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.

QUESTIONS TO ASK:

  • 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!

6 Comments on “Choosing A Coach, Part 1”

  1. These are great tips, Lisa. I think that a lot of parents get in the game with the mentality that they will/should stick with a particular coach throughout the child’s career. This is not always the case as all coaches have certain passions and limitations (I can’t see Larry Stefanki drop-feeding to 10 yr olds or some park instructor helping Roger with his game). Regarding the USPTA, however, the certification is BS. Some of the better coaches (and former players) are actually embarrassed that they have to go through the same process.

  2. A follow-up comment from Ini:

    It’s also important to ask if the particular Coach has an actual interest in teaching at the relevant level. There are people who are great at the early developmental stuff (and, personally, I would rather send my kids to them than to me) but might not be the best when dealing with the transitioning phase…it’s not impossible, but it’s difficult (and risky for the player/parent) to find a coach who might not have come close to playing at a high level but who knows what it takes in terms of practice, training, tactics and mental. It’s kinda like a general who’s been in battle and one who’s read about it in a book or watched footage on TV. I’m not saying that it can’t be done…it’s just risky.

  3. I have a couple questions. When you asked the coach to show up at tournaments to watch, did you offer to pay the coach his/her hourly rate including travel time and gas? People tend to forget that coaches also have a life of their own off the court, but for some reason assume that going to matches should just be a part of it. It’s a job and people need to remember that. Now if the coach said he would go and didn’t, then “You’re Fired!”

    And when your son started beating those kids he had lost to earlier, is it possible that he had finally begun to master everything he had been learning over the years. Switching coaches can be a positive thing sometimes, and a necessary thing too. But usually a change will set your child back a few months while they learn the new game they are being taught, Good coaches will prepare kids for the future when they hit the 16’s and 18’s. Just because they are not on top in the 12’s doesn’t mean they won’t be later, Nobody cares much about a 12’s or 14’s ranking when you are looking at colleges.

    1. browndogwilson, thank you for your thoughts! you are absolutely right to point out that coaches must be compensated for their time, just like any other professional would expect. and, yes, i did offer to pay for his time (he had a set rate he charged which included travel and meals) just as i had done many times in the past. and, you’re also absolutely right on target about the years of lessons finally gelling so that now my son is beating those other kids. when we left the previous coach, i sent him a long email explaining why we were leaving (an earlier phone conversation didn’t go so well) and thanked him for giving my son such a solid foundation and technically-sound game. he replied wishing my son the best, so all’s good. 🙂

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