By Lisa Stone
Lauren Spencer, Auburn University Women’s Tennis head coach, grew up in a small Texas town 30 minutes east of Waco. When it was time for her to look at colleges, she wanted to stay in state, close to home, but her father had other ideas.
Spencer discusses her own recruiting process as well as how she uses that experience now that she's in the position to recruit players herself for one of the top women's programs in the SEC.
Question: What was your recruiting process like when you started looking at colleges?
Answer: Back then, recruiting looked quite a bit different than it does now. Everywhere I went for junior tournaments, my parents and I would go look at the colleges in the area. We had email (I don't want to make it seem like I'm that old!), but regular mail was the main way coaches and players communicated with each other. Also, most people didn't decide where they were going to go to college until their senior year, either in the Fall or, for many of my friends, not until that Spring.
Because almost everyone went to regular school as opposed to homeschooling or doing school online, we didn't play that many national tournaments – you just didn't have the freedom to travel and miss school plus there weren't as many national events at that time. So how you performed in your state was drastically more important than it is now. The recruiting rules were more lax back then, too, which meant we had more interaction at tournaments with college coaches. They would come watch you play at tournaments, then you'd go on official visits.
I was very tennis oriented during my recruiting process and didn't really look at the academics of the schools – my focus was on the tennis and whether or not I liked the school. I realize now that there has to be a checklist of priorities – recruits have to make sure their desired colleges at least have a strong education component. If I could've done things differently, I would have a different perspective on what to look for in terms of coaching because a coach's personality is magnified for players. If you don't like the coach, you can't just switch to a new coach like in the juniors. The coach is the number one resource for players at the university.
Q: You chose Louisiana Tech for college. How did you wind up there?
A: Most of my high school classmates ended up at Texas A&M. Because my father insisted that I look at options beyond Texas so I could spread my wings, I decided to look for a medium-sized school outside of Texas but still within driving distance of home. I knew a big state school wasn't for me. I didn't feel like I would fit into a big city – it wasn't what I was used to, and I didn't really know how to function in that type of environment. Louisiana Tech was a great starting point for my life away from my parents. It's in a college town, and it's in the South, six hours from where I grew up, just far enough to keep me from being tempted to go home every weekend.
Q: How do you approach recruiting at Auburn?
A: Because we have a lot of players coming from out of state – or even out of the U.S. – I view my role with the parents as very important. I have to reassure these parents that their daughters will be safe at my school. Because I'm a mother myself (Lauren is expecting her second son any day now!) I understand how concerned the parents are when they send their child to a school far from home. It's my job to make sure the parents understand that I will be taking care of their daughters, that I will help them learn time management skills, that I will do my best to keep them safe, and that I will do my best to keep them healthy both physically and emotionally.
With the players, I try to prepare them as best I can for what they will face as an Auburn student-athlete. I ask them to consider whether our school and our coaches fit in with what they want personality-wise, tennis-wise, and academically. I also look at a recruit's birth order in their family to help me understand their personality and actions. First-born daughters have very different traits than middle- and youngest children, and I consider that when forming my recruiting class and my team as a whole.
Q: How does your role as Head Coach impact your overall coaching success?
A: When you come to play for me, you are family; you don't get out of it. Auburn is very family-oriented. Once you come into our program, you are my child, my baby. My goal with each of my players is to raise an adult. When I send these young women out into the world, they are better tennis players, and they are prepared to go out and be self-sufficient, not return to mom and dad. We have to continue what their parents are doing and raise adults.
My personal life and my work life are very much blended. We call our team dinners “Family dinners” because we always eat our meals together. That's very important to me. When you go to battle or war with another team, having a close bond and trust with the players helps propel the team to being confident in themselves as well as what the team is doing on and off the court. At Auburn, the coaches care as much about our players as individuals as we do about how they hit tennis balls. I believe that approach is especially important when coaching females.
Q: What advice would you give to other college tennis coaches?
A: Number one, we're all here because of the student-athletes. There are certain times they will test us just like our own kids do. We have to make sure we're doing everything we can to protect them, especially in the world we live in right now. We have to make sure the student-athlete's welfare is protected, whether that means resting them, making sure they're mentally and physically healthy, making sure you teach them proper life lessons. Sometimes you have to use tough love, but as long as you do it to provide the ability for the student-athlete to grow as a tennis player and a person, making sure the student-athlete comes first, that's a big deal. Coaches in major conferences have a lot of stress around winning and losing, but you don't want to put that in front of student-athlete welfare.
Number two, enjoy the job. When I get stressed out, I look down at my feet and see I'm wearing tennis shoes. I get to wear sweats and tennis shoes to work! I get to work outside!
My SID (Sports Information Director), Josh (Wetzel), is a military veteran and lost both of his legs in battle. One day he came into my office, took a look at my face, sat down, and asked, “What's wrong?” I started complaining about all the stuff that was going badly at work. Josh started giggling, put his titanium leg up on my desk and said “Yeah, one day I had a really bad day at work, too.”
We have really great careers, this is really fun, we get to mentor these really awesome kids – we coaches need to keep things in perspective. Don't let the stress of winning and losing be your only focus and priority and just enjoy this experience we have.
I learned very early: always surround yourself with good people because they're going to make you better. My Associate Coach, Chris Hooshyar, played at SMU when I coached there. I've known him since he was just a kid! Chris's wife is the head recruiting coordinator for Auburn. My dad is our volunteer assistant. It's just a big family thing for me at Auburn. But I haven't surrounded myself with “yes” people – these folks tell me when I'm wrong and keep me grounded and humble. And that's what has led to our team's success.
Lisa Stone is the founder and creator of ParentingAces, a website and podcast for tennis parents. She frequently writes for other tennis-related sites as well as for Huffington Post. You can follow Lisa on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.