With the Australian Open already under way, Workopolis had a chance to sit down with one of the best tennis coaches in Canada, Robert Steckley.
You might recognize Steckley’s name as coach to Lucie Safarova, the multiple title-winning Czech tennis star. While working together, Safarova hit a top five world ranking – needless to say, the two make a great team.
We sat down with Steckley to see what his coaching style could teach us about management, including the importance of communication, getting ego out of the way, more.
Workopolis: Tell us a bit about your journey. You actually played on the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) circuit before you started coaching, right?
R.S.: Where do I begin? After my junior career, I went on to play college tennis. During those years, I played on the circuit as well. Toward the end of my college career I was asked to play in the Davis Cup for Canada. It was then I decided to play full time on the tour for a few years – until I tore my rotator cuff. During the months I was rehabbing, I started to lose the motivation to play for myself. This wasn’t the first time I had tried to come back, but with the age I was at the time, I felt like it was time to give up competing.
Tell us about the transition from playing professionally to coaching.
I think for me, the transition was already happening during the years I tried to come back after injury. It humbled me to the point in which I was helping everyone around me, even my opponents. I found a new respect for the game and for those around me. Needless to say, my passion for helping others made it easier when it came time to give up playing professionally. I was tired, I was beat up, and the motivation to keep playing just wasn’t there. I was about 27 when I made up my mind to continue in the tennis world, but as a coach.
What has been the hardest part of going from player to coach?
I think the hardest transition for most tennis players looking to get into coaching is that we are not the main focus anymore. That’s typically the hardest thing to adjust to. Our entire lives are focused primarily on our wants and needs, and suddenly that’s not the case anymore. Luckily for me, I had that shift early in my 20’s when I started to put the needs of others ahead of my own. The first couple of years did take some adjusting for sure.
How did the coaching relationship with Lucie Safarova start?
Lucie and I were friends from the first year I started coaching on the WTA circuit. I was coaching Canadian Aleks Wozniak at the time. I was trying to find a doubles partner for Aleks when Lucie came into the picture. They started to play together, and a few years later I got the call from Lucie asking if I would be interested in coaching her.
What are some lessons you taught Lucie to help her reach the top five ranking in the world?
Lucie has always been a good player. She has always had the tools, but sometimes struggled with confidence. Because of that she was always a little streaky. I thought it was key for us to build another layer to her game. She needed to learn defence, which would ultimately help her offence and confidence overall.
Believe it or not, I also thought it was important to work on her personality off court. I started to put together fun little videos that would allow her to open up as an individual and loosen up. This directly translated to her on-court personality as well. People thought it was a waste of time, but luckily Lucie believed in what we were doing. and it payed off.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in the coach/player relationship?
Like all relationships, there is a constant battle of ego. There will always be difference of opinions, but if you are able to discuss the issues together you will be able to sort it out. You need to be able to put your ego aside, communicate, be adaptable to change, and be an impeccable listener. I have learned that sometimes you don’t even need to talk, just listen. I think the best coaches and players are the ones who have the urge to constantly learn from each other.
What is the most important characteristic of being a good coach?
Communication by far. To be able to have a strong working relationship like the one we have had for four-plus years, you need to be able to communicate.
What’s the preparation like for the Australian Open?
Lucie and I spent the off-season training in Miami. We had a couple weeks of some solid training and, of course, made some fun videos. She is playing some really good tennis. She has been out since early September with an injury but seems to be 100 per cent ready to go for the new season. We are both extremely excited.
You are also very public, and share a lot of your journey on social media. You even started a production company called “Tennis Cool.” Can you tell us more about that?
Connor Casey and I have been friends since we were playing under-14 tournaments in Ontario. We have both been creative since childhood. We recently teamed up to start Tennis Cool Productions.
Basically, we want to make tennis cool. The focus is to bring everyday scenarios in the tennis world to life. We are currently working on a series that we hope to have ready for 2019. During this season, we will be on the road together and will be filming part of the series that the WTA and tennis channel will help promote.
You travel most of the year from tournament to tournament. What is that like?
Travelling can be tough, especially when you have a family and two kids, like I do. We make it work though, and I truly love to travel and explore. I am very creative, and traveling allows me to explore much more than just tennis.