Illinois women’s tennis keeping journals, keeping accountable

By Thomas Donley

Following losses to Northwestern and Purdue to open the Big Ten season, Illinois women’s tennis coach Michelle Dasso knew a change was needed. With the Illini sitting at 6-6 on the season, she was disappointed with her team’s uninspired effort and lack of leadership and decided to bring back a little-used tool from the beginning of the fall season.

At the start of the season, Dasso handed each of her players a folder with handouts and journals inside. These folders went largely unused until those two losses in March, when Dasso decided she needed to increase accountability with her team.

“We brought back the journals a little bit more the last couple weeks, just because I didn’t feel like we were where we needed to be mentally,” Dasso said.

Illini tennis players now bring their folders to practice every day, and Dasso has them answer questions in their journals before practice in order to get the players to focus on things that they may have a tendency to overlook over the course of a season.

“I think it’s important to make sure that you’re looking back,” Dasso said. “And that you have things that you can look at and say, ‘Oh, wow, these are the things we’ve learned,’ and if you don’t have it written down, sometimes it’s easy to forget.”

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Dasso asks her players to write down things such as their confidence levels, how they feel during matches, things they have done well or poorly on the court and other questions intended to grow them as tennis players.

“Michelle usually catches me off guard with some of the questions,” senior Misia Kedzierski said. “It gets me thinking about it in a positive way. One time she asked ‘What are two things that you did well in your last match?’ and that’s not something you really think about when you walk off the court.”

Since Dasso re-implemented the team journals, the Illini have seen improvement on the court. Illinois has won each of its last four matches, beating Southern Illinois, Indiana, Penn State and Ohio State, and is now tied for fourth place in the Big Ten. The four-match win streak is tied for the longest this spring for Illinois.

Illinois has also seen improvement in its team chemistry and leadership. Players have become more vocal on the court, encouraging their teammates on other courts during matches, even while awaiting serves themselves.

“I think a lot of people have written some thoughtful things down in their journals, so I think it’s helpful,” freshman Alexis Casati said.

Dasso has also ramped up conditioning in practice over the last few weeks, which has also contributed to the improved performance, but she also believes that the journals are every bit as important to the team’s success.

“The sport itself is incredibly mental,” Dasso said. “So this is our way, as coaches, to work on the mental side. Obviously, we do a ton of conditioning and a ton of tennis, and I think the mental side is easily overlooked.”

Thomas can be reached at [email protected].