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Shelton: This Is Exactly Where I Was Meant To Be

Feb. 13, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

There is a book waiting to be written about Bryan Shelton and Kenny Thorne, the Georgia Tech women’s and men’s tennis coaches. I’m convinced of this.

The tome’s storyline would go beyond the fact that these men were college teammates at Tech in the 1980s, the fact they left Nos. 1 and 2 in career wins on The Flats, that they played successfully as professionals, even that they’ve grown their programs to considerable respectability with offices next to one another.

Something in the fabric of each man merits study. Spend substantial time with them, and it seems obvious that they’re both outstanding people and coaches.

They have a way about them, an enthusiasm that never approaches misplaced or contrived exuberance. They have an inner level that a General would do well to use as basis for management strategy for sake of its balance of the psychological and physical. They respect and relate well to the human condition.

No offense to Thorne, whose team beat Georgia’s men Saturday for the first time since 1988, in what was a dizzying way to spend an afternoon , but I spent more time the other day with Shelton so, today, a bit of dwelling on the man who wasn’t sure he wanted to do this: Shelton.

He went pro for several years after leaving Tech No. 2 all-time in wins, his 101 trailing only Thorne’s 112 (Guillermo Gomez picked up win No. 102 Saturday against Georgia).

As Shelton’s pro clock wound down, in 1997, wheels began turning.

“When I was finishing up my professional career, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I thought teaching was an avenue that I might explore. Working with young people was always something I enjoyed,” Shelton said.

“When I decided to retire from playing I got a phone call from a guy named Tom Gullickson, who was the director of player development for the USTA. He asked me if I wanted to come be a coach with high-end junior tennis players.”

Note: Gullickson is not the father of NCAA singles champion Chelsey Gullickson of UGA (whom Tech’s Viet H Ngo beat last week); her father is former Major League pitcher Bill Gullickson . . . who drove me nuts while pitching for the Reds.

Shelton did the USTA thing for two years, and then met with former Tech athletics director Dave Braine, Thorne and Jack Thompson at the OK Café, just off I-75 in Buckhead. There came a job offer, and an acceptance.

“I thought at the time, why not? What a great opportunity . . . to help build the program,” Shelton said.

Times were tough, and Shelton spent nights trying to figure out how to improve matters on The Flats, and wondering whether he really wanted to do it.

“When I first arrived I just remember thinking that the tennis here was so weak and every day was seeing errors, errors, errors and errors,” he said. “It took me awhile to get my hands around it, and I was thinking, `Man, we have so far to go here.’ The level was, in my estimation, so low.”

Shelton dug in, trying to forget the forest and focus on its trees.

“It took me about three-quarters of the season to stop looking at it that way and just realize that the players were getting better. That was the exciting part,” he said. “It wasn’t so much where we were in relation to the best programs; it was more were compared to where we were six months ago.”

It took an epiphany of sorts for Shelton to jump all the way into the deep end, to approach his task like a career rather than a job.

That first year (1999-2000 season) . . .

“We were at the NCAA tournament, the regional part at UCLA, and we only had five healthy bodies (nine is the norm). We somehow beat a 25th-ranked team in Washington, and then we played UCLA the next day and lost,” he recalled.

“But I told the team, `This is exactly where I was meant to be.’ I just knew it was the right fit, the right place for me. That excitement grew as the season went along, and by the time I got to the end of the season where I had had doubts on whether I knew this was going to be a place where I’d want to set some roots and stay a while, it became clear that this was what I was meant to do and where I was meant to be.”

Having immersed himself in the process of helping others improve, Shelton came to realize – too late for his professional career – that the process might be most important in producing those results.

Could it be that results might be tied directly to how committed all participants are to the process, to the notion that one need not take stock or measure of every match to define each as success or failure?

“That has really helped me enjoy what I do every day and not get frustrated if we don’t have the wins we want at the moment. It’s easy for the players to buy into, and it actually takes a little bit of the pressure off,” he said.

Here’s Shelton baseline game:

“Learning how to define success I think is very important because if you’re able to define it well, and it’s something within your grasp, then you can take off and fly with it. When you’re defining success with things you can’t control, then it can become very frustrating.

“You can’t control a win or a loss on a given day because your opponent has something to say about that. But when you lock into the process of getter better every day, and taking control of things like hustle, and discipline and preparation and all the things that will allow you to have success, then you’re going after something that is attainable.

“[Players] realize all they have to do is go out there and do their best, put their best effort out there and if they do that repeatedly over a period of time, they will be successful.”

Think it works?

When Shelton began, he said he couldn’t even get recruits ranked in the nation’s top 75 to pick up the phone, or open their doors. Now, folks know of him.

Here’s what it says in the Tech information guide:

When Bryan Shelton returned to his alma mater as the head coach for the women’s team in 2000, the Yellow Jackets had yet to even appear in an NCAA Tournament, had yet to finish higher than fourth in the ACC, and had yet to have a player earn All-America honors. Since his arrival, Georgia Tech has made 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, captured four ACC regular season titles, won four ACC Tournament championships and has had 11 All-America and 21 All-ACC selections.

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