Tennis participation has been climbing since the spotlight turned to growing the game, but are teachers being left in the dark?
By Liza Horan
It’s been said that tennis is a game of emergencies. It requires a player to be a fleet-footed quick-thinker with soft hands and honed technique.
Yet in the 1990s the sport faced its own emergency, best remembered by the May 1994 Sports Illustrated cover that quivered, “Is Tennis Dying?”
That statement-turned-mantra added dynamite to smoldering, disjointed efforts to increase participation in the game. It took a decade of industry leaders setting aside party lines, literally shaking hands, and figuratively holding hands, to emerge with the cooperative effort called “Tennis Welcome Centers.” This unprecedented cooperation has begun to stem the leak of those who try the game once and walk away, and certainly has gotten more players to hit the courts more frequently.
But there is cause for concern — this time for those who would teach the 1.1 million new players gained in 2005, and more to come. The inability of salaries to keep pace with inflation has put “career teaching pro” on track for the endangered species list.
Certified teaching pros
At the top of the scale are career instructors certified by PTR and USPTA, or trained by Peter Burwash International and others. Many say there are too few career pros because what was a glamorous, well-paying position back in the 1970s now offers an anorexic pay scale that makes supporting a family difficult.
Inflation grew 246 percent between January 1977 and January 2007. Salaries of teaching professionals generally grew 0 percent. And while there still are some very well-compensated positions, they are the exception, not the rule.
“We’re still looking at wages that were being paid in the ’70s and ’80s, and [pros] are going to other industries,” says USPTA President Ron Woods.
PTR Executive Director and CEO Dan Santorum agrees: “Being a teaching pro used to mean making a lot of money. It was equal — if not better — than a job out of college. The pay scale is not commensurate with what they can get elsewhere. It has not kept up with salaries in other industries.”
Pro-active step: Let’s begin with a nationwide salary survey — conducted by an independent party — that identifies position titles, responsibilities, and compensation. If teachers and employers are invited to participate, the needs and challenges of both will be discovered. Taking stock of the situation is the first step to curing it.
Many say that the game will grow if it becomes more accessible in every community, and that requires more troops on the ground that know how to create a positive first experience on court. According to the “2005 U.S. Tennis Participation Study,” undertaken by the USTA and TIA, 74 million people have tried tennis but not continued due to a “poor introductory experience.”
To provide the masses with a fun first outing, the USTA is training entry-level providers through Recreational Coach Workshops. Participants are parents and other volunteers who want to introduce children to the game. “In 2006 we had 226 workshops,” says Kirk Anderson, who is USTA director of Recreational Coaches and Programs, as well as a certified Master Pro with both the PTR and USPTA.
“Since the program started six years ago, 23,000 people have attended the six-hour workshops,” says Anderson. “Nine percent of them don’t play tennis, yet 5.8 percent go on to seek certification. We need a whole lot more people.”
The corps of 400,000 parents and volunteers who run youth soccer leagues serves as an example of what could be achieved. Once kids are hooked on tennis, they can pursue instruction with certified pros.
Pro-active step: The USTA is busy training entry-level providers, while the teaching associations are continuing to attract and develop members, but there’s another source: College graduates. There are a few rich undergraduate and graduate programs specifically designed to prepare young adults for a career in tennis, and an image campaign about how wonderful a profession tennis is (backed up with great salaries and benefits) will boost admissions applications.
Through its many programs, the USTA is all over community tennis. And while the USTA continues to build and enhance the local infrastructure to pave the way for beginner players, the rest of the industry can focus on making “certified tennis professional” a great career choice.
See all articles by Liza Horan
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