How could a healthy competition structure help develop coaches?
“Most people work hard. Hard work is the common denominator in this equation. I’m tired of the story we tell that hard work leads to success. That story allows those of us who make it to believe that we deserve it and by implication those who don’t make it don’t deserve it.”
“The experts we are looking for are the poor people themselves”
Mia Birdsong, The story we tell about poverty isn’t true, Ted Talk
These are just two quotes from an amazing Ted Talk I listened to from Mia Birdsong. The premise of this talk was to break down the perceptions that most of the solutions to issues lie in what society believes are the most successful people. I won’t go into the talk too much, it is simply brilliant and moving, please take 15 minutes to watch and most importantly listen to her message. She is magic!
So how was it possible I got to thinking about the tennis world when listening to a talk on poverty? I started to think about ‘the good old days’ when I grew up. Pretty much all of my peers learned to play tennis by simply playing tennis. We would compete and when we were not competing we were practicing to compete. Our practice always outweighed our competition time and 99.9% of the time it was without a coach and it was FREE OF CHARGE. We were effectively ‘the poor’ compared to what the norm has become today.
People often say ‘you need to have money to play tennis’. I instantly disagree. I don’t come from money, far from it. I am not getting my violin out here. I had a great upbringing and was perfectly happy and healthy. See, you don’t miss what you’ve never had. My tennis club membership costs somewhere in the region of £20.00 and this allowed me to play tennis almost any time I wanted. When I was 12 my family moved to within 100 yards of our local tennis club. Our previous flat was situated approximately 5 minute bike ride from the club but when you stay in a small town the other side of town can feel like another country.
I began playing tennis because Boris Becker won Wimbledon as a 17 year old. I was 12 and naively thought ‘if he can do it why can’t I’. An attitude that has seen me prove people wrong consistently in the last 43 years. I received free coaching from a guy called Ken Melville who did everything for free. Why? Just cos he wanted to. He appeared to enjoy providing opportunities for the kids at the club. When I think back there are at least 7 people I can think of that had or have a career in tennis because of Ken and remember…… this was in the mid 80’s!! I was constantly, and still am, ridiculed by most of my life long friends about having a career in tennis. It was the equivalent of saying I wanted to be an astronaut when I would confess I wanted to have a job in tennis when at school.
At a conservative estimate I played 20 hours of tennis a week. In the holidays that would have at least doubled. So I was paying approximately 52p per week for my membership and 2p per hour to play tennis. After receiving my 1st racket as a birthday present, I literally worked doing various jobs to save up for every racket thereafter. I would always wait to the end of the season so I could get the best deals. I still remember the first time I bought two rackets exactly the same. It was as if I had officially turned professional. I remember the first and only time I ever asked for private lessons from my mum. She asked how much they cost. I said £10.00. She asked how many I got for that, I replied 1, conversation never went any further. For me, tennis was not expensive. It was my choice to play, I loved it and I still love it.
Anyway, let’s get back on track…
How could a healthy competition structure help develop coaches?
When I went into full time coaching there were approximately 10 full time coaches in the whole of Scotland and it is fair to say, when I reflect, I was probably the worst player out of the bunch of them. I play OK but most of these coaches were really great players and as such they knew the game inside out. They understood the game, they just felt it and I’m sure in their own way managed to convey this to their pupils.
It is fair to say that at least for the next 15 years or so most coaches that went full-time were a reasonable standard of player as in they regularly competed. Please don’t think this is about having to play to a good level to be a good coach. Hopefully this will all make sense soon.
In relatively recent years the coach education system has moved from 3 to 5 levels with the 1st 2 levels being viewed as an assistant coach. This has resulted in a raft of coaches coming into tennis who effectively don’t play ‘the game’. Please don’t think this article is about the coach education system. Hopefully this will all make sense soon 😉
I am 43 years old, play OK tennis and love to compete. In my area there are around 5 tournaments a year an adult can compete in. That is ALL adults at ALL levels. Ooooh I’m starting to get to the point.
The competition structure in Scotland needs to be seriously addressed. I am sure it is the same south of the Border but ‘we’ have an opportunity to do something about it in Scotland. There needs to be a more competitive environment for all ages and equally as important…… standards. You see competition isn’t just for the best players (starting to relate back to the TedTalk folks). I believe that experts exist at every level, just as the skills demonstrated by the poor are the same as the ones demonstrated by the rich. We need to have an environment full of opportunities to compete socially. This COULD be a step towards creating, wait for it, a tennis culture!
If we did have a competition structure that saw competition as being the norm versus for only the best players we would have coaches coming into the sport who understood the sport they are teaching. The may even feel the game the way my peers did when I started out. They may even go to create environments where competition is the norm and have many different formats as part of their own programme, team events, social, skill building comps and so on.
If competition was the norm then I believe this could develop the coaches in this country. If the coaches are developed then surely the players will be developed. If the players are developed then the game is developed and maybe just maybe we may have a culture of tennis in the country.
Please please please don’t think I am saying you have to be a good player to be a good coach, I don’t believe that for a second but one of the biggest qualities a great coach has is empathy. I believe it is only possible to truly empathise when you have been in their shoes. When I say shoes I don’t mean at the same level, I mean in the same situation. You see, I go through exactly the same emotions as the best players in the world. I play using the same strategy and tactics as they do. I problem solve just as they do. I fight and compete just as much. I am as determined as they are. My tennis is just as important to me as theirs is to them. Its just that they are way way better than me at playing the game.
As a coach you have to understand your sport, know how to break it down, build it up, convey that in a way each pupil understands and then know how to teach it best for the individual in front of you. In my relatively short time in coach education I have to say the very first point above is lacking in a lot of coaches. This is not a bad reflection on the coach, it is a bad reflection in our competition structure.
I see the solution to many of Scotland’s tennis development challenges lie in 3 areas:
I believe it is virtually impossible to separate them and until all 3 are addressed in equal measure we will not see this tennis culture we so desperately crave.
A colleague mentioned to me last week in a conversation ‘it won’t change in our lifetime’. My immediate thought was ‘it frickin well will’.
Things are not designed to stay the same. Each year things remain the same it means we are moving backwards. As Mia says in her TedTalk…..
“We cannot wait for other people to get it right. Let us remember what we are capable of. All that we have built with blood, sweat and dreams, the cogs that keep turning and the people who are kept afloat because of our back breaking work. Let us remember that we are magic.”
“Individually we don’t have a lot of wealth and power but collectively we are unstoppable. We spend a lot of our time and energy organising to demand change to systems that were not made for us. Instead of trying to alter the fabric of existing ways lets cut fierce new cloth. Lets use some of our substantial collective power towards inventing and bringing to life new ways of being that work for us.”
Powerful words eh??
National Governing bodies are wealthy…..
Maybe the solutions are not with the rich, maybe they are inside us poor people who keep our heads calmly above water while below we are paddling like crazy. I believe that collectively we could make a significant difference……… do you?
Thanks for taking the time to read this. Now go and watch Mia say it a whole lot better. Have a great day.
Marjory Finlay says
Anyone can make a difference.. if they want to and that to me is the key, people have to want to do something and then they will do it as well as they can.
Tennis clubs need to be open to everyone at a reasonable price, if possible free – or even just a few free sessions.
I find the lack of playing with parents/peers frustrating – everything has to be organised and spoon fed, though in fairness the pandemic has changed this for the better at our club, people just come and play.