2020 Women's History Month: Stella Sampras Webster, UCLA
As we celebrate Women's History Month, USTA.com spotlights some of the female coaches who are making history of their own as the latest generation of sporting trendsetters, serving to inspire more females to enter the coaching corps at the NCAA level and beyond.
UCLA women’s head coach Stella Sampras Webster recently finished her 24th year at the helm of the Bruins tennis program.
The second-longest tenured active coach at UCLA, Sampras Webster led her team to NCAA titles in 2008, the first in program history, and again in 2014.
Sampras Webster graduated from UCLA in 1991 with a degree in psychology after playing for the Bruins between 1987 and 1991. During that time she won the 1988 NCAA doubles title, finished runner-up in 1991 and was a named an All-American on four occasions.
After a year playing professionally, Sampras Webster returned to UCLA, where she served as long-time head coach Bill Zaima’s assistant while pursuing her teaching credentials.
USTA.com spoke with the 2012 ITA National Coach of the Year about returning to a place where she had so much success as a student-athlete, the importance of women in head coaching positions and crafting her own legacy in a famous tennis family.
USTA.com: When you graduated from UCLA in 1991 and started playing on the professional tour, at what point did you realize you wanted to pursue coaching instead?
Stella Sampras Webster: I was on the tour and my coach and the head coach at UCLA [Bill Zaima] were having lunch with me, and he literally just asked me. He was looking for someone to groom to take over UCLA. This was a year into the tour during the summer, and I felt like I had to make a decision since I thought what a great opportunity it was.
I figured I wasn’t going to be Top 100 in the world in singles, but I could probably do pretty well in doubles. But I felt like the tour wasn’t a great lifestyle that I enjoyed. I spoke with my family about it, and I always wanted to be a teacher. When I decided to go into college coaching, I really didn’t know how long I’d stay. I wanted to see how I would enjoy it. I was taking classes to get my teaching credential while I was an assistant coach. I just knew that I enjoyed being home and the security of getting a paycheck.
I didn’t enjoy traveling and not knowing where I was going to be in the next month. I was the assistant coach and taking classes, and then I realized how much I really enjoyed being on the court and still competing. I enjoyed the competition part, even though I wasn’t playing and having direct influence on the matches. I just felt like the competitive part of me enjoyed helping players reach their goals and win their matches and help them through this college journey.
USTA.com: Looking at your progression when you came back to UCLA, how long were you an assistant coach under Coach Zaima before you became the head coach?
Stella Sampras Webster: When the head coach decided to retire, I was 27 years old and the new head coach of UCLA women’s tennis. I graduated at 21, so I was probably 23 when I started to be his assistant, then it was four years as his assistant. At the time, I didn’t think that 27 was very young to be head coach, but now I look at it as very young.
USTA.com: Did it seem like a natural fit for you, having played for Coach Zaima and learning from him and then taking over when he retired?
Stella Sampras Webster: Definitely. I felt very much at home the entire time I was at UCLA. I was so familiar with everyone, the program, the history, the alumni. It was a very comfortable transition, and I knew what to expect. I learned so much from him and being his assistant, and he was giving me a lot of responsibilities as an assistant.
We had a volunteer coach, Rance Brown, who is now my assistant, so we both just moved into it together, which makes it very comfortable. I didn’t have to find an assistant coach to work with, not knowing if we would work well together. It made for a very good transition. I learned a lot my first few years. Then Bill Zaima became a volunteer after a few years, so I was very fortunate to have some great coaches working with me. It was a great team, and I was very fortunate to have that support from my coaches.
USTA.com: Looking at the coaching career you’ve had, can you pinpoint a couple of highlights?
Stella Sampras Webster: Bill Zaima had done it all. But the one thing he had never done as a coach was win the team indoors. That was something we really wanted to get for him, and we did that with him with us. That was such a big thing for him, so I was so happy we were able to get that team championship. That was very special.
He is no longer with us, but he was such a great man, my mentor. He was someone I looked up to, who really gave me an opportunity and trusted me with a great program. I owe so much to him for where I am today.
But some of the best highlights I would say were whenever I had my family with me.
USTA.com: What are some of the harder parts of the job? Parts of the grind of being a head coach for 24 years that people don’t necessarily realize?
Stella Sampras Webster: The fundraising that we have to do, the administrative work we have to do, the paperwork and expense reports, they are not my favorite parts of the job. The best part of my job is being on the court with the players.
USTA.com: How hard was it for you personally to craft your own legacy and not necessarily be known just as Pete Sampras’ big sister?
Stella Sampras Webster: It’s funny because I always felt UCLA was something I earned. I earned a spot to play at UCLA, and I didn’t get it because I was his sister. Even my position, I felt like it was my own place.
I know in the beginning, when he was No. 1 in the world, I got a lot of recognition just for being his sister and him being this professional tennis player. So in the beginning it was a little bit more than it is now, but I felt like I got a lot of recognition that I didn’t want or need. I won a national championship. I have done things that he wasn’t really part of, so I felt very good about that. It was definitely more difficult when I was on the tour and I’d go to these towns and play these pro events. People wanted to talk to me, but I knew it was only because I was his sister. I hadn’t achieved anything on the tour as of that time.
So that was uncomfortable because I’m with my peers and having all these interviews and they’re asking about him. But the whole UCLA thing felt very separate and felt like my own thing versus him being part of it, and I felt good about that.
USTA.com: Tennis seems to be at the forefront of having women as coaches at both the pro and college level. How important is it in sports and society to see that happening?
Stella Sampras Webster: I’m really happy seeing so many women coaches out there, especially in the Pac-12, where we have a lot of great head coaches that are women. It’s great. It’s really important. I remember when I started out I was clueless, and I just really hope that when they become head coaches they are prepared.
I would hate for a head women’s tennis coach to get into something that they’re overwhelmed with. That’s why I love that they have all these mentorships and things to help young women to be prepared to be a tennis coach and go through the phases of that.
I think women have a lot to offer, especially ones that went through the college system and are coaching in college. They know what they’re going through, and they can relate to the players quite a bit. I know it’s not easy, especially having a family and having a full-time job, but I always tell them it's manageable. You can do both successfully if you have a supportive family and you have a supportive staff. I encourage a lot of my players to go into this profession because it’s something they know.
USTA.com: Do you have any similar mentorship programs at UCLA, or other programs that help current players who want to go into college coaching?
Stella Sampras Webster: We’ve just started something at UCLA, which has our seniors at a seminar for those getting involved in coaching. I know they are trying to do that. It’s a focus group, ‘Seeking Input from Senior Women’s Student-Athletes.’ Really trying to promote women who are interested in coaching. I know that is something that’s going on at UCLA.
USTA.com: When you look back both at playing and coaching, other than Coach Zaima, who have been the other big influences in your career?
Stella Sampras Webster: I had a coach called Hovie—Paul Holvace—and he has been a big mentor to me, especially when I first started to coach. Hovie has coached Lindsay Davenport and former pros, and I feel myself coaching very similar to his style.
I was also coached by Robert Lansdorp, who was obviously a great coach, and I learned so much from him when I was in the juniors. I’ve had a lot of great coaches. And Bill Zaima was a great mentor, obviously.
I talked to my brother Pete about coaching sometimes and asking for advice or things that he would do to prepare for a big tournament or a big event, and he was a great resource for me to bounce things off. I always enjoyed getting his feedback. I always like to ask questions and find out things from others because I know I don’t know everything and that I can always learn new things from people, so I’ve been very fortunate to have good people to talk to.
USTA.com: Did you ever coach with or play under former UCLA head coach Gayle Godwin?
Stella Sampras Webster: She was there before I started, but I know her quite well. I never got to play under her, but she has been a resource, as well. She’s always come to our reunions, and she’s always there if I need any advice, and I’ve definitely asked her for some. She’s a very smart woman, and I love having her come to campus and talk with her about working with these elite players.
USTA.com: You mentioned your own coaching style and things you’ve learned from other coaches you’ve worked with and served under. How would you say your college experiences as a player have helped sharpen your coaching philosophy today?
Stella Sampras Webster: As a player, it’s just so different now. Growing up, I was taught to listen to your coach, to be obedient and just do what they said. That was just how I was brought up. But in coaching today, players are brought up differently. Nowadays, you have to be very prepared in explaining everything and giving them a lot of information: What the drill is, how long it’s going to be, why they’re doing the drill.
You have to be very prepared because they’re not going to do it just because you think it’s the greatest drill in the world. I have learned, and I’ve evolved. I’ve been doing it for over 20 years, and I’ve had to change with the times.
I see myself as a pretty positive person. My biggest thing is always wanting it to be a great environment for my players, to look forward to coming to practice. But also to have a high standard of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and being very efficient in our limited time together. I’ve evolved quite a bit, and it’s very different. It has made me a better coach.
USTA.com: Considering everything that goes into being prepared, what does a typical day look like for you?
Stella Sampras Webster: I practice at 8 a.m. every morning. Then after every practice, we assess how practice went and what we need to do the following day. A lot of times it is based on the weekend and what we see during our matches, both individually and as a team. So we assess what we want to do during the week. Monday and Tuesday we have drills and hitting and feeding. On Wednesday, that’s our doubles day. Then by Thursday and Friday, we’re doing a lot of points play and live-ball points to get ready for the matches on the weekend.
We designed our team practices for Monday, Wednesday and Friday, where everyone is together. Then Tuesday and Thursday is very individual, where we’ll have half the team come from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., then the other half from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
That has been very good, and they enjoy having practice in the morning. We definitely have to be prepared for every practice, both individually and as a team, so that each player understands their goals for the week and what they’re working on, and as a team to understand what we need to improve on so that we’re not just going though the motions of practice. I have a great coaching staff to help me, and when you have players that are motivated, it makes for a great season. It’s been a lot of fun.