The governing body operates on fear. Players, coaches, clubs, and academies are all fearful of the organisation that pretends inclusion and teamwork yet continuously operates a system of subjective selection and favouritism that kills individuality and creativity.
The prevailing attitude is one where most coaches, players and parents feel forced to ingratiate themselves to “important people” in the LTA so that they can gain a perceived advantage for some support from the massive resources available.
There is no sense of or education to foster appreciation; mostly there is an attitude of entitlement from those in favour and bitterness from those outside the inner circle. The antidote to fear is trust. However trust must be earned and for that we need a system based on transparent rewards that are earned.
2015 was my 25th Wimbledon as a coach and my 27th overall. I’ve been involved in British tennis since 1987 with some success and feel that my perspective has validity. The following issues are the same now as they have always been in that:
- British tennis has always had talented juniors yet we largely fail in the transitiononto the pro tour.
- Every regime looks at this failure and decides – forget the present and focus on the young – effectively start again. Cynically it can be argued that this buys time for the incumbents to stay in lucrative jobs for as long as possible.
- The mantra is the current pros are soft, lazy and indulged (partly true but who indulged them?) but mostly it is about poor management of young careers and short-term thinking. These amazing stats from USA Today prove it will probably take this generation a dozen years or more from the age of 14 to earn the necessary experience to succeed.
- Picking young talent who can reach the top 50 is impossible apart from the rare phenomenons, yet British tennis intends to find these gems at U14 and place this burden upon their young shoulders? Only arrogance could venture such farsighted predictions and history has proven this folly in the vast majority of selections from the Rover, Futures and Talent ID schemes that began as far back as the 1980’s.
- A recurring blueprint: Tinker and change the system name. Create years of restructuring that produce programmes that are largely the same, apart from cosmetic differences.
- Panic and over indulge any bright new talent into a programme that is perceived better than what they were getting rather than mentoring and assisting the current setup i.e. steal players, therefore demotivating (often young) coaches and not equipping these coaches to achieve greater results in the future.
- Blame the players when the transition does not go smoothly and rapidly along a performance pathway that only the most blessed players can attain.
The difficulty is until a player works with a coach he never actually knows what he is about and vice versa. Players select on recommendation, perception and past record but I would always recommend a couple of in depth conversations as it is very much horses for courses and a gelling of personalities. I would recommend a trial to any player who is competing regularly and deciding on a coach or a coaching setup. Selecting a coach is a big decision because ultimately it affects confidence positively or negatively in the short term. The younger or more inexperienced the player is, the more influence the coach will have on the players confidence. When choosing a coach you need to make sure you select someone who inspires confidence in you, who makes you feel like you can conquer the world if you do the work and improve. I’m not talking about mindless motivational stuff. Again it is about the coach helping the player lay out the pathway forward and then doing the constructive work to get there.
Big players are very self sufficient, so no coach will make or break them but as was proved by Lendl, a slight difference can be huge if it means winning a Slam final rather than losing one.
What of a James Ward, Jonny Marray, Victor Estrella-Burgos and many other “late achievers”? (no longer that late as shown by the USA Today article). Current British tennis policy frowns on these great stories of human persistence rather than celebrating success at any age. Top 200 is seen as mediocre and I have personally been asked, “What is the value of a twenty eight year old reaching the top 100?” This rhetoric is designed to raise standards but through my lens it is a disrespectful viewpoint from executives that are a long way from the FTSE 100, let alone a world top 200 company.
Moving Towards a Philosophy of Support
The answer to this never ending cycle of cosmetic change is to move to a philosophy of support through earned rewards (tournament and ranking) so when players are flying investment through bonuses is high, but equally the playing field is fair because all players have access to “flying” and the system does not choose. This also avoids the ‘pedestal’ burden so often placed on young players because abonus structure that is transparent for any player to access, breeds healthy competition.
LTA Performance funding must be spent on facilitating the coaches and programmes with investment into shared best practice and mentoring so success is repeatable.
Get rid of the myth that our best coaches should be working with the youngest players! Name any other industry that expects this? Would we expect Sir David Brailsford to personally coach and manage U14’s or Christian Horner manage the Red Bull go-karting team? The best coaches at pro level will lead by influence and example and will help manage talented teams for a ‘top to bottom best practice approach.’
Support for centres must value the excellence of the staff through trust and enabling continuous education. Accountability is easy in tennis because of rankings and tournament results. Through discussion and sharing information a system will emerge for the good of all in British tennis. We need to be led by an organisation that listens and facilitates Head Coaches and Directors of tennis, without killing off individual style.
Perseverance and Support
The basic message is simple. A structure or system does not produce players.Talented players who persevere over years with a knowledgeable support team emerge. Therefore set up something fair and transparent to facilitate this mix.
- Identify (already known) the coaching hotbeds that consistently produce good juniors and/or transition players. Assist these programmes with good enough facilities, world-class physical training and create a mentoring programme so the success can be repeated.
- There will be cases of the right people in the wrong place so make sure quality Head Coaches are placed in good facilities and geographically accessible. Facilitate decent salaries for this key role – programmes live or die by the leadership of the Head Coach.
- Fund the players through bonus schemes only. Bonuses to U18’s need to be paid into their programmes for extra support and directly to players over 18 to spend on training and travel for tournaments, so as adults they can choose where to train.
- Players will vote with their feet and the best programmes will emerge. Bonuses on ranking improvements can be paid to centres at the end of each year.
- The LTA must play a vital role in the mentoring scheme by creating a hotbed of collaboration with regular camps, meetings and seminars at the NTC and providing practical assistance requested by the centres to help them improve.
- Be proactive in investigating anything in world tennis that becomes relevant to improving and create a database of best practice that is constantly updated and shared.
- Provide financial assistance for the education of young coaches and trainers to travel with experienced coaches so they learn what is needed for pro tennis directly on the coalface.
- Stimulate the clubs and schools with a junior and senior premiere league, offering substantial prize money. This will create competition and hotbeds across the country with specialist clubs and schools focusing on high performance and the prize money providing the means to implement – again based on results and not subjective judgements. This will do much for increasing participation because it will become exciting to be part of tennis in a winning club or school.
- The LTA ought to become a massive stimulus for private entrepreneurs to invest in tennis. A Reward System gives a basic economic argument for financing young players, knowing that certain targets will guarantee a return.
It is human nature for people to have bias so it is crazy to have a structure that allows opinion to exist in one of its most important functions, which is to make professional tennis accessible to anyone.
Increase participation without a fair and accessible pathway to professional tennis and it is destined to fail.
Gone are the days where you can rely on volunteers to support programs that are not sexy. It is the excitement of finishing higher in leagues that ambitious people want to be involved and part of – visions that are far-reaching and challenging.
As British tennis is set to employ yet another Performance Director I can only hope that for once we will get a person who creates trust, is brave, a visionary, someone who can set up a structure where people are trusted and progress through good work rather than obedience.