By Rhiannon Potkey
Tennis Recruiting Network
NAPLES, Fla. – It’s OK for coaches to feel a little uncomfortable talking about LGBTQ issues with their teams. But the willingness to engage in the conversation is a major step to inclusion in college tennis.
That was the prevailing message conveyed during a groundbreaking panel at the ITA Coaches Convention on Sunday at the Naples Grande Beach Resort.
For the first time in convention history, LGBTQ issues were addressed in a stand-alone panel titled: “Bridging the Gap: LGBTQ Coaches and Student-Athletes.”
Missouri Western head coach Shawn Becker, Caltech head coach Mandy Gamble, Trinity head coach Gretchen Rush and moderator Troy Venechanos provided their perspective on making college tennis programs more welcoming to all student-athletes.
“For the ITA to give leverage to an invisible minority like the LGBTQ community is huge,” Becker said. “For me being a cisgender white man who is out and coaching in the Midwest, it really means a lot to have them invest the time and resources talking about the issues we face, whether it’s how we got our positions as coaches or how things have changed from when we were student-athletes and the way things are now for our current student-athletes.”
ITA Chief Operating Officer Erica Perkins Jasper has wanted to expand the conference’s diversity panels beyond just race and gender for the last few years.
“I really felt like we need to talk about some of the harder issues. There have been too many things the last couple of years that need to be addressed, from players coming out or people using homophobic slurs,” Perkins Jasper said. “We need to have a meaningful conversation among coaches and officials in college tennis, and my hope is that it spreads from here and we can make the sport more inclusive for everyone.”
The coaches on the panel discussed how they have handled situations within their own programs. Gamble spoke about one of her women’s players boycotting a match last year against a school that discriminated against the LGBTQ community and how her teammates supported her stance by wearing gay pride T-shirts during the match.
Becker emphasized how language matters, and encouraged coaches to try and eliminate microaggressions, which are everyday verbal or nonverbal slights that target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.
“Because you don’t know how hard it can be on somebody that might be on your team or your staff or even in a meeting with other coaches,” Becker said. “We have some say in what takes place on our campuses, and if we can get rid of those microaggressions you are starting to cultivate an environment that allows somebody to be their authentic self.”
Adding the LGBTQ panel this year was one of many steps the ITA wants to take to encourage more diversity and discussion among programs at every level.
“I want everyone here to see someone on a panel they can relate to and might know your story,” Perkins Jasper said. “That has a much bigger impact for anyone attending these sessions. We need to make sure people feel represented no matter who they are and where they came from.”
Moms Who Coach
The idea of becoming a mother while coaching can seem overwhelming to young professionals in the industry.
They are afraid they can’t balance everything. They worry how their administration will react. They worry how it will impact their children and their team.
Michigan’s Ronni Bernstein has the same answer for anyone seeking advice about making it all work.
“You just do it,” said Bernstein, the mother of three children ages 21, 17 and 15. “Moms always find a way to just do it.”
Keeping female coaches in college tennis is vital for the health of the sport. The desire to start a family shouldn’t prevent women from chasing their professional dreams.
Bernstein joined Auburn’s Lauren Spencer, Iowa’s Sasha Schmid and Hawaii Pacific’s Lauren Conching on a panel to discuss how they’ve managed to juggle being a mother and being a head coach.
“It’s not easy, but it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” said Spencer, the mother of two young boys. “It’s organized chaos at times, but it is doable.”
The panelists spoke about pumping breast milk before, during and after matches. They told stories about FaceTiming their children while on recruiting trips and changing dirty diapers in team vans. They discussed how to avoid “Mom guilt” and how valuable it is to have strong spousal support.
Conching was scared when she first found out she was pregnant with her daughter. But instead of letting fear overwhelm her, she wanted motherhood to embolden her.
“I wanted to prove it to my team that it was possible to do anything you want to do,” Conching said. “I have been very open with my players and I want them to know what it’s like. It’s helpful for them to see me as a real person. They know I am human and have other people to take care besides them.”
Bernstein encourages every female coach to start a family whenever it feels right for them. She doesn’t want them to let the job dictate the schedule or let fear delay the process.
There may be some things moms have to sacrifice while coaching, but in her mind, the benefits for their children and their players far outweigh any drawbacks.
“I don’t think it should be any different for us than a man coaching,” Bernstein said. “I think if you are female or male, you can do it all. It’s good for your kids to see you working, and that it’s not just the dad’s role.”
Bernie Holliday, the director of mental conditioning for the Pittsburgh Pirates, led a panel that focused on creating an organization-wide approach to “training the head and the heart.”
Holliday said speed, convenience and entitlement have become prevalent in our society. To reach an elite level, coaches must work to create a counter-culture within their programs to help oppose those forces.
He used the acronym PROS (Purposeful, Relentless, Ownership and Selfless) as characteristics that will help players and teams reach their full potential.