A Recipe for Junior Success That Goes Beyond Tennis
By Joe Dinoffer
Put yourself in a brainstorming session with other industry leaders. Your group’s assignment is to come up with a recipe to help create more dynamic and successful junior development programs and tennis academies. The recipe must include all the components needed to attract and retain both kids and their parents. What would be your recipe for success?
Here’s what we came up with as a starting point.
Ingredient #1: Create a ‘kids first’ culture
The first step in establishing a “kids first” culture is to find out what motivates the children. The first critical component of this ingredient is to develop an atmosphere of mentorship. Regularly rotate the children so even the youngest players get to spend time with the older ones.
If you run more of an “after school” program rather than a full-blown tennis academy, this can become a reality by scheduling the most advanced players first and then have them stay an extra 30 minutes to help the next oldest group. Then the second group stays an extra 30 minutes to be with the third oldest group, and so forth. You’ll be amazed at the difference this small scheduling adjustment can make. The younger kids will be more motivated than ever and, by helping one another, will each quickly evolve into more caring individuals.
Another feature of this ingredient is to make decisions based on what is best for each individual child’s development. Don’t sacrifice anything based on winning and losing. An example is that many of the tennis academies that have tried creating their own mini-boarding schools are now switching back to non-boarding school programs. The result is a more stable environment for the children. The lesson learned is that the greatest long-term support for the juniors will always come from their own families. Happy children will result in happy tennis players.
Ingredient #2: Establish and maintain standards
This ingredient consists of many smaller parts, but each one is as important as the other. Besides the practical aspects of facility management, scheduling, and promoting your programs, you need to set standards with the people part of the equation — your staff, the juniors, and their parents.
The bottom line is that we are in the people business and, while each of your juniors may not turn into world champions, it is realistic to expect that they can grow to experience the benefits of playing college tennis. Even more important is that they can become better human beings through playing our lifetime sport.
I always remember how in the mid-1970s, veteran tennis teacher and entrepreneur Peter Burwash was in charge of the Hawaiian Junior Davis Cup Team. One of the first things he did was to call a meeting with players and parents and establish that spots on the team would be awarded based on attitude and effort first and playing ability second. Burwash knew that with the right attitude and work ethic, the whole group would flourish, rather than simply be a springboard for a few elite players with varying degrees of immature attitudes.
The result of his drawing this line in the sand was that he lost some of his top players. However, in the long run, he developed a team that made a difference in the lives of the team members, and many more who they came in contact with. And, yes, most ended up being awarded college tennis scholarships anyway.
Ingredient #3: Get the parents on the same page
Any coach, teaching pro, or program director knows that tennis parents can either be your best friends or give you nightmares. Of course, they may not all become your best friends, but you can be proactive. At the very least, get everyone — kids and parents alike — on the same page.
The key is to set your standards and communicate them to the parents. Put them in writing. Be clear about what you expect from the kids in your program and stress life skills and character development. With this emphasis, you will establish a solid footing in your relationships and quickly gain the respect of the majority of the parents. Remember that you can be both nice and firm at the same time. Communication and consistency are essential touches to this ingredient in our recipe for success.
Ingredient #4: Attitude over aptitude
In addition to life-skill training and character-building, you owe it to yourself and the children to emphasize attitude over aptitude. According to USPTA Master Professional Jack Newman, “All things in life are connected, you cannot be someone in one area of your life and someone else in other areas. For example, you cannot be a slacker in academics and expect to be a focused, hardworking athlete in tennis.”
Ingredient #5: There is no ‘I’ in team
The final ingredient in our basic recipe for success is team building. Tennis can be a lonely sport. For most individuals, it is a lot more fun and satisfying to play tennis as part of a team rather than only as an individual. Shared losses are easier to swallow and shared victories are sweet and enduring. Therefore, it is critical to develop a team and family atmosphere that permeates your programs.
If a group goes to tournaments, make sure all the juniors support the others. This means that even if one junior loses in the first round, he or she stays at the tournament site and supports the others in the group.
The inspiration for this article came from a visit to the Austin Tennis Academy (ATA) in Austin, Texas (Austintennisacademy.com). Coach Jack Newman, the owner/director, is one of the best team-builders and junior tennis mentors in the U.S. His project is only a few years old and growing by leaps and bounds.
Many people run academies; few do it with solid character-building at the heart of their programs. Along with building solid citizens, the ATA also has a growing group of national champions.
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.