. I was really just trying to prepare for the match, do my normal work with stats and video for game planning. I always do this but maybe I also do this because it’s my personal safe place, comfort zone, where I manage any anxiety or stress I may be having.
Anyway that night after the schedule came out I got a phone call from David Nainkin, who I was lucky enough to work with for a few years in Carson and learn a ton from. He said some really nice things and he told me how rare it is to be on that court, how special it is. And to enjoy it. I remember that call real clearly and it meant a lot to me at the time and still does. For a veteran coach like David to acknowledge the significance of it was a signal for me that well ok, so this is a big deal.
And at that point I actually started to process how cool the next day would be. It rained the next day. It was a Saturday. Third round. So now with the rain, our match was going to be on Centre Court, under the Roof. And the only match being played on the grounds at that time. Which was pretty cool. Also strange because we warmed up in the Indoor courts across the street next to our opponent. Instead of hitting on the grass. Wimbledon might be the only tournament in the world where you can’t warm up on the court you play on. Nobody gets to hit on Centre Court. So I think my first time inside that stadium was when I came out of the tunnel into the Box. Hands down best seat in tennis in the world. I think like David Beckham was in the Royal Box to my left. Its such a cliche, but Centre Court is the closet thing our sports has to a Cathedral. It feels really special. And I also felt very fortunate. You feel this before the match. And then they start playing and you become very in the moment.
TL : Excellent. So nice to hear players/coaches grateful and mindful of where they are in the sport and not take it for granted.
Obviously Shelby has players she prefers to play, others she’d be just fine if she never saw again. Are there certain coaches that you’d rather not see in the Players Box with you?
ML : Not really. I think there are certain coaches I wouldn’t want to go play a match with myself but its not about us, we aren’t the ones playing. Its about the players. And I believe in my player and the work we do. Regardless of who she plays.
TL : How do you keep it fresh? To the uninitiated, there are no Top secret drills/tips that only the best coaches are privy to. Its the same slow grind for everyone.
ML : Sometimes I hear people talk about the secret drills of the pros and it makes me laugh.
TL : What drives you the most crazy in your industry?
ML : Well, one thing that slays me…I see all these extremely passionate technique arguments on Facebook, one pro puts up a video of his student and then everyone comes out of the woodwork with hyper technical feedback. Like everyone is some self-proclaimed guru. Its painful really. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge believer in good technique and leaving no possible areas to be exposed or broken down at the highest levels. But the way these coaches carry on about it can be too much sometimes.
The pros on tour do the same basic drills everybody else does, they just do them really, really well. They do cross courts. They do change of direction drills. They do transition work. Coaches will maybe take one of these change of direction drills and change the patterns slightly to make the drill more applicable to how that player plays, maybe changing direction on the BH earlier because that player is forehand dominant.
Watch Andy Murray practice. He does 2 on 1s. But Lendl has the guys on the “2” side each do different things in order to put Murray in positions and patterns he will be in when he plays matches. Its all about adapting the drills to suit your player. I like to do a lot of Spanish drills. But I don’t think anyone would look at most players I have coached and say they play like Spanish players. But I adapt the drills to suit the player. I think people have a misconception about Spanish drills and their purpose. I watched Magnus Norman do a practice with Stan Wawrinka yesterday. Half the practice was Spanish drills. Then he racquet fed some big FHs and finished with a little volley technique.
Keeping it fresh is an ongoing challenge. I like certain drills. And some are boring especially when you do them a lot. Its important for me to keep it fun. This is something I’m constantly trying to get better at doing. Also to keep her engaged by challenging her. Either with targets or numbers or whatever. Or making the drill so hard that there isn’t time to think about being bored. Or keep it short. I think everything you do in practice should have a purpose that’s directly applicable to the player’s game.
TL : Your proudest moment as a coach
ML : I’m most proud of my players when I see them accomplish amazing things in life off-court or when they demonstrate the qualities that we value. Recently a girl I coached from 16 years old to 18 or 19 passed the bar. And is now a lawyer. I couldn’t have imagined her going down that path. I’m incredibly proud of her for that and for the adult she has grown up to be.
I’m proud when I see Shelby interact with shy young kids that are too nervous to ask for an autograph, but she puts them at ease and asks them questions. Or speaking to a group of coaches and opening up to them about her thoughts and feelings on court. Seeing them be good people makes me incredibly proud. On court, this might be weird, but I’ve found the times I’ve been most proud of my players have been in times where they have come up short. I’m have so much admiration for a player’s ability to put their entire being on the line, to take it to the limit on the big stage, and to be ok with the vulnerability that comes with that.
TL : That’s great. I’ve written at length on that exact topic. It’s what our sport is all about. making ourselves perfectly vulnerable to outcomes that may not go our way and hurt like no tomorrow. That;s what giving your 100% is about.
TL : 2017 New Years Resolution, for yourself as a Coach.
ML : Seek balance in life. Take care of myself physically, mentally, and spiritually, i.e. exercise consistently, do my yoga, practice my mindfulness. Have fun.
TL : There’s a line where you end and your player begins. How challenging is it to keep healthy separation between your responsibilities preparing them to play and their responsibilities to compete to their fullest
ML : Both go hand in hand. We are in it together. The better I do preparing the player to play, the easier it is for the player to go out and compete. The more I know that the player will compete, the better I can prepare the player to play. But ultimately I want my player to be an independent thinker, a problem solver who can be spontaneous or who can improvise when situations arise that are unexpected or unplanned. I think this is what we, as coaches, can develop in our players.
TL : Final question. If someone wants to become a tour coach, what advice do you have for them . Is there a coach mentoring program out there, where experienced chaps like yourself pay it forward to the next generation.?
ML : Learn your craft. Get experience and work your way up. And while you do it, keep your eye on what you want to do and where you want to go. Its a hard path and humbling one. I was passed over for jobs along the way. But I stuck with it. And they were probably blessings in disguise. Seek out the best coaches you can find and ask them questions. Watch them work. Talk to former tour players and ask them questions. Watch pro tennis not for how good they are but look for trends in the game, look for patterns that are successful, and look for what bothers players. Be a freaking workhorse. Willing to work with anyone. Juniors, college players, low ranked pros. People want to be around other people who are passionate.
The USTA has a new internship program, I think its called a Coaching Fellowship, its for young coaches just out of college and they get to shadow some of the National coaches and they get experience working with good juniors and some of the pros who train with the USTA. I would have loved to do something like this when I was younger. Personally I am always willing to talk tennis with anyone. I’ve done coaching clinics and given my email to anyone who asks for it and given feedback to advice. For us as a country, coaching education and coaching mentorship are critical.
TL : Thanks for your time Marc Lucero. Hope to pick up this conversation with you again throughout the year.