Q&A with UC Santa Barbara Women’s Tennis Head Coach: Simon Thibodeau
How did you get into tennis coaching? - When I was a young tennis player, I would watch all the WTA matches (few ATP matches as well) on TV, tape the matches and analyze, chart them and take notes. I could name the top 100 WTA in the world by heart and always wanted the top Canadian women’s to reach the highest rankings. It was almost like I wanted to coach them to achieve this goal more than using these aspects to improve my own tennis game. Soon after my short tennis career, at 18 years old, I started taking all my coaching certifications in Canada via great mentors like Sylvain Bruneau (current Canadian Fed Cup Captain) and Louis Cayer (world leader in tennis high-performance). I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Sports Science & training methods, which I felt was essential to be a more knowledgeable and global tennis coach. I was able to get more expertise in all high-performance areas such as planning and strategies, conditioning, women’s psychology in sports, nutrition, physiology, coaching methods, etc. I also did internships with the Quebec Tennis Federation, Tennis Canada and with professional women’s players from Canada. After my degree completion, I was already a strong provincial coach and soon after leading many Quebec juniors to Canadian national titles, I was asked to be a National Coach for Canada. I was fortunate to learn from some of the best and knew early I wanted to be a high- performance tennis coach and make a career of it.
How did you get into college coaching?
This career change happened unexpectedly. It was during the 2000 US Open in New York. I was coaching Canadian Marie-Eve Pelletier, who was playing her quarterfinal match. There were many top college coaches (UCLA, USC, Duke, Florida, Arizona) watching Marie-Eve and trying to recruit her to their university. Brad Dancer (current Illinois Men’s coach) was coaching the women’s tennis team at Arizona and asked me to become his assistant. He spoke with such passion about the college-coaching atmosphere and career that I decided to try this experience for one year, while remaining a part-time National coach in Canada. I actually loved it so much that I wanted to become a head coach and build my own program at a University. Three years later, I got that opportunity at Fresno State and now I have another opportunity at UCSB.
How is it different being a College Head Coach than a National Head Coach?
As a National Coach, the ultimate goal is to develop players, to help them become professional players and represent Canada in Federation/Davis Cup. All my work was on the tennis court, training, coaching and touring the best Canadians to succeed in international tournaments.
As a College Head Coach, the ultimate goal is to develop your team, while improving each individual. You are in charge of all aspects related to your collegiate tennis program, recruiting, team travel, scheduling, tennis training, conditioning, fund raising, budgeting, compliance, mentoring your athletes, team guidelines, bonding and concept, etc. It requires diverse skills and expertise in every domain in order to manage your team in a successful manner.
I feel fortunate to have earned my degree in sports and my coaching certifications and served as a National Coach prior becoming a College Head Coach. That was a great educational experience. As I know what it takes to succeed at the highest levels, I elevate my standards to get my student-athletes to reach and understand that level. I am also considerate that professional players have more time to refine their skills, as they are not attending school. I am more looking for more of a maturation process from my college athletes, even though they have the pressure from their education. I insist on work ethic perfection on the mental and physical side during our training and college matches.
Players describe you as competitive and passionate. How do those characteristics make you a more effective coach?
I think you have to study the game every day by watching the latest updates, progress and development in terms of tennis training, drills, recruiting, etc. I love the game of tennis, and I want to give my student-athletes everything I possibly can while they're here. I am weekly in touch with my friends that are coaching out the best WTA and ITF players on the circuit. We exchange ideas and training methods via phone calls, Skype, Facebook or emails. During the summer, I attend for 2-3 weeks professional WTA events so I can see the top players train and play live. I am a very structured, stable and caring coach, and I feel my young women’s student-athletes respond well to these qualities.
You have reached five NCAA Championships Sweet 16, led many individual athletes in national championships finals and achieved high rankings, how do you explain your tremendous success?
Recruiting the right athletes was crucial. I was able to recruit a mix of experienced elite tennis players and high-potential gifted players that would fit our team well personality- wise and that I could help flourish. Recruiting was a big part of my success, I needed to get players who REALLY wanted to get better on a tennis standpoint and be coached by ME.
First, they've to do a great job academically. That relates to discipline and hard work. That's the fundamental basis of being a good team. Secondly, you need to continue to improve your players with great coaching (drills, private lessons, structure, communication skills, extra work), keeping them motivated and away from injuries and distractions. I really feel this is the area where I succeed the most. I am able to keep my athletes’ focus on being challenged in a positive way, both academically and athletically. My developmental path as a coach provided the tools and confidence to regulate all aspects. Many current coaches are former college players who have only learned from their own head coach, have practically no coaching training or degree in the field. I always felt I would be able to build an elite team in the NCAA Division 1 anywhere. Our different teams always had great chemistry, team spirit and assumed their different roles well. I was able to incorporate fun and challenging routines that enhanced the various common goals for the team.
Tell us about your transition from Fresno State to UCSB?
After nine amazing years at Fresno State and pleased with my accomplishments, it was time for me to find a new challenge and environment in order to continue growing. When, I saw the UCSB position was going to become available, I really tried to find out everything about UCSB. I got very excited about all aspects of the position and felt the women’s tennis program had untapped potential with great academics, athletics department, support, location, campus and weather.
When I look back at the last seven months, I can say this transition has been outstanding. Everyone at UCSB welcomed me with such class, excitement and warmth. My student-athletes were very excited with my nomination, as they knew me as the Fresno State Coach and of my success there.
Every Head Coach is different, so when there is a coaching change, you have a different philosophy, different type of rules. I think it is important to get in there right away and establish solid relationships with the players and teach them the way I like to do things. There will be different types of training and I will get them accustomed to what I’m used to doing and the type of winning atmosphere that I like to create. The team has actually rallied quickly behind me and bought into my coaching methods and concepts. I am extremely proud of their hard work, accomplishments and improvements thus far. For this year, I decided to evaluate my current talent, character and take more time before bringing other players to the school. We are nationally-ranked and hold an 11-5 record mid-season. I feel our future is bright and my goal is to get this program in the top 25 NCAA every year.
What makes UC Santa Barbara so unique?
Honestly, this school sells itself. UC Santa Barbara is such a great school academically that I think that's the first draw for recruits. We have an incredibly high number of world-renowned quality teachers that wants to live in Santa Barbara. UCSB is ranked in the top 10 of best public Universities in the country. If you look at our campus, it is certainly one of the most gorgeous, in the world, with its location right on the Pacific Ocean with a beautiful lagoon going through modern buildings.
I would say the UCSB tennis program offers the entire package: our facilities that we are constantly improving, our academics, our staff, our campus, our location in Santa Barbara, our weather, tennis community, the kind of schedule (conference and challenging out-of-conference matches) we play, and the coaching that helps a player prove herself as the best player she can possibly be - all those things are here at UCSB.
What are the key elements to be a successful College Head Coach in the NCAA Div. 1? What advice would you give to any young coach willing to be successful in this field?
I would advise anyone going into coaching today to do so because they want to make a difference in people's lives. Don't do it for the money. Don't even think about the hours, as they are endless. Do it because you can make the world better one person at a time. CARE. I have never - not once - seriously considered getting out of coaching. It is more of a calling than a profession. Of course, get a bachelor’s degree (possibly in the sports field), do your USTA or national coaching certification, to be a better leader and coach, get out there in the coaching world before you become a college coach.
What is most rewarding aspect about being a college head coach?
First, the players and student-athletes had a great experience while they were in my program and wanted to continue to be a part of the program. We've had lots of players go on to lead very successful lives, the majority of them not in tennis, but they always feel like they're part of the program. The relationships last forever. I have been blessed to work in great college environments, and those places have allowed me to become close to so many wonderful young people. My greatest thrill is seeing them after graduation and staying in touch. Weddings, reunions, and other occasions make it possible to get together much more than I would have imagined. This is my No. 1 reward.
I think we can learn life lessons through the tennis program--how to be competitive, how to get knocked down and get back up, how to deal with adversity, how to be the best you can be, how you can have your own goals and then work and strive to reach those goals. All of those things are what I would say can have a real impact on people's lives. Those examples are also the gifts and rewards for me as coach, much greater than all the wins.
As you look back at your college-coaching career, what memories stand out as the best?
The most unforgettable memories are the people - players on my teams, coaches against whom I have competed, and people with whom I have worked. I believe they are all lifelong connections.
As for highlights, recounting briefly a few, I will always remember the great wins at CAL to advance to the NCAA Sweet 16 (I rarely slept before those matches), playing Georgia in Athens in front of an evening packed stadium in the NCAA Sweet 16, hosting the NCAA Regionals in Fresno for two consecutive years with a packed tennis stadium and the playing the National anthem, (I felt a great sense of accomplishments), and the first and historic National title won by Fresno State tennis players male or female (Petukhova & Kucerkova capturing the 2008 ITA Indoors doubles titles). At UCSB, we have already achieved so much this year and it has been rewarding to see the shift in our team’s mental strength and confidence towards winning and beliefs.