For Continuity, Establish Key Teaching Points for Your Pros
By Joe Dinoffer
Give me a choice and I stay at Marriott Courtyards. At every location, I feel I am in a familiar place. I know that they’ll all have complimentary hot beverages in the lobby. The room décor is similar; the staff is always friendly and helpful.
Basically, it is predictable. And predictability is important.
Now let’s look at tennis. You join a club. The club has a number of teaching pros. Eventually, you’ll speak with all of them about tennis, take lessons from several of them, and get to hear their opinions on your game in drills and practice sessions. The only problem is that, at the vast majority of facilities across the U.S., your experience will be unpredictable, which is the opposite of what makes people feel comfortable.
A question of continuity
The issue is that, as far as instructional programs, most are not continuity-based. Starting in the mid-1970s, Peter Burwash successfully started an entire company on this premise. For 30 years PBI has intensely trained new staff for 30 days before they are allowed to teach a paying lesson. And these are not all new teachers; many are seasoned veterans. The reason? They have a continuity-based teaching program. In other words, just like Marriott, Burwash reasoned that customers want predictability. There may be many ways to teach a forehand, but pick some basics to agree upon and get your whole staff to reinforce those fundamentals.
In fact, Burwash was not alone. Dennis Van der Meer also successfully introduced his “standard method” concept to thousands through the PTR. And, to a large extent, Tennis Corporation of America works hard to train its staff at dozens of clubs as well.
Still, as an industry, continuity-based programs are few and far between. How often have you come up against scenarios similar to these?
- A parent sends his daughter to a summer tennis camp at his club. One of the pros emphasizes a particular grip on the serve, right from the start. The girl works on it all summer, then, in the fall, a different instructor at the club changes things completely. To the parent, it appears that time and money have been wasted and, worst of all, the girl is frustrated and thinks she has to learn something over.
- A woman plays recreational league tennis and her team has been taking drill sessions with one teaching pro for months. He tells her that, in doubles, the receiver’s partner must call the serve and must intently watch the service line for their partner. Then, that pro goes away for the summer. The replacement teacher says something totally different: “Don’t watch the service line. Watch the server’s partner at the net to be ready in case she is going to poach or hit the ball right at you.” Imagine how the woman feels. For months, she was drilled to focus on one thing and then, all of a sudden, she wonders if she was taught the wrong thing by the first pro and wasted a lot of time and money.
What you can do about it
The good news is that staff training, although it requires a significant amount of effort, is not that complex if you don’t get overwhelmed thinking about it. Keep in mind that you are not trying to write a computer-programming manual. You are just trying to establish key points of continuity or agreement on which all staff will base their teaching. It is not about all teaching the same way with the same drills and progressions. It is just about agreeing on certain issues. Here are some steps to get you started:
- You must become enthusiastic that you are establishing a foundation that will pay big dividends over time.
- Sit with your existing senior staff and get everyone on the same page that this is a critical issue that needs to be addressed.
- Set up a committee of two or three to break down the game into each stroke and strategy and list all the possible points of contention (i.e., loop or straight-back forehand backswing recommended for beginners?). The committee makes written recommendations that are then distributed to all concerned for evaluation and comment. Then, a final meeting is set up to discuss any points of contention and to achieve a consensus.
- Next, put it all clearly in writing, with a date at the top. This guide for staff teaching and training should be fluid and updated at least every quarter. Have one person in charge of the task, and review any possible updates in staff meetings.
- Find resources (books, videos, articles, etc.) that you all will agree are in line with your guidelines and share them at regular staff meetings.
- At least once or twice a year have guest speakers at your staff meetings to augment their training. Just make sure in advance that whomever you invite is on the same page as your staff on critical issues.
Maintaining the standards
If you want to enjoy the benefits of a continuity-based program, you have to invest the time to maintain it. When new teachers are added to your staff, whether in year-round or summer camp positions, training is essential.
Generally speaking, I would recommend an initial one-week training program that includes study and review, along with many hours observing private and group instruction. Then have the new staff member give free lessons and clinics with critique by existing senior professionals. For some of our readers, this will sound reasonable. Others may scoff at the amount of time required to accomplish this level of training. If you are on the fence, trust me. Invest now and benefit later.
Every successful business chain, whether it be Marriott Hotel Corporation or a large high-end department store, trains all staff in a similarly meticulous manner. We’re reminded of it on name badges all the time. “John Doe — manager-in-training.” School teachers have student teaching requirements to get their degrees. Medical students have months of intense training as “residents” in order to become doctors. If we want to be part of professional programs that excel, we don’t have a choice. What are the specific benefits to your tennis program? Here is a handful:
- Higher retention of students due to more satisfied customers.
- Fewer managerial worries when a teaching pro has to take off in the middle of a series of lessons due to illness or vacation.
- Greater improvement among students, leading to increased word-of-mouth advertising.
- Improved team spirit, retention, and dedication among staff members, since they are part of a program that is committed to excellence.
- Increased revenues on a facility-wide level since a well-promoted and well-executed continuity-based program leads to increased participation levels and higher player and member retention.
See all articles by Joe Dinoffer
About the Author
Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional for both the PTR and USPTA. He speaks frequently at national and international tennis teacher workshops as a member of both the HEAD Penn and Reebok National Speaker's Bureaus. He is president of Oncourt Offcourt Inc. and has written 16 books and produced more than 30 instructional videos.
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