Does Anyone Really Know How to Produce Champions? Part II
As I mentioned in Part I of this blog, I strongly believe the coaches we need to be celebrating and rewarding are the ones that are finding ways to help children be passionate about our game. These are the coaches that are truly developing players and not just managing and smoothing out the edges of the already polished tennis player. There appears to be some snobbery in our sport and the coaches coaching the “better” players seem to think they are somehow “better” coaches because they work with elite players. I know I have definitely been guilty of this at times earlier in my coaching career.
Some people claim coaching the top players is extremely challenging because they can be “difficult to work with” in a team setting or as individuals. I find this sentiment quite laughable. In my experience, the easiest players to coach are the top ones. Getting to work with extremely self-motivated, highly skillful, hardworking players is easy.
Yes, maybe they have some superior attitude and their rate of improvement is hard to measure. But the most difficult and rewarding thing about coaching is keeping people motivated when they are struggling, teaching new skills that appear complex and creating a culture of hard work, passion and love for the game. Personally, I am huge fan of the coach who nurtured a child’s passion for tennis, not the one who reaped the accolades for the almost-finished product.
I have been fortunate to coach at a number of different levels and I believe my skill set is best suited to the current demographic I am working with (NCAA Division I). I learned this very clearly when I started coaching my 6 year old son and his buddies. I realized I had very little idea of current best practices and how to ensure I was helping them with their technique while having a lot of fun! I gained a new appreciation of just how difficult it is to keep kids engaged and eager to come back for more.
When it comes to tennis, I can’t help but wonder if we are expecting our coaches to know too much in a lot of different areas and never really become experts in just a few. Tennis is such a vast game, with so many different shots, movement patterns, fitness considerations, injury prevention, mental and tactical situations to master. We don’t expect our teachers to be proficient at teaching every grade level.
During my playing career I was extremely lucky to be tutored by some outstanding coaches. I was fortunate to work with a technical coach who restructured my game when I was very young and held me to a high standard of technical ability. As I got older, I began to work with coaches who gave me a better understanding of the tactical aspects of the sport. It wasn’t until I got to college that I learned the physical nature of tennis and the type of toughness that was required to succeed at a higher level.
It appeared that over the course of my career the right coach came into my life at the right time to help me understand a new layer as to what the sport required. I don’t know that if I had stayed with the same coach all my life I would have been as well rounded a player. Some players stay with the same coach their whole life and have amazing careers.
Again, proving that there is no one path or magic pill for producing great tennis players. I know for myself that I did not make it on the professional tour because I did not have the required mental aptitude nor was I willing to sacrifice other areas of my life. I don’t blame anyone, have any regrets or think that if I had grown up playing on hard courts, or had more resources or a top 10 player from my home country to look up to or anything else that it would have been any different.
In conclusion, I believe we need to continue to improve education for not only coaches and players, but for parents too. We also need to understand that we live in global world and tennis is a very global sport. What is so bad about players leaving countries to go elsewhere to develop their passion? Is it truly the federation’s job to develop players? At the top level of tennis, it is more about individual names than the country they represent.
Players are playing for themselves 98% of the time and not for their country. Federations don’t have to be responsible for developing elite players past a certain point. Let the private sector take care of that and let players go wherever they want to go. The best always find a way; that is why they are the best. This is not an opinion I would have held when I was playing or even 5 years ago. But as I gain a better understanding of globalization and relate this back to the world of tennis, I can see more clearly now that our focus appears to be in the wrong place at times.
Let’s set a solid foundation for our players, provide adequate training facilities and a logical tournament schedule and ranking system. Most importantly, let’s get our best coaches working with our young players and figure out how to make tennis as relevant as possible throughout the world. Federations everywhere have consistently failed at developing players. No one truly knows what it takes, so let’s stop holding them accountable for such an unrealistic target. No one is responsible for creating champions other than the individuals themselves that want to achieve greatness.
Let’s reward those that get the most children passionate about tennis and turn the spotlight on these individuals on a much more consistent basis. We all have a responsibility to ensure the future of our game. Let’s stop pitting one development system against another. Let’s stop going into our silos and only associating with those coaches who are working with players of a similar level. Let’s stop telling kids to go “pro” when they should be going to college.
And let’s all put our knowledge and resources together to encourage future generations of tennis players. The more children we have playing tennis, the more we will have to celebrate.