Tom O’Brien of The Barstow School Reflects on National Coach of the Year Award: “All the Credit Goes to the Kids”
Since 1982, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has awarded coaches in the top 10 boys’ and girls’ sports the title of National Coach of the Year for leading their respective teams to outstanding seasons.
Tom O’Brien definitely fits that bill.
As head coach of the boys’ and girls’ varsity tennis teams of Kansas City’s The Barstow School, O’Brien coached his teams to impressive records for the 2021-2022 season, guiding them to the school’s first-ever state championship and sending four players to the individual state championship. His dedication to his players and unwavering leadership helped earn him the NFHS’ National Coach of the Year award; he was one of 23 coaches who earned this title nationwide.
However, for O’Brien, winning the award is more about giving credit where credit is due. “All the credit goes to the kids,” said O’Brien. “I’m honored, but whatever successes we’ve had is because of the kids. This year and over the many years [I’ve coached].”
O’Brien is no stranger to helping local youth achieve their dreams. As a retired middle and high school teacher, he helped keep kids engaged in learning in the classroom. And as a coach since the 1970s, he was driven to help his players learn and grow their love of the game–and their skill sets–both on and off the court.
For nearly 30 years, O’Brien coached players at Hickman Mills High School in Kansas City. Some of his players, he noted, lacked access to adequate tennis equipment but wanted to play, so O’Brien helped find them the gear they needed to succeed while also encouraging their success. He has always wanted nothing more than to see his players fall in love with the sport and succeed at everything they do.
- Tom O'Brien is pictured on the far right with his boys tennis team.
Then, in 2006, an opportunity to apply for a coaching position at The Barstow School was presented to him. “Sixteen years ago, a friend of mine whose kids went to Barstow said, ‘Listen, the [coaching] job’s open, and you’re gonna have some talented kids [on your team], so why not take it?’”
Since then, O’Brien has only seen the tennis program at The Barstow School climb to new heights, most recently with an impressive 17-2-2 record during the 2020-2021 season, and a lot of hardware for players at both the individual and team state championships.
O’Brien, however, doesn’t pay much mind to the regular season record. “The win/loss columns don’t matter in the regular season. Everything’s practice until district and state.”
With the upcoming season fast approaching, O’Brien expects his teams to rise up to meet growing expectations thanks to their high-level play–and despite being a smaller school.
“I see a path to the Final Four, and I expect we’ll get there. With bigger, more competitive schools involved (he notes that St. Louis and Kansas City schools are especially competitive) it’ll be a challenge, though.”
Both the boys’ and girls’ teams might get bumped up in their competition classes, too: the boys may be able to move up from CI to CII, while the girls’ team, which started in CII but “demolished the competition,” may see a rise to CIII. “We’ll see how it washes out,” said O’Brien.
Regardless of what happens during the 2022 season, O’Brien is committed to his players, and will always be there to help them succeed. The hard work they put in on the courts each day is honored and lauded, and it’s what keeps him going as a coach.
“I love the competition, even though it’s through the kids. I never feel this burst of accomplishment when we win, but I feel so good for the kids because I know how much time they put into it,” said O’Brien. “You’re with these kids for months and you get attached, so when they win, it’s like watching your own kid win.
“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘I’ve done this forever; do I really want to do this again?’ And the answer is always yes! You just get attached.”