With the rise of instant gratification in today’s day in age, a focus on quick rewards, high rankings and a magic number of wins is becoming increasingly prevalent in sports, particularly for Western society.
However, if you ask tennis professional and coach of rising star Caty McNally, Kevin O’Neill, the learning process is far more important than the results themselves.
O’Neill began coaching his professors in the midst of finishing his degree at Pepperdine University after his brief playing career came to a close. Based on inspiration from coach Steve and mentor Larry Stefanki, he opted to take his first official coaching job at a local club in the Hamptons in Long Island.
While he enjoyed his time at the club, O’Neill knew in the back of his mind that club coaching was not his true passion. With Steve in his ear coaxing him to consider a coaching career on the competitive side at either the national/collegiate level or the professional level, O’Neill was presented with the opportunity to hit and practice with Martina Navritalova. Based on that experience, he decided to quit coaching in the Hamptons and return to California to learn about the trade from Steve and Larry.
Not long after experiencing what life would be like as a Tour coach, O’Neill started his own coaching business in California and worked with high-level, nationally ranked juniors. Eventually, his career as a Tour coach took off when he began working with Irakli Labadze.
“One of the great things about coaching on the Tour is that every day is different and you have to adapt and adjust to whatever situation is presented to you,” said O’Neill. “At the same time, sometimes you have to make sure that your player is insulated from that so they don’t get wound up or frustrated. It’s different every day and it doesn’t get boring.”
One of the challenges Tour coaches face is keeping their athletes from burning out due to the arduous schedule of being a professional tennis player. “You’ve got to have some fun. Practice is work, but you have to make it fun. You’ve got to do that on a regular, daily basis, especially with the professional players because you are usually working in a one-on-one situation,” O’Neill explained.
“You also have to pay attention to how they’re feeling because some days you might think you’re going to do two hard practices and get in the gym, but you have to adjust to them because they’re tired, a bit burned out, or just not feeling well,” said O’Neill. “It’s a give and take. You have to do a good job of communicating and listening, and there has to be trust. Trust is very important in a coach-player working relationship for that matter. Without trust, it will be very difficult to get anything done as a team.”
Currently, O’Neill is coaching Caty McNally, who is beginning to make a splash on the professional scene at just 17 years of age. He met Caty when she was four years old while working with Alexa Glatch, who was initially coached by Caty’s mother, and has developed a strong foundation of trust with both Caty and her older brother John from a young age.
According to O’Neill, Caty has a competitive edge to her personality that allows her to work effectively with his style and also serves her well on the court. “Caty loves to compete and play games. That’s one of the things I did with my coach Steve. We were always playing games. Everyone likes to win games. That helps the competitive mindset, and that helps a professional player because it is all about competing. Competing is competing, no matter if it is on a tennis court or if you’re playing miniature golf, we all want to win,” he said.
“I mention to Caty all the time that tennis is just a game. Even though it’s professional tennis, it’s just a game. If you keep it a game, you can look at things a bit easier and not make it quite as stressful. That really helps. Keeping the right perspective is really important, especially at the professional level because we are constantly playing, traveling and playing some more,” O’Neill reasoned.
As a coach, O’Neill strives to teach Caty the importance of staying in her bubble and playing her own game. He is less concerned with her results, and more focused on ensuring that she is playing the optimum tennis for her style. They strive to play her game all the time, no matter the score or the situation.
“Caty is an all-court player that likes to be dictative and get good position so she can use her volley skills and her imagination. I’d rather her make errors playing the right way than win the point doing something that won’t last or the wrong way because it will start making her more emotional along the way,” O’Neill explained. “Just play the point the right way, and you cannot get emotional in a negative sense if things aren’t going your way. Look to execute and you’re your game, have fun competing, be positive with yourself, relax, breathe so you can perform freely. Finally, be aware of what is going on around you at all times and stay in the moment.”
One of the top pieces of advice O’Neill has given Caty as she has transitioned from the junior scene to the pros is to always put herself in a position to succeed. “I tell Caty, ‘The result I’m looking for is your playing – executing your shots and trying to put yourself in the right position to play. I’d rather you lose playing the right way, then win playing the wrong way. When you do that and have the right perspective, you build good habits that will last a lifetime’” said O’Neill.
“I’m looking for consistency over time. If she’s going for her shots and playing the right way over time, she’s going to start winning more matches because she’ll be playing freely and won’t be worried about a win or a loss. I don’t put pressure on a win or loss, I just want her to play the right way. I want her to compete to win. Everybody wants to win, but if I have to talk about winning and motivating in that way at the professional level, you’re in big trouble,” he said.
If the success Kevin O’Neill and Caty McNally have had as a team is any example, winning isn’t everything, but playing the right way is.