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SSU women’s tennis: Lopez winning matches, guiding lives

ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat SSU women's tennis coach Joaquin Lopez tosses balls to Lauren Ha during practice at Sonoma State, where Lopez is turning his psychotherapy training and his passion for arts into coaching tools.

ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat
SSU women’s tennis coach Joaquin Lopez tosses balls to Lauren Ha during practice at Sonoma State, where Lopez is turning his psychotherapy training and his passion for arts into coaching tools.

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

For the most part, the Sonoma State women’s tennis practices look a lot like any other — some players repetitively working on specific strokes or tactics, others scrimmaging for lengthy periods while their coaches observe and offer instruction.

It’s the lead-in to practice that distinguishes these Seawolves. That’s when the student-athletes sit in a circle on the court in molded plastic chairs, pass the talking stick and discuss how they’re feeling that day. These sessions generally last 5 to 10 minutes, but on Friday they can run 45 minutes or more, the women digging a little deeper into their anxieties and frustrations.

If this approach stands out in the world of sports, you should know that Sonoma State’s Joaquin Lopez is an atypical coach in practically every way that matters.

Not many other coaches lead sweat lodges, for example, or meditate for 20 to 30 minutes before going to bed each night. Not many write poetry in two languages, sometimes performing to the musical accompaniment of pre-Colombian instruments. Most of all, few coaches take such a holistic approach to their craft, shaping the psyches of their young athletes as ardently as they hone conditioning and mechanics.

“What I see them getting is the capacity to tolerate more uncertainty, and the ability to forgive themselves,” said Lopez, a smallish, wiry man usually adorned with a floppy-brimmed trekker’s hat. “That’s what I’m working on every day.”

If you think Lopez sounds like a psychologist, your intuition is correct. He is a licensed psychotherapist with a small practice in Sebastopol, where he lives with his wife and two children on 13 mostly undeveloped acres. Lopez has taken many of the principles of his profession and applied them to sports.

“Of course, he’s out here for tennis, but I think his priority is growing our personal lives,” senior Lauren Shafer said. “It’s beyond the tennis court. And that’s a really, really cool thing, because he genuinely cares about our well-being, each and every one of us.”

Lopez’s sweeping observations could come across as mumbo-jumbo were it not for two important factors. One, his players truly seem to matter to him. He maintains an open-door policy at SSU and schedules biweekly one-on-one meetings to find out how the women are dealing with school, health, family and social lives.

More intense are the annual retreats that Lopez, now in his third year as women’s head coach, leads before each season. Just about anything is open to discussion — except tennis.

“Those meetings get pretty deep,” junior Lauren Ha said. “They make us so much closer. I reveal things there that some of my friends at home don’t even know. Joaquin makes it comfortable. You know that what you say isn’t gonna leave. Those retreats are an amazing way for our team to get close before the season.”

Ha said she considered transferring from Sonoma State after her sophomore year, but stayed largely because of her connection to Lopez.

The other thing that gives him credibility: His technical skills are exceptional.

“Of all the coaches of the teams we play,” Shafer said, “he’s probably the best tennis player.”

Raised in Alicante, on the east coast of Spain, Lopez eventually rose to No. 844 in the world. He beat some of Spain’s best players, though admittedly before they were in their primes. Lopez accepted a tennis scholarship to the University of Arkansas, and was named the college’s top student-athlete as a senior. He returned to Spain and played professionally for five years, finding that he was just good enough to survive on tennis’ “satellite” circuit, but not good enough to break through. He traveled around Europe and lived out of his Volkswagen van, playing in matches that sometimes drew only 50 spectators, at tournaments where he hoped to win $1,000 or $2,000.

But Lopez had an important epiphany during this period.

“When I was a young player — 25, 26, 27 — I did observe in myself certain levels of obsession or at times insecurities,” he said. “It was almost as if I was trying, through winning or becoming somebody, to prove something, some internal deficiency that I had. Later, instead of saying, ‘keep going, keep going,’ I had to address how do I make peace with who I am?”

Lopez concluded that he was too hard on himself, too unforgiving. He learned to accept his flaws, then wondered how he could teach others to do the same in a sport where it hardly raises an eyebrow when players throw rackets and scream at themselves mid-match. Lopez vowed to give developing players what he never got in college — a safe forum to vent their insecurities and fears.

Lopez gradually clarified his vision through his educational training. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Arkansas, he followed up with a master’s in sports psychology from the Instituto Maslow Cattell in Spain, then a master’s in counseling psychology from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology — a discipline that blends psychotherapy and spirituality — in Palo Alto. He received his California license to practice marriage and family psychotherapy in 2008.

Just as important in Lopez’s development was a near-death experience 10 years ago. Two strangers found him on a beach in Jenner. He had hypothermia and no clear recollection of how he got there. That episode pushed Lopez into an active period of art and poetry.

“I don’t feel I’m on my first life,” he said. “I’m on my second one.”

It was during his time at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology that an aikido instructor encouraged Lopez to put his coaching ideas into a framework. Lopez calls it Transformational Tennis.

Rather than skirting their anxiety, Lopez encourages his players to confront it. He likes to “press them into a corner” at practice, stressing them with a running clock or a difficult position on the court so that the pressure of a competitive match is less startling. He teaches his athletes to concentrate on their emotional state and their core muscles even while tracking the lemon-lime ball.

“I’m always trying to find a collaboration approach, where I’m not telling them what to do all the time,” Lopez said. “It’s almost like I’m saying, ‘There’s a part of you that knows how to do this. Let’s find this part in you.’”

And yes, Lopez’s approach seems to work. His Seawolves are 8-6 this season against solid competition, though they have little scholarship money to offer and therefore tend to attract players who were lightly recruited elsewhere.

Though he loves coaching, Lopez admits that he is sometimes torn between tennis and his art, not to mention his passion for the outdoors and the book he’s been meaning to write on Transformational Tennis.

“I’m a guy who lives in a lot of realities — as a tennis coach, psychotherapist, father, poet,” Lopez said. “It’s important that I become a translator of something. … I need to be on the frontline. These women, without me talking about this thing, would never have exposure to anything like it.”

In other words, tennis has become one more language in which Lopez is writing poetry.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

VIDEO: Joaquin Lopez is more than just a dynamic women’s tennis coach. He also writes poetry, which he sometimes performs to musical accompaniment. Below is a video of a performance by his group, PanGaia Art Ensemble.