Your Serve: Mentoring for Tennis Professionals — Where Is It?
A longtime industry pro says everyone wins with a structured mentoring program.
By Denny Schackter
I became a USPTA Professional in 1973. At the time I took my test, I was introduced to several pros who preceded me as certified professionals, and I had the opportunity to confide with them time and again to help me make sound decisions and achieve a good work ethic. But somewhere along the way, this mentoring program ended.
I went on to become a Big 10 tennis coach at Wisconsin at age 24, but I sure could have used their guidance. I was fortunate, however, that fellow college coaches were there for discussion on common problems. But when I needed to know about technical teaching points, I did not have that mentor from earlier days.
In the last 20 years, one of my mentors was Dave Saxe of Mukwonago, Wis. Dave sadly passed away in November 2011. Through informal calls a few times a week, we counseled each other, listened to each other’s problems, talked about the industry and formed a bond I miss very much. I know Dave was an unassigned mentor to many.
Currently, neither the USPTA nor PTR has a structured mentoring program. One group in tennis that does, though, is the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. The ITA’s executive director, David Benjamin, says experienced college coaches participate in a monthly call-in panel that covers a variety of subjects for younger head coaches and assistants.
What exactly is a “mentor”? Simply, it means “a trusted advisor.” There is no question that most experienced pros will help a younger pro if asked. However, there is no disciplined setup that says, “We have to have a scheduled call and/or meeting on a specific day.” I feel that is needed, and I would guess many tennis organizations would like to do this, too, but have issues with time, money, and lack of focus.
However, if a mentoring program has legitimacy and metrics, the time and money will be earned back many times over. Here are a few reasons why this country’s teaching pro organizations need to develop a structured mentoring program:
- Counseling and problem-solving: A young pro faces a problem he or she hasn’t seen before, and an experienced pro can help walk them through a solution. Or, a mentor can simply be there to listen and console.
- Networking: The chance to regularly interact with others in the industry will help young pros keep current, gain information, discuss, laugh and feel comfortable with others.
- Enhance social skills: Good friends in the industry will tell you when you are right on, or when you are off base. When working as an industry rep, I always appreciated a competitive rep telling me if a customer was upset with me, and I did the same for them.
- Career development: A mentor’s influence on a young pro’s career development is incredibly important. There will come a time when an aging pro can no longer be out on court, and their value to the club is diminished. As a mentor, I would urge young pros to learn a second language, be proficient in accounting, and take management classes so their employer is aware of their ambition to grow and remain a vital part of the club.
- Provide encouragement: We’ve all had setbacks. Having someone there to help lift us up is invaluable. A mentor can do that (and likewise, the young pro can help the mentor in times of need). For instance, after a teaching class where things did not go as planned, a mentor can ID the issues, sort out the suggestions for next time and ask the pro to check in to see how it went. There is nothing more valuable than that.
- Enhance listening and communication skills: The most valuable class I took in college was a speech class. It taught us to think quickly, wing it when not prepared, be articulate and concise — all valuable for teaching. On the other hand, most of us are better talkers than listeners, so having a mentor who makes you listen can enhance that skill in a hurry.
- Identify current and future goals: The mentor can help younger pros avoid mistakes the mentor may have made earlier in his or her career. The older pro might have more of a crystal ball on what’s in store simply because things do tend to repeat themselves in our industry.
- Build passion for the profession: Most folks would say, you either have passion or you don’t, it can’t be “taught.” But a mentor’s passion could have a positive effect on a young pro through example. After watching passionate pros speak at conventions and light up a crowd, I want to go out to my classes and do the same.
- Provide an independent voice: A mentor can often cut through the clutter and provide a young pro with clarity in a straightforward manner.
- Eliminate bad decisions: The key here is that the young pro needs to seek advice before making a mistake.
In the tennis-teaching world, I can see a younger pro’s confidence, abilities and maturity rapidly improving with the right guidance. I hope both teaching pro organizations come to the realization that both the mentor and associate would benefit a great deal.
Denny Schackter resides in Palatine, IL, where he is the owner of Tennis Priorities, a firm whose focus is recruiting young people into tennis teaching. Check out his websitetennispriorities.com or email him at email@example.com.