April 7, 2014
By Josh Kipnis | Subscribe to Commodore Nation
Leaning against the bench at center court, Vanderbilt men’s tennis coach Geoff Macdonald watches his team make its final preparations for a road match against Auburn.
“Let’s try and get the energy up,” he calls out to the eight players on the four parallel courts.
His voice is gentle, relaxed — barely audible over the yells coming from women’s lacrosse practice nearby.
“Meagan, good disciplined defense. I like it,” Macdonald says, crossing his arms, walking toward the baseline of the two middle courts.
He ponders the points before him, studying the development of each of his players.
“That’s it. That’s a great setup, Maggie,” he calls to the player directly on his left.
A girl on his right lets out muzzled frustration and waves to the ball, which bounces against the base of the net.
“You don’t have to hit a winner on that,” Macdonald says. “Just keep the pressure on her. Got to plant, chip that back to her and get ready to play some D.”
The player nods, and Macdonald shifts his attention back to all four matches simultaneously.
“You have to be really patient, I think, in coaching,” Macdonald says later, speaking in the same relaxed, yet passionate tone. “I have to be patient because when (he was a player) I was a mess. I didn’t get it.”
Three decades later, Macdonald has made a career of helping student-athletes get it. Macdonald is in his 20th season at Vanderbilt and is the school’s longest-tenured head coach. Under his watch, the Commodores have made the NCAA Tournament every season, and he recently picked up his 500th victory.
Macdonald’s philosophy stems from his experiences as a player. When he played at the University of Virginia, there weren’t structured practices, mandatory lifts or everyday running sessions. Instead, it was up to the student-athlete to determine how successful he wanted to be, and for Macdonald — at least initially — he didn’t understand the importance of self-motivation and drive.
“My first year, I got into a motorcycle wreck and they took my scholarship away, deservedly so,” Macdonald says. “The next year, I begged them to let me come on, and they did. I wasn’t going to start until the No. 6 player pulled his groin.”
At that point, Macdonald was able to recognize the unique opportunity he had before him.
“I played poker and partied — I mean I had a great time — but I wasn’t serious about tennis,” he said. “I didn’t get it. And then, all of a sudden, it was like, this is going to be over.”
Macdonald says he was able to develop “a knack for finding a way to win” in his sophomore season.
He grew even more serious about his game the next year, winning several matches in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. His senior season, Macdonald captured the tournament championship.
He uses his ability to persevere in college as a valuable resource in his coaching methods.
“A lot of what you think about when you’re coaching is empathy,” he said. “You try to imagine, ‘What was I like at that age? What did I need?’ I was a knucklehead, but I needed support. You try to instill a love of the game (in your players). What are you learning? What’s it all about? If it’s just a sport, it’s somewhat boring. But if it’s a contest — a test of wills — it’s learning about yourself. Mastering yourself.
“I think (tennis) is probably the most demanding and difficult sport in the world ever invented. First of all, you’re learning really complex movements, and if you just did it naturally, just whatever you want to do, it wouldn’t work. So, you’ve got to learn all the technical stuff: grips, body positioning, etc. Then, you learn all these soft skill applications, like it’s windy, I’m playing a lefty, this guy hits hard — all this situational stuff in a way.
“It’s also probably more psychologically intense because it’s more one-on-one, it’s an individual sport. There’s no clock. A person’s out there psychologically exposed — naked.”
But what makes Macdonald such a successful coach is that his players are not nearly as psychologically exposed as many of the nation’s athletes. Instead, Macdonald’s understanding of the game, and even more so, his understanding of his players, allows him to provide the necessary equipment to combat any situation in the stressful environment of tennis; tools that far exceed the technique behind a powerful serve or the mechanics of a dominant backhand.
“There’s not much I don’t know about [my players’] games, and in a way, their psyches when they play the game,” Macdonald says. “After a fall, I get a pretty good idea—this person is like this, they’re really hard on themselves.
“I’m good at the feel of the emotional stuff, like what’s going on mentally and emotionally with a player. I’m good at reading that and going, ‘Oh, she’s struggling with this. We’ve got to do this’…I can look down and get a feel for a match really fast and get an idea of how the points are trending and what’s happening.”
But, as Macdonald is quick to point out, that sort of expertise cannot be found unless he is able to build a relationship with his players.
“If you were a player and I was coaching you — if I knew what you were studying, we joked around, we had a good relationship — you’d listen. I could go, ‘Hey! Remember how we were talking about how Djokovic beat Nadal with this tactic? This guy is similar, he does this and this, and if you play this way and attack this side, I think he won’t like it and it suits your strengths.’ If I don’t know you, or it hasn’t been a good relationship, I can’t communicate as well on the fly and in an emotional situation.”
MacDonald says he’s able to establish these sorts of relationships with his humor.
“We keep it real, keep it funny,” he says.
But he also notes that his way of coaching was not always this laid back. Toward the beginning of his coaching career, at LSU and Duke, he was a much more serious, straightforward instructor.
“I was pretty intense,” he says as he looks back at his first few years as a head coach. “(I was) pretty obsessive. Kind of crazy. I think I overdid it.”
In those early years, Macdonald was constantly seeking advice from distinguished coaches around him. Specifically, he cites Dan Path and Mike Krzyzewski as the two most significant sources in establishing his very own coaching philosophy.
“I talked to them and they just go, ‘You know, if you do too much, that’s worse than doing too little,’” Macdonald says. “And I was more of a ‘more is better’ coach; three hours is better than two hours, etc. But they would teach me stuff like, ‘Why don’t you give them the day off?’ I would instantly think, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ But when I did, I saw that [my players] responded really well.”
Letting go of that one aspect of the game, however, has forced Macdonald to seek control in other areas, most notably the irrational side of his sport.
“I have tons of little, weird superstitions,” he says, “Cause you don’t really have any control.”
For example, Macdonald will pick up every lucky penny he sees.
“My kids joke at me because there are times I’ve been riding my bike, and I’ll stop and I’ll go back and get it. It’s just crazy. And then I’ll have those in my pocket, and when I get really nervous I’ll rub the lucky penny…But it’s funny, there have been years when I just go, ‘That’s so irrational. What are you doing? Don’t do it.’”
One other tradition Macdonald has held onto over the years is his custom of the head-shaving match. Most recently, he buzzed his head when the Commodores knocked off rival Tennessee in Knoxville to reach the Sweet 16.
The Vanderbilt women quickly fell behind 3-0 in the match. But the ’Dores battled back and were just one set away from pulling off the upset.
At which point, Macdonald decided to relieve some of the tension.
“One of my best friends in town is a [child adolescent] psychiatrist, and he’s helped me a lot in terms of what this age group is,” he said. “He taught me a whole framework. He said, ‘Sometimes when a match is a really big deal to this age group, if you give them an external thing to focus on, that is a stress reliever, it can be helpful.’ So when they get tight, instead of going, ‘I’ve got to make this return or I’m letting everyone down,’ it’s like, ‘If I make this return we get to shave his head.’ It’s an ‘I’m in this with you.’”
The Commodores won the match, completing a monumental comeback. But perhaps even more memorable was the image that followed: the sight of their coach’s hair being swept up from the floor.
That day in Knoxville, that sense of overcoming adversity, is what drives Macdonald to step out onto the court each and every day.
“It’s really neat when you see players improving,” he says. “It’s a highly competitive arena and you just see them and go, ‘Wow! A few months ago there’s no way they could’ve don’t that.’ (As a coach) you weren’t the reason why, but you were a part of their journey and their maturation in a way… So you take pride in mentoring and bringing them along.”