Trojans and Tennis: An Interview with Pete Carroll

by: Tom A. McFerson | July 26, 2009

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Since Pete Carroll became head football coach at the University of Southern California in 2001, the Trojans have won one BCS national championship (2004) and four Rose Bowls, including three straight from 2007-09. Prior to his tenure at USC, Carroll spent 16 seasons in the NFL, including four as a head coach. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., where he was introduced to Timothy Gallwey’s seminal 1974 text, “The Inner Game of Tennis,” the principles of which he has espoused throughout his coaching career. recently caught up with the 57-year-old Carroll, an avid college and professional tennis fan, in his office on USC’s Los Angeles campus. Surrounded by four decades’ worth of Trojan football memorabilia, Carroll discussed the dearth of multisport athletes in big-time college athletics, the importance of innate competitiveness in successful athletes, and coaching football as Gallwey would coach tennis.

Tom A. McFerson: I know you’re a fan of all sports, but is there something about tennis in particular that appeals to you?
Pete Carroll: Yeah, it’s an individual sport, and I love the games where you get to work on your skills and can develop your technique and your approach, and do it in an individual manner. That’s why I like golf as well.

Some people think the reason American tennis is falling behind is that the U.S. isn’t attracting the best athletes this country has to offer, while other countries, such as Spain, are attracting their best athletes to tennis. You are around this country’s young elite athletes, visiting their schools and neighborhoods and homes. How difficult is it going to be for tennis to attract these top athletes?
I’m sure that those that support the game are working hard to maintain and develop a connection with today’s kids and all. But I don’t see much of it out there. In supporting our own teams at the university, [tennis] is not part of the inner city. And it’s not part of a big cross-section of the kinds of areas that we travel in, so we don’t see it much.
Is it cultural? Is it financial?

I think it’s a little bit of both of those, yeah. Certainly financial. It’s a cultural deal. [Tennis] is just not part of the mentality of a big, big base of kids growing up now.

Is it also the fact that the “big three” sports (baseball, basketball, football) just suck all the air out of the room?
I don’t think there is any question about that. There are kids playing all the other sports, but when times are tough and money gets short, smaller programs and sports with smaller numbers tend to be deemphasized in the schools. And how do you get kids started early? It’s all about getting kids started early. And where are the icons for the kids, the [athletes] that they want to follow. That’s also a key to getting kids involved.

You have a freshman quarterback, Matt Barkley, who went to Mater Dei (a Catholic high school sports juggernaut in Orange County, California). Why is it so difficult to draw that kind of athlete into tennis?
I think it’s the lure of team sports, and the availability of it in front of them, with TV and all the media bases, and I think they just grow up dreaming of becoming a football star or a basketball star more than a tennis star. It’s part of the times, it seems.

How many kids do you see playing multiple sports these days?
Not enough. I’m a big advocate of multiple sport guys, and I want [USC] to be the spot or destination for kids that want to play football and other sports. And I sell it all the time, but I can’t find many of them that are willing to do it. We have guys that are capable of it, but few are really willing to do it at our level.

Guys that end up on your team, did they play two or three sports in high schools?
Most of them did. I’m always very much in touch with that information. I think guys that have played other sports bring a better awareness of gamesmanship and sportsmanship and competitiveness that helps them in everything. I was a three-sport guy growing up and I think it helped me my whole life, and I just think it enhances your competitiveness.

Could the same be said for tennis players?

How did you become a disciple of Tim Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis”?
In graduate school, I was doing sports psychology stuff and the book came across the reading list way back when, and then I had the chance to visit with [Gallwey]. He gave a seminar, then a group from my class had dinner with him, and I was instantly attracted to the perspective, to the point of view that he brought. And I started to incorporate it into my own hoops game—playing basketball, and I was also playing tennis at the time. I was done playing football then. And I just thought there was really something there. It resonated, and I’ve stayed with the information ever since, and it has become part of my life, the philosophy and the background of what he spoke about 30 or 40 years ago.

How quickly do you start teaching those concepts to your players?
It is absolutely woven into everything that we do, although I never mention the “inner game,” and I never talk specifically about it. It has become so much of the fabric of the way I think and operate, because it is all a performance-based orientation. I really try to coach our whole football team the way Tim Gallwey might have coached an individual tennis player.

So when you’re recruiting, are you looking for kids that are going to be receptive to this type of philosophy?
No, not necessarily. I don’t really care whether they’re going to be receptive or not; they have to be, because it’s part of the indoctrination. I’m looking for people with great will and great competitiveness. There’s a way that we approach this, and a way that we’ve connected and utilized some of the processes, that they would never even know. They’ve never seen me hold up the book. I never read from it or anything like that, never mention Tim’s name. It’s just part of the way we operate now.

One of the key concepts in the book is not thinking about the stakes involved, and just letting your body and mind play the game. In your environment here, with the expectations and the BCS rankings and the bowl games, how difficult is it get the players to buy into it?
It is a challenge. It’s a challenge because mainstream sports and the media bring all the focus to that kind of mentality. We do everything to stay away from it as far as possible. We don’t aspire to be national champions or to win so many games or to prove who we are or any of that. We absolutely work to be the best that we can possibly be and maximize our potential, and that usually means winning for us. We go about it by creating a very different way of looking at things, so that we can focus and maintain an ability to perform at a really high level for a really long time, and we try to separate [ourselves] from the way other people operate.
How close are you with the tennis programs here at USC?
I watch the kids and go out to certain matches during the year and talk to the coaches now and then and try to connect with them. We send our [football] players out there a couple times a year and support the big match-ups, the rivalry match-ups, to make sure they know that we’re pulling for them.

Freshman quarterback Matt Barkley walks by, smiling as he tries to obscure a bag of food from McDonald’s.

What’s up Matty? How you doing buddy? Eating well, huh?

You spoke to the women’s team before a match a couple of weeks ago.
Yes, before the Cal match I think it was. … I talked to them about a big match-up that the coaches were concerned about and I wanted to make sure to send the message that they were absolutely capable of winning. And that they had all the ability and talent and the athleticism to get a great win, so they didn’t have to focus on that at all. What I hoped that they would focus on was being the very best they could be on that day and bringing to the court all of the things that they’re highly noted for, that they’re famous for. You know, whether it’s their ground strokes or their net play or their service game, that’s hopefully what would show up during this match. And if they were all able to do that, there wouldn’t be any question that they would win, they would win easily.

(The USC women ended up winning the match, 4-3.)

Are there any professional tennis players out there that you’re drawn to because you like what they stand for or their approach or their attitude?
I think the guys that are playing now, the guys that are on top, are extraordinary athletes, and you can see why the game is elevating and continues to get better. I love the old guys, I like the fire of McEnroe, the long-standing competitiveness of Jimmy Connors, and those kind of guys. Now I see the guys out there, with those same kind of similar traits, but even bigger and better and faster athletes, as the natural evolution would typically bring about in an individual sport.

Do you think tennis is missing out by not allowing coaching during matches?
No. Although it would be a fun sport to actively coach as basketball coaches do, if you could really work it. That would be a cool element, particularly if colorful coaches were working the court and walking the sidelines as guys are playing. I think it would be a fascinating addition to what is going on.

Like in Davis Cup?
But more like the basketball coaches do. It would be pretty cool.

Tom McFerson is a freelance tennis writer based in Southern California.

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