No one expected us to win. As late as March we weren’t sure we could even play. But on Wednesday, May 26, Emory’s women’s tennis team dominated defending NCAA champs Wesleyan, winning the 2021 Division III National Championship 5-0. Until that moment Wesleyan had gone undefeated since 2019.
I have coached seven national championship teams. I won the national championship as a player. But this win was unlike any other. While I’m still pondering all the takeaways, I already have three things to share with my high school student-athletes clients and their families:
- Focus on what you can control. Our 2020 team couldn’t control how COVID abruptly ended their season. Our 2021 team couldn’t control the absence of fall practice. We couldn’t control quarantines. We couldn’t start practice until February. We weren’t sure whether we could compete until March – and when that competition started, our travel restrictions limited which teams we could play. We didn’t know whether we would be allowed to go to nationals until April. We therefore focused on what we could control. We dealt with each day as it came. We stayed in the moment. We didn’t look too far ahead.
- Draw from your support system. Athletes don’t just need their sport; they need each other. This team pulled together despite the year’s profound physical and psychological challenges. They leaned on each other. They took full advantage of a team culture of women supporting women. They refused to bring each other down. They had chosen Emory not only because our team is considered a tennis powerhouse with a winning tradition, but because they knew this program’s support system could help them thrive as a person.
- Welcome the tougher path. Wesleyan beat us during the last national championship, held in 2019. Wesleyan remained undefeated throughout the 2021 season. Meanwhile, we had been beaten by other teams this year. We had a tough path to the national tournament, and faced highly-ranked opponents through the finals. We had been taken to the depths of our abilities in tie breakers. We knew what it looked like to be on a thin wire, and then find sure footing. That tough path drove us to accept our weaknesses and run harder with our strengths. By the time we met Wesleyan on May 26 we knew how to overcome tremendous odds. We had learned every step of the way.
While this 2021 national championship is my eighth overall, this year was like no other. Focusing only on what we could control freed us from high-pressure expectations. Our team’s support system led us to obliterate every obstacle. Our tough path made us push ourselves beyond what we thought we could do. Those three principles (focus-support-resilience) that got us to a national championship are the same principles I encourage high school student-athletes to apply to their college search process.