Toby Niles: “Play Smarter, Not Harder”
When you play with kids, the first thing they want to do is hit as hard as they can,” says Toby Niles, Quechee’s assistant tennis pro and ski racing coach. “They love it when the ball goes soaring over the tennis court fence,” he adds, explaining how he “heaps on praise and reaction” when the ball lands in the court.
Niles easy smile and cheerful manner make him highly approachable. He backs up his appealing style with experience in how to teach his two sports. After all, he’s been working with tennis players, mostly at Quechee, since he was fifteen.
Niles, who grew up in Norwich, Vermont, has always been into sports, and he feels he’s in an almost genetic tennis niche. “My great-grandfather played at the US Open—I think it was called ‘Flushing Meadows’ back then—and my grandfather was a Korean War vet, and an avid player. My father was the captain of the Princeton Tennis team. My brother [his fraternal twin, Sam] is much more talented than I ever was, but now he’s a lawyer in New York City, and he doesn’t play much.”
Early days with family tennis and skiing
He and his brother were in some ways very different. ”I felt like a bruiser next to him though I’m not a big guy,” says Niles. “He’s one inch taller and sixty to seventy pounds less! He was a gifted student, and a very gifted athlete,” relying on quickness and deception to defeat larger opponents. Both boys were freshmen members of Hanover High School’s soccer team, where, Niles says, Sam stopped the freshman hazing by turning the team against the hazing leader. “The year before, seniors made the freshmen wear dresses, things like that. But Sam could take a team of kids and make them laugh at you. Probably that’s part of what makes him a good lawyer.”
The family lived in the house on Main Street known to Norwich as the site of the barn used for the annual Christmas pageant crèche. For Niles, a major feature of the event was the three-dozen sour cream glazed donuts that his mother bought for the Pageant’s teenaged actors who filled the house. The donuts came from the grocery in Hanover where CVS is now, so they must live only in memory.
The brothers practiced tennis with their father in the morning, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to take turns hitting on the court at the house, and huddling in a blanket with gloves on. In spite of the temperature, this practice built Nile’s fundamentals and skills.
He was also an avid skier and ski racer. “I loved downhill and Super-G—speed events—but I was terrible at them,” he laughs. “The coach finally told me I had no future racing in speed events.” He cites as an example a race at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine where he was fifth on the steep top part of the course, and second to last on the lower, flatter part. “I was good at getting my skis on edge, but not at riding them flat,” he says. Tightly flagged slalom gates require virtually continuous edging, switching perfectly from one side to the other. Letting the skis slide sideways while on edge means losing speed. The fastest straight running is done on the flat bottom of the skis; any edging means slowing.
But, he likes speed. “I knew if I was going to be a great racer I had to do tech events,” he says. Nevertheless it was in a downhill training run that he had a major crash, and injured his back quite badly when he was 17. Serious rehabilitation has helped control the back spasms and nerve problems the accident created. “I do physical therapy; I take care of it,” he says dismissively. He’s not one to dwell on negatives.
Niles worked for a while on the snowmaking crew at Killington, an extremely tough job. The shifts are twelve hours long, and the work is cold, heavy, and noisy. You work with a partner, explains Niles. The “gun” (the nozzle that combines compressed air with water) gets dragged from place to place, the plan being to create a big pile of snow that a grooming machine can then distribute as needed.
When the gun is placed, one person opens the supply valves on the pipes that run beside the trail, and the other assesses the quality of the snow coming out the gun. You and your partner have signals, such as “arm up for air, down for water,” since the roar of the air makes yelling useless. Different temperature and humidity require different mixes of water and air to create the best possible artificial snow.
Quechee, he says, is very quick to make snow and get a trail covered.
How to get better—at skiing
When Niles coaches skiers, he uses a “constructivist learning theory.” He casually tosses off this phrase, and then cheerfully explains it. “I take you where you are, and build on that,” he says, which means adjusting carefully to each skier, even in a large group. “I teach them my vocabulary, or learn theirs.”
Technical practice focuses on moving from sliding, which scrubs off speed at each turn, to carving with the edge, which shoots the ski forward. “The first few times you do it, it’s terrifying,” he says. He coached a girl who was alternating sliding and carving her turns. When he asked her if she realized what she was doing she said yes. “Well, why?,” he asked, and she replied that if she carved every turn she got going so extremely fast.
Niles also works to get his racers to avoid “A-framing,” where their outside leg “breaks in,” a sign of having too much weight on the inside leg and failing to make the outside leg carve.
And at tennis
With those over-enthusiastic kids who want to blast the ball out of the court, Niles works to get them excited about rallying. He gets them counting up the shots—how many can they hit back? And then the enticing question: “Do you want to try that again?” which earns a ringing “Yes!” He shows beginners that the lowest part of the net is the middle, and the deepest part of the court is the diagonal, so if they hit a cross-court shot they have more room for success. “When you can hit consistent cross-court ground shots without thinking, that’s the moment you’re a good tennis player. Then you can start organizing a point” he says. “You learn to return, not kill.”
Once again Niles praises his brother’s raw skill, “My brother always had an answer for everything.” Then he delivers an excellent rule: “For us mere mortals, we need to play smarter, not harder.”