[The following article was originally published on the website 10sBalls.com – I saw the link posted in a Facebook group frequented by tennis coaches and former players and felt it would be appropriate to repost it in its original form here. Please take some time to read through the author’s words and share your thoughts in the Comments box below. Although the author chose to remain anonymous, there are some very viable suggestions contained in the article that could help all of us parents help our junior players achieve their tennis goals. — Lisa]
(Editor: This story was submitted to the site. It’s 4,300 words composed from years of frustrations and first hand experience By: An American Guardian Of The Game)
Patrick McEnroe, you are responsible for directing the quite extensive resources of the USTA into junior player development. In the absence of producing successful players, rather than taking responsibility, you have chosen to throw the junior tennis players and their coaches under the bus. It is time to call you to task.
“For the first time since 1912, when no American men entered the tournament, not one advanced past the second round.”
Patrick McEnroe concedes there may be some truth in the claim that young Americans aren’t willing to sacrifice as much as their counterparts around the world. “Blaming our players is not the answer,” he said. “We need to educate them at a younger age about what it takes, so they learn the right things to do early.” –Washington Post
Not willing to sacrifice? There are thousands of kids out there that spend a fortune to travel to USTA national (you know, the ones with the absurd $151 entry fees) and international tournaments in search of competitive match play and rankings. Many of them sacrifice normal adolescent lives and relationships in order to pursue something greater. They forego fun weekends and post- school-day hangouts with friends and social interaction, and they incur injuries and debt and failure on a regular basis. They spend five hours per day on court and another hour in the gym, and give up fun fatty foods for those which will fuel their bodies. They suffer weeks where the mood of the house is dependent upon their performance and, sadly, they may only be ten years old when that pressure begins. They endure losses and failure and some of that may be attributable to their unavoidable lack of talent or athleticism. They give up dates with boyfriends or girlfriends and Friday night football games and family vacations so they can boost their rankings or get in one more practice. They tolerate constant soreness and dehydration – and a future with swollen joints – for a shot at what is almost impossible. They risk what would be college tuition money in hopes of avoiding injury and perfecting their games in order to receive an athletic scholarship. And you have the audacity to claim they are not willing to sacrifice as much as their counterparts around the world? Let’s look at who is the pot calling the kettle names here.
YOU are the Czar of Player Development for juniors in the US, and presumably make the recommendations to the USTA how to structure player development across the United States. It thus appears that YOU agree with shortening matches from three sets to two-plus-a-breaker. YOU marginalized or eliminated doubles matches. YOU attempted to constrict draws so fewer kids would get to compete at nationals. YOU decided to introduce and promote Ten and Under Tennis/Quickstart to make the game EASIER, and to prevent talent from advancing when they are ready. YOU imposed a mandate based upon unproven research to make the game easier and then accuse us of not working hard enough. YOU transformed from someone, who avoided accepting juniors with collegiate intentions into your player development program, into someone who thinks college can be good preparation for professional tennis. YOU claim our children are not willing to sacrifice and then you lower the barriers to progress in every way. YOU have only YOURSELF TO BLAME for America’s current state in the game.
To claim Americans don’t understand hard work or that we are unwilling to sacrifice is to go against the character of this nation. When the competition gets tough, Americans step up – WE always have. WE do not look without for excuses. WE do not blame the competitive arena for better competitors, or suggest that the global nature of sport makes it tougher for us. That’s what YOU do. WE get tougher, more dedicated. WE do not turn to a bureaucracy to cure our ills, but rather, WE seek that innovative individual spirit and revolutionary wherewithal that allowed this nation to overcome tyranny and thrive in the face of despotism. WE are as blue collar as it gets and WE are more than willing to jump into the trenches to fight for what we believe. WE are willing to work harder than any competitor and to sacrifice everything for a shot at titles. Ask the Brothers Bryan and the Sisters Williams. Every two years, our Olympians confirm that the American athlete is still one of the greatest in the world. In spite of your efforts to shorten matches and hold kids back from the yellow tennis ball, WE teach our children to overcome obstacles, to thwart dictatorial regimes, and to prosper through perseverance. To us, sacrifice is one step on the trail to greatness, and to suggest we are not willing to forfeit everything for a chance at glory is to demean our character. WE take umbrage at your insolence.
The truth, however, is success requires leadership. And our present leader is performing a half-ass job for one organization, while taking money from another, and then scapegoating the people he is presumably responsible for. That is hypocritical, irresponsible and arrogant, so we leave that for YOU, with the hope that you never again confuse the letters ESPN with USTA.
YOU continue to blame the kids for not being able to construct points and accuse them of not being willing to sacrifice (Yes, I know you said “blaming our players is not the answer” but that is exactly what you are doing), to blame the parents for being poorly educated about the sacrifices required for this game. And yet, YOU are the one who will avoid junior tournaments like the plague. YOU refuse to commit to the private coaching hours required to develop talent by tossing and feeding millions of balls, and sitting with players to explain what is needed to become an elite professional, and getting to know them holistically – their families, their schools, their personal relationships, and emotional setbacks, and injury-filled pasts, and myriad other petty and unsexy things that make up a human being first and a tennis player second. YOU would rather sit in your comfortable commentator’s booth or White Plains office and offer scathing opinions of America’s best young talent. The pivotal lines of leadership are not sketched on some whiteboard. They are created through inspiration and participation.
Leadership’s robes do not come from making appearances, but rather, from fighting in the trenches with the troops, and surrendering one’s self for your team, and giving up media jobs and high-powered luncheons and seven-figure salaries to tough it out when the lighting is dim and the courts are cracked and the body is exhausted. That is sacrifice, and it is YOU who are unwilling to make it. I’ll say it again, “The Emperor has no clothes!”
YOU have hired foreign coaches who prepare the curriculum for player development and who should have the motivational tools to get players to push to the levels required for professional tennis. YOU have chosen to abandon the American coaches who’ve been responsible for the development of so many world champions, including those from other countries. YOU have chosen to take top junior players away from their private coaches and bring them to your foreign coaches, coaches who continue to fail to produce champions from the obscene crop of talent we private coaches continue to push into your funnel of failure – If these foreign coaches aren’t succeeding, why haven’t you fired them?
Here’s another one of your loathsome comments:
“I can guarantee you there are more, better coaches in other countries than in this country, percentage-wise.” – Men’s Journal
Really? Then perhaps you should go join them. A leader doesn’t praise the enemy and belittle his own troops, but rather, a leader leads by example. Leadership is about role modeling and solving problems. It requires hours of helping people break habits and putting in the effort and motivational time to rebuild them as confident competitors, not blaming them for lack of hard work and scapegoating them for your own personal and professional failures. Assuming you actually believe these foreign coaches are better, leadership means getting your presumed “better coaches” out to the masses to educate the “lesser American coaches” so that a rising tide will lift all ships. This makes more sense than cherry-picking the best kids and taking them from their private coaches who do all of the grunt work. Leadership is the place where responsibility and accountability kiss, and right now that seems to be where the sun don’t shine.
Maybe if you got your ass out of the media booth for those eight weeks per year that you are supposed to be doing your player development job, and placed it on a court with some of the country’s best developmental coaches, you’d understand what I’m talking about. You want respect from the tennis community? Grab a racket and a few beginners and come earn it! Until you join us in the trenches, we have neither the time nor the inclination for your disparaging words.
Wrongly, YOU believe our job as private coaches is to bring talented and successful kids to you because you believe you can do it better than us. YOU expect us to slog hours through the developmental muck and to help young children develop character, work ethic, passion and commitment. YOU expect us to bring you perfectly formed little champions so you can ride their coattails of success and expound upon your own sagacity. And when they don’t make it, you accuse these kids of NOT SACRIFICING ENOUGH FOR YOU? That is a condemnation of the coaches, the kids and the families. To blame others for your own ineptitude is the highest form of arrogance. I commend you on your achievement!
You hire ex-players as coaches assuming – with NO evidence – the skill set for coaching is the same as the skill set for competing. Though these are great people who want the best for the kids, this demonstrates your complete lack of understanding of the requisite talent comprising the developmental coaching community.
Meanwhile, you sit in your high-salaried office having your coaches recruit/steal America’s top juniors by offering them travel and coaching incentives from your $300 million dollar US OPEN trust fund – a fund we private coaches cannot compete with – and then blame everyone but yourself when the kids do not make it. YOU and your coaching staff have access to every single top player in America, you have a massive player development budget compared to other nations, you have training centers and the best technology money can buy, you have private housing for kids and coaches and an absurd expense account for your personal needs, you have equipment manufacturers and trainers and past champions at your beck and call. Annually, the US produces juniors who win international championships at both individual and team competitions, and then the USTA PD staff picks them up to presumably “take them to the next level.”
And with all of that – more resources than any nation on the planet – the USTA PD program has failed to produce a champion. Yet, the organization continues to spend millions of dollars in pursuit of just one success story to justify its existence. American tennis is at its worst place in our nation’s history and you are manning the helm of a ship that continues to sink into the depths of international waters now thick with better boats. And you have the gall to impugn us? At what point do you begin to blame yourself for the recent dearth of American champions? The mirror never lies, Patrick. THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!
Frankly, I am not even questioning your intentions. I truly believe you’d like to see American tennis rise again. But intention and arrogance are rotten comrades. With intention should come humility, and an honest assessment of one’s accomplishments and failures. On this account, you are lacking. It is time for you to go. Before you do, though, please put some clothes on because someone has now exposed your nakedness and the crowd is starting to speak up.
It would be irresponsible of me to cast aspersions without offering some remedies for our current state. And so, in the interest of bettering American tennis:
ACTION ITEM ONE
After twenty-five years of abysmal non-performance, the USTA player development program needs to reassess its purpose. According to the establishment’s current mission statement, “To grow the game…” they should be directing their resources toward community tennis initiatives, tournament structures, and league tennis. However, believing the development of an elite cadre of American athletes will contribute to the growth of the game, the USTA has taken on the daunting role of player development. Several high level coaches contend this approach does not fall within the boundaries of the organization’s proposed mission, and deem the USTA’s approach antithetical to the private coaching community’s success.
Patrick McEnroe sees the private coaching community as a conduit into the USTA PD national program. “Coaches should be promoting their programs by touting the number of players they send to us,” stated McEnroe at an event in Southern California. Within the private coaching profession, a vocal community reflects on the PD program’s lack of success and questions whether PD really can do it better. They feel the USTA is cherry-picking the nation’s best players with promises of free coaching, grant money, wildcard opportunities, and travel expenses to ITF events.
“The USTA tells parents the players have to attend their workouts 4-5 days a week, and play within their development system. Too often, this “system” goes against the private coach’s theory on player development and the kid ends up leaving the private coach for the USTA perks. It is not the direct theft of a player, but what parents and kids are going to say “No” to the sport’s governing body? Then, when the player underperforms, the USTA drops the kid for the next presumed prodigy. Two decades later, with no accountability for their failures, they are still searching for someone to hang their hat on,” says one prominent Southern California coach wanting to maintain anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Having traveled the world with junior and professional players, I feel the USTA has a less-than-outstanding understanding of how to construct an elite player development program. The professional tennis world is an ocean of talent. The current PD model has PD scouts traveling from small pond to small pond, all across the country, in search of a few talented drops of water. They remove these players from their small ponds, offer them the world, and expect them to enter the professional ocean and make an impact. Handpicking twenty or so kids per year has about the same odds as buying a winning lottery ticket, and, with millions dollars going into the program, appears to be an abhorrent waste of money.
Instead, the USTA should change its model. With PD coaches who’ve had tour experience and a good understanding of professional tennis life, they have an under-utilized and improperly directed asset. These PD coaches should not be centrally located to work with players, but rather, travel around the country working with players and their private coaches. By passing on their knowledge to private coaches, they are no longer limited to affecting a few players per year, but now access and inform all of the players under all of the coaches with whom they communicate. Once done, the few drops in a pond will become strong currents of players in a river that flows mightily into the ocean of professional tennis. John Kennedy said A rising tide lifts all boats, and in this case, PD should allocate its resources to raising the floodwaters of American coaching.
But this would entail removing the egos from the equation, the desire to have OUR OWN USTA kids, under OUR OWN tutelage, so we can show how good WE ARE as national coaches. It would require these national coaches to stop hoarding their presumed wisdom for their post-USTA careers and to focus on educating the nation’s coaches so we can grow the quality of American tennis as a whole.
Sadly, USTA PD now sees itself in competition with the private coaching community. The PD coaches work with talent taken from private coaches, and then, to the detriment of the other U.S. kids, sit behind court fences cheering on their OWN charges. Few things are more offensive to a tennis parent than seeing his/her own child cheered against by the organization that presumably attracted the kid to the game in the first place. It is nepotism inverted.
Get the information into the hands of the people that can use it and let the kids compete.
Step one on the path back to American success involves sending USTA’s PD coaches out to the country’s tennis clubs such that more coaches and players have access to the best information available. Do this only until their contracts run out and then move on to Action Item Two.
ACTION ITEM TWO
In a quest to repudiate the USTA PD’s belief that they are responsible for producing the next generation of US players, and in the hopes that the USTA will stop cherry-picking America’s top players in the search for a champion, I herewith offer another solution for American player development.
The USTA has made an assumption that hiring former professional players is the equivalent to hiring quality professional level coaches. Frankly, there is almost zero correlation between the playing and coaching skill sets. Coaching requires creativity, an ability to articulate information through aural, kinesthetic and visual means. It demands incredible patience and an ability to motivate others. Moreover, coaching involves a wholesale commitment to a player in order to understand: 1) the psychological barriers which might impede a player’s progress, 2) the familial and training environment the player must deal with in addition to tennis practices, 3) a history of the player’s emotional and physical development so as to modify training for trauma, injury, and various other stressors, 4) etc.
Playing, however, requires a wholly different skill set. Great players feel the ball, the urgencies and vacillations, and the instinctive shot making. This is not to say great players cannot be great coaches, but rather, only that great players are not necessarily great coaches. Blessed with supreme talent, many professional tennis players frequently cannot articulate how they perform technical skills. Their learning experience is concentrated upon their particular learning style, and their sole concern is motivating themselves. Better than most people, great players recognize the hours required to master certain skill sets, and to suggest they can become great coaches without putting in the requisite hours is to belittle the coaching profession and to express a level of arrogance not conducive to a supra-standard organization. Only a poorly educated organization would hire employees based on assumptions rather than evidence.
However, these coaches have wisdom from playing experience, and clearly it would be irresponsible not to include them in the national player development plan. But, their knowledge should go to the coaching community whose professional skill in developing players is far better. To help American tennis, the governing body should focus on the infrastructure, not the end product. Rather than commandeer the talented few, build the framework and let champions emerge. This is the American way.
Develop a website where professional players can submit their information. Pay them based on the number of hits, or re-tweets, or feedback. If the information is quality, they will benefit, but if it’s not, at least they won’t be receiving USTA PD dollars with ZERO accountability. In other words, leave the value up to the voter.
Hypothesizing about successful solutions and failing – while burning through millions of dollars – is no longer a viable solution. Let’s remove the player development staff and throw things back to the private coaching community, the ONLY historically successful player development entity in this country. By eliminating the constantly flipping USTA PD regimes, we can open up dollars to try new ways to develop America’s upcoming generations.
Step Two on the path back to American success involves creating a website where former players can provide coaching insight via video, while generating a small revenue stream, such that more coaches and players have access to the best information available.
ACTION ITEM THREE
The greatest wealth of tennis wisdom rests in the minds of men and women who are nearly done raging against the dying of the light. Let us not be thrust into darkness.
The USTA should allocate dollars to document the knowledge from the game’s elite coaches. Send out an educated interviewer – Paul Annacone perhaps – one who presumably understands the requisite questions one should ask to glean the wisdom from these masters. Talk about strategy and tactics, mid-match adjustments, mental fortitude and what it takes to become a champion.
In this nation, we have several coaches with incredible insight into the elite levels of professional tennis. Robert Lansdorp has coached five number one players in the world. Nick Bollettieri and his staff have coached over a dozen. Egos aside, we can document this for future generations. Tyson studied Ali. Sampras studied Laver. Our coaches should be able to study history’s best coaches. It would be a tribute and a lasting legacy for all of these aged wise ones. Pay them their hourly rate to talk, to discuss, and to inform. How sad to think we might not archive the strategic mind of Pancho Segura.
You want to boost USTA membership? Make the information available on the USTA website for members only. How many of the nations lesson-takers do you think would pony up $40 for this kind of information? You claim the coaching in the country is sub-standard, and yet, aside from a few high performance seminars each year, you do nothing to address the problem. This is a solution that will last for generations.
Step Three on the path back to American success involves documenting wisdom from historically successful coaches, such that more coaches and players have access to the best information available.
ACTION ITEM FOUR
The US junior tennis ranking system is as difficult to decipher as the US Tax Code and adjustments are all too frequent. The upshot of this obfuscation is a cadre of confused parents sweating and straining to navigate the rankings labyrinth. We hear phrases like “spending a fortune to chase points,” and “have to play these to get into that,” all said with a face that suggests imminent diarrhea. And yet, somehow the multi-national ITF junior circuit requires no new iterations. Why not copy a successful model? How does an ITF player earn his/her way into the junior U.S. Open? They accumulate enough points at each ITF tournament level and that gains them access into higher-level events. The private website Tennisrecruiting.net has now gained more credence than the national organization’s system. At some point, even the $300 million dollar elephant in the room is going to get old and infirm. Study the successful model and adapt, or be relegated to extinction.
In cohesion with the simplification theme, let’s provide parents with better education about the competitive pathways for player development. Create a simple chart to explain the USTA tournament system, the ITF tournament system, and the professional path to success. Let’s further inform them of the possible expenses, obstacles, and expectations they should have during their road to competitive tennis.
When the USTA offers wildcards, developmental grants, and invitations to their developmental centers without providing specific selection criteria, it exposes itself to accusations of nepotism and subjectivity. Worse yet, if the criteria are posted and exceptions are more frequent than the rule, parents and players will condemn the powers-that-be. Thus, the current state of junior tennis disenfranchisement in America.
Step Four on the path back to American success involves simplifying the rankings system so your average ten-year old can understand how to advance. After all, the rankings are for the kids, right. Additionally, let’s provide clear and simple roadmaps for the various competitive pathways.
ACTION ITEM FIVE
At present, unless you are hand-picked, by the USTA, to be one of the chosen – which is probably the death knell of your career by the way – there is little chance of financial support coming your way. Therefore, let’s take $2,000,000 of the PD budget and run 20, $50,ooo winner-take-all prize money tournaments, for men and women, across the United States, with the following caveats:
· US players only
· No one in the top 100 WTA or ATP is eligible to compete in them.
· Once you’ve won one of these events, you are no longer eligible to play in another one for twelve months.
· Once you have won three of these events, you are no longer eligible to play in them.
These events will motivate more players to compete and subsidize those who desperately need it to fund themselves on the pro circuit.
The alternative to this is a performance-based financial support system for rookie professionals, with funding recoverable if rankings improve. This financial assistance program involves grant money for achieving specific ranking levels. For example:
Players reaching 800 WTA/ATP receive a $10,000 stipend.
Players reaching 600 WTA/ATP receive a $20,000 stipend.
Players reaching 400 WTA/ATP receive a $25,000 stipend.
Players reaching 200 WTA/ATP receive a $25,000 stipend.
Players reaching 100 WTA/ATP or higher, would pay 10% of their annual prize money back to the granting organization, until all grant monies have been recovered or until the player retires.
Certainly the details can be worked to make this financially feasible, but as an idea in its fetal stages, it may hold some merit to incentivize performance and to allow underfunded players to stay out there long enough to build a career.
Step Five on the path back to American success involves finding alternative ways to fund talented players for their initial forays into professional tennis.
I’m sure others have many more ideas and I’m hoping to compel the forces of American tennis to speak out. As the Americans’ brief traipse across Wimbledon’s lawns suggests, the time for new leadership is at hand. Let the search begin.
—An American Tennis Guardian