As a coach I realize my responsibility goes beyond the court written by Lizl Kotz

Jolene Watanabe

Jolene Watanabe

Sitting down with Jolene Watanabe on her couch in Hilton Head, SC. I was relieved to see  the television dialed to the French Open finals.  Not only would I get to know Jolene better, but we would be watching Nadal do his magic on the court together.  Jolene smiled at me from her couch where she was reclining under a brown, fuzzy blanket. The trophies placed randomly in her living room are clearly an afterthought--they are scattered between numerous decorative items--but remain as displays of her athletic accomplishments.  Jolene is as casual as how these trophies have been strewn around the house. She has not aged; her skin is bronzed from years spent on the court as both a player and an instructor. Jolene has an easy smile, and it is easy to forget that Jolene is a former WTA player ranked as high as 70 in the world. 

She has had wins over players such as Jennifer Capriati, Brenda Schultz and Amy Frazier.  Her impact on the tennis community as both a player and a coach has not slowed down since her days on the tour.  As a senior player Jolene has collected 17 gold balls and shares her experience and expertise with her students at Smith Stearns Tennis Academy.  Jolene works closely with both BJ Stearns and Stan Smith to develop junior players who are successful both on and off the court.

About ten months ago, Jolene was training for the hardcourt nationals in La Quinta, California by going for three-mile runs and crushing on-court sprints after a ten-hour coaching day.  She noticed seven pounds melting away yet had a bloated, enlarged stomach.  At first, she wrote it off to aging. But after her tournament, she decided to ask her general practitioner about it.  Her doctor agreed that her enlarged abdomen was, in fact, concerning. He ordered a CT scan which would later confirm the presence of a tumor.  This started an arduous process of many doctor visits with one doctor referring on to another. As a goal-oriented athlete, being without concrete answers and a clear strategy in mind was agonizing.  

Eventually Jolene was scheduled for surgery to remove the tumor.  Her doctor warned her that if the surgery took longer than an hour and a half, then it would indicate cancer and not just a benign fibroid tumor.  Jolene woke up after a four hour surgery and knew she was facing cancer for the second time in her life.  She had already beaten breast cancer eight years prior and was determined to beat this cancer as well.  This cancer was not related to her previous breast cancer--something we did not talk much about since she is not one to dwell--and had its origin in her appendix.  In life as in tennis, there is no benefit to dwelling on the past.  If you miss a shot you are better off directing your emotional energy towards the next shot.  She had the tumor removed along with a hysterectomy, her appendix and the omentum, an apron-like layer blanketing the organs.  Jolene was asked by her doctor to recover for six weeks before returning to work, but three weeks later Jolene was back on the court coaching and mentoring her junior students.  I can only assume that because Jolene’s body has carried her through many long, three set matches, she felt confident in her body’s ability to recover faster than the typical patient.

Four months later, while Jolene was completing her sixth cycle of chemo, I participated in a couple of hitting lessons with her students.  I was immediately struck by Jolene’s intentional conversation with her students throughout the lessons.  Her attention was on her students fully and not on me, the way it should be.  Jolene’s strong connection with them was immediately evident.  She not only provided definitive structure on technique, but read her students’ temperaments and assessed which game style would be best suited to each individual player.

“As a coach, I go the extra mile.  I realize my responsibility goes beyond the court.  I am involved in their lives without meddling-my students know that I am there for them. I have even had to learn snapchat in order to keep up,” Jolene says with a smile.  She motivates her kids by bringing positive energy to the court every day.  She thinks it is so important for a coach to read his or her students.  She needs to be tough without reaching their breaking point.  Because she grew up competing, she relates to the pressure her kids feel when their focus is on the expectations of others.  To counter this, she teaches her students to take ownership of their tennis and to let their parents know that they are taking ownership.  For the parents, she reminds them that a result-oriented focus is a dead end road. Jolene added, “If a player is instead focused on every day reaching small goals and improving their performance, the results will come.”

On Mother’s Day this past May, Jolene was hoping her test results would show a shrinking tumor.  Instead, the tumor did not increase or decrease in size.  Her doctors at the Mayo clinic ordered a second round of chemo consisting of six cycles to treat the cancer in her appendix. Jolene immediately started preparing for another 12 weeks of chemo by going for runs to strengthen and prepare her body.  “I have just recently completed the first of six cycles and believe my body is handling this round of chemo better due to my working out prior to starting.  I also abstain from drinking caffeine or alcohol while undergoing chemo.”

When I asked Jolene if she missed competing, she responded, “I do miss competing and it felt really good to beat one of my students 6-2 6-3 recently.”  This was a detail Jolene remembered that I thought was telling of her desire to not let cancer derail her from routine. “I have a lot of great tennis memories and my best memory interestingly enough is not while playing as a professional.”  When she played for the US World 45’s Team she played the number one singles position.  She had several matches where her team was down and she had to dig deep to win her match and get her team the win.  Helping her team win the world championship and her nail-biter match against the Netherlands in particular stands out.

Jolene and I silently agreed to halt our conversation and watched Nadal clinch the first set with confidence. As I watched Nadal take care of business against Thiem, I couldn’t help but compare Jolene’s outlook to Nadal’s determination to stay the course.  A slight nod of her head acknowledges the fact that Nadal remains unbeatable because of his intense focus on the court, and this is an attitude that carries over to Jolene’s fight for her health.  When I asked Jolene how she processed the difficult news, she replied without hesitation, “I keep a good attitude every day.  I have good doctors and I don’t waste energy by second guessing their plan or saying,”why me?”.  Being an athlete and a female tennis coach in a male-dominated coaching world grows tough skin.  “Tennis has taught me to gather information, formulate a game plan, and to execute.  I don’t know my fate but if the cancer doesn’t decrease, I will come up with a new game plan and keep fighting.”