Time for Radical Change?
Teaching pros need to simplify the learning process for their students, says the director of tennis at the NTC.
I was born in 1967, when there were about 10 million tennis players in the U.S. By the time I was playing my first 12-&-under tournaments, there were between 35 and 40 million tennis players. People have referred to this era as the Tennis Boom, but it was more like an exponential explosion. Unfortunately, now that I am eligible for the 35-&-over division, there is only a fraction of this number remaining.
The sport of tennis is in a crisis, and it is time for change.
Why did tennis enjoy this surge in popularity? The reasons are self-evident: It is the best sport in the world. It is great exercise. It is social. Our champions are young and attractive. This list is an easy one.
What caused the dramatic fall in participation over the past quarter-century? One pervasive theory is that there are more leisure-time activities than in the past. In the 1970s, there was no internet, video games were in their infancy, fitness memberships were not all the rage, and cable television had not become widespread. These are valid points, but I view them as excuses. In fact, back then there were other hugely popular activities, such as the jogging craze, the roller-skating fad, the Disco Era, the golden age of network television, etc. There will always be plenty of competition for leisure time.
A bigger reason that we have lost millions of tennis players is because our industry has done a poor job of retaining new players. The teaching professionals, inadvertently perhaps, have created a perception that to play tennis, you must first “take lessons.” This mindset might be good for short-term business, but it is bad for growth.
Instead of lesson plans where technique is taught, we are wiser to establish an environment where players have the perception that they are immediately playing. Coaches should set up play-based drills and games. Players will learn quickly this way and not absorb the discouragement that comes from losing matches.
Next, we need to simplify our teaching methods. I have been involved in the incipient stages of the Cardio Tennis initiative. Interestingly, a constant refrain that I’ve heard from participants is that they love playing in a structured environment without instruction. This is different from what they’ve always received at a typical tennis clinic. Think about it, teaching pros are trained to correct others constantly. In Cardio Tennis, which is simply a fitness-based tennis class, players move a lot and hit plenty of balls in a controlled environment. But there is no formal instruction.
After years of teaching the way I was taught, I began believing that my students would learn more through the method of guided discovery than they ever would through the “old fashioned” process. I provide them with a structure, usually through fun, play-based activities, where they learn to make adjustments on their own. When they make errors, I trust that they will self-correct. Only when I observe patterns of mistakes do I offer corrective advice. It almost feels like “anti-teaching,” but players are learning to play better more quickly.
Critics suggest that if players are not taught the “right way” from the beginning, then they will never develop properly. I disagree. The most important aspect when people are new to the sport is for them to have fun and to gain a measure of success. Let players learn by doing. Let them imitate others. Some “wholesome neglect” might be more beneficial than too much coaching. By limiting instructions, a teacher gives students the freedom to make decisions out there on the court.
If my colleagues and I do a better job of introducing enough players to our sport in a fun and inclusive manner, then the masses will begin enjoying tennis in a manner that has become foreign. This is completely different from the coaching philosophy that I used to embrace.
It is staggering to me that tennis is not more popular in this country. Each of my colleagues from the USPTA and PTR must become accountable for making our sport more accessible. If we simplify the learning process, then we will retain more players. Eventually, we can dwarf the participation numbers from the “good old days.”
I have changed. Let’s see what you can do.
See all articles by Bill Mountford
About the Author
Bill Mountford is the director of tennis at the USTA National Tennis Center, the country's largest public tennis facility and home to the US Open. He has been published frequently, speaks at national conventions, and writes a weekly "Ask Bill" column for USTA.com.