Editor's note: Building highly successful athletics programs requires many facets. In this "Auburn Builds Champions" series, we will profile eight Auburn Athletics coaches and support staff members and their keys to success. In part three, women's tennis coach Lauren Spencer discusses the importance of developing strong, independent women.
By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Lauren Spencer recruits student-athletes for the women's tennis team at Auburn, she tells them and their parents that she's looking for three things.
First, she wants them to leave Auburn and be better tennis players. Second, she wants them to be academically ready and set up with a degree that's going to be useful for them to either get a job out of school or go into graduate school. Third, and maybe most importantly, she doesn't want her players to go back home to mom and dad when they graduate.
"I think that's really important in this day and age to have independent women who can go and be self-sufficient," Spencer said. "I think that builds confidence. I think a lot of times when you see people out of college making rash decisions, it's a confidence issue.
"So we just try to make sure when they leave here that they have both a purpose in tennis and academics but also a purpose in their life. It's just conversations and being there. I don't feel like this job is just being a coach. It's sometimes being there to help them with their life. We know that less than one percent of all athletes become professional, so we need to make sure they're professional in other ways and other areas."
That could be as simple as helping her players with how to do laundry or explaining to them how to budget and how to pay bills, which might seem trivial to some, but in a lot of cases, these young women have never had to do any of that. College is the first time in their lives that they've been on their own, and it's meant to prepare them for the real world.
"It's really scary when you go out there on your own, so we just want to make sure that they are independent and that they can do things for themselves," Spencer said.
In football or basketball or baseball, coaches can point to former student-athletes playing at the professional level as success stories. When four Auburn football players were drafted last April, that was a tribute to the work Gus Malzahn and his staff did.
That's not how it works in tennis.
In tennis, very few collegiate players go on to play professionally. So instead, Spencer points to the student-athletes she's coached who are thriving in the real world as her success stories.
Plamena Kurteva (2009-12) is running her family's dairy farm in Bulgaria, a multi-million-dollar operation that makes one of the best cheeses in the world. There's another former student-athlete who works for the LSU athletic department and also runs her own online fashion blog. Jackie Kasler (2010-14) is about to graduate from Auburn's veterinary school.
There are others who are finishing up physical therapy school or getting their master's degree in nutrition. The list goes on, but it comes back to their experience playing tennis at Auburn and playing for Spencer, who cares about more than simply results.
"She always promoted not only my tennis game, but she promoted going to class," Kasler said. "She was never like, `Hey, tennis is the only thing I care about. Practice comes first.' I did well. We had a great season. I was obsessed with the game, and I loved it. But she has created an environment where if I needed to study on trips, she would make sure I was able to get back to the hotel and study for at least a certain amount of time.
"I never felt guilty or pressured into only thinking about tennis with her."
"Most of these girls are really good at their academics," Spencer said. "Most tennis players are very self-driven. They're type A almost. They want to do well in everything they do. There are a lot of times that we're having to talk them off the ledge just because they're trying to get into medical school or vet school or business school. I don't really have a `we're not going to class' situation. They cry when they don't get to go to class."
With that said, Spencer doesn't accept anything lower than a B in the classroom. She's in contact every day with the academic counselor, making sure her student-athletes are keeping their GPA up and giving themselves the opportunity to further their education if need be.
If that means giving her players extra time on road trips to prepare for a test or isolating part of the bus for the girls to study, that's what Spencer will do.
In terms of preparing the student-athletes for life after tennis, academics and a high GPA can only go so far. The other critical part of it is confidence.
When you're playing tennis and it's just you out there, you have to be confident. When you're taking a test, you have to know the material and be confident in your intelligence. And it's no different in life. Once tennis is over, you have to be confident if you want to be independent and want to go out and succeed on your own.
It's why Spencer tries to instill that confidence in each of her players.
"She gave me a confidence," Kasler said. "With my tennis game, she just let me be confident in the way I played. I think that's something that Coach does very well. She builds your confidence. She's always there for you to talk to. Whether that be something tennis-related or school-related, she's just someone that's always there. I can always count on Coach even to this day.
"She believes in your abilities. I just felt like she trusted me a lot, so that was something else that built your confidence. She expects you to put in work -- she's a coach -- but she expects you to put in the effort, too. She trusted me in pressure situations, and I came through a lot of times because not only did she believe in me, it made me believe in myself.
"I have pressure situations sometimes now when I'm a vet, like doing surgery, and I feel confident because of what tennis put me through, playing in those pressure points."
Like so many others, Kasler is well on her way to becoming a strong, independent women who can thrive on her own if she so chooses. She will graduate from vet school in eight weeks after she finishes her preceptorship, and then it's off into the real world.
But she's not going home to mom and dad, just as Spencer promised.
"Our job is to help them in the next four years to be able to not have to rely on anyone when they leave here," Spencer said. "Every one that comes into their life is a blessing and someone that's going to enhance their life, but they're not dependent on anyone."
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @greg_ostendorf
Auburn Builds Champions Series