Choosing A Coach, Part 2

Now that I’ve shared my family’s coaching experiences with you, let’s get back to the basics here – what’s the best way to choose a coach for YOUR child?

I was going to create a fancy flowchart (and may still do that when I hone my graphics skills a little more) to illustrate the different paths available.  Instead, I’m going to pose a few questions for you to ponder . . .

  1. What type of tennis experience do you and your child want? Do you want your child to learn the basics so he can have another social skill?  Do you want your child to be proficient enough to be able to play on a neighborhood team?  Is high school, college, or even professional tennis on your child’s mind?
  2. What is your own level of tennis expertise?  Are you a former player who can supplement your child’s formal instruction?  Are you completely new to tennis and relying on the coach to educate you along with your child?
  3. What is your tennis budget?  Is a private academy coach a financial option or do you need to consider public park programs instead?  Can you afford private lessons in addition to group drills?  How many per week?  If your child wants to play tournaments, have you considered the axillary costs of travel, food, childcare for other children, etc.?
  4. What type of coaching personality best suits your family’s needs?  Does your child need someone to praise him constantly or can he handle constructive criticism?  Can your child handle being pushed by the coach?  What type of learner is your child – auditory, visual, other?  Do you need a coach who communicates well with you or are you content to stay in the background?

Once you’ve done a little personal soul searching and answered the questions above, then it’s time to start the legwork.  Depending on where you live, you may have tons of options for coaches or maybe just one or two.  Either way, I’ve heard from several top-level coaches that it’s crucial for parents to do due diligence – ask the questions I listed in Part 1 of this series, ask if your child can sample the program before you commit long-term, talk to the other parents and ask for their honest assessment of the coach and program.

From tennis historian and teacher Phil Secada:  “Teaching tennis has nothing to do with playing tennis.  Teaching tennis has to do with a person’s ability to communicate the game in a way that the student will understand. This can be done via verbal, visual, or by example.  Teaching tennis has to do with a person’s ability to communicate to and assess his/her student’s skills, ability to learn, ability to translate from one’s brain the motor skills needed to hit a tennis ball.  Teaching tennis requires the flexibility needed to demonstrate the varieties of strokes, strategies, conditioning, court and weather conditions.  A tennis player who is unable to communicate in the above way will never be a good tennis teacher.  A good tennis teacher should have an already-made plan to take a student from the basic beginners level, all the way to the professional level.  He/she should spend a few moments each and every day developing his/her plan for the students he/she is teaching/coaching!”

And just because someone is a former college or professional player doesn’t necessarily mean he or she can TEACH tennis to someone else.  As USTA/Florida Section 2004 Junior Competitive Coach of the Year and tournament director Don Petrine says, “Playing tennis and teaching tennis require mutually exclusive mindsets. A player (emphasis added) must be self centered and absorbed. A teacher (emphasis added) must be the opposite, able to project and identify with what their student is experiencing. A great player must go from being completely selfish to unselfish if they want to teach effectively. Not always an easy transition.”

Part 3 of this series is coming tomorrow with more great information from top tennis professionals.  Be sure to check it out!

Choosing A Coach, Part 1

Our family, like most of yours I’m guessing, kind of fell into our first tennis coach’s lap.  In our suburban oasis, we have a neighborhood pool and tennis courts.  One summer shortly after we moved in, a neighbor organized a little swim/tennis camp for the elementary school kids.  I signed up my daughters so they could have some fun with their friends and get some exercise while learning some basic tennis skills.  The coach, Billy, was a great guy, fantastic with the kids, so one of my daughters decided she wanted to continue taking lessons with him once school was back in session.

A few years later when my son expressed an interest in learning how to play tennis – around age 6 – of course I called Billy.  My son loved his 30 minutes each week on the court with Billy.  They hit some balls, played a few games, and laughed . . . a lot!  My son showed some early aptitude for the game – his hand-eye coordination was developing nicely due to Mighty Mites soccer and youth teeball/baseball – and he kept on taking those half-hour lessons with Billy, eventually learning how to serve, how to keep score, and how to play a real tennis match.

Fast forward three years.  My son’s best friend, whose mom and dad happen to be former top college tennis players, asked my son if he wanted to go to UGA tennis camp with him for 5 days.  They would live in the dorm, play tons of tennis, and get to order pizza and Chinese food at night.  It was a no-brainer!

Something changed during that 5 day stint at UGA.  My son came home with a new-found passion.  He was no longer content to have one 30-minute tennis lesson a week.  He now wanted to play in tournaments.  He wanted to compete.  He wanted to win!

So, it was time to make a huge decision.  Do we keep doing the Billy thing or do I start looking for a true coach (not just a tennis teacher), someone who can develop my son’s tennis skills and help him become the player he dreamed of becoming?

Living in the city with the largest tennis league in the country has its advantages when you’re looking for a training venue for your kid – there are LOTS of people to ask because there are LOTS of kids playing tennis!  We landed at a local tennis academy that had some top-notch coaches and some top-notch junior players.  I didn’t ask many questions before committing my son to 3 drill sessions plus one private lesson each week.  The place looked great, the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves and looked to be pretty good players, and the location was convenient – that’s all I needed to know.  For the next five years, my son continued training there, weathering some coaching changes along the way.  He was becoming a technically-sound player, playing lots of tournaments, and enjoying the journey most of the time.

There were some conflicts along the way, though.  As we became more ingrained into the junior tennis world, and as I talked to other parents at tournaments, I started feeling like something was missing for my son.  Sure, he was developing at a steady pace, but I had a nagging feeling that it was time for a new set of eyes.  Before making a change, though, I wanted to give his coach a chance to provide the things I felt my son needed.  I asked for more guidance for my son.  He didn’t get it.  I asked the coach to come to more tournament matches to help my son figure out why he wasn’t able to close them out.  He didn’t come.  Finally, things came to a head, forcing my son to see things for what they were, and forcing him to come to the realization that he needed to move to a different coach with different training partners in order to continue to grow.  So, I picked up the phone and started making calls.

For the past five months, my son has been training at a new academy.  Coincidentally, it’s the same academy where his old friend who invited him to UGA camp trains.  And, coincidentally, it’s where several of his other school mates train.  And, coincidentally (or not?), my son is all of a sudden beating boys that he had lost to in the 10s, 12s, and 14s.

I feel lucky that my son now has such great coaches at his side.  But, I also feel like it has a lot to do with the fact that I knew what to look for this time.  I knew which questions to ask before signing on the dotted line.  And, my son, after all these years of training and playing, knew how to be a better judge, too.


  • What is your training in terms of tennis coaching?  Are you certified by USPTA?  Do you take advantage of their continuing education opportunities?
  • Have you ever coached a player who aspired to reach the level my child aspires to reach?
  • Will you create a plan for my child that includes a step-by-step road map charting his tennis stroke development, milestones with due dates, and a tournament schedule?
  • Will you provide me with regular updates of my child’s progress along the road map?  How often?
  • Who is responsible for holding my child accountable for his off-court training?  If it’s the coach, what consequences will you impose if my child fails to comply?
  • Are you supportive of your players joining their school tennis teams?
  • Will my child have access to players at his level, more advanced than him, and more beginner than him so that he has a variety of practice partners?
  • Who is responsible for choosing which tournaments my child will play?
  • How many tournament matches will you attend and watch each year?
  • How are your drills structured?  Is there a group warm-up and cool-down period so players are fit and ready?  Is there a fitness component?  Is there a mental toughness component?  Is there a match-play component?
  • Do you have experts available to your players who can provide nutrition, fitness, and mental toughness guidance?  Is there an extra charge for those services?
  • What is your philosophy on rankings?  Is it more important for my child to develop proper technique and tactics or to win matches?  How does that change as he gets older?
  • Will you be available to answer my questions or concerns, either in person or by phone or email?  How do you prefer I contact you?

What questions did YOU ask (or wish you had asked) when choosing a coach for your child?  Please share them in the Comments box below!

Rankings Anyone?

Now let’s talk about how the USTA ranking system works.  This is where things can get a little bit tricky!  First of all, rankings are all based on points (as opposed to whom you beat and whom you lost to), and points are accumulated by winning tournament matches.  And different levels of tournaments afford different numbers of points.  So, at first glance it would seem that the child who plays the most tournaments and wins the most matches would have the highest ranking, right?  Nope!

USTA only looks at the child’s top 6 singles tournament results (100% of total points) PLUS his top 3 doubles tournament results (15% of total points) in order to formulate his ranking.  And, a child can have a state, sectional, and national ranking that all look very different from one another based on which types of tournaments he plays.  The ranking points earned are based on how far the child gets in that particular tournament NOT how many main draw vs. back draw matches he wins.  A child who loses in the first round of the main draw then gets to the semifinals of the back draw will get more ranking points than the child who wins two matches in the main draw but then loses in the quarterfinals of the back draw.

[Added January 2014] Some sections also have Bonus Points available for significant wins (over highly-ranked opponents). In the Southern section, a player is awarded bonus points on a sliding scale based on the ranking of his opponent, regardless of whether the opponent is ranked higher or lower. For example, a win over a player in the top 10 in the section is worth 150 bonus ranking points.

The different USTA states and sections post their own Points Per Round charts on their respective websites.  Click here to see the one for the Southern section.

Using a hypothetical 12 year old boy in the Southern Section as an example, here’s how a ranking would be calculated:

Tournament 1:  Southern Level 5 with a 128 draw, Johnny wins 2 rounds of singles in the main draw, 2 rounds in the back draw (Feed-In Consolation or FIC), losing in the FIC quarterfinals for a total of 18 points.

Tournament 2:  Southern Level 5 with a 32 draw, Johnny loses in the first round of singles in the main draw but wins the back draw.  He also wins the back draw of the doubles.  His total for this tournament is 51 –  44 points for the singles and 7 points (15% of 44) for the doubles.

Tournament 3:  Southern Level 4 with a 32 draw, Johnny wins one round in the main draw singles then loses his first back draw match for a total of 53 points.

Tournament 4:  Southern Level 4 with a 32 draw, Johnny loses in the first round singles but wins 2 rounds in the back draw.  He gets to the semifinals in doubles.  His total is 69 – 53 for the singles and 16 for the doubles.

Tournament 5:  Southern Level 3 with a 64 draw, Johnny loses in the first round singles, loses in the first round back draw, and gets to the quarterfinals in the doubles for a point total of 21 (15% of 140).

Tournament 6:  Southern Level 3 with a 64 draw, Johnny gets to the semifinals (3rd place) of the main draw in singles and the round of 16 in the doubles.  Because it’s his 4th doubles tournament and he didn’t do as well as in previous tournaments, he’ll get no points for the doubles.  However, he will get 160 points for the singles.

Tournament 7:  Southern Level 4 with a 32 draw, Johnny gets to the semifinals (4th place) of the main draw for a total of 105 points.

After these seven tournaments – the top 6 of which count for singles and the top 3 of which count for doubles – Johnny has 477 points.  To see his ranking, he would go to the USTA’s ranking website, use the drop-down box to find his section (in this case, Southern), then use the next drop-down box to find his age division.  According to the November 1, 2011, rankings, he would be ranked 201 in the South.

Another thing to consider is having your child “play up” in the next age group as he starts to have success in his own age group and gets closer to that official aging up date.  If he does play up, then any ranking points he gets will apply to both his current age group as well as the older age group, helping him establish a ranking before he ages up.

As you’ve probably already figured out by now, the higher level tournament matches are worth significantly more points that the lower level ones.  So, once your child has proven himself at the lower levels, it’s definitely worthwhile in terms of building his ranking to attempt the higher level tournaments.  That said, you always need to weigh the potential financial and time cost of travel and higher entry fees when making the leap to the next level.  As I said in my last post (Help! My kid wants to play in a tournament!), first be the best in your house, then the best on your block, THEN the best in your neighborhood!

Help! My kid wants to play in a tournament!

For those of you just starting out in the overwhelming world that is Junior Tennis, I thought I’d give you a down-and-dirty breakdown of how the USTA tournament and ranking system works.  Hold onto your sanity because you’re in for quite an adventure!

The first step in playing a USTA tournament is getting a USTA junior membership and number for your child (see USTA’s website) – no USTA number means no tournament play!  Make sure you write down the number and keep it in a safe place until the actual membership card arrives in your mailbox – you will need this number for pretty much everything your child does in the tournament world.

Most tournaments require online registration via a service called TennisLink.  You can search for tournaments in your town or state or section by simply using the drop-down boxes on the website.  You can also search by month and year or by division (age, singles vs. doubles, all junior tournaments, etc.).  Once you find a tournament to enter, take note of the entry deadline.  Until you get to know the different tournament directors and can ask for a special favor every now and then, those deadlines are written in stone.  To enter a specific tournament, click on the name of the tournament in TennisLink which will then take you to that tournament’s webpage.  From there, it’s pretty self-explanatory – you’ll click on the online registration link and fill in the blanks.

Junior competition is broken down into age groups based on the child’s age at the time of the tournament.  The age groups are 10-and-under (10U), 12-and-under (12U), 14-and-under (14U), 16-and-under (16U), and 18-and-under (18U).  A child can play in an older age group if he chooses, but he can’t play in a younger age group.  How do you know in which age group your child should play?  When starting out, he should always play in the age group in which he falls.  For example, if your child is 11 years old, then he would be in the 12U group.  He would move up to the next age group the month he turns 13.  So, if your child’s birthday is March 6th, then March 1st would be the “aging up” date.

Once your child wins a tournament match at any level in any sanctioned USTA event, he will then have a ranking.  If he’s playing a Satellite tournament, that ranking will be in your state of residence.  If he’s playing a Championship or higher State tournament, then he may also gain a sectional ranking.  Once he starts playing the higher level Sectional tournaments, then he might be earning points toward a national ranking.  I’ll talk more about how the ranking system works in a separate post.  Please note that each USTA section has its own set of rules and guidelines – for the purposes of this blog, I’m using those set forth by the Southern Section (the light turquoise area in the map above).

For you visual learners, here’s a graphic depiction of how the tournament structure is set up  (apologies for my amateur graphics!) . . .



The layout for National Tournaments is very similar.  So, for a child playing his or her very first tournament ever, the Satellite (State Level 5) would be the appropriate starting point.  Once the child has become used to the tournament environment and IF he decides he wants to play at a higher level, then it may be time to try a State Level 4 tournament.   If he’s having good success at that level, then moving up through the system becomes pretty straightforward.  As one of my tennis go-to people puts it, though, you first want to be the best in your house, then the best on your block, then the best in your neighborhood.  In other words, winning tournaments at the lower levels should be a pre-req for moving up to the next level.

In the tournaments themselves, there are two types of draws:  the main draw and the consolation draw (aka the back draw).  For most USTA tournaments of any level, singles players are guaranteed at least two matches since, even if they lose in the first round of the main draw, they still move into the back draw to continue playing.   For doubles play, typically the tournaments are single-elimination, meaning that once a doubles team loses a match, they are done with that tournament.

I hope this helps clarify things a bit!  If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the Comments box below.  Remember, this blog is a fluid entity, and I’m certainly no expert, so please add your own experiences so we can all learn together.

Edited August 23, 2013: Once you have registered your child for a tournament, you will receive a confirmation email (as long as you entered your email address on the registration form in TennisLink). Unless something very much out of the ordinary happens, that is the last communication you will receive from the tournament. The onus is on you and your child to keep checking the tournament website to see the draws and find out your child’s match times. Be sure you look for your child’s first match time on the Main Draw as well as their next match time (if it is posted) on both the Main Draw and Consolation Draw. Note the match location, too, if multiple playing sites are being used. One last tip: be sure to check the tournament website early in the morning of each day of play, especially if weather delays could be an issue. The tournament director should update the website no later than 7am for 8am matches and will post any delays. All of this information can be found on the specific tournament’s webpage through TennisLink. If you have trouble, contact the Tournament Director or Tournament Referee – their contact information should be on the webpage as well. See What To Take With You on Tournament Day for more suggestions.

Stoking the Fire

If you’ve read any of the recent books on the talent question, you realize how important purposeful practice is in the tennis development equation. And purposeful practice requires passion, because who wants to do the same thing over and over and over again for 10,000 hours if they aren’t enjoying it? Certainly not me!

I struggle with how to help fuel the passion fire in my tennis player. I’ve always thought that if I learn as much as I can about his sport, then we can have interesting discussions together which will keep him psyched up about learning and growing as a player. So, I read – A LOT! – and I talk to other tennis parents – A LOT! – and I seek out information and knowledge from coaches and former touring pros and anyone and everyone who is willing to share what they know – A LOT! And I try to keep my own passion for tennis alive by playing the game myself, with friends, to show my son that tennis is truly a sport for a lifetime.

And, the bottom line is that, really, I can keep doing all that ’til the proverbial cows come home, but the fire and the passion and the desire can only come from one place – my son. He has to want this. He has to put in the hard time. He has to sacrifice a “normal” high school experience. He has to be willing to work on the minutiae day in and day out.

My job is to keep supporting. To keep encouraging. To keep schlepping. To keep learning.

His job is to keep growing, whether it’s as a tennis player or just as a “normal” teenage boy. Either way, I will always keep doing my ultimate job which is simply to love him.

Sometimes it’s all about ME

I know this isn’t politically correct and all that, but, dammit, sometimes it just is all about me.

For the past 22 1/2 years, I’ve been a mom.  I’ve been home for my kids – working at my own business for several years, working in an office part-time for a while, volunteering constantly – but always home and THERE for my kids.

Now, I’m down to one kid left at home, my tennis playing kid.  He decided several years ago that his goal in life is to play college tennis then turn pro.  And my husband and I have continually supported that goal every step of the way, financially and otherwise.  If you could see the list of books I’ve read in the past few years, a large percentage of them have to do with tennis, sport psychology, and the talent question.  So, I guess you could say that my son’s tennis has consumed my life, at least lately.

I know that the tennis has to be HIS choice, HIS decision, HIS desire.  But, sometimes, it’s all about ME!

Given my utter and complete devotion to helping him succeed, it makes me crazy when I see him back down or give less than 100% or just lay down his sword totally.  I’ve invested too much here.  I’m not talking about the money (well, maybe a little bit) but about the emotional investment.  Sitting at every tournament, fighting with all I’ve got to keep the negative facial expressions under control when he misses a shot, digging deep to find a positive lesson even when he’s lost to a lesser opponent, keeping the ride home cheerful and resisting the overwhelming urge to lecture.  Most of the time I’m pretty good at keeping things under control.  Most of the time.

But then something happens, like his recent back injury at a sectional tournament.  And my control goes out the window.

“Did you stretch like you’re supposed to?  Did you warm-up your shoulder?  Did you ice between matches?  No????  WHY NOT?????”

Disappointment sets in.  Realization that, even at 15 years old, he still doesn’t always do what he’s supposed to.  Frustration that all the time and money we’ve spent on fitness trainers, nutritionists, and physical therapy seem wasted when he fails to follow the prescribed regimen to stay healthy.

And now we’re back to needing MORE physical therapy and time away from the tennis court, all because of an injury he probably could’ve prevented in the first place.  And I’m angry.  I’m frustrated.  I’m disappointed.

Disappointed.  When I really think about it, the disappointment is the toughest part.  I have expectations for my son now, too.  Because HE has put those expectations in my head and has told me ad nauseum that this is what he WANTS.  I want to scream at him, “If you want it so badly, then why aren’t you doing the things you need to do to take care of the most important part of your tennis . . . YOUR BODY?????”

And then I remember . . . he’s only 15.  Only 15.  His brain is still developing.  He’s still a child.  He still needs my guidance.  He still RELIES ON my guidance.

But, I think it’s time to start the weaning process.  Put the ball 100% in his court, so to speak.  Back off.  Step away.  Let him grow up.  Let it not be about me.