#TGW: Mark of a Champion

Sept. 29, 2017

Jon Cooper | The Good Word –

Every athlete, regardless of sport, is looking for an edge — something to gain even the slightest improvement in performance.

In the tennis world, there may not be a more respected tactician than Dr. Mark Kovacs.

Beginning this fall, Georgia Tech men’s tennis will reap the benefits of his knowledge and experience, as he’ll be an advisor for the squad.

Kovacs brings an impressive resume. He was part of the NCAA doubles championship team in 1982 while at Auburn (the school’s first such title) and played professionally for a short time.

But off the court was where he really found his calling. He earned a Ph.D. in physiology, with an emphasis in biomechanics from Alabama, has authored five books on stretching and tennis training, served as Director of the Gatorade Sport Science Institute, Director of the Sport Science, Strength and Conditioning, and Coaching Education departments for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and, most recently, the sports science advisor for performance and injury prevention at Arizona State.

Kovacs who will take on a role at Georgia Tech similar to the one he had at Arizona State, and has been on the radar of Georgia Tech head men’s tennis coach Kenny Thorne for many years.

“Mark is one of the most respected tennis-specific strength and conditioning coaches in the nation and he lives right next to us,” said Thorne, referring to the Kovacs Institute for Sport and Human Performance in Kennesaw. “I have spent time with Mark over the last year talking about developing players for the pro tour and the specific way to do that with the stress tennis puts on your body.”

Kovacs is excited to bring his talents the 20 minutes or so down 75 North to Georgia Tech.

“I’ve known coach Thorne for nearly 20 years and followed the program for many years,” he said. “We’ve been talking about doing something over the last couple of years. I’m a sports scientist by training so I have a background in strength and conditioning, biomechanics and physiology and those are the areas we’ll be focusing on. We’ll be working with the staff here and advising and assisting them in different areas, working as a think tank to help them strategize and work with their players directly.”

“(Player Development) Coach (Dan) Taylor does a phenomenal job,” he added. “I’m working very closely with him on how we can really put together a program that can give each athlete the best chance of reaching their individual goals, whether they’re a freshman, a senior, some of the guys a goal is to move up in the lineup, some of the guys’ goals are to play professional tennis after they’re done. They have big goals, they have big dreams and you want to try to support them the best you can.”

Kovacs has made a career out of making dreams come true. His success stories include John Isner, the 6-10 former University of Georgia behemoth, who has been to the finals of the Atlanta Open seven of the eight years the tournament has been in existence, and won it four of the last five years – and Sloane Stephens, who won the 2017 U.S. Open after undergoing foot surgery in January.

The hope is to have as many Yellow Jackets as possible join the ranks of those success stories. For Georgia Tech senior Christopher Eubanks, it’s an incredibly exciting addition to the program.

“Mark is one of the brightest minds in sports,” said Eubanks, who reached as high as No. 4 in the country last season and will take aim at the Georgia Tech career-singles wins total (he’s 30 away from passing Guillermo Gomez). “He’s worked with a countless number of the world’s greatest athletes and Olympians. To have him work with us here at Georgia Tech is an invaluable asset and I’m very excited about what he’ll bring to Georgia Tech.”

Kovacs has coaxed the best out of individuals at NFL Super Bowls, as well as at NFL Combines, but will be doing a very different kind of training with Georgia Tech tennis.

“The Super Bowl or an NFL Combine, at those events, everything’s around optimizing the athlete on that one day,” he said. “There’s no training going on at that point. At that point, it’s about how can we best expose the athlete and set them up for success. When you’re working with a program like a tennis program in a collegiate setting, it’s all about development. ‘How do we get those athletes to be better tomorrow and better the next day?’ It’s really longer-term development, making sure the athletes can compete well at the conference tournaments and hopefully at the NCAA Championships.”

While different athletes have different needs, Kovacs has one constant: he’ll be looking at every athlete and how he handles being fatigued.

“As I say a lot, ‘All the good stuff happens on the other side of tired,’” he said. “So as you get tired, that’s when you know some good stuff is about to happen. That’s partly mental and partly physical. Both those areas work together and all good coaches work both on the physical and mental side by side.”

Finding the right personal approach for each individual drives Kovacs.

“Every player has a very personalized approach. That’s the beauty of a small team like tennis is,” he said. “You do get the ability to really put together a program that each player does very different things. Some people need more strength, other people need more speed, some people need more endurance, other people need way more technical work. So every athlete needs to be approached differently and we go through a pretty thorough screening and assessment process to understand each athlete and then based on those results and how they look, a plan is put together with the staff here.”

While Kovacs can do a lot as far as personalizing programs based on raw data from tests he and Dan Taylor have run with the players, Taylor’s familiarity with the players adds a key element to the puzzle.

“He, obviously, is brilliant when it comes to the various areas that he’s coming on board for but personalities, nuances, quirks, and things that you don’t necessarily pick up from a screen, that you pick up from conversation and time put in with a person is a lot of what I can bring to the table,” said Taylor, who came on board last May 16. “I also know their training histories because some of these guys have been with me for a year now, a year-and-a-half, some of them that are new, I already have a relationship with them that Mark hasn’t had a chance to foster yet. So, I’m going to be able to help him because I know how the guys tick, what they’ve done in the past, where they kind of are in terms of their growth both on the court and in terms of skill set because I’ve been around, but also in the weight room.”

Kovacs and Taylor share a passion for science, which adds to the excitement of their collaboration.

“Georgia Tech’s got a great set of technologies that they have in their athletic department already,” Kovacs said. “They’ve also got great opportunities for future technologies through their academic departments. That is a discussion that we’ve had about ‘How can you maybe leverage some of the skill sets that are on campus, that may not have worked in sports before but using some of the potential technologies and really set Georgia Tech apart from that perspective?’ Because the world of sport and technology is only increasing. It’s all about how can we do a better job of measuring our athletes? Then how do we use those metrics to do a better job of putting our training programs in place? It’s just an exciting time. It’ll be a lot of fun to be able to work pretty closely with the Jackets and see if we can help their athletes reach their full potential.”

“What excites me the most I think about collaborating with Mark, is that I have a strong belief that everything should be driven by science,” said Taylor. “The human element is really, really important and I think one of the things that I’m trying to do just in general — I know the Athletic Department is looking at because of the kind of school we are — is making sure that what we do in terms of best practice is driven by scientific principles and having someone who’s an expert in that field is, to me, a bit of a game-changer.”

The game-changing ideally starts with the ITA All-American Championships this weekend in Tulsa, Okla., then, the fall season, come October.

Thorne sees big things ahead.

“It isn’t by chance or just hard work that players develop. You must have the right plan for your body that is specific for each person,” he said. “The team of Dan Taylor and Mark Kovacs has to be one of the best in the country. Our plan is to develop excellence on and off the court and that is what the addition of Mark will help us do.”

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