Warning: The views and opinions expressed in the following blog post are exclusively those of Coach Ken and are the reason why All American Team Tennis is a Youth Sports League and not a series of tournaments. Reader discretion is advised.
One of my players entered a “tournament” here in West Palm Beach. All things considered, it went well. He played some points, he won some, he lost some, they gave him a water bottle, it was fine. No big deal. But I took from the event a few observations. Let me start by saying that attending a USTA tournament reminds me of why I don’t like USTA tournaments. Having played baseball and football as a child, and ice hockey in my 20’s, what I saw was very disappointing. It failed to capture not only my attention, but that of the players. And the tiny dictator, uh, I mean Tournament Director telling the parents to be quiet and reading off a list of rules the players have to follow, really put a damper on things. There has to be more to tennis than tournaments.
This was a Level 9 tournament for players 10 and under*. We won’t go into why there are 9 levels of tournaments when every level is essentially the same. With many of the same players playing in multiple levels of tournament! That’s beside the point. But, with this being a Level 9 event, the director brought teenage volunteers to monitor the courts to help the players who are new to the game. That was a good idea, but the execution needs work. The monitors need to be trained or at least have some playing experience in order to do the best job possible. But the kid monitoring my players match had NOT been trained and it showed. First, he asked another monitor how many games they would be playing. Then, during the warmup, he kept feeding balls to my player preventing the other player from hitting any serves. There must have been 15+ balls on the court. Then, instead of instructing the players to retrieve tennis balls, themselves, he went around the court picking up balls while trying to watch them play. That doesn’t work very well and, needless to say, he missed a couple of points.
But this one really got me: my player served the ball into the box and the other player returned it. But he returned it high so my player moved in to take it out of the air. My player missed the shot so the other player got the point, anyway, but the monitor then began to admonish my player saying that the ball has to bounce and that’s why the other player got the point. my player lost the point, so it really didn’t matter, but the monitor continued to explain that the ball has to bounce because you are “not allowed to take it out of the air”. Clearly this person has limited knowledge of the game because my player was simply going for a volley. My player argued the volley thing, but the monitor brought over another monitor to explain that he was right. Now my player is confused as to what to do. We hit almost nothing but volleys in practice and this person is telling him that volleys are not allowed?!? EVERY 8 year old is ill equipped to handle this situation. This would have been take care of if monitors were trained properly and/or tennis players had Coaches.
Which brings me to my next point: Coaches. Every player needs a coach. Not some of the time… ALL of the time. Have you ever heard the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees”? That means when you stand too close to a single tree, bringing your face close enough to the bark to see the ants climbing it, the tree blocks your view of the rest of the forest. The same applies to athletics and sport: participants can get so focused (tunnel vision) on what’s right in front of them (hitting the ball) they can’t see anything else that’s out there. But the coach can. The coach sits on the outside watching EVERYTHING that’s happening. He sees things that the player doesn’t and can instruct the player to focus on something else, if necessary.
But my biggest complaint is for the people holding on to the status quo. The attitude of people who blindly defend how tennis tournaments are conducted by saying “it has to be this way” or “the kids have to learn how to do this”. Why? Why does it have to be this way? Do I need to learn this if I’m playing soccer? Why are there no referees? Why is coaching not allowed? Why are the parents asked to watch from outside the fence? Why separate a child from their parent? Because it’s tennis?!? That’s not a good enough reason.
You’re gonna have to do better than that because we don’t have to play tennis. There are plenty of other options for people to play games or get exercise. In fact, there was a BOXING class in the grass just outside of the tennis courts. Why not take up boxing instead of tennis? Not only is it exercise, but you learn how to throw hands if you need to defend yourself. Listen, if I don’t LIKE what you’re doing, I’m not going to do it. So a greater emphasis must be placed on LIKING rather than learning.
That’s the bottom line.
But tennis has done very little to make the game appealing to a larger audience. It’s a simple game that places a tremendous amount of pressure and stress and innumerable restrictions on its participants. For example, you have to hit the ball over the net and keep it inside the lines. Do you know how many people can’t do that? Roughly 98% of America. It’s one of the reasons why more people don’t play. But instead of adapting the game to reach a broader audience, some people hold on to tradition and expect other people to change to accommodate a game they don’t have to play. It’s very bad for business.
To make that point, I was looking at the “tournament bracket for the event one of my players was supposed to play last weekend and I noticed something very troubling: in a bracket consisting of 16 spots, there were 13 players entered, and 6 of them were from outside Palm Beach County. I understand that not everyone is able to play every week at every location, but that is part of the problem: a lack of commitment from the players. Tennis players come and go as they please. And the fact that this event pulled 7 kids from Palm Beach County ages 10-12 is embarrassing when there are literally 10’s of thousands of children in middle schools in this area. Football, baseball, basketball, and soccer get hundreds of players every Saturday morning. Ice hockey and lacrosse do the same. And we pull 7?!? Once a month?!? Something has to change.
All American Team Tennis is the solution to all of tennis’ problems. Much of what we do can be found on your local college campus. First, every single one of us has a desire to be included, to feel like we’re not alone, to interact with other people. It’s how God made us. So All American Team Tennis is a team sport where players are placed on teams and given a uniform so they know where they belong. The uniform says “you’re with us.” The team says “you’re not alone.” Now you have someone to talk to.
Someone to hang out with. Someone to play with. Someone to travel with. Someone to invite to your birthday party. Someone to tell jokes to. Someone to talk to about your favorite tv show. And if you think none of those things are important when it comes to playing tennis, your head is in the wrong place. Because humans are social creatures, designed to desire the company of other people. And if we don’t get that social interaction we become very selfish and bitter and inconsiderate and rude and condescending. I know this from first-hand experience because I’ve crossed paths with them repeatedly over time. How does a person learn respect when their opinion is the only one that matters?
See, in other sports, superstars still have to FIT IN with the group. Even in individual sports like wrestling, gymnastics, and karate. Their desire to be better than everyone else is balanced by what’s best for the TEAM. Not so in tennis. I do WHAT I want, WHEN I want, HOW I Want, and if I don’t WANT to, I ain’t doing it because MY results are the only results that matter. I’m out here by myself, me against the world, so what happens to you does not matter to me because we’re not CONNECTED in any way. And that seed of selfishness gets watered every time they play. So players become very unsympathetic, inconsiderate, unable to relate to other people, yet very demanding in their interactions with others because they are the only person that matters. That’s cold!
Next, Game Day is every Saturday. That requires a commitment on the part of every player because the team is counting on them. Accountability is not required in individual sports, but makes for a much better member of society. An understanding that you are not alone, and that your actions affect those around you leads to greater maturity. That’s what it means to be a Team Player.
Third, we put a referee on every court, similar to what you’ll find at colleges like Miami and Ohio State (GO BUCKS!), and I train them personally. Relying on the players to conduct their own matches is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. And those who defend it are missing a few synapses. Every type of competition should have someone watching the participants to make sure the game is played according to the rules. I don’t care if it’s tennis, football, or Nathan’s 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, there should be a referee. In the heat of the moment, when the stakes are so high, players can not be trusted to make the right call. There’s an inherent bias to officiating your own match that leads to players making calls in their favor. That’s called cheating. So we make sure to have someone that I’ve trained, personally, on every court. It’s the right thing to do.
Not only does every match need a referee, but every player needs a coach. Period. So we invite our parents to act as coaches during practice and on Game Day. We don’t relegate them to the outer limits, or the vast wasteland beyond the fences where they are forced to watch their child play through the wind screen**. But we invite them to come inside and set up a
chair to view the matches along the sidelines. They can talk to their kids, they can cheer for them, on the changeovers the parents can give their kids a bottle of water or grapes. It’s a much better experience for everyone. And because the players are on a team they don’t have to spend their changeover alone. Kids enjoy talking to each other. Surprising, isn’t it. Coaches keep players on the right track because they can see the entire forest, not just the trees.
Never underestimate the value of community. Community creates emotional stability by lending perspective to any situation because when you realize you’re not alone things are not as bad as they seem. And when you win, having someone to share it with makes it even more memorable.
Tennis doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. In fact, it can be a very memorable one. All American Team Tennis is unlike your typical junior tennis program. We’re different.. on purpose. Teams, uniforms, Game Day, coaches, parents, field trips, community, camaraderie, a support system, and that’s only the beginning. We haven’t even talked about the marketability of team sports! There’s room for everyone on the team. Including you. So join us next season and see what all the noise is about.
I would love to know your thoughts. Send me an an email at email@example.com with your ideas.
*The USTA decided it would be a good idea to implement a series of tournaments for players under the age of 10, as a way of introducing children to tennis competition. The switch to shorter courts and low-compression balls is necessary to make the game easier for children to play. We do this, too. Unfortunately, they continue to use tournaments as their primary vehicle of transport. As my mechanic would say “Well, there’s your problem!”
**And can anyone tell me why we have wind screens, anyway? They block your view more than they block the wind. If it’s purely cosmetic, and you just want to put your logo on the fence, why not get a chain link with smaller holes and paint it? It’ll last longer than nylon. Or put up sections of screen with your logo on it. Maybe along the back but not the sides. I’m just sayin’.