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Steve Johnson, Sr: Tennis Parent & Tennis Coach

Photo courtesy of Steve Johnson

Photo courtesy of Steve Johnson

The following interview originally appeared in print on Frank Giampaolo’s website. He asked me if I’d share it with y’all, so, of course, I said yes! I’ve also included my interviews with Steve Johnson both on the ParentingAces radio show and at the 2013 US Open. Enjoy!




Frank’s Interview with Steve Johnson, Sr

Tell the readers about your background as a tennis parent & full time tennis coach?

I feel privileged to have a beautiful family and a career that I love- I have been teaching tennis for 33 years throughout Southern California-  making my tennis home in San Clemente, California at the Rancho San Clemente Tennis Club running the Steve Johnson Tennis Academy .  I am living my dream- I am married to my high school sweetheart, we have two beautiful children and I have made a career out of my love for tennis.  My parental goal was simple- love and enjoy my children!


Tell us about Stevie’s junior career?   

  • At what age did Stevie begin to play tennis?     As a parent, I was constantly playing with Stevie. He was interested in anything that involved a ball. At age two, I put a Mickey Mouse tennis racquet in Stevie’s hand and showed him how to hit a beach ball with it.  He played beach ball tennis throughout the house all day long. “Stevie was a natural competitor warrior. He competed at everything.”
  • By the age of 4, Stevie could rally on the tennis court.  I would take him with me to local tournaments to watch my players and he couldn’t wait to compete. One day he begged to play a tournament- so I told him if he wanted to compete, he would first have to learn how to keep score (He had to learn to play a real match versus just rallying.) and then I would let him play a tournament. So Stevie took on the challenge and learned how to keep score on the practice court with my wife.
  • By age of 5, Stevie could keep score and so we entered him into his first event- 10 and Under Satellite Tournament. He lost 6, 0- 6, 1.
  • By the age of 6, Stevie could win rounds in the Satellite Tournaments- loving to compete.
  • By the age of 7, Stevie won the local 10 & Under Satellite Tournament. A few weeks after that, we entered him into a local Boys 12’s Satellite Event and he won it- at age 7!      FUN FACT: Some juniors enter the game for fun and then later develop the competitive fire. Others enter into the sport with their competitive flames fully raging.  Some children have to spend many hours learning how to cope with their fear of competition, lack of competitive fire, fear of gamesmanship…
  • What other sports did Stevie play? Stevie played every sport with a ball.  He was innately competitive from a very young age.  He even needed to compete during his tennis lessons- just rallying back and forth was too boring for him. He wanted to know how he could win.  His practice needed to be structured so that he could compete – even if it was against himself.
  • When did the family decide to have Stevie focus exclusively on tennis? Stevie was such a natural at the game of tennis and because it was my business, it was easy to focus his efforts at playing tennis.  His mother and I never had to bother him to practice- he wanted to play tennis from the time he held his first (Mickey Mouse) racquet. Tennis was his sport.

What are your thoughts regarding the 10& under campaign?  

I teach strokes for a lifetime. I don’t teach 10 & Under Tennis.  Ideally, it would be great if every 10 year old had their strokes established so their tennis game could be developed.


10’s through 14’s: What is your primary focus? 

My primary lesson goals for the age groups 10-14 stresses techniques and doubles strategy.

  • Techniques:  In my lessons, I focus first on defensive skills because I believe the best ball to hit is based on where the player is on the court. So I teach players both fundamental and secondary shots based on court position.  I teach how to hit rollers, slices and transitional shots- such as and how to get out of the corners.  I also teach girls or boys the same.
  • Doubles:  Many tennis parents don’t support playing doubles- whether they believe doubles practice takes valuable lesson time away from singles or because doubles requires more time be spent at tournament sites, it is the players that are missing out.  Doubles teaches many essential tennis skills, especially for college. I suggest doubles be played before all single events to encourage more players to get involve- especially because the parents can’t back out if they have to play doubles before singles …

16’s through 18’s: What is your primary focus? 

I believe fitness is the most important game component as players reach their late teens. Especially because most college coaches begin making their recruit pick at ages 16 and 17. So it is essential physical training begin by at least age sixteen.  The game has changed and fitness is huge!  To quote a Division I Level Coach, “Most junior players cannot even make through the first day of College Tennis practice because they are unfit!”   

Stevie’s junior tennis success may have even been greater if he had been fitter sooner. His slightly skewed winning Gold Ball ratio of 1singles title to 10 doubles titles was likely due to his lack of adequate fitness. Stevie lost many matches just before the finals because he was out of energy. When Stevie was 16, I was told Stevie was very talented but not fit enough.  So we (Stevie and his team of coaches and trainers) began including fitness into his tennis training regime.  Stevie trained 1 hour off court to 3 hours of on court from the age of 16 ½ on.

Even though Stevie had started off court training from the age of 16 ½ – Division I College fitness was a whole different level-  Stevie lost 20 pounds the first semester in college.    By age 18, extreme physical fitness is mandatory. Stevie’s commitment to fitness in college afforded him huge success at USC.  He is still working even harder to get even fitter as a professional- loving it along the way. Now as a Pro, Stevie trains 1 hour off court, 2 hours on court hitting, lunch, 2 hours hitting and 2 hours training and stretching off court.  Of course during tournaments, Stevie’s off court training is adjusted (periodization).


What would you tell other parents about their child’s gamesmanship tolerance/ competitive nature?

As a coach, I have always been very honest with parents with respect to their child’s tennis aptitude.  Some players are just not competitive by nature and I tell their parents that the sport is going to be a little more difficult for them. Tennis is as mental and emotional as it is physical.I coach the players to play the game of tennis and that may require their tennis lessons to include a variety of teaching techniques – such as ball machine drills, playing points with other player etc. Some parents only want see  X number of ball baskets emptied during a lesson but that is not what tennis development is … So to those parents, it is their choice to choose a coach that just wants to feed balls- but that is not how to develop a full game- in my opinion.


What would you share with parents about playing their children up, as opposed to keeping them in their own age division? 

The method I used with Stevie is not a blueprint for all players, but I believe tennis teaches responsibility and leadership.  It is very important for players to compete against their own age group and to learn to be “The Big Dog” – which is a very different kind of pressure that builds character.  “Playing up before they have won consistently in their own division sends the message that losing is acceptable.” Stevie played in his own division until he reached #1 and then he stayed in that division for 6 months- building character along the way.


Do you have a win/loss percentage you recommend players follow before moving up to higher division? 

Ideally a player should have a win /loss record of 3: 1 or 4: 1 before moving up to the next level.  (I would recommend at least a 50/50 win/loss record.)  A natural progression would be to attain a winning percentage in satellites tournaments, then open tournaments, then designated tournaments and then on to Nationals…As I said previously, encouraging your child to only play up teaches them that losing is okay.  Note:  Different USTA divisions may have different names for their tournament levels.


Can you share with the reader’s insight and/or advice regarding the tennis parent’s role?  

Tennis is a full time parental job if you want your child to be good.  This means a player that wants to be good should be playing sets, clinics, privates, hitting serve after practice, lessons etc.  It is the parent’s role to support the child with these activities.  In other words: “Tennis must go on the calendar first and then life goes in later.”


What is your emotional communication strategy?

With regard to the emotional components of tennis, I was always very calm. I tried to make tennis fun so that Stevie would continue to love the game as I did.  Before a tournament, I would tell Stevie, “Whether you win or lose your match today, we are not done working on your game. Come Monday, I will take you to school and after school Mom will bring you to the club and we will continue training your game”… I wanted to take the pressure of winning off of Stevie and keep his focus on improving.

“Parents and coaches make tennis events such a big deal that they often sabotage any real chances of success.”


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