By Moses Leos III
In her 31 years as a teacher and coach at Hays High, Debbie Cook has seen how much tennis has grown both in complexity and popularity.
But through all the changes and growth she’s seen, Cook has maintained her stance of building character athletes on and off the court.
As she prepares for retirement at the end of the school year, Cook continues to stress her mantra of using adversity on the court to build character, regardless of the outcome.
“I’ve had a lot of kids play for me. I hope when they move on, that’s one thing they remember more than anything is to have integrity in yourself and having good sportsmanship,” Cook said.
Cook’s start in coaching stems from her college days at what was Southwest Texas State University (SWT). For two years, she helped coach the SWT tennis team.
It wasn’t until she obtained her master’s degree when she made the move to Hays High.
At the time, Cook coached volleyball and tennis.
Cook said she enjoyed the thrill of coaching both sports, despite the unique differences each offered.
“When I coached volleyball, I jumped on the bench and ran up and down the court. It gave me that out,” she said. “In (high school tennis), it’s classy, it’s clapping and not yelling. It’s different.”
But her first year introduced her to a “whole new world” both off and on the court.
Off the court, Cook dealt with the rigors of lesson planning and teaching classes. It was on the court where she realized the coaching style she learned in college didn’t fully translate to high school.
Where college featured a pressure to win, high school was much more laid back. For Cook, realizing winning wasn’t the main objective was quickly understood. She said it offered a “good growing process” in her first year.
But gaining a true understanding of her students’ abilities was an important tactic. She began to focus on assessing her students and helping them improve.
It was a challenge that was difficult as she worked with limited facilities at the time.
Often, she taught both boys and girls tennis teams at the Barton Middle School tennis courts.
“You have to work with your clientele. You have to see what you got and then push them to where they can be,” Cook said. “It may not be where you expect them to be at the beginning. But once they get a taste of winning and hard work, they started playing better.”
Cook used her experience to create the base for her tennis program, which she’s helmed since her hiring in 1984.
It led her to take a no-cut approach, where she welcomes all players of all skill types.
“I take any kid that wants to play,” Cook said. “If they can come out here and make life-long friends, and when they leave here, if they win state or they don’t win a single match, as long as they leave here, to me, as a good person, that’s what matters.”
As the game has changed in complexity, Cook continued to keep the status quo. It was done as the area round her equally began to change.
She credits the growth of middle school tennis programs in Hays CISD with helping advance tennis players’ abilities within the district.
But it wasn’t until midway through the 2015 semester when Cook realized it was time to stop. With certain things falling through, she felt it was the right move to hang up her coaching whistle.
Cook said she has aspirations of working as a substitute teacher within the district. She also harbors the desire to travel and see the world.
But keeping up with athletics, something she’s done since she was a teenager, is important.
“I thought it was the right time [to retire], but it’s very bittersweet,” Cook. “I hope there is some way I can stay connected with athletics.”