A Team Effort
Jimmy Pitkanen says both players and coaches have a lot to gain from the team experience.
As both a participant and coach, Jimmy Pitkanen of Knoxville, Tenn., has enjoyed the camaraderie that comes from being part of a tennis team. For teenagers struggling against peer pressure, he says, there may be no greater refuge.
“There isn’t a better environment to learn, perform, and compete than on a team,” says 53-year-old Pitkanen, a former director of tennis at clubs who now coaches at the exclusive Webb School of Knoxville. In fact, he says the only trophies he kept from his “playing days” were those he earned with his own high school and college teams. “It means more,” he adds, “when you’re not just in it for yourself.”
That attitude goes a long way in explaining why Pitkanen joined both the PTR and the USPTA in the 1980s, and why he worked so hard to earn the prestigious Master Professional rating from both organizations in the 1990s — an accomplishment shared by only five others in the world.
“It’s important to belong to the organizations,” Pitkanen says. “It’s not what they can offer you, but how you can work through them to service the industry. It’s an important part of a pro’s makeup and career development.”
According to Fred Viancos, the USPTA’s director of professional development, a Master Pro must put in court, organization, education, and business hours, in addition to extensive education programming. USPTA CEO Tim Heckler adds, “The Master Professional rating is highly respected by all members of the tennis community due to the objectivity and accountability required to earn it.”
“Jimmy is very involved in everything from school tennis to USTA programs, and always has been,” says Geoffrey Norton, the PTR’s director of development. “He’s very well known and respected in the South. In our workshops, his name seems to come up in every conversation as a good source for information for this or that. He’s a key guy who helps out in all aspects of the industry.”
“I always say passionate teachers inspire their students, and Jimmy has done that for years,” says PTR CEO Dan Santorum, who has known Pitkanen for 18 years. “Some people go through the motions of teaching, but some do it from the heart. Jimmy is one of those people.”
Pitkanen says he maintains dual memberships because the resources provided by both organizations help keep him on the cutting edge of the industry. “They’re also both service-oriented groups,” he notes, “and once you get involved in your community, you can’t sit still and not do more.”
Pitkanen, who coaches the girls’ and boys’ high school tennis teams at the Webb School of Knoxville, teaches his players that community service is just as important as a consistent serve by taking them to the local boys’ club to hit and socialize with the kids. Whenever possible, they take extra balls or maybe even a new net to donate to the facility.
“Kids really enjoy helping each other,” Pitkanen says. “It’s wonderful to see.”
Pitkanen was just a kid himself when he learned tennis from his father at age 11. He continued playing in high school and at the University of Tennessee. His decision to become a teaching pro, he says, was natural.
“I love people and I love to teach. Combined, there couldn’t be a better career for me,” Pitkanen says. “There’s something special about the immediate sense of satisfaction you get from watching players improve not only their strokes, but the mental aspect of their games. I enjoy every single day.”
That sense of job fulfillment is enhanced by calls, cards, and visits from former students. Pitkanen says one of last year’s graduates called recently so he could diagnose problems she was having with her forehand. The captain of last year’s boys’ team recently asked if he could join a team practice when he came home from college.
“I told him, ‘Bring your running shoes,’” Pitkanen says, “‘because you’ll be running with them, too.’”
That’s what teammates do.
This is the fifth of nine installments on the teaching pros who hold Master Pro certifications from both the PTR and the USPTA.
Pitkanen’s Tips for Success
- Stick with fundamentals. A lot of pros get caught up in teaching the latest fad, but fundamentals — like “get into the ready position” and “watch the ball as it comes off your opponent’s strings” — never go out of style.
- Give a kid a chance. Teaching pros who favor teaching adults might want to reconsider. Kids stay kids for a short time, and the lessons you impart about tennis and life may have a powerful and lasting effect. Few occupations offer such opportunity for job satisfaction.
- One day at a time. Many young players want to become pros some day, Pitkanen notes, but the rest will become pros in another area of life. Focus on teaching players how to get the best out of their games — and themselves — so they’ll be prepared for whatever career lies ahead.
- Team spirit. Pitkanen says students should be encouraged to join competitive and intramural sport teams and leagues. Although teenagers often have many competing interests, he believes being part of a team can be “one of the most joyous parts of high school or college life.”
See all articles by Cynthia Cantrell
About the Author
Cynthia Cantrell is a contributing editor of RSI magazine.