Jordon Smith, the head coach of the Coast Guard Bears, is like most coaches. He wants to build a winning program, but he understands the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is a different type of school.
“There is a huge difference between a military school and a civilian school and it took time for me to acclimate,” Smith said. “Our number one priority [at Coast Guard] is to help build future officers for the United States Military.”
Smith has a deep understanding for the difference between civilian schools and military schools as he spent time as an assistant coach at Wheaton (Mass.) and Ithaca before coming to the Coast Guard.
He believes there are benefits to being at a military school — such as the values and discipline that the military teaches their cadets and the bonds that are formed.
“In a civilian school you are trying to instill almost military values in your program,” Smith stated. “You are trying to instill discipline at a civilian school and here you are almost doing the opposite because they already get that with the military component.”
Along with the strict military component comes rigorous academics. While students at Coast Guard have their tuition funded by the federal government, their education does come with a price. After finishing college, cadets must serve at least five years in the United States Coast Guard.
“Eighty-five percent of Coast Guard officers stay past their five year obligation,” Smith said. “It shows you what a good career path it can be for the right people.”
Due to the intensity of the cadets’ other obligations, Coach Smith has learned to be understanding and flexible with his practices.
“Tennis is more of an outlet here — these cadets aren’t getting much sleep with their military obligations on top of their academics, so you have to make sure you keep practice fun and lively,” Smith said. “It is important to remember none of our players are going to go on to be professional tennis players, they are training to be officers in the Coast Guard.”
Smith also knows that sometimes it is better to just give his players the time off.
“Sometimes at practice all the players come in looking like zombies because they had a morning inspection or training and I’ll just let them all go,” Smith said. “You just know you won’t get anything out of this practice and it will be more beneficial if they just use that time to rest.”
The most rigorous part of the Coast Guard experience is the summer before freshman year– which they call Swab Summer. It is a grueling eight-week boot camp type program which helps the cadets understand the expectations, makes sure they can perform under pressure, and prepares them to work as a team.
“I would argue that the bonds formed here with our cadets are stronger than at a civilian school because they have to go through [Swab Summer],” Smith remarked.
Swab Summer benefits Smith not only because they come into the fall in such good physical shape and are already bonded, but because it helps them mentally as well.
“[The cadets] learn to really focus because they are used to having six people yell at them and having to look straight ahead with a straight face,” Smith said.
Smith jokes that they are in such good shape, that when they meet with him during their Swab Summer he does not mind bringing them a treat.
“Coaches usually get about one and half hours a week during Swab Summer, so I’ll bring them like Dominos pizza, Burger King or something and I’ll just let them pig out,” Smith revealed.
That hour and half the incoming freshman spend together with Coach Smith serves as another way for the players to strengthen their bond as they head into the fall season. The incoming freshmen are only given about two days between the end of Swab Summer and the start of their fall classes.
The Bears started practicing this fall, like many teams, with no expectation of playing any matches, but that all changed when they got an invite to play a double header at Division I Army.
“We weren’t expecting to play Army, we were just practicing to practice,” Smith said. “Our goals for this fall were to keep everyone upbeat and build team chemistry — especially with five freshmen on the team.”
Smith and his team did not walk away with a team win against Army, but were happy with their progress nonetheless.
“We had the two wins by the two freshman and we had some other really competitive matches against a [strong] D1 program,” Smith recalled.
The success on the court was not the biggest takeaway for Smith though.
“What stood out was how much our veteran players were supporting our freshman and vice versa,” Smith said. “I felt after the match that we were in a really good place with our team chemistry, which is all I wanted.”
The Bears have seemed to find the perfect coach in Smith.
“[Coast Guard] being a military school is a perfect fit for my personality as a coach to be an outlet rather than disciplinarian,” Smith said.
However Coach Smith knows that the military college experience is not a fit for everyone.
“One of the first things I tell recruits is that military school is not for everyone,” Smith stated. “After I get off the phone with recruits I have to see if I can envision them as future officers in the military.”