Chris Johnson is right back where he started: on the tennis courts at Maple Grove High School. But while Johnson may have first gotten his start in tennis by competing as a student-athlete for Maple Grove, these days he takes the court as the school’s coach. In his time since high school, Johnson had racked up nearly 15 years of coaching experience, including six years with Maple Grove’s Varsity girls tennis team and three with the boys team. Already this year, he has led his boys into a strong season opener, with their record standing 2-0 at the time of press. Today, Johnson sat down with the Jamestown Gazette to discuss rebuilding his team, how his lineup is looking, and why he doesn’t take a “tough love” approach to coaching.
Cortney: How is your team looking this season?
Johnson: Our team changed a lot from last year. I had a lot of seniors last year and graduated five of my top seven players. So it’s a big change in terms of my starters – the top seven guys are the ones who count in a match. Now I have kids who went from being low on the totem pole, so to speak, to being thrust into a position that is a bit higher than they maybe would have played normally. But because we lost so many guys, they’re moving up whether they wanted to or not.
I think one of my favorite things about the group we have right now is that even though some of these guys are being pushed outside their comfort zone, they’re really fine with it. They have such good attitudes and they just say, “Yeah, coach, whatever you need me to do.”
Also, because we don’t have any seniors, I’m looking forward to getting all these guys back next year. We can pick up right where we leave off.
Cortney: How would you describe your coaching style?
Johnson: I try to really take on a positive and relaxed approach when I talk to the guys, whether it’s during practice or during a match. I try to focus on things that they’re doing well and changes that they need to make that are within their skill set. I try not to ask the world from them; I try to focus on small, specific, realistic things that will be helpful.
Cortney: Let’s talk about your singles and doubles players – in many ways, they are playing different games. How do you coach to their different needs? How do you think they will perform this year?
Johnson: For the singles, it’s really the three kids who are playing at the highest level. One of them is an eighth grader, he’s brand new to the team, but he’s a very good player. He played first singles for me in our first match against Jamestown. He’s definitely in my top two. It’s also nice to have a player who’s young and is going to be here for five seasons, essentially.
Then when it comes to the doubles teams, you have to take into account not only their abilities but also how they interact with their partners. I have kids who maybe are not quite as strong, but when you pair them up with the right person, they become a better player and that pair becomes a better team. I do look at their social interactions and communication.
Cortney: How about the mental game of tennis – how do you help your boys prepare themselves before a match or even in practice?
Johnson: I encourage the guys to be focused on what they need to work on in practice. I tell them that this isn’t about being the best person when we do a drill, but about getting better wherever you are with your skill level. In a match, there’s definitely a mental side to it that you have to be able to weather the storm. For example, you might jump out into a big lead, and then all of a sudden your opponent comes back. That can be very challenging. So there again, I take a relaxed approach because I don’t want to add to their stress levels – it’s stressful enough when you’re losing a lead or you have a big deficit and need to make a comeback.
Cortney: What are your season goals, both individually and for the team?
Johnson: For the team as a whole, we’ve talked about our goal to try and win our league. I think that’s a realistic, tangible goal that we can work towards. For me, personally, I like to be able to see improvement with each player as the season goes on. And that’s something that is different for everyone.
To read more of Cortney Linnecke’s creative and informative contributions to the Jamestown Gazette, please go to www.jamestowngazette.com.