Santa Clara University men’s tennis coach Derek Mills describes himself as, “Super motivated,” and it shows as the Bronco’s have moved from off the map as a team to being on the collegiate rankings radar. Mills is in his sixth year as SCU men’s tennis coach and under his guidance the program has grown. In 2012, Mills led Santa Clara U. to it’s most successful season in program history, including a trip to the NCAA tournament where they won a first round match against the then No. 19 Texas in the first round.
Prior to taking the coach job at Santa Clara U. Mills spent two seasons at Saint Louis University, in Missouri, a d-1 school, where he doubled up as head coach of the men’s and women’s teams. During those two seasons, three of his players earned All-Conference USA honors. Mills then left Saint Louis U. for Honolulu, Hawaii where he spent six years working with some of the top juniors.
SZ: Prior to coaching collegiate tennis you were a successful teaching pro in Hawaii. What was the deciding factor to move into coaching collegiate tennis?
DM: Actually I was a coach at Saint Louis U. before I went to Hawaii. It was my first division one head coaching job and I was coaching both the men’s and women’s teams.
I did that for two years and just got super burned out, working with two teams at that level. After that I moved to Hawaii and did some coaching and real estate stuff. While I was there I thought about how much I missed coaching college tennis. I missed the competition of coaching at the level. About a year before I took the Santa Clara job I started to look at different job opportunities that were available but I had been out of college coaching for five years already. That’s a long time with all the young coaches coming up. Even though I had two years of division one experience as a head coach it was still not a lot to compete with. But when the Santa Clara job became available I submitted my resume and it just worked out. A lot of my family members live in the bay area and I had planned a vacation to come and see them, which coincided with the SCU interview. But my basic motivation was I just wanted to get back into coaching college tennis, I missed it.
SZ: Prior to returning to college coaching your junior program in Hawaii was quite successful. Besides technical awareness what coaching skills do you feel transfer well over to the collegiate level?
DM: In Hawaii the tennis community is very small. When I arrived there and started teaching, with a division one coaching background, it obviously opened some doors for me. As people got to know me a bit, I was quickly working with a lot of the top boy’s and girl’s. Hawaii on kind of the down side, even though they have great weather, don’t really turn out really competitive players. I brought a competitiveness in my teaching that maybe the average coach in Hawaii wouldn’t bring out. The Hawaiians call it “the mainland” way of doing things. I brought that competitive perspective to the juniors and I think it excited them. That’s why I was able to attract them and work with them for a few years.
SZ: Since I am a mainlander, what was the difference or trigger point to help those kids broaden their dreams and ambitions?
DM: Purely from a competitive stand point people in Hawaii are so laid back, even when they are competing. It’s hard to explain. You just have to go through it to understand it. It was interesting for me to experience. Some of the kids that I started working with didn’t really understand the time commitment that a lot of the top players coming in from the mainland put in.
SZ: You guided them towards a discipline and focus of time commitment and competitiveness in tennis.
DM: Absolutely, no question about it.
SZ: In the six seasons as head coach of SCU men’s tennis you’ve transformed the program. What were the opportunities you saw in SCU before you decided to accept the position?
DM: Before I took the job and was going through the interview process the members of the interview committee were saying, “We had such a great year last year with the previous coach.” In the back of my mind I was thinking, “It was a pretty good year but I know for a fact I can help the team do better.” They were so used to maybe getting into the top seventy-five in the collegiate rankings. If your team is in the top seventy-five your school is kind of considered in the rankings. Maybe in a good year previously SCU had reach a high of sixty-eight or in the seventies. I just thought, “Wow I feel like what I bring to the table, we can do a lot better than that and expect it every year.” That’s what kind of intrigued me to being at SCU. It’s a great school and in a great area of the country but I just felt this team should be doing a lot better than they have in the past.
SZ: A few years back you were able to recruit some strong transfer players. Brian Brogan from Pepperdine, Andrew Kells, from USC, and Nico Vinel from Virginia Commonwealth. How did you sell them on the SCU program which was still pretty much unknown as a strong tennis university?
DM: Brian Brogan is from the bay area. He began his collegiate career at SCU and left when there was a coaching change. There was about a three or four month period where there was a coaching vacancy between the previous coach and my taking the job. So Brian actually left to go to a bigger program at Pepperdine then ended up coming back because one, he missed the bay area and two because he saw what I was doing for the team and the vision I had for the program.
The other guys who came on board were at big schools and saw an opportunity to get playing time right away by coming to SCU. These guys helped rebuild the program. We were one of the worst division one teams in the country. For example, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) ranks teams 1-200 and we weren’t even in the 200’s. We didn’t even know where we were the first two years.
SZ: So it was a great opportunity for these guys to be able to play for a division one school, step right into the role of being impact players.
DM: And definitely be a part of it. They were already a part of it but they were at really, really good schools and big programs. They were on the cusp of playing. But I think they figured out that they might not get as much playing time as they wanted and they wanted more playing time.
SZ: That was good timing. This timing thing has been great for you.
DM: So far.
SZ: In previous interviews you mention that the team chemistry is strong and the players play for each other. What are the situations you create to build that team unity?
What do you do to help them bond and develop respect for each other?
DM: I don’t want to put more importance on what we do for tennis but I think it’s one of the toughest jobs that we have. It’s a very unique situation on a college tennis team because we’re getting, especially with where the program is now, we are getting top level players and in tennis when you are growing up through the USTA it is really all about you. It’s not like being on a basketball team where team concepts are ingrained. Tennis is the absolute opposite. In the juniors some players won’t even practice with the other best player in town or in the city because they don’t want any advantage to go to another player, to figure out how to play your game. It’s very all about you.
So from the first time we get the guys into our program we preach team concepts. Everything we do is all about the team. We let guys know when we are recruiting them, that in the juniors it’s all about you, but when we get you, it’s all about we. That’s some of the things we really try to impress upon all our players. We do a lot of things that seem kind of basic but for some of these guys that are coming from a high school tennis background, they’ve never had team camaraderie. Just recently the whole team went to the movies. You might think, “Every team does that.” But for tennis? Players aren’t used to that, they just aren’t.
SZ: You spent the first part of your career coaching juniors. At what age is it important to help juniors develop their foundation for the mental game in tennis? What are ways you help young players grasp the importance of the mental game in their overall development?
DM: It’s important to start off right from the beginning. I don’t think you say, “Okay now that the player is twelve years old we are going to begin teaching the mental game.” In the higher levels of tennis, most players are equally fit, most players have a lot of the same technical background, the one thing that differentiates between the top players and maybe the guy that’s ten spots behind him is the mental game.
When I was coaching in Hawaii we started right away which included very simple things, for example, in between points whether the player wins or loses the point, focus on the racket strings and move them. Other things we taught the kids in Hawaii and do with the SCU team is to develop routines. To continually do the same thing whether you win or lose the point.
SZ: Are most of the players who come into your program already aware of how to manage their mental game?
DM: At the collegiate level many players have already been coached in this to a certain degree. We definitely remind them and we definitely talk with the team about it. I know how most of the U.S. kids are trained but you never know there might be some countries where their focus in on more playing skills development and less mental. So on a daily basis we talk about and practice routines and refocusing on the next point.
SZ: What is your philosophy for players to practice their mental game during practice?
DM: We try to create a very competitive atmosphere in practice. We work on that on a daily basis within a practice. Being competitive but also working out the different mental grinds that players are going to have during either a match or a drill, then getting through that using your routines. On the ninety second change overs some of the guys will bring out flash cards to remind themselves, “Okay this is what I’ve got to do as part of my routine.” Tennis is very routine based to get prepared for the next point and we work on that everyday in practice.
SZ: So during practices or several of the weekly practices you set up competitive situations for the players, such as, playing seven points and the winner moves up a court.
DM: Yes, that’s exactly what we do. Everything is competitive and we do it to where you think of just hitting cross court forehands to each other who is going to be the one not to make an error. We make it into a competition. Most everything we do in our practices is competitive based and then we have a different set of practices called “individuals” that’s more technique, and strategy based. When we have the team together at team practices I would say it’s ninety-eight percent competitive even within basic drills.
SZ: If your guys are coming from classes or a tough week at school and it’s competitive everyday on the court how does a player side step burn-out? Or do you believe that’s part of the conditions they will face when playing for real?
DM: If I feel the guys need a mental physical break I just give them a day off. It’s really a feel I have for the players as a coach. I can tell in the warm up if a guy needs a break. Some days we literally finish a warm up, talk to the team for ten minutes then say, “Okay you guys can go.” I have a feel for where the guys are at and know when maybe we need to put the brakes on. Some days we go and play soccer or something else to get some cardio in and step away from tennis.
SZ: You’ve established a new tradition of success for men’s tennis at SCU. Do you have any favorite, quotes, stories or tips that inspire you or that you use to inspire the team?
DM: I don’t have any quite honestly. Growing up I always idolized coaches like Bill Walsh, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. I always looked up to coaches. During the NFC West playoffs this year Jim Harbaugh was being interviewed and a reporter asked him about an upcoming game and his strategy, his reply to the question was a quip from Al Davis, who used to say, “Just win baby.” That’s kind of our philosophy around here. “Let’s just win baby.” It’s a reminder we work as hard as we can every single day to get better. Let’s just do what we do.
SZ: Derek thank you for taking the time for this interview.
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