Life lessons from tennis.
Forget about the question of life imitating art, or art imitating life. Listen to Peter Burwash. He’ll tell you that tennis is the great metaphor for life.
“Tennis teaches you all the important things, all the things you need to know,” Burwash says. “It teaches you to stand on your own, to be patient, to know that there are going to be losses, and to learn from those losses. From tennis, you learn that you’re not going to have a good day every day. It also teaches you to change directions because life is not a straight path. It teaches you to ask yourself, ‘What can I try next because this isn’t working?’”
Burwash himself changed directions in life, not just once but several times. Following a successful pro career from 1967 to 1975, including 19 singles and doubles titles, he established Peter Burwash International, which manages tennis operations at clubs and resorts around the world. He also became an author (he wrote the popular book “Tennis for Life”) and motivational speaker. He publishes his own magazine, PBI, has coached leading players and provided television commentary.
The combination of roles has given him a unique perspective on the sport, as well as on the people in it. His company provides resorts and clubs with teaching pros who come to their posts with intensive instruction (450 hours worth to start, and they’ll all go through 90 hours of retraining this year). PBI pros learn not just teaching methods, but facility management, resort operations, financial management and more.
It’s that depth of background, Burwash adds, that can make all the difference between a worker at a facility and a partner in the success of the operation. Too many of those currently in the industry, he says, are concentrating on passing along skills, but not actual knowledge of the game.
“That’s a real concern of mine: 95 percent of the tennis coaches in this country have never had a course on how to teach,” he says. “They do know how to play, but they don’t know how to teach. Another statistic that worries me is that 98 percent of people have never had a course on the body mechanics, kinesiology, any of that. What’s being taught today is a perfect opportunity for kids to get injured. What’s needed is a stronger educational foundation for our coaches.”
The work of teaching tennis, he adds, becomes something of a calling. “We’re not just in the tennis business; we’re in the service profession. Whatever it takes, we have to be of service. That’s really become my guiding philosophy.”
As a motivational speaker, Burwash addresses not only tennis topics, but also leadership and health. So to go back to his tennis-as-a-metaphor-for-life theory, what was the impetus for changing to that particular direction?
“I think it was that I had a lot of good mentors myself growing up. It started because I had good physical education teachers. I was good at sports, so I tended to gravitate toward P.E. teachers and my coaches. I started coaching pee-wee football when I was 16, and then I started teaching tennis to make enough money to go on the circuit.”
From the experiences of learning, coaching, teaching and playing, he says, came the knowledge that, “We need to be constantly surrounded by mentors. Everyone’s your teacher if you’re willing to listen.” And while a good coach or teacher needs to be passionate and enthusiastic, he or she also needs a good dose of humility. “In order to be a good teacher, you have to know the students are going to teach you as well,” Burwash says.
He’d like to see the leadership of the tennis industry rearranged to include a commissioner — someone who would take charge the same way the NBA or NHL does, who would oversee the game, act as its voice and conscience, and ensure its integrity. It wouldn’t mean, he notes, that the USTA, ITF, TIA and others would have to merge, but having one individual calling the shots would keep everyone on the same long-term trajectory for success.
Despite fluctuations in the sport’s fortunes over the years, and even with all the changes in equipment that have impacted it, Burwash believes tennis has retained a uniqueness, something that sets it apart from all other sports. And he still finds that the most fascinating aspect of the game.
“If you watch someone on the court for five minutes, you’ll get to know all about them. You’ll get to see what their value structure is, you’ll get to see their character. In tennis, your true personality can come through. You just can’t say that about other sports.”
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.