April 15th marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic during its Transatlantic maiden voyage. On that night in 1912, the perceived greatest of passenger liners sank into the North Atlantic, and with it, more than 1,500 lives perished. It was the largest catastrophe of its day. Its owners were piloted by a captain who took his many years of experience for granted and ignored iceberg warnings when giving "full-speed ahead" orders.
Certainly the loss of 1,500 lives and tennis are not to be compared, but you can still gain lessons from it. Arrogance on the tennis court is usually a recipe for disaster. The arrogant attitudes of The White Star Line owners and a captain who was equally culpable resulted in a catastrophe that changed nautical history forever. If you think you are the greatest and do not adapt to changes and conditions, you will find out there is a catastrophe waiting to happen. When that lesson happens as it relates to tennis, it can change your game forever if you allow it to, or you can just go full steam ahead making more of the same mistakes. The lessons that can be drawn from one of the great catastrophes of the 20th Century transcends passenger ship sailing and can be compared to our own lives in the smallest and largest of ways.
The historical events which took place 100 years ago and my experience as new head men's and women's tennis coach at State University of NY at Oneonta was a great tie in for this month's article. In February, I drove up to Oneonta, N.Y. as an emergency hire, leaving my wife and family to head the tennis program at SUNY Oneonta, replacing a coach who resigned prior to the start of the season. It was my maiden voyage into this foray, but with the blessing of the athletic director who took a chance on me, I decided I would not let her, the college and the student athletes down. I am a high-performance tennis coach, an accomplished player and a family man.
However, I refused to believe that I knew it all when meeting the players for the first time. I decided that I was going to learn from these student athletes. Academia, NCAA guidelines, administrative activities and more were being thrown at me faster than a Roger Federer serve. Two tennis teams had to be assessed just three weeks prior to our first match, and a two-team trip to Florida to compete against many good Division III tennis teams from around the country. Let's throw in the fact that the travel plans were not finalized and our athletic director was coming along for the ride to Florida to see the tennis team play. Now that is what I call a maiden voyage!
Twenty-five-plus years in the corporate world and 20-plus years as a tennis coach taught me that I had to start this position with the most open of minds in order to be successful. A high level of arrogance similar to White Star Line and its captain would seem great at first, but would eventually send me to the bottom of the Atlantic along with the Titanic. Therefore, I succumbed to all of my superiors’ knowledge, my fellow coaches on campus, as well as the student athletes. An assistant coach assigned to the tennis team was a former four-year starter and All-Conference athlete, as well as an academic award winner. I also decided that she could teach me a few things even though she is 30 years my junior. Now, just six weeks into this assignment, I was still assessing the players and myself every single day. I am determined to take the program to another level and the best way to do that is to believe in what I am doing. Recently, I was reading some of John Wooden's quotes (perhaps one of the greatest coaches ever who led the UCLA men's basketball team to 10 National Championships) … "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything.” I certainly made mistakes, but I will try different approaches and some will work and others I’m sure will not. I must adapt and change to the situations presented.
On a tennis court during a match, you must adapt and change, otherwise you are doomed to failure. I sum it up this way … I watched a You Tube video recently where Rafael Nadal's serve was being totally revamped by his coach. Therefore, we can see that being one of the top players in the world and one of the greatest to have ever played, and he still had to be humble enough to change parts of his game. He was not perfect and had to be open to change and criticism. The Titanic ended up on the ocean floor because its captain did not adapt to changing conditions and circumstances. Everyone must realize that no matter how good you may think you are, you have to leave room for improvement.
Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.