COLUMBIA — In the middle of explaining his coaching philosophy, MU Tennis coach Blake Starkey invokes Shakespeare.
“Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, but not what express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy,” he recites.
Starkey, the son of an english professor, is reciting lines 70 and 71 of Act I, scene III — Polonius’ advice to Laertes — of Hamlet. a passage that he had posted on every player’s locker door. He follows with interpretation:
“Appear nicely dressed but not over the top. Think about Bruce Springsteen who comes out dressed out in blue jeans and a t-shirt. The guy’s a gazillionaire and he comes out in blue jeans and a t-shirt.”
“You’re asking what I do,” Starkey responds. “Maybe it has nothing to do with tennis. In a way it has everything to do with tennis.”
Starkey, the all-time winningest coach in the program’s 32-year history, often uses literature as a coaching tool. During the first week of the season at a Monday team meeting discussing teamwork, Starkey not only handed out a passage, “The Scroll Mark III,” from famed motivational writer and lecturer Og Mandino, but also quizzed the team over the reading the following Friday. All players received a 100 percent.
“I’ve never done anything like it before,” freshmen Mallory Weber said. “But it makes sense. It makes us think how to make a better team. He has a lot of writings and quotes from different motivational pieces. Every time I walk into the locker room I see something different, and they’re all inspirational quotes.”
The literature Starkey has given out to his team has not only inspired his players, but has also led to on-court success. On Sept. 8 and 9, at the Drake Invitational in Des Moines, Iowa, Weber won the singles title and teamed with fellow freshman Kailyn Ritchie to win the doubles title. On Sept. 22 and 23, at the Maryland Terrapin Invitational in College Park, Md., Weber again won a doubles title, this time pairing with senior Chrissy Svetlic.
“It’s deceptive,” Starkey said. “I’m glad and it feels good, but we’re always looking for what’s next. But it does show promise from years past.”
In his nine years as coach, Starkey has led his teams past numerous Tigers barriers. In 1998, his first year as coach, he won a conference match, something no Tigers team had done since 1976. In 2003, he led the Tigers to the NCAA team championship. MU lost 6-2 to Notre Dame in the first round, but no other Tigers team had reached the tournament in the program’s history. Starkey also sent a singles player and doubles team to the NCAA individual championships in 2003.
“I didn’t know that (he was the program’s all-time wins leader),” Weber said. “I just got here and I love him. He’s a great guy and very knowledgeable as a coach. So I can see why that’s true. I’m not surprised.”
Part of Starkey’s success can be attributed to his recruiting approach. Although he values athletic ability, he says character is the most important attribute he looks for in a player. During recruitment interviews, he even goes as far as examining answers “in search of true character.”
“You ask questions,” he said. “You simply ask questions and you listen. You listen for character. What number do you want to play? Not necessarily a right or wrong answer, but you can tell a lot about a person who says they want to play six. Character comes first. Character, a strong sense of self. Character is the one thing I won’t give up on.”
To instill his view of character into his players, Starkey chooses literary pieces that have character or character traits as their central focus. The sub-title of the Og Mandino piece is “I will persist until I succeed,” an allusion to determination. The Shakespearean piece, Polonius’ advice to Laertes, consists of the father Polonius giving his son Laertes rules of life to live by.
“What he (Shakespeare) used to do, he would always introduce the town crier or a fool, just an idiot into the story line,” Starkey said. “All through the play people are laughing at the dummy. It’s a setup. At the most important point of the play, he very often would have the fool deliver gorgeous and just unbelieveable...The most depth Shakespeare had to give, he often would deliver it from the fool. Polonius is this stupid, comical father.”
With his unusual coaching tool of literature, is Starkey the fool in the Shakespearean play that is MU tennis? And is his success at making the program a consistent threat in the Big 12 his gorgeous monologue? To answer that question, one must look at the first line of Polonius’ advice to Laertes: “These few precepts in thy memory keep see thou character.”
“Look for character in people,” Starkey interprets.