Tennis Industry magazine

 

Your Serve: Closing the Gaps

By finding and training adult players, we can increase the number of ‘core’ players we have.

By Kevin Theos

How can our efforts lead to an increase in “core” tennis players? (Core players play at least 10 times a year and account for 90 percent of total expenditures in the sport.) Part of the answer lies in creating large-scale programs that directly address gaps in our delivery system.

Any program that aspires to result in a long-term and impactful increase in the number of dedicated tennis players must have several qualities. The first is maximum accessibility. People in every community should have access to tennis programs. Moreover, since most people have little or no experience with tennis and limited disposable income, these programs should cater to beginners and be reasonably priced.

A related but slightly different quality is that of providing players with the greatest chance of getting hooked on tennis as quickly as possible. We live in an instant-gratification culture and the basic appeal of tennis comes from the enjoyment people get from being able to successfully rally. It is crucial for players to attain some level of skill in rallying very quickly.

But while the fun that players experience from rallying is what initially captures them, it is the relationships they develop along the way that keeps them playing. This is why immediately introducing players to family- or league-based play opportunities is so important. People need to feel part of a tennis community, even if it is a small one, in order for them to continue playing long-term.

The ability to find and keep program organizers is pivotal to the success of any program. Traditionally, we have relied on volunteers and tennis teaching pros to drive program success. But good volunteers are often difficult to find and we never know how long they will volunteer, and teaching pros frequently have wide-ranging commitments that prevent them from fully engaging with new programs and initiatives.

While teaching pros and volunteers will always play central roles in introducing new players to tennis and providing ongoing play opportunities to more experienced players, we need to look to other groups to assist with efforts to increase tennis participation. One such group is adult players.

Many adult players have just the mix of motivation, circumstances and skills to operate introductory tennis programs. They want to give back to tennis, but aren’t interested in volunteering. They want to earn a little from their efforts, but they don’t need the money. They want to devote a little time each week to helping get other players in the game, but they don’t want to sacrifice their own tennis time. They know how to play tennis, but they lack the knowledge and skillset of teaching professionals.

By finding and training adult players in how to work with large groups of beginners, setting up programs for them to operate, and then referring participants to certified teaching pros for more in-depth instruction, we can make a difference in the number of core players we have. This is already happening in here in Alabama.

Helena, Ala., is a middle-class community that has four tennis courts and limited tennis participation. Laurie Mayson is a league player who received training and runs a low-cost, beginner-level Junior Team Tennis program, now in its third season. Laurie is just one of numerous adult players who are making the program successful throughout the state, and there are breathtaking possibilities for adding more sites in the years to come since the program targets locations with available court capacity such as public parks.

Whether other programs follow this exact model is unimportant. What matters is that programs are widely available, focus on beginners, are at a reasonable cost, emphasize helping players swiftly develop rallying skills and relationships, and perhaps most importantly, are set up in a way that helps us recruit and retain program organizers.

More than being a wish list, the Alabama experiment is proving it is possible to create successful programs with these qualities. If similar programs begin to emerge around the country, we have the potential to set in motion a phenomenal and welcomed upturn in the number of core tennis players we have.

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About the Author

Kevin Theos  is the USTA Southern Tennis Service Representative for Alabama. He serves on the USPTA Southern Division executive committee and is the former executive director of the Birmingham Area Tennis Association. He can be reached at theos@sta.usta.com.

 

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