Former Virginia squash captain Annie Tyson (Class of 2019) returned to UVA as an assistant coach in January of 2020. She shares her experience in transitioning from player to coach and talks about her role with the team as it recorded its best season-ending finish in program history.
Q: What influenced your decision to return to UVA as a coach?
Tyson: While I was excited to return to UVA, unfortunately that meant our previous assistant coach, Moustafa (Bayoumy), would be leaving. His departure was a big loss for the program as he had a massive impact on the growth of so many players’ skills, including my own when I was on the team. Mark (Allen) knew that I was planning to move back to Charlottesville to coach for The Boars Head in January. When he asked me to return, we had a few discussions about how I could use the opportunity to gain experience in sports psychology, for which I am planning on going back to school.
Q: What is your current role with the coaching staff?
Tyson: When I first arrived as an assistant coach my role was mostly administrative. I would help set up practices and was on call to step on court if need be during the women’s practices. However, I was mostly helping Mark and Grant (White) with emails and itineraries for travel weekends. As I began to re-integrate with the team, I earned their trust as a coach who could give advice during matches and as a confidante when they needed emotional support.
Q: Have there been any major challenges that you have had to overcome in transitioning from a player to a coach of the team?
Tyson: There were both pros and cons to being a recent graduate returning to coach. One of my main concerns in coming into my role was interfering with this year’s team dynamic, so I put in as much effort as possible to make sure that the team didn’t see me as a fellow teammate or captain anymore, but rather as another supporter in their day-to-day tasks as student athletes. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work for leaders of the team to develop a positive team dynamic each season, so my main goal was to show the team that I was there to help and reinforce their team dynamic and not distract from it by being the new assistant coach.
On the other hand, one of the positives that came from knowing the team so well was that they knew my qualifications and knew that I could be helpful with emotional and strategic support during matches and practices. It really was the trust of my old teammates that boosted my confidence as a coach, as they made me feel as though they never questioned my presence and immediately welcomed my support.
Q: The women’s squash team made history this year, winning the Kurtz Cup title and finishing ninth nationally. What was it like to not only witness that but to have a role in the program’s success?
Tyson: I felt immense pride to be standing with the team this year. These women showed more resilience this season than ever before and to have had the opportunity to coach them through their championship matches was a massive honor. As an alum, I was so excited to see all of my former teammates go above and beyond to give the team the win they deserved. Maddie Mayhew, my former co-captain, came to support the team at nationals, so to watch the team win with her was especially profound, as we were so proud to have been a part of such a successful program. As a coach, I could not believe how fortunate I was to stand with 15 champions and hold the Kurtz cup.
Q: After competing as a player for the last four seasons, what was it like to return to the program in a coaching capacity? How have you been able to build off of your experience as a captain?
Tyson: As a captain, you serve as an intermediary between the players and the coach. You are forced to have difficult conversations with your teammates in order to uphold the goals and values set by the program while simultaneously being a loyal and supportive friend. As a coach, I definitely carried that mentality with me. Mark and I would talk about ways to ensure that I set the necessary boundaries to be viewed as a coach but still as a friend to my former teammates. When I graduated, I was very happy with the course of my career and retired with what I felt was the best collegiate squash experience I could have ever imagined. However, I had a feeling I wasn’t finished with UVA squash yet. I knew that I wanted to be further involved with the program that made me who I am today. I was honored to return as a coach and felt it was my role to be a consistent positive presence for the team and unconditionally supportive, as so many others had been for me during my four years.
Q: Is there a moment or a particular event that stands out to you from this season?
Tyson: I will never forget feeling the momentum switch in the Kurtz Cup final. When we were down 3-1 in the first round of matches, morale was low. However, the grit, resilience and determination of this group of women was beyond inspiring to me as the momentum shifted in our direction and the team dominated the last two rounds of matches.
Q: You joined the UVA squash team two years before it became a varsity program. What attracted you to the program considering it was a club team at the time? What changes have you seen since the team became a varsity sport in 2017?
Tyson: When I visited the team September of my senior year, I could tell that it was one of the most fun and cohesive teams in college squash and I had heard nothing but incredible things about the coaching staff. Mark was also by far the most honest and transparent coach I communicated with during the recruitment process and was very excited about the future success of the program. After seeing the passion and loyalty he had towards the team as well as the positive team dynamic, the lack of varsity status was a moot point. I knew that the team practiced, competed and acted as a varsity sport, so to be a part of a rapidly developing program with a future goal of varsity status was the most attractive offer to me.
The dedication of the players, intensity of practices and administrative help were, in my opinion, the most drastic changes that came with varsity status. With better recruits coming in each year, there was a constant promise of improvement and higher expectations in day-to-day performance. Also, to have more training resources has been exponentially helpful; once we got UVA athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches, our games improved immediately, as did our results.
Q: Has coaching impacted your plans for the future and your career?
Tyson: Coaching reinforced my belief that emotional support, both on and off the court, is a crucial contributor to one’s athletic success. With this coaching experience, I am that much more excited to pursue my career as a sports psychologist, starting with going back for my master’s degree in 2021.
Q: Do you have any advice for student-athletes that are looking to go into the coaching field?
Tyson: I would say that in order to coach effectively and efficiently, you must know the players beyond the sport, and make as much effort as possible to know them as a person outside of the athletic setting. Mark and Grant always did a phenomenal job with this, and I would say it is one of the main reasons why the UVA squash program has had as much success as it has since its transition to varsity. If you don’t know the players apart from athletics, you are missing a massive part of their personalities that directly influence their styles of play.