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Peaking At The Right Time

May 3, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn

Like all the student-athletes at Georgia Tech, members of the women’s tennis team are hitting the books hard during finals week.

The Yellow Jackets know plenty about studying, and not just in class. Coach Bryan Shelton’s team pulled off three upsets last week to win the Atlantic Coast Conference title by applying what they learned in months of studying their opponents and themselves.

Forget about Tech having been 5-5 in the ACC regular season. “I feel like the whole team, we’d all been waiting for our breakthrough,” said freshman Elizabeth Kilborn, who was 4-0 at the ACCs. “Our goal from the beginning of the year was to win the ACCs and NCAAs. I think a big part of college tennis is peaking at the right time.”

The idea of a runner or swimmer peaking for certain meets makes sense, but how does a tennis player peak?

“We’ve kind of molded that into our program: let’s keep getting better so that at ACCs and NCAA time we’re the best-prepared team physically, emotionally, and mentally,” said Shelton, who is 4-0 in ACC championship matches.

Physically, OK; easy to understand.

But what’s the difference between emotionally and mentally?

“The emotions of playing; we always talk about finding the right emotional state,” he said. “There’s happy, sad, all kinds of in-betweens. Are you showing passion? Are you in a heightened state? Do you hear excitement in their voice, which can lead to being uptight or ultra nervous. Some people, to play their best tennis, need to be calmed down. Others need to walk faster, or you can hear them.

“Each player has a different place [emotionally] where they’re going to play their best.”

So Shelton studies his players for months, in and out of competition, and not only to spot flaws in footwork, ground strokes or backhands, but to ascertain each player’s emotional sweet spot. From there, he does what he can to try to guide his six players into those zones.

Perhaps most importantly, the Jackets’ mental approach – which involves a lot of studying by Shelton and the players – paid off in a big way as Tech beat No. 11-ranked Miami, No. 8 Clemson and No. 1 North Carolina on consecutive days after beating Virginia Tech in the first round.

Simply put, the Jackets scout opponents and themselves.

“The mental part of it is tactics. If I’ve got a great serve, where am I going to direct it? How am I going to follow it? Each player has three or four plays they try to utilize during practice,” Shelton said. “Depending on who you’re playing against, certain plays are going to work better than others.

“That’s the mental part: understanding the game plan, and if it’s not going well having the ability to adjust on the fly. If this was all just about the physical part, hitting the ball, that would be dull.”

Shelton pointed out several times that having played all of these teams previously (Miami, Clemson and UNC all beat the Jackets 5-2 during the season) provided invaluable scouting information.

The studying, scouting and game-planning continues right into competition. “We have some clear goals especially for the first set. Make sure you start from the first point to start tiring [opponents] out, work them,” Shelton said. “Our second goal is to gain information about your opponent and yourself. What plays are they trying? What plays are working against them? That’s so that if you need to make adjustments, you have all that information.

“The third thing is we try to condition our opponent. You might show them something repeatedly. Instead of trying to do more, you make a subtle change. You’ve conditioned them to expect something . . . then go different, try to win the point. If they go out there they have something on their minds other than just winning, that’s positive.”

A solid example of this came in the championship match, against North Carolina – the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.

Sophomore Irina Falconi won the clinching match in a third set at No. 1 singles to give the Jackets the 4-3 victory, but an argument could be made that Lynn Blau’s win at No. 4 singles was the key.

Had she not won, Falconi’s match would have been irrelevant. After losing her first set 1-6 to UNC’s Gina Suarez-Malagui, Blau processed all the information learned in those seven games and used it to win the next two 6-3, 6-3.

With a roster thinned by transfers and a back injury that has kept 2008 NCAA singles champion Amanda McDowell out most of the season, Shelton’s scouting has become that much more important. The Jackets have almost no margin for error even as the coach is hopeful that McDowell’s recent return to practice may blossom into her being available for the NCAA tournament in a couple weeks.

“It’s hard to sleep at night right now just thinking about it because any time that you’re challenged, you have to hold true to your convictions and stick to your plans, and not just try to go for the quick fix,” Shelton said. “That’s the gratifying part, we haven’t sacrificed development. We enjoyed winning the ACC championship, but we still stick with the process.”


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