Coaching started for Laurie Martin on two tennis courts in her Phoenix, Arizona neighborhood. There, Martin found a way to transform her love of the game into her passion for teaching young people the lifetime sport while creating opportunities for unmeasurable personal growth and development.
Martin, who currently holds a win-loss record of 481-30 with four Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) Division 1 state championships and five state runner-up titles in 13 years at Xavier College Preparatory, never imagined her neighborhood lessons would lead to such success for the young women of Xavier.
David Hines, executive director of the AIA, understands and appreciates Martin’s impact on Arizona high school tennis.
“Laurie Martin is an outstanding and very successful coach here in Arizona. However, her biggest accomplishment is promoting the sport of tennis. She works tirelessly to develop young players and, with her no-cut philosophy, gives young girls opportunities they would never get at another school,” Hines said.
Coaching high school tennis was never a goal for Martin. She was busy balancing life as a mother of four active kids and her neighborhood coaching schedule when her daughter came to her with one small request that changed Martin’s life and the lives of hundreds of young women forever.
“It was my daughter’s senior year when the tennis coach that had been there for 10-11 years retired and my daughter came to me and said, ‘Mom, will you do it’? I wasn’t really sure, because I was used to working with little kids and really had a passion for working with them. When your daughter comes and asks, you say okay.”
Martin thought she’d coach at Xavier Preparatory for five years until her daughters graduated from high school, go back to her neighborhood courts and travel to watch her kids play sports at the collegiate level. Fourteen years later, however, Martin is preparing for her next high school season.
“I get attached to the kids. I really have found that I enjoy working with that age group. Watching these girls go from square one where they are whipping foam balls to where they can sustain a rally and seeing their self-esteem improve, it just rewards me,” Martin said.
Square one is where many of the Xavier ninth-graders begin. Martin is a United States Tennis Association (USTA) No-Cut Coach and refuses to turn any girl away from her program, resulting in a freshman program that routinely has a roster of more than 80 girls and sometimes topping 90. The girls tennis roster is many times one-third of the freshman class.
“I think it’s really important that we have freshman sports. What happened at our school is that the first year we started the program with 40 girls and every year it kept growing. The parents all talk about it. People have had such a positive experience that parents encourage other parents to get their kids involved,” Martin said.
Martin not only has a full freshman roster in the spring, during AIA junior varsity/varsity girls tennis season, but also in the fall when she devotes her time to both tennis and social skill development.
“It’s a really good social thing for our kids because they are coming from 110 different feeder schools. When they step on campus they might know one kid or a few kids, but really the main purpose of this for me is the social aspect. You just see these girls walk around campus and they are nervous wrecks, and we have a couple of days of practice and all of the sudden they have a group of best friends and that lasts many times all four years,” Martin said.
Managing 80 to 90 girls has become routine for Martin, who divides her freshmen into skill-based color groups of seven athletes. She will have 10-12 color groups who practice two to three times a week based on the junior varsity/varsity schedule. Matches are attended by two color groups at a time since 14 students can fit on a bus at once.
“I always take one group that is ready to play full court and another group that plays exhibition. Sometimes [the exhibition players] will play their lower kids, if [the opponents] have enough, and sometimes we will play our own school, but they still get the same experience. Sometimes I’ll bring the lower pressure balls and ask the other coaches if they can play green dot to give them a better, more competitive experience,” Martin said.
Flexibility and creativity are keys to Martin’s success in managing her 90-plus student-athletes. Spin workouts, yoga and dynamic stretching in the alley next to the courts are all parts of Martin’s practice plan. She admittingly has sacrificed facility upgrades in exchange for coaching salaries. Providing opportunities for as many young women as possible is her main objective.
Martin has seen her share of success on the court in the form of state championships, but her biggest accomplishment and what’s she’s most proud of has nothing to do with wins and losses and everything to do with the lives she’s impacted.
“I’m exposing these kids to tennis, the great game and it’s a lifetime sport. I know what it does for these girls is that it gives them self-esteem,” Martin said. “Because they have been told that they aren’t good enough to make these club teams or even their high school basketball or volleyball teams that can be very damaging to a female. What I have found is that we get girls of all sizes and you just see what it does for their morale and their self-esteem. You see girls losing weight because they are active now. The health and social benefits for a lifetime, that’s what this gives them.”
As a female coach, Martin finds her role to be much larger than teaching the game of tennis. This is her own personal journey. The act of mentoring, leading and listening to these young women has become both her mission and her daily life lessons. Martin understands the opportunity she has to impact these young lives and the impact they have on her.
“I think high school is a very challenging time for girls in many ways, and I think female coaches understand this from their own experiences growing up,” Martin said.
Martin defines her career success by the way parents and student- athletes feel about her program, the culture she creates and the opportunities she provides.
“Parents come up and tell me how thankful they are and how much it means to them because they know the work I put in and that motivates me,” Martin said. “I know I’m doing the right thing with these girls. Now, how long will I be able to do this, I don’t know. I’m having my first grandchild in December. Two of my kids are married. For now this is what drives me. I need it for me, too.”
The no-cut philosophy is simply a giving of time, energy and attention to all interested in learning. What coaches do not expect is the gift that they receive when they give. This reciprocity is what keeps coaches like Laurie Martin coming back to high school athletics long after they ever expected to stay.
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.