Romania is the homeland of Olympic Gold Medalist Nadia Comaneci, gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi and Marta Karolyi and tennis superstar Ilie Nastase. Romania is located in the southeastern region of Europe and had to develop a fighting spirit based upon its dealings with the Soviet Union. When you have to fight a super power to maintain sovereignty you either get tough or you disappear. So the Romanian people got tough.
I recently met the Romanian Tennis Coach Alex Pop-Moldovan at a holiday brunch last week and found him so interesting that I knew I wanted to interview him. He is a high performance coach and I met him to learn more about his style of coaching.
In Romania, he was in charge of all U10’s for the Romanian Tennis Federation and was head pro at the As Club Sportiv Tennis Masters. He was a supervisor at all ATP, WTA and ITF events in Romania, including the Davis Cup Matches. He also came in third place in the Squash National Championships. He is tennis coach to Silver Medalist Florin Mergea and Spencer Brachman, ranked number two in the USTA Eastern Ranking Boys 16’s.
I asked him to describe the Romanian mentality. He told me, “Romanians are a people known for toughness. They tend to be hungry, hard-working, very respectful of authority and very disciplined.”
Our conversation focused on American athletes who have the same kind of hunger. He told me, “Serena and Venus Williams were raised in poverty and also have that hungry look in their eyes.”
I immediately associated this to Tiger Woods who also came from early childhood circumstances where he had to withstand humiliation and discrimination. This made him very hungry for fame, fortune and victory.
So the question becomes … exactly how does one build this hunger in the young American athlete who has not come from deprived circumstances? How does one build a fire within? This is what Alex Pop-Moldovan has been thinking about since he started teaching in America. The answer is not in any way simple or self-evident. If you provide too much discipline and too much of a work atmosphere, the young player or their parent will go down the block and find an easier coach. But if you do not provide a tough regiment, there is really no way to get the young tennis player to the top ranks. This also will prove to be problematic for the player, the parent and for the coach (Alex) … kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.
I have always felt that good coaching is made up of: Solid discipline, astute teaching and refined psychology. All of the great coaches have all these things in spades. Vince Lombardi at Green Bay, John Wooden at UCLA and Phil Jackson with the Chicago Bulls had these three character traits. They all knew how to discipline and set down standards, how to teach in interesting and unique ways and also how to show kindness, respect and caring for every player on the team.
I have always felt that coaching may be the toughest job on earth. Elite sports are demanding for the player, parent and coach. The delicate blend of toughness and of love combined with creative teaching is all necessary. It is the rare coach who can manage all three areas and the ones that do become famous in the long run.
In answer to Alex’s question about how best to build a fire in the American athlete that has not experienced deprivation … set high standards, create interesting teaching drills and show compassion each day. When all these things are prescribed, you also need to explain this approach both to the player and to the parent. The only way players will submit to a process is if they have some understanding of why it is structured this way. To become elite is very difficult.
I recall my experience in graduate school at SUNY Stony Brook. To get a Ph.D., one must take four years of difficult classwork, followed by original research that is turned into a dissertation. This dissertation must then be accepted by a group of five professors. After working on my dissertation for more than two years, I submitted it for acceptance. It was rejected. I asked my advisor for support. He told me a story which goes like this: “Think of this like being a high jumper in the Olympics. The bar is set at seven feet. You run up to the bar on your first try and leap up to about three feet and land in the pit. You rush over to the judges and ask if that maybe, perhaps, pretty please they could lower the bar so that you could make it over next time. The judges look at you, shake their heads no and say try again.” I got the message loud and clear. It took me 12 rewrites to get my dissertation passed … but I made it. By the way, many students in Ph.D. programs never finish the dissertation and are labeled “A.B.D.s” which means “All But Dissertation.” And that is worthless.
Success is difficult to achieve. It takes discipline, effort, patience, time, money, support from experts and parents, learning and even a bit of luck. Tennis on the highest level is very demanding. Count yourself lucky if you find a teacher like Alex who is smart, caring and tough, and then settle in for the long haul and enjoy the ride.