East Chapel Hill will find a new tennis coach, but it will never replace Lindsey Linker.
Her accomplishments might be duplicated, someday. Linker herself can’t be duplicated.
Perhaps that seems facile. After all, for all of science’s advances we’ve not yet been able to create humans from the stuff in a Petri dish.
But, in all seriousness, Linker brought something to local high schools that’s rare.
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No other high school coach in this district has been as successful for so many consecutive years.
She won, and she won a lot, season after season, while retaining her sense of humor, class and sportsmanship.
It’s not just the 600 victories by her Wildcat boys’ and girls’ teams or the 14 state championships they won. Neither is it the nearly 300 wins and four state titles at Chapel Hill, where she coached for 10 years before heading to East.
It was her teaching style that is still all too rare.
Some of her techniques may sound cliché now, since virtually all successful coaches employ at least some of them. But the world was a different place when she began coaching. There were still a lot of coaches who thought a whistle and chalk on a blackboard were more important than people skills.
Linker was a varsity tennis player at North Carolina in the late ’70s, early ’80s, right as Dean Smith’s career was reaching its zenith. No surprise then she absorbed many of his teachings and incorporated several of Smith’s principles to her coaching style.
First, she genuinely cared about her players. She adhered to the policy that athletes, before they will listen to a coach, need to know they are valued for themselves more than for their skills.
Linker was able to get her players to reciprocate. They not only cared about her and what she thought about them, she taught them to care about each other.
She was one of the first coaches in the area to use team trips as bonding experiences.
Playing in the Port City Invitational wasn’t just a chance to match up against good opponents, its was a three-hour trip to Wilmington, during which teammates could talk and relate to one another.
Some of her best coaching, she would say, was on the team bus.
This was more than camaraderie; it was team building in a sport defined by individual performances.
Along the way, this bonding help build respect for senior leadership. Linker was always searching as much for leaders as talented players.
A lot of tennis players can hit top spin. It’s the rare ones who can help make teammates perform better.
More than most coaches, Linker was able to get her players to “be here now.” Linker occassionally quoted those exact words from Ram Dass.
She knew that one of the keys to success in tennis, like in golf, is overcoming failure. No one plays a perfect tennis game, so getting past mistakes is crucial.
A player can’t hit a great shot if still thinking about the last, bad one.
Linker had a knack of knowing when to call a player over to the fence and get them to refocus on that next shot.
The proof of her success was in her players’ wins, and, more than that, in the way they respected her.
Fifteen of her players won individual N.C. High School Athletics Association titles. Some went on to USTA success. Scores went on to play NCAA tennis and some, like Michael Greenberg, became collegiate champions.
Most of them found ways of connecting back to Linker. They would call or email or Facebook. They cared that she cared.
Linker has left Chapel Hill for Charlotte to be closer to her mother and will continue coaching as a teaching pro.
She’s left behind a lot of trophies. She gets to keep the memories.