What Makes USC’s Peter Smith Such a Great Coach?



A couple of things compelled me to write this article…First, when coaches find out that I played for Peter Smith when he was at Pepperdine, they often ask me about his coaching qualities. Also, last week I had dinner with Jack Jaede…

Jack is a player who I worked extensively with over several years as a junior and when he finished high school in 2014 he had a tough decision to make…

Tennis Australia coaches believed that Jack should forgo college and turn professional and therefore offered him an incredible scholarship opportunity to train at the Brisbane Academy among top 100 ATP players.

But I believed that there were a couple of colleges that could provide an even better environment to help Jack develop both his personal and tennis qualities, and so I strongly recommended he consider these pathways.

One of these recommendations was Peter Smith and USC.

In the end Jack chose to go to USC, and after talking with him about how happy he is with his decision, I found myself reflecting again on Peter’s coaching.

So here are 4 memories of my experience being coached by Peter that provide a snapshot of what I remember as his best coaching qualities:

1.) He Walked the Talk…

Peter didn’t just tell us what to do, he was the ultimate model of effective competing.

First and foremost he created a competitive culture within the team by showing us how to compete.

Whether it be joining in competitive situations on court, games of ultimate frisbee, or training runs up the dreaded sand dunes 20 minutes north of Malibu, Peter was the one competing the hardest.

2.) He Built Self-Belief…

One year, we were at the National Indoors preparing for our team match the next day when I saw a couple of notes under our hotel room door.

Peter had written each player a note before the match and mine read something like:

“You’re the toughest player at this tournament, and you’ll show it again tomorrow”

Now Peter could have written that on every player’s note for all I know J but he had a way of slowly but surely building player self-belief by focusing on each player’s competence.

I can honestly say that despite my significant physical and technical limitations, when I stepped on the court for Pepperdine, it didn’t matter if my opponent was among the best players in the country, I thought I was going to win, and that in part was due to Peter’s ability to help me believe that.

3.) He Empowered Player Self-Determination…

I don’t remember feeling pressured by Peter…

He was a coach who was not overly directive, rather he was willing to take time to genuinely get to know his players and then shape and guide development through considered conversations.

For example, while some players loved having coaches to talk to during matches, I wasn’t one of them.

I felt like I was in the best position to be solving problems and making decisions during the match with little coach intervention and so for me he would intervene much less frequently than with other players who preferred coach support.

4.) He Cared For His Players Deeply…

Peter loved winning, but I always had the feeling that he cared about his players personal development more than the results.

And so I felt that he had my back and if I had messed up or needed his support that as long as I was honest with him he would support me as best he could.

So How Do We Develop These Skills?

When I think of these qualities it really sums up for me some of what I consider to be the most important aspects of coaching.

When we talk of great coaching it’s easy to judge coaching abilities on a coach’s technical, physical, and tactical proficiency.

And while Peter was certainly proficient in these areas, I believe his greatest strength was his incredible ability to develop long-term helpful relationships with his players that helped us develop competitively but also as young men.

To put this differently, it may be not so much what he did, but rather that he was doing it and how he did it done that is most important to his coaching expertise.

And while Peter likely developed this skill through years of experience and talking with other coaches, many coaches, for various reasons seem not to be able to develop these ‘softer’ coaching skills.

And while some people believe that this is in the ‘you’ve either got it or you don’t skill category…

My own experiences of working extensively with coaches who have improved in this area immensely, have taught me that ‘soft’ coaching skills, which can be harder to recognize and describe, can be effectively learned and developed, leading to great benefits for player performance.