Former UCLA star Jada Hart talks diversity in coaching ahead of NCAA DIII Championships
Jada Hart was one of the best college tennis players in the country over the last six years, anchoring UCLA women’s tennis teams that contended for NCAA Division I championships—and now, she has the unique opportunity to coach a team to similar glory shortly less than a year after her own graduation.
Hart, 24, is in her first season as an assistant coach for Pomona-Pitzer College Sagehens, who’ll arrive at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla. this week as one of eight teams still in the hunt for the NCAA Division III Women’s Tennis Championship. The Sagehens are a Division III powerhouse, consistently boasting a Top 10 national ranking since they won their first NCAA team title in 1992, and also have had seven individual NCAA champions in school history; with a 21-2 season record, they’re into the national quarterfinals for the first time in over a decade this year—the team’s first full season after two years of stop-and-start as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As an assistant, Hart’s role is one of support for fifth-year head coach Mike Morgan, who boasts nearly 25 years of overall collegiate coaching experience: She identifies recruits, meets with potential players and studies film for the team’s upcoming opponents. But, she says, the most crucial role she plays in the team’s success is that she can relate to her squad, both on and off the court.
“I am fresh out of college, so I do have a lot of experience under my belt and I have a lot of recent experience under my belt,” Hart told usta.com last week. “The biggest thing I've been able to share with the team is my experience from college, in terms of handling the stress of school and tennis at the same time, being able to take care of your mental health and the mental side of the game.
"Sometimes, we focus so much on the physical aspect of tennis, but the mental aspect is just as important, even more important nowadays. Just being able to let them know, ‘If you have to take care of your take care of yourself physically or take care of your mental health, do that,’ that's really important. It’s been nice to be able to have conversations with them regarding my personal experience in college and hoping that they either don't make the same mistakes that I did, or to help them be better versions of themselves as they go through it, as I went through it.
“It’s been awesome being able to share my experience with them, and … I hope they’ve gotten a lot out of it, from my take as a woman and someone that's close in age to them.”
A coincidental chain of events led to the former Bruin ending up at Pomona-Pitzer, even though its Claremont, Calif. campus is located only about 30 minutes from her hometown of Colton. After finishing her collegiate career last spring, Hart had every intention of making the immediate transition to the professional circuit full-time—but a lingering back injury that first flared up in October derailed those plans. At the same time, Morgan was in search of a new assistant and contacted longtime UCLA associate head coach Rance Brown for recommendations, and he ultimately connected the two. While Hart does plan to return to competitive play over the summer, she says she’s enjoyed her first foray into coaching, and hopes to be able to balance the two moving forward.
Part of that joy, she adds, comes from her ability to be a role model for the next generation of players, and a example for that of coaches. Pointing to a litany of not only decorated female tennis coaches in the Pac-12, but also in other sports at UCLA, Hart says that diversity is strength, and that women offer incalculable value in these leadership positions.
“I think it's more important than ever to get women into college coaching, especially women who have went through the same experience as these young players,” Hart said. “I found it very beneficial myself to have had a female head coach in Stella Sampras Webster … even when I was going through the recruiting process, because I’d grown up with male coaches. I think it's very important that a young woman has a female coach to look up to when it comes to the stresses and the expectations of college tennis.”
She added: “A lot of male coaches have done well, [but] I just think that we just need new faces. We need more women in college coaching in particular, especially in women's tennis. … It’s just an insight that young girls can relate to, not only with what goes on on the court, but also what goes on off the court. I hope there continues to be more and more women in coaching.
“One of Stella’s strengths as a coach is the patience that she has with her players—being able to understand that we're all not feeling our best every single day, and that it's just a matter of giving the player grace and understanding. I think that's the biggest takeaway that I learned from Stella, and what I want to instill with this team as a young coach, and even potentially going forward, should I stay in coaching.”
Hart's short-term goal for her players is simple: that they enjoy the experience of playing in the postseason at the USTA National Campus, which she herself was able to do in 2019 and 2021. She reached the individual quarterfinals in singles and doubles, respectively, in the seasons her teams made it to Orlando, and she says she's emphasized that soaking in all that the venue has to offer is just as important as the tennis itself.
"A lot of what I've just been telling them is to treat this as if this was your last match because this really could be," she said. "That's a big thing that I've been saying all season long: Don't take the experience for granted. Don't take these opportunities for granted, especially [after] the pandemic hit. You just don't know when it's going to be your last night playing, so I just want them to enjoy it and have fun with each other. Soak in the experience, soak in playing at the USTA National Campus. It's an awesome facility for college tennis. ... Bringing college tennis to the USTA National Campus is just great for the development of college tennis in general, and I'm excited that they're bringing it back to Orlando next year for all three divisions.
"I just want the team to have a great time and not get too stressed about the moment, not get too stressed about what's at stake and whatnot. I just want them to enjoy it as much as we did, and as long as they do that, the rest will take care of itself. ... I think they're really starting to soak in these last few moments, especially the seniors who will be graduating. They're really just staying loose and they're really enjoying themselves, so I think it's going to show through once we get to Orlando and in how they play."
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