Bryan Shelton: It Takes a Team
Throughout Black History Month, USTA.com will feature a series of first-person essays from prominent Black voices in the tennis world. This week, Bryan Shelton, former ATP pro and current head coach of the men’s tennis team at the University of Florida reflects on his journey from the public courts of Alabama to many of the biggest stages in the sport — and how teamwork of all kinds has been integral to his career. A former world No. 55 on the tour, Shelton was an All-American at Georgia Tech and later also led the women's team at his alma mater to an NCAA championship in 2007.
I grew up in Huntsville, Ala. — my dad was in the military and I was born on an Army base. I had two older brothers and an older sister that were pretty athletic and loved sports, but I stumbled upon tennis by chance. I was riding my bike near my house in the summertime at 8 years old, and happened by the local junior high school to find some kids and a coach at the courts for summer camp. I pulled up, looking from outside the fence, and the instructor asked if I wanted to come join the group — I jumped onto the courts and they put a racquet in my hands. I came back for the rest of the week. At the end of the week, I won a Jack Kramer-autographed tennis racquet for winning a competition for getting the most serves in the box, and all I could say was, ‘Wow.’
Next thing you know, I was off and running.
We were a low-middle income family, but as kids, you don’t really know that and where you stack up against everyone else. We were in a community that was made up of both Black and white people, I had a lot of good friends and played a lot of sports. I was very fortunate to have parents that were very disciplined, hard-working people who instilled a lot of good values into their children. They taught us what was important, right from wrong, and we learned the 'Golden Rule' of 'Treat people the way that you want to be treated.' But growing up in the South in Alabama, I started to get a dose of reality at a young age. As I started getting into tennis a little bit and traveling around the state, I started to recognize that there were some people who really didn't want me out there. The doors weren't always wide open for me to come and play and do the things I wanted to do. I dealt with some stuff that really thickened my skin. When I was a junior player, there were times that I'd go win a tournament, and when they realized I was a Black kid, they wouldn't invite me back the next year. As a kid, before you see it, you think that everyone is fair, that everyone is going to treat you with respect, especially adults. I had some situations where I realized that the world is not all kind, that not everyone has good intentions.
I dealt with some things along my path that helped me recognize that life wasn't going to be easy, but that's okay. I accepted that. I accepted that not everybody wanted me out there. I accepted that people are going to let you down from time to time, whether you think they're friends or not, and that's part of life. You grow through all those experiences. Along the same lines, I learned that there are good people. A lot of parents of kids I grew up playing against were great people, both Black and white — mainly white, because the tennis world is primarily white. I started to realize that there's good and bad everywhere, so what are you going to focus on? My parents were always of the ilk that you don't make excuses and you take responsibility. No matter what's happening, you have a choice to make in how you're going to proceed from there. You can either sit there and feel sorry for yourself, saying 'What are they treating me like this?' or you can say, 'That's not my problem,' and say that I have an opportunity in front of me and I'm going to continue to make the most of it. Fortunately, I had a lot of good people around me, whether it was my family or coaches that I worked with, that helped pave the way for me to have opportunities.
One coach in particular, Bill Tym, was my mentor from the time I was 13 years old. He opened my eyes and showed me that if I wanted something bad enough, I'd be willing to sacrifice a lot of go after it and that I could achieve it. He took the game to a whole new level for me... and everything that he taught on the court, he applied to life. I got an education on the tennis court, and everything that we did was a microcosm of life. Working together with other kids so we could all improve and get better was cooperative effort. That sense of community was there... and being able to be around a diverse group of people, I learned from them. He had me playing matches in the evenings against adult members of the club we were at: at 14, I was playing matches against a 55-year-old grown man who was a lawyer in town or a doctor. I really got an education from a lot of different adults in the community that I got to be around, and learned how to handle myself in different situations. I learned how to adapt and get along with others. I think a big part of my growth and development came from that: seeing that there are opportunities to be successful no matter what situation you're in. You can still find ways to get better and help others get better around you. These were some important lessons that I've held on to for life.
I was part of the first generation in my family to go to college, as both my brothers and my sister have gotten multiple degrees. Education was always something that my parents pushed us towards. You always want your kids to have more than you had, and my parents were certainly driven to help us be successful. It was certainly a passion of mine to play tennis at the highest level. Bill Tym had us watching a lot of tennis when I was young, whether it was Bjorn Borg against John McEnroe, or Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith. Arthur was somebody that I really looked up to: I saw some similarities in how he played, his personality, how thoughtful he was, how stoic he was on the court. I wanted to emulate a lot of those things, so for me, it was always a dream to be out there on the same courts that he played on. That was always at the forefront of my mind as I put in the work to be out there. I was ready, by the time I was done with college, to go out there and attack the world and my new career as a pro.
After about 10 years on the tour, I started thinking about what was next. My thought during my last year as a pro was to go into education... where I could have a good impact on others, especially young people. When I retired after the US Open in 1997, I didn't have a path of what I was going to do next, but I got a call from Tom Gullickson, who was starting USTA Player Development alongside Doug McCurdy. He asked if I'd have any interest in becoming a national coach.
I'd really never thought about coaching, but as I thought more about it, I said, 'It really is education. It's helping young people in something that I know a lot about.' Next thing I knew, I was working with some young people that were really good tennis players. Andy Roddick, Robby Ginepri and Bobby Reynolds were some of the top juniors at that time, and we had so many great players who I got to be around. I gained a lot of positive experience, especially working with a lot of the other coaches who were involved. I learned so much about coaching from them, and that really helped me. I came full-circle when Kenny Thorne [men's tennis coach at Georgia Tech and Shelton's former teammate] called me and said they had an opening for the women's coach at Georgia Tech. It was pretty special to have gone to school there and then go back. To be able to do it with one of my best friends — we'd grown up together in the same junior development program in Huntsville, we played four years together at Georgia Tech, and now we were back leading the teams together — it was incredible. I knew that God had put me here for a reason, that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
I always say that what you accomplish with a team just trumps anything you can do as an individual. Dealing with adversity together, or celebrating great success together — it's much richer to do that with a group, especially with a group that you really care about. A lot of things I was taught at a young age by my parents, Bill Tym and my college coaches, are what I want to impart on the players that I work with, so that when they look back, they don't think of just the tennis. They'll think of the life lessons, the experiences that they've had with others of the same age. At 18 years old, you still need some help and direction in your life. You're becoming a young adult and it's a key transitional phase in your life before you're out there on your own. I'm just trying to continue to instill some of the values that their parents started to instill in them from the time they were born, and help them navigate through things. I want to help them manage themselves and their time, teach them how to cooperate with others... and how to push each other, compete hard against each other every day to sharpen their competitive tools, but still remain in the same family together.
One of the things I've always tried to do is model the behavior that I want my athletes to own and to go through life with. I always want my athletes to feel like I'm going to be present, whether that's with my door open, or on the court with them early or late. I want to teach them a lot of the things that are going to help them be successful in life, and show them that a lot of things that we're working on can be applicable in other areas of their lives. Forehands, backhands and serves are obviously things that we do, but they're not the most important things for us as coaches. This is a great time in their lives: they have all this energy, their minds are sharp, they're still learning at a fast rate and they're developing. To be a part of that is a real privilege for me.
If I could give myself advice as a kid, I would say, 'Continue to value the people that really care about you, and let them know that you value them.' In this world, you can't do it alone. I was fortunate to have so many good people around me to push me to continue to work hard, and taught me valuable lessons. I had great parents and a great family that continually poured into me and taught me how to go about living my life the right way. I would go back and tell myself that it's going to be a journey, it's going to be a process, but to be patient and continue to do things that are going to make you better and make other people better around you. Understand that that's what you're called to do.
Tennis is, in so many ways, an individual sport, but when you combine the team aspect to it, and you're part of something that's bigger than yourself, that's pretty special.
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