Kathy Sell became head coach of Princeton University's women's tennis team in 2004 after spending two seasons as assistant coach at the University of Oregon. A 2001 graduate and former All-American at Duke University, Sell was the first female recipient of the university's Athlete of the Year Award in 2001, which she shared with men's basketball player Shane Battier.
Kathy Sell - Princeton
Women's Head Coach
The sister of Michael Sell, the lead national coach of men's tennis for the USTA, Kathy was recently chosen as one of four coaches to lead the USTA Men’s and Women’s Summer Collegiate Teams, an elite training program for the top American college tennis players in the country. She recently took time from her busy schedule to answer some questions for USTA.com.
USTA.com: You played your college tennis at Duke. What is one of your best memories from your years in Durham?
Kathy Sell: College was such a great experience for me! One of my best memories would have to be playing in the NCAA Team Championship Finals my freshman year.
USTA.com: What did you learn from your college tennis experience there? How has it shaped your coaching philosophy?
Kathy Sell: I learned how to compete, how to win, while I was a college player. Duke provided me with the best possible environment to learn how to win tennis matches. In junior tennis, I spent most of my time developing technique and discipline with all aspects of my life. I was very consumed by establishing a work ethic and by the typical junior player concerns: doing well at the sectional level, qualifying for nationals. Once I arrived at Duke, my single focus on court was to win. I learned quickly that the best college players were those who wanted to win the most and who prepared that way; I tried to make sure I was one of those players. I had A LOT of fun on court in college and am most proud of the fact that I improved each year that I played at Duke. As far as my coaching philosophy, I’d have to say I rely on both the attention to detail/discipline I learned in juniors and the competitive spirit of college to shape my decisions.
USTA.com: Who have been your biggest influences in your tennis career?
Kathy Sell: My parents had the biggest influence on my tennis career from the simple fact that they allowed me to play and made it possible for me to have opportunities to travel and compete. If not for my brother, Mike, and sisters, Kris and Jenny, I don’t think I would have had an interest in the sport at such a young age, nor would I have had an aspiration to be a good college player. My junior coach Alan Ma, college coach Jamie Ashworth, and a select few coaches along the way (David Astorino and Scott DelMastro) taught me SO many lessons that I draw upon every day as a coach and in life.
USTA.com: You definitely come from a tennis family. Do you and your siblings still get out on the court together?
Kathy Sell: Occasionally we find ourselves on court together, but it is typically non-competitive. I do, however, depend upon the advice of my siblings for all aspects of my life – tennis being a big part of that. So tennis is a normal part of the conversation when we are together. I have the absolute best support from my siblings a person could ever ask for.
USTA.com: Describe your path to college coaching. When did you decide that you wanted to be a college tennis coach?
Kathy Sell: There was never a moment when I said, “I want to be a college tennis coach.” In fact, like many former college players, I resisted staying in tennis initially. The pursuit of my first coaching job stemmed from my desire to go to graduate school. Luckily, I was living in Oregon when the University of Oregon position opened, and Nils Schyllander hired me to be his assistant. I jumped at the chance and simultaneously studied in the Anthropology Department. The opportunity at Princeton was completely unexpected. I knew it would be a good fit culturally for me, and so when I heard from Princeton, I was immediately intrigued. At the time, I was convinced I would live in Oregon forever because I was very happy there, but next thing I knew I was moving forward to the next adventure.
USTA.com: You were a relatively young head coach when you took over at Princeton. What were some of the challenges you faced in those first couple years?
Kathy Sell: Fortunately, the challenges I faced as a rookie coach were soothed by the incredible mentorship I received from the athletics director, Gary Walters, and his staff. As a young coach, I naturally felt inclined to control every aspect of the job, and it was exhausting, not because of the work I was doing, but because I never let my mind rest. I am doing a much better job seeking balance in my fifth season.
USTA.com: What’s your favorite part of your job?
Kathy Sell: My favorite part of the job is that there are so many aspects of running a team to consider that it is impossible to ever get stale. I really enjoy creating the schedule for the team, both training and competitive, because every year I learn new things about Princeton, the game of tennis and my own players, so I love having the freedom to make adjustments. With the exception of team rules, we change the way we do things a little bit every year to reflect new ideas and strategies.
USTA.com: What’s the most challenging part?
Kathy Sell: The most challenging part of my job is that I cannot read the minds of my players. It is difficult to create a practice plan for 10+ players as it is, but on top of that, there are different issues every day that I try to pick up on so that I can meet all the tennis-related needs of my players. More often than not, players say “I’m fine” or “Things are good,” and it’s not always the case. It takes time to get to know the players and probably even more time for them to get to know me, so that process is always challenging as the team roster changes from year to year.
USTA.com: You don’t get a lot of free time, but when you do, what do you like to do?
Kathy Sell: When I have a few days off, I love to spend time with my boyfriend and my family, all of whom live outside of New Jersey. I’m actually in love with three people right now – my boyfriend and my sister Kris’s twin two-year-olds, Kate and Addison. Luckily, they all live in the same town, so I get to see everyone when I visit. When I’m on my own, I love quiet days without an agenda.
USTA.com: Do you get more nervous now when you’re coaching on court or when you were a player?
Kathy Sell: There has yet to be a match day when I haven’t caught myself saying, “I would LOVE to play in this match today.” I really don’t get very nervous as a coach because my real work is done before the match begins. I want the players to feel independent and intelligent when they are on court. While it isn’t easy to sit on the sidelines, I actually feel more nervous during practices when the pressure is on me to teach the right things that they’ll use during matches. Match day for me is more “watch, learn, cheer” than actually coaching a player to a win. She does that part on her own.
USTA.com: What are your goals for your team this season?
Kathy Sell: My ultimate goal is for Princeton Tennis to become a top-20 program. A top-20 ranked team will be competing to reach the final site in the NCAA tournament most years, and that is an opportunity unique to the best teams out there. In my mind, Princeton should have a great tennis program; it completely fits in with the overall mission of the university to be great. After being at Princeton for five years, I actually look back and can say that top 20 wasn’t a high enough goal for this place.
USTA.com: College coaches spend a majority of their summer on the road recruiting. Any advice for juniors on the recruiting process?
Kathy Sell: I think there should be a survival manual for junior tennis players as it relates to the recruiting process. My simple advice would be: Take ownership of the process. The ultimate decision, in almost all cases, should be a family decision, but the recruiting process is much more successful when the players take the initiative to be the person talking to the coach, not their parents or coach.
USTA.com: Any advice for current college players?
Kathy Sell: Being on a college team is an incredible opportunity to realize that success is much more rewarding when you can accomplish and share it with other people. To that end, I love this quote: “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”