Fox Chapel Area tennis coach Alex Slezak likes to find famous quotations that best reflect his messages and thoughts. When it comes to describing his own coaching philosophy, he thinks legendary NFL football coach Tom Landry said it best: “A coach’s job is to get players to do the things they don’t want to do in order to achieve the things they want to achieve.”
Over the 14 years that coach Slezak has led the Foxes girls program and the nine years he’s been with the boys team, that style of leadership has yielded very positive results. Neither program has had a losing season, and both are consistently ranked in the top eight in WPIAL Class 3A.
Under his tutelage, the girls catalog of successes is lengthy. They have been section champions six times. The 2019 team won the PIAA championship. In addition, Charlotte James was the PIAA singles runner-up in 2019, the WPIAL singles champion in 2019, and he’s watched five of his doubles teams crowned WPIAL champions and four win PIAA championships.
The boys also have fared very well. In his first year coaching the boys, the team advanced to the PIAA championships after claiming the WPIAL Class 3A team title. They followed that up with four additional WPIAL team gold medals and were the runner-up one time during the coach’s tenure. Additionally, Robby Shymansky, one of the school’s best-ever tennis players, was the 2019 section, WPIAL, and PIAA champion. Coach Slezak’s boys teams also have clinched five section titles.
In 2019, coach Slezak was named the PIAA Tennis Coach of the Year and received the same award by the United States Tennis Association Middle States Allegheny Mountain District (USTA AMD).
If there is a secret to his success, coach Slezak says it’s a simple one – practice, practice, practice.
“Then, I must earn the trust and respect of a player, and once I do, then they are receptive to coaching,” coach Slezak says. “Once a player becomes coachable, it is just a matter of going to work.”
But it’s not just the years when championships were won that stand out the most to him.
“What sticks out to me most are the years when the players bonded together and put the program over themselves; when they worked toward a common goal and pushed and pulled one another,” says the coach, whose day job is as a physical education teacher at Kerr Elementary School.
He’s also learned a lot over the years.
“I still make mistakes, and I’m not afraid to learn from then,” the coach says. “That is basically the same mentality I want my players to have. They must be willing to go for it and not be afraid to make mistakes. That is the way to develop courage. When a match is on the line, that is the mentality you want to have.”
Developing that winning mindset is not something that comes naturally to many young athletes, especially in sports where an individual is in the spotlight and cannot hide behind a team.
“It took some time to develop a culture that got players to believe they could win titles,” says the coach, who authored the book, “The Physical Education Revolution.” “The first year I took over each program was about getting the culture right, and after that, the expectation was set for future teams, as it is today.”
Coach Slezak continues, “My style is not one size fits all. I believe I am very in tune with players’ brain types, and I do my best to tailor my coaching in ways that are best received. Tennis is a great vehicle to teach life lessons, and I will consider it a success if even one individual has been positively impacted by my coaching.”
After teaching hundreds of kids in the classroom and on the courts, the coach offers some advice for young athletes.
“Focus on the process over the product,” says coach Slezak. “Too often a goal is attained, and only then is it realized that working toward the goal was the fun part. Enjoying the process makes every day rewarding and valuable.”