“Break through the boundaries that you or others have told you, set your standard high, see the endless possibilities and ‘get after it.”
That is the philosophy of Hugo Leenders, assistant coach of the Division 1 Men’s Tennis Team at DePaul University, Chicago – the team that includes Slamstox tennis players Boris Spanjaard and Luuk Wassenaar. After a successful tennis career in the Netherlands (top 30 player in singles and doubles and owner of his own tennis school, Maximum Tennis), 32-year-old Hugo decided to make the move to America. But why? The reason was his personal development.
“I had my own tennis school for 8 years. The tennis school was going very well, but it started to get a bit “comfortable”. You can only grow if you dare to step out of your comfort zone. I had the opportunity to work very intensively with top players on a daily basis, while obtaining my MBA degree (with a focus on leadership and coaching). I decided to leave my comfortable life in the Netherlands and take the plunge to Chicago. I have not regretted this for a moment. America was not unknown to Hugo. In 2003 and 2004, he spent a year playing Division 1 college tennis at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he met coach Matt Brothers. Brothers has been the Head Coach at DePaul University for 12 years now. “He has asked me several times to become his assistant. Finally the time was right, and now I’m here, “says Hugo. As a former student athlete and current coach, Hugo knows college tennis like no other, so Slamstox decided to approach him for an interview. In this interview Hugo talks about himself. , his experiences as a coach in Chicago and gives his perspective on the college tennis experience: the pros and cons, the misconceptions, the qualities of a student athlete, and much more.
DePaul Tennis Coach Hugo Leenders: “Now I find it strange that we Dutch people still drink coffee after dinner.”
– Why did you decide to go to America in 2003 to play and study at Marquette University?
Nowhere in the world is a combination of tennis, study and social life possible as in college tennis. You can train full-time with good players, play matches almost every weekend that are also seen and supervised by your coaches, in the meantime you get your diploma and you build friendships for life, not only with your teammates but also with the students where you live with us on campus. I recommend any 17/18 year old tennis player who gets this chance to grab it with both hands. Also those who want to become a professional tennis player. You have not fully grown until you are 21 years old. By then you will be fittest, and you have (almost) a college diploma in your pocket, and you still have at least 10 years to prove yourself on the tour. Federer would say 15 years.
What was the biggest culture shock in America for you, and how did you get through it?
I think the biggest culture shock was how Americans drink coffee. They generally drink one giant cup of coffee in the morning, and then stop drinking coffee for the rest of the day. At first I thought this was strange, and I kept ordering half cups of “small coffee” throughout the day. But now I know more about how caffeine works (of course I had to research this) and I understand the logic better. Now I find it strange that we Dutch people still drink coffee after dinner.
Some Dutch tennis players decide not to go to America because they feel that a career as a professional tennis player is no longer realistic for them. How do you think about this?
I think this is a wrong way of thinking. After college you have only grown physically. In addition, you are so much stronger mentally than before you went to college. And you absolutely need that mental and physical strength to succeed on the tour. You also have a lot of time to accumulate your points tennis. There are also universities where you also get the chance to play futures and challengers during your college years.
What are the drawbacks of college tennis?
“I think whether there are any disadvantages is very situation-specific. Make sure you are well informed about the university, the place, your teammates and the coaches. If those four things are right, then I only see benefits! ”
What do you think is the biggest misconception about college tennis or college sports in general?
That you can’t get better here and that all American coaches are bad coaches and overtrain their players. This is absolutely untrue.
The college tennis teams are hugely international, with Europeans, South Americans, Americans, you name it. Do you see a difference in acting, or mentality, between the players from the Netherlands and those from other parts of the world?
Let me say that every individual is different and that I do not like to generalize. But I do think that we in the Netherlands generally think too limited. Our sobriety can sometimes be a quality, but it certainly has its downside in top sport. The American mentality is much more “the sky is the limit”, something I fully support myself. People become who they think they are. This sounds a bit philosophical, but the bottom line is that if we stay too sober, we limit ourselves terribly. This has nothing to do with arrogance, but only with belief in yourself and each other.
“Our sobriety can sometimes be a quality, but it certainly has its downside in top sport. The American mentality is much more “the sky is the limit”, something I fully support myself. ”
You worked with two Dutch players at DePaul University. Do you see a trend in areas that are difficult for them? Or areas in which they excel? Both are completely different, both in personality and game type. I do think that Dutch players are generally very good technically compared to players from other countries. My experience with foreign players is that they often have a more tactical or mental focus.
Together with Peter and Pedro from Slamstox you play competition at Lewabo in the Netherlands. What do you think is the biggest difference between the college tennis competition and the Dutch spring competition?
The main difference is the amount of noise. There is often a serene atmosphere during the Dutch spring competition. College tennis is more like the Davis Cup.
What is the biggest difference, in your opinion, between the way of training at an academy in the Netherlands and at a university in America?
There are some very good academies in the Netherlands, with passionate, experienced and knowledgeable trainers, a good culture and good players. In addition, there are also academies in the Netherlands where the quality is a lot lower. The same is the case with universities in America. Let’s assume that the quality is good. I think an important difference is the emphasis on doubles. In almost all academies in the Netherlands that I know, there is a lot less training for doubles than here in America. And I think the main difference is the emphasis on “team” in America. “There is no ‘I’ in team” is a well-known American saying. That’s not quite true in tennis because we add up the individual results to arrive at a total score, but it is true that here we are more focused on helping teammates and making each other better. Players continuously encourage and support each other. I personally think that is very cool to see.
You see players entering as 18-year-olds, and graduating as 22-year-olds after four years. What do you see as the most obvious development in their game? And what are the biggest developments they are experiencing in other areas?
What I see most clearly is that they are better doubles, and a lot stronger mentally and physically. In addition, they are intellectually and socially stronger, because they have a college degree and have learned to build and maintain social contacts in a foreign country and in another language. They are also more independent. In addition, they of course have a much better command of the English language.
Can you tell us something about your team. Where are the players from, how are they doing so far, how is the season going, what do they need to work on, etc.?
We have a relatively small team with 8 players. Our players come from the Netherlands (2), Croatia (2), Hungary (1) and America (3). Despite some injuries – which hit extra hard in a small team – we have a good season so far. We have a 9-7 record and our ranking is around 100 in the first division (NCAA D1). We are one of the strongest teams in our conference (Big East) and the big goal is to win the conference tournament at the end of April. I expect everyone to be 100% fit again so I am very confident!
What does DePaul Unitversity offer to the student athletes, and how does it compare to other universities?
We offer a very good education, in the middle of one of the largest and most beautiful cities in America: Chicago. DePaul’s reputation and network is very good and vacancies for DePaul graduates are there for the taking. DePaul is America’s largest private Catholic university, with a focus on diversity and a mission to give back to the less fortunate in our world. Our group of student athletes is relatively small, around 200 across all sports in total. This results in the group being very close and often attending each other’s matches. Student athletes really feel part of a big family here. All our teams are also performing very well; we belong to the top of our conference in almost every sport.
“DePaul’s reputation and network is very good and vacancies for DePaul graduates are there for the taking.”
What qualities must a student tennis player possess to be eligible for a scholarship in your team?
That differs per situation. In general, I would say that anyone who has a good command of the English language, has good grades on their HAVO or VWO diploma, and gets good scores on the SAT and TOEFL, is eligible for an academic scholarship (these are often forgotten but we give here up to $ 20,000 academic scholarships per year to some students). Furthermore, all players in our team currently receive an athletic scholarship. Depending on their level, some players get a higher scholarship than others, but this is very situation dependent. For those interested in a place in Hugo’s team: it is best to contact Slamstox or Hugo personally.
What qualities will a student in tennis possess after a 4-year study and tennis training at DePaul? And how do you manage developments outside the track?
This may sound a bit strange, but we as coaches are the closest we get to their parents when they are here. We feel a responsibility to ensure that they eat well, sleep well, have good manners, keep up with their studies, are good for their loved ones, and so on. We aim for this every day.
DePaul University is located in Chicago, one of the largest cities in the world. What makes Chicago a great city to live and study in?
Come up with something you have a passion for, something you want to see, do or experience. Done? I bet it is possible here in Chicago. That’s why
Slamstox has already worked together a few times to get Dutch players (Luuk Wassenaar, Boris Spanjaard) to DePaul. How did you experience the collaboration with Slamstox?
Very pleasant. I have a lot of respect for and trust in Slamstox. Integrity, network and communication skills are three very important core points within the industry in which Slamstox operates. I don’t know of any company that scores better on this than Slamstox.
“Come up with something you have a passion for, something you want to see, do or experience. Done? I bet it is possible here in Chicago.”
** Update May 2019: After two very successful and educational years at DePaul University, Hugo will pursue his PhD in Strategic Management at Old Dominion University in Virginia. We are convinced that Hugo will once again push his boundaries there and deliver good performances. Good luck Huge-O! **