Tennis Industry magazine


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The Power of Collaboration

Teaching pros don’t have all the answers, and ‘sharing’ students can bring benefits for everyone.

By Rod Heckelman

Student retention is the result of the teacher’s value to the student. Once a student realizes their progress has begun to diminish or has come to a halt, they will either stop taking lessons or find another instructor.

In the course of a person’s school life, they experience as many as 50 teachers as they move from elementary, middle school, high school and college. As a result, we are trained as students to transition from instructor to instructor. It is how we naturally progressed through our schooling, so it only seems logical that would be true in any other learned skill.

Unfortunately, some tennis teachers fail to recognize this progression and believe that they can continue to advance a student’s game for an unlimited amount of time. Taking additional courses, reading and studying the game will help the instructor, but recognizing that you may have limitations is a valuable understanding that helps the teacher become more flexible and, in turn, more capable of student retention.

As an example, there are a number of tennis teachers who excel in teaching the serve. Other instructors have a great handle on the net game, or doubles. It’s also possible that your lefty student might find some answers by working with a left-handed tennis pro.

The real question is, are you comfortable as an instructor passing on your students to someone else for additional input? This is especially challenging with tennis pros who develop top-level players. The time invested to produce such a player is extensive and often includes a number of volunteered hours. These students represent both a major amount of time invested and also represent a product of great pride.

For many teachers these accomplished players are a form of advertising and help produce additional students. They also contribute to elevating the reputation of a tennis pro. Those facts alone can persuade a teacher to try to keep a student’s loyalty beyond reason. Giving up that investment may require more insight that may not be part of a tennis pro’s better business judgment.

Why Share Students?

What are the benefits of sharing students? First, as mentioned it actually helps student retention. Instead of the instructor and student running into an impasse, arrangements are made and understandings of common goals are implemented.

Second, in the end, it’s better business. This is especially true for clubs and organizations. If a student leaves a teacher, they often will also leave the club or facility. Moreover, they may find it uncomfortable to return to that facility, not wanting to cross paths with their former pro.

These are a few of the financial motives involved, but what of the psychological reasons? According to sport psychology consultant and licensed family therapist Jeff Greenwald (see “Educate Yourself More” at right), there are three factors that need to be understood to move toward a more collaborative, growth-oriented mentality:

From Teacher to Teacher

So how does a tennis pro, tennis director or club take on this challenge of students working with other teachers? There are several different approaches that tennis programs can develop to make it more convenient for students to work with different teachers.

If there are several pros working under the same management, common “command lines” are always helpful. These are comments teachers use during drills or the feeding of balls that each pro in the facility uses in common. With this in place, students sense a common connection and trust. From this start, it can allow the individuality of each teacher to foster and provide alternative solutions to students. Forcing a group of teachers in a facility to all teach exactly the same way is a sure-fire way to eventually force students to other locations to seek new solutions to their problems.

What also works well is to have teachers specialize in certain areas. Some teachers will become doubles specialist, others are great working with service motions, and still others are great with giving students very physical workouts. Whatever it may be, this makes it easier and practical to have students move from one teacher to another.

If there is only one teacher at a facility, they may want to seek out others in their community who have a history working on certain areas of the game. You would be able to say to your student, “Because you are becoming such a strong net player, maybe you should take a few lessons from Derek who is a great serve-and-volley player.” Or, “Because you are coming up against some big servers, maybe it’s time to work on serve returns with Kathy over at the Beach Club because she has a big serve and could really challenge you.” Providing these alternatives shows that you are focused as a teacher in seeing the improvement of your student.

What if your student returns with news that they thought this new instructor was a great new source of instruction? If you really care about your students and the business you are in, this should be good news. Your answer, “I’m so glad to hear that. What did they have to say? I’m very interested.” With that response, you stay part of the team and maintain a positive relationship with that student. Both your reputation and the club you are representing will fare much better in the long run. Not only are you more likely to retain that student for more lessons, but they are also inclined to recommend you to others; it’s a classic win/win scenario.

The power of collaboration can be fruitful in so many ways, an example is this very article, which emerged out of a collaborative relationship between two professionals in the game.

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About the Author

Rod Heckelman  is the general manager and tennis pro at the Mount Tam Racquet Club in Marin County, Calif., where he has been for the last 31 years. His career in the industry started in 1967 at the famed John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch. In 1970, when Gardiner opened his resort on Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz., Heckelman, at age 20, became one of the youngest head pros in the country. He created the “Facility Manager’s Manual” based on his years of experience in the tennis business.


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