Want to channel The champion Inside? Call on one of these elite trainers.
Some of us prefer to simply tennis-volley with a friend, swim lazy laps in the pool, or coast on our long-ago putting lessons. But if your intention is to challenge yourself and excel at a sport, you are going to need people: great trainers, teachers, role models. Some of the best from around the U.S. have produced champions who are household names, and others are star athletes in their own right. All have a passion for teaching and a knack for instilling their knowledge into highly motivated students of all ages. Get in touch, and get ready to work.
Murphy Jensen I tennis
Sea Island, Ga.
Tennis fans might remember Murphy Jensen from the 1993 French Open. Astounding the audience at Roland Garros and around the world, he and his brother Luke brought home the top doubles prize and breathed excitement back into the sport: high-fiving each other on the court and making grand entrances at events on growling Harleys. After retiring and spending years off the circuit, they are back, now at Sea Island resort, where Murphy directs the tennis program and Luke serves as the touring pro.
Here, Murphy mixes his rock-and-roll personality with insights gleaned from his touring and TV-commentating days, as well as from his coaching of the Washington Kastles, the professional-league team that includes the Williams sisters and Martina Hingis. According to Murphy, the team had five world championships in six years, accomplishing the longest winning streak in all professional sports with 34 straight wins and two undefeated seasons. “It’s not how you hit the ball, but when,” he says. “It all comes down to timing. The better the timing, the better the tennis.” To get that timing right, he emphasizes building muscle memory. “It’s not unlike a yoga practice,” he says. “The practice is everything. It takes away any fear and doubt, allowing you to play truly by instincts and feel.”
For information, see seaisland.com; $350 per one-hour private session.
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Seth Huston I swimming
Houston is not known for its palm trees, but you will find them by Rice University’s gleaming 20-lane competition pool, where coach Seth Huston presides. Besides leading the celebrated college squad and a record-breaking Masters team, he also gives private lessons to a select few clients. The best swimmers, he says, swim tall, fingertips to toes; they cover a great range of motion and are comfortable with their faces in the water. If a client does not meet this description, then Huston will figure out a way to make it so, whether that means demonstrating the moves on the deck or actually getting into the pool and manipulating the client’s arms and legs. He may even take out stretch cords to show which muscles need to be engaged at various points of the stroke.
For information, email email@example.com; $120 per one-hour private session.
Swimmers at the SwimMAC Carolina club do not expect the same old drills at practice, at least when David Marsh—the club’s CEO and director of coaching since 2007—is teaching. He likes to switch things up, varying the speed, getting swimmers out of the water for push-ups, and having them dive back in. “In college, there were coaches who offered monotonous training and those who were more creative with the practices they wrote, and I know which ones I preferred! Of course, there are times you have to do a straight aerobic workout, but as a coach, I do the minimum necessary.” To say his method works would be an understatement: As the former swim coach at Auburn University for 17 years, he developed 32 Olympians who won 18 medals. In 2012, five SwimMAC members swam for the U.S. team and brought home six medals, three gold and three silver.
For information, see swimmaccarolina.org. Customizable packages are available.
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David Leadbetter I GOLF
Champions Gate, Fla.
Thirty-three years after launching his eponymous golf academy, renowned coach David Leadbetter has created a veritable empire that includes books, videos, accessories, and 23 more schools worldwide. To his clients, Leadbetter says, he is just the man with a plan. “I help people understand issues with their golf games,” he says. “And I outline ways they can improve all aspects of their games, from the actual swing to course management, physical conditioning, and nutrition.” His drive for innovation has led him to devise a more efficient way to swing the club, dubbed “The A Swing,” which includes a “7-Minute Practice Plan” for when clients cannot get out to the golf course (that is, most days for most people). But make no mistake: Those daily seven minutes are not intended as a quick fix, but rather something to be carried out over a lifetime of golf. Patience is a virtue as a student, says Leadbetter, who relies as much on instinct and a good eye as he does on high-tech video equipment to improve a player’s swing. “You chip away at it inch by inch, not yard by yard.”
For information and a listing of academy locations, see davidleadbetter.com.
One might expect a less holistic approach from someone who has coached Annika Sorenstam, winner of 72 LPGA events and one of the greatest female players of all time, but Pia Nilsson insists that golf is not merely about the swing: It is about the whole person. While technique is crucial to playing above-par golf, most enthusiasts do not have time to devote enough rounds to master it, says Nilsson, who cofounded the Vision54 academy with fellow top-rated coach Lynn Marriott. But what a player can do is manage him or herself mentally and emotionally: Easing anxiety enhances a swing, and shedding doubt allows one to commit to one’s shots and make them stronger. “It totally affects the game,” Nilsson says. And by the way, consistency is overrated; the game is, in fact, about variability. “The weather, the course, what happens out there can change over five hours. You change over five hours,” she says. “It’s not so much about simply being consistent as it is about mastering the variability. That’s the beauty and challenge of the sport.”
For information, see vision54.com; $350 per one-hour private session.
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Laird Small I GOLF
Pebble Beach, Calif.
Laird Small, the director of Pebble Beach Golf Academy, has trained World Golf Hall-of-Famer Vijay Singh, a former president of Spain, and NFL quarterback Steve Young, but many people know him most for proving Oprah Winfrey wrong. A frustrated non-player—she took a lesson years earlier and never made contact with the ball—Oprah had told Small that she “can’t do golf.” But with baby steps, the ball close to the hole at first, then farther and farther away, he had her hitting in front of all the cameras. “We created a pattern for success,” explains Small.
What helps create those patterns is a 3-D motion-analysis machine that uses body sensors to assess the rotation, bend, lift, sway, and thrust of one’s golf swing. With precise measurements, it tabulates how each body segment should accelerate and decelerate and in what order for the most efficient swing. Small also employs a robotic trainer that guides the player, so he or she experiences exactly what the perfect swing for his or her body feels like. “It takes away the trial and error and makes learning faster, allowing us to engage in a deeper conversation,” says Small.
For information, see pebblebeach.com; $300 per one-hour private session.
West Grove, Pa.
Five-time Olympian Phillip Dutton literally wrote the book on three-day eventing, a competition that requires dressage, jumping, and a rigorous cross-country course. His Modern Eventing is a comprehensive guide with “intense” detail (to quote a reviewer), but one would expect nothing less from the encyclopedic Dutton, who won two gold medals as a member of Australia’s Olympic team in 1996 and 2000. He peppers his experience with an eye on the trends, offering clients both insight and perspective. As a result, many Olympic riders have at some point passed through True Prospect Farm, Dutton’s training facility located 50 minutes south of Philadelphia.
Would-be students who have not set the bar quite so high are also welcome, but should be warned that they might find themselves nudging it higher over time. Among his proudest moments as a coach, says Dutton, is taking his friend and veterinarian all the way to the prestigious Rolex Kentucky competition.
For information, see phillipdutton.com; $100 per one-hour private session.
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The Straight Shooter
Karen Healey I equestrian (show jumping)
Widely respected for her classical teaching approach, Karen Healey has little interest in the high-society trappings often associated with show jumping. What Healey is focused on are dedicated students who want to improve and compete. She has trained a long line of elite riders, including three-time World Cup winner Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum.
As someone who began her career breaking yearlings, grooming, and working with veterinarians, Healey gets horses, and this is an invaluable skill. As she puts it, “When things go wrong, it’s usually a lack of communication between the horse and rider.” Her most fulfilling recent victory was not that of a top rider who swept an exclusive competition, although that has certainly happened; rather, it was a mother who returned to the sport. And she worked not with some prize-winning horse, but with one bought young and green. “We taught him everything,” says Healey. “She and the horse ended up winning a national finals, and that was so satisfying.”
For information, see karenhealeystables.com; $150 per one-hour session.
Smooth sailing is a bit of a misnomer: Ease is not an attribute of this highly competitive sport, which requires nonstop action of the body as well as the mind. A proper strategy is required to vie for first place, and that is where Ed Adams comes in. With the wisdom that results from competing in or coaching 7,000 races, including the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics and two dozen world championships, Adams knows what sailors need to do to break from the pack. His most successful students are those who are relatively fit and athletic, he says, and can grasp complicated concepts. They also need to be willing to put in long hours of practice, the same as any other sport. “A lot of people get into sailing later in life, hire the best coaches, and attack it with energy, but they’ll never get as good as someone who’s been at it since age 10,” he says. “You may get close, but you have to have realistic expectations.”
For information, “talk to your sailmaker,” says Adams, who prefers word-of-mouth referrals and does not publish his rates.
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Steve Hunt I sailing
San Diego, Calif.
As any competitive sailor knows, sailing requires a keen combination of intellect, fitness, and a sixth sense when it comes to weather. “To go faster than the other boats, you’ve got to be one with the wind,” says three-time world champion Steve Hunt. That statement may seem obvious, but in reality it is no easy task. Dozens of variables must be considered, and the best captains know how to prioritize them accurately at any given time. Sometimes sailors are focused on tweaking their sails too much when what they should be doing is looking for more wind, says Hunt, who believes coaching is in his genes, given that his father was a competitive sailor and his mother was a teacher.
Sailing, he says, is like NASCAR racing. “You have to tweak your vehicle for optimum speed, but you also have to drive it well and the crew has to work together as one.” To that end, Hunt videotapes while coaching. “It’s a good way for teams to understand exactly how they are not driving the boat well,” he says. “It is one thing to hear criticism from a coach, but another to see it for yourself.”
For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss rates individually.
Brian Hammond I cycling
New York, N.Y.
Working 80 hours a week and balancing family and rest, but longing to scratch a 100-mile charity ride off that bucket list? A biweekly spin class simply will not cut it. Brian Hammond understands that those with big ambitions often have big schedules. Nearly 100 percent of his clients—most of them top-tier executives—have a race on the calendar, and Hammond sees his job as fitting an effective regimen into a very limited amount of time. “It’s about being efficient,” he says.
He asks clients, before they even ease onto the saddle, to give him a clear picture of their days, from waking times to how long it takes to get ready, to family and work obligations. A client may have exactly 73 minutes each day to train, and Hammond will find a way to decipher any weaknesses and take them on in that time frame. He may lead riders through the park or connect a bicycle to a computer to tackle hills virtually. He has helped clients shave hours off their riding times and turned amateurs into pros; some have become good enough to trade their jobs for making a living racing.
Hammond’s tip for amateurs: Begin fortifying at the start of a race. “The body can consume only about 300 calories an hour while it’s exercising at that level, but it’s burning 600, so if you start eating right away, you keep yourself from running a deficit.”
For information, see worklivetri.com; rates from $125 per hour.