A light mist begins to fall, with a brisk wind tapping at the
coach’s back. The elements penetrate his sweatshirt but his psyche holds determined.
Practice doesn’t end early with less than a week until state, at least not because of the weather.
“Don’t cut the corner, now,” he shouts at his tennis team, that is circling a field at Bethel Park in a hard jog.
He turns to his assistant: “That’s not how championships are won, by taking it easy.”
Ben Loeb has that much figured out. In 11 years at Rock Bridge, Loeb has accumulated three state championship trophies in six final four appearances. Today, the Bruins try for their third consecutive team title at Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield, Mo.
Rock Bridge (25-0) faces St. Joseph’s Academy (11-1) in the Class 2 semifinals at 9 a.m. St. Joseph’s has won seven state championships in the past decade. Either Rock Bridge or St. Joseph’s has claimed the title each year since 1994.
“They’re very good, they have a very good team,” Loeb said. “It’s going to be a tough match. I happen to think that if we play real well, and believe in ourselves, and play smart, that … we’re going to have a good chance to win.”
A positive outlook is something Loeb stresses, both to himself and to his team. He has been giving out ‘Thought’s of the Day’ to his players for the past couple weeks after practice. Many come from the book “Thinking Body, Dancing Mind,” by Chungliang al Huang. Loeb says the work uses the eastern principles of Tao to provide inspiration to the athlete.
Monday he asked senior Sarah Seltsam to read the day’s passage, “Fear of Success,” aloud:
“You may choose a road that avoids success, with all its pressures; success becomes a frightening entity… Remember that success is a wonderful journey and that real success is the quality of that journey.”
Besides reading and reflecting, he asks them to tuck the message away in an envelope for another day. More importantly, he hopes they tuck it into the back of their minds, waiting for the moment they can put the words to use on the court.
“They’re to help them frame a sporting event in a better way, where they can perform better and not let the situation get the best of them,” Loeb said. “It’s better to focus more on performing to the best of your ability and let the outcome take care of itself.”
This psychological aspect is one not often explored by enough coaches, Loeb said, but after taking a graduate course on sports psychology at MU taught by track coach Rick McGuire, Loeb has been intrigued with the idea.
“He incorporates both the physical and mental aspects of tennis, and he’s always providing encouragement,” Seltsam said. “I think the thoughts of the day give a lot of mental confidence. Tennis has a lot to do with that and if you have confidence you can perform to the best of your ability.”
Said Loeb: “I don’t think a whole lot of time is spent on the psychological side of it. Not nearly as much as the percentage that makes up a person’s success in a sporting endeavor.”
Loeb uses a similar mental approach for himself. A recent email from Rock Bridge guidance counselor Kim Girse included the line, “Correction does much, but encouragement does more.”
The quotation can be traced to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German philosopher and poet. Loeb said he has used this mantra with his team ever since and the reinforcement of positive actions makes them more likely to repeat.
For the Bruins to repeat, again, they will have to defeat either St. Teresa’s Academy or Incarnate Word Academy once past St. Joseph’s. All three are private schools.
Loeb welcomes this. He has turned down opportunities to seek private school openings and says he sees himself at Rock Bridge for the foreseeable future.
Using the private schools’ competitive advantage as motivation, Loeb challenges himself to get better from year to year.
“I’m always trying to learn more and become a better coach,” he said.
Driving in his red sport-utility vehicle, Loeb pops in a CD. The even-toned, not-too-melodic voice of Brad Gilbert plays in his speakers.
Gilbert is best known for coaching Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. Too busy to attend the USTA Coaches Conference, Loeb does the next best thing: He has the 16 seminars sent to him on disc.
In addition to these, Loeb reads books on coaching regularly. Most recently, it was Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s, “Leading with the Heart: Coach K’s successful strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life.” He points to a book by Dallas Cowboys head man Bill Parcells, “Finding a Way,” as a favorite.
One coaching trait that Loeb has undeniably found and perfected is organization. He structures each day with a goal in mind for his team and its players.
When asked about this, he produces a notebook with columns and columns of drills. They specify everything from location on the court, to which players take turns together and when. The notebook has become bulky with the years, 17 in coaching, but maintains its orderand his order in practice.
“Some of the things I have down here we don’t even get to in a given year,” Loeb said. “But I like to have plenty to choose from.”
Said Seltsam: “He keeps it running smoothly; we always have something to do.”
Recently, Loeb has found himself with more to do. His son, Ben Jr., was born September 22, 2003, midway through the tennis season.
Thirteen months later, coaching both the boys and girls at Rock Bridge along with his load of business classes, free time is scarce.
“My son being born has been the greatest thing that’s happened to me in life,” Loeb said. “I’ve wanted to be a father for a long time and it’s a great experience. Certainly it takes time away from being able to do other things but it’s worthwhile.”
Someday Loeb might find himself giving his son the same tennis and life lessons he learned himself. For this weekend, he hopes his tennis family will be receptive to his instruction.
“I’m saddened to see the year come to an end in a lot of respects,” Loeb said. “It’s a lot of hard work and there’s a lot of time and effort that goes into it. There’s a lot of great kids on this team; great individuals to be around.
“You don’t have to win the thing for it to be a special group.”
Seltsam said she is ready for state but less eager to bid farewell to Loeb and her Bruins tennis career.
“I’ve enjoyed him coaching me for four years,” she said. “I think he’s an awesome coach.”