THE ACE OF CLUBS
I recently had a spare day of time and decided to use this time to go and visit a place and person I had heard was great. I had met the coach several times and he always struck me as someone who knew his mind and didn’t conform (my favourite types). I literally had no perception of the club he worked with so I was fascinated to see what it was like.
I began by sending the coach a message saying I had some spare time before heading on to tutor somewhere and would love to come and watch him work. He replied almost immediately and said ‘leave it with me’. He then messaged back saying ‘yes all sorted’. Turns out he had juggled things about so I could watch him work at the times I could make it. That was a great start.
I picked up my hire car from airport and drove approximately 20 minutes to the outskirts of a town. Now bare in mind I live in a village of approximately 700 people with 1 shop, 1 bar and a fish and chip restaurant & takeaway. The suburb of this large town was significantly bigger than my village. The main street was littered with nice little cafes and deli’s. There was a large Tesco extra just round corner and a couple of miles back there was a retail park with all your usual suspects housed within. I had a very nice breakfast in a local deli and drove the extra 0.8 miles up to the club.
On the way to the club I passed a college, a primary school, lots of nice houses and the club was slap bang in the middle of many houses. I drove past kids of different ages walking to the club with their racket bags hanging around their necks. I walked into the club. The receptionist welcomed me and said I could sit in their lounge until the coach was ready. She didn’t know who I was or what I was there for but made me feel very welcome.
I walked into the lounge and there were 3 different groups of kids there (no parents). One was doing the bottle flip challenge, another was performing some dodgy street dance moves with their mates videoing and laughing and the final group just sitting looking like they were getting ready to go on court.
I walked out towards the courts. There were 12 courts, 7 artificial grass, 3 outdoor hard courts and 2 indoor hard courts. It was 10.30 on Saturday 10th December and 7/10 outdoor courts were being used. On the first court there were 4 middle aged men battling it out. The next court there were 2 kids (looked around 12) battling it out playing points. The net court up was an adult mixed doubles. There were 4 other courts being used for coaching sessions, looked like 3 groups and 1 individual lesson. I was told if I had been there between 9-10 there would have been no courts for me to play on.
The coach walked out from his coaching cabin (he was stringing rackets) and welcomed me to the club. We went back into the lounge and he introduced me to a lady called Norma. She was the chairperson of the club. I told her why I was there and where I was heading to afterwards. She flippantly mentioned she used to be the governor of the university I was about to work at. Norma then gave me a quick breakdown of how the club operated.
As with most clubs, they had membership fees which generated a percentage of their income. Unlike most clubs they did not rely on this as being their largest chunk of income. They made a substantial amount from their 2 indoor tennis courts. They received income from putting solar panels on top of these indoor courts (genius). They had a gym which generated a substantial amount of extra income. They have a bar which takes in a huge amount of income. They told me what it can take in on a typical Friday and Saturday night, impressive even for a Scotsman. They run a couple of large summer tournaments which also generate a large amount of profit. They have regular social events which generate more income and every Friday night they have a club night where the courts and lounge are mobbed.
Essentially this club was completely self-sufficient. God forbid but if the LTA folded tomorrow they would still thrive. They don’t rely on any funding for their juniors yet their club regularly churns out players of national and international. This seamlessly leads me back to the head coach.
He told me who was in the coaching team and 100% of them had come through the club programme. Home grown loyal young coaching talent, love that! You could tell how fond and proud he was of his team. When I spoke with a couple of them you could also tell how proud they were to be part of the team.
He also echoed what Norma had said and mentioned he doesn’t rely on funding. The club very generously (and cleverly) reinvest a big chunk of money back into the junior development programme. This means they can crack on and do what they want. They are a team and they are happy and guess what…… so are the players.
I walked into the indoor courts and greeting me was a large poster saying ‘Caution….. Learning Zone’ The coach was working with a 12 year old girl. Her sister of 9 was also on the court. She was collecting the tennis balls for her sister but was clearly listening to everything that was going on. Big sister repaid the favour in the following hour.
It would take too long to do the next 2 hours their deserved justice so here is a breakdown of my notes.
Has player instantly hitting different types of balls, hard & flat then sloppy spin then on to angle spin. Constantly mixing the balls.
“I’d rather you hit out through the court than hit the net” Allowing mistakes, decreases stress and encourages her to go for her shots
Coach is very comfortable with silence after asking a question. Doesn’t feel the need to answer it. He will naturally guide player to answer through putting them in the situation.
Player looks like she is getting comfortable being uncomfortable. Looks like she is beginning to enjoy problem solving.
Coach continues selling idea that mistakes are actually helping her.
Younger sister is occasionally used her opinion. This winds up older sister and even that is used as a learning experience by coach.
Coach offers support and challenge in equal measure = tough love environment
Coach always looking to keep the player honest with his feed.
All the drills to the majority of the teaching for player. This leaves the coach free to help player.
Allowing player to solve the problem and will occasionally give a simple visual or a cue word and let her interpret what that means.
Selling differentiation by stating most girls don’t use these skills – so true!!
Coach uses empowering and challenging language. He has just apologised for not challenging her enough.
“Do you want me to tell you the answer?” Player shouts NO WAY!. After the struggle it is even more rewarding when she realises what she needs to do.
Player just said “I want you to push me out of my comfort zone”
When sessions were over the coach and I went back to the lounge and had a chat for about 45 minutes. He asked me what I thought and I said ‘I think you are an exceptional teacher’. He looked surprised and asked what I had expected. My perception of this coach was he may have been a great trainer of players. When I put that to him his exact words were “I can be when the time is right”
We chatted about our personal learning experiences and both agreed our most powerful moments were when working with people who were world class at what they do. We both also agreed it is important to learn what you can from these people and add it to your own ways. Amazing teachers/coaches do not want you to be clones of them. They want you to be your own person and develop your best ways of using their experiences.
So here I was, sat in a great club about 450 miles from my house, chatting with a great coach and surrounded by people all working together to develop tennis in their community. I genuinely got the impression they were not even thinking about anyone else except themselves. Simply being their best every single day and where that takes them only time will find out.
One thing I did leave thinking was, how amazing would it be if the UK had more clubs like this. Unfortunately this is not the norm. In fact, this was the ‘ace of clubs’.
If you are ever in the neighbourhood you should check it out, it is called Sutton Coldfield Tennis Club and the coach is called Chris Johnson.
I thank them for making me feel so welcome. I left a better tennis coach than when I arrived.