I am going to refer to the reality of coaching in order to make a point about Sloane Stephens.
To some people, it didn’t seem like much of a big deal earlier this week in Madrid when Stephens defeated Victoria Azarenka. To be sure, beating Azarenka on clay in 2019 is not an extraordinary feat. If viewed solely through the prism of Azarenka, Sloane’s win isn’t all that remarkable. It’s a good win, but not anything worth stopping the presses for.
However, wins — or on a larger level, occurrences of various kinds — gain magnitude not just because of the opponent, but because of what they mean for the player who benefits from them.
Sloane Stephens entered Madrid in dire need of a feel-good moment — and not just because she had been losing a lot of matches. Stephens needed a feel-good moment because she had brought aboard a new coach, Sven Groeneveld, a veteran of WTA competition.
It is true that team sports don’t always operate along the same lines as solo-athlete sports such as tennis. A team-sport coach has to manage a room full of egos and personalities and bring them together in harmony and balance. Solo-athlete sports involve a process of trying to get through to one person, one mind, one unique collection of attitudes and emotions. Tennis players don’t have to be taught how to be teammates on the court (off the court, yes, but not on it). To that extent, the job of a solo-athlete coach is a lot less complicated than the job of a team-sport coach.
However, in a team-sport context, the coach has the ability to bench certain players who don’t buy into the program. The coach can play other players who understand what needs to be done. The team’s management structure can trade players who don’t get along with the head coach or other teammates.
In tennis, there are no trades. The athlete is there and will always be there. The coach has to make the connection with the player. The coach has to establish a healthy and positive professional relationship in which trust, respect and honesty prevail.
Nothing builds trust and respect in sports more than winning.
Whether as a team or a solo athlete, performers respect their coaches a lot more when they win, when they can see that the coaching advice being given to them is working.
This is the underrated aspect of Sloane Stephens’ journey this week in Madrid. She needed to win not just for herself, and for her place in the rankings, or to bank points before Roland Garros, where she is defending runner-up points. Beyond those legitimate needs, Stephens needed to win in order to create a positive foundation with Groeneveld. She needed this partnership to show signs of promise.
Think about this, as Stephens prepares for a Friday semifinal in Madrid: If Stephens had not made a deep run in any clay tournament before Roland Garros, in the midst of a coaching change, her odds of doing something significant in Paris would have decreased. Though there are hardly any guarantees with Sloane — who can flame out early in a tournament just as easily as she can catch fire and go all the way — it stands to reason that having a strong tournament before Roland Garros gives her genuine belief and confidence in her clay-court game.
That is significant by any reasonable measurement.
Right now, the NBA and NHL are both holding their long, extended, four-round postseasons. Coaches are either making the right adjustments or not. They are either rising to meet the demands of these high-stress moments, or they are not. They are maximizing the talents of their players, or they are not. Some more coaches could be fired based on what happens in the coming weeks.
When new coaches are hired and brought into these intense, high-stakes, win-now environments, they need to immediately show they can deliver the goods. Not being on the same page — not resonating, not lighting a spark, not providing illumination and clarity to the athletes they coach — immediately undercuts the relationship and makes it very hard to imagine sustained promise in any context.
Sloane Stephens needed to get off on the right foot with Sven Groeneveld. Now she has.
Coaching — more precisely, the importance of a strong coach-player relationship — explains why the 2017 U.S. Open champion has produced an important week in Spain.
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