Many pros or clubs aspire to develop a robust high-performance program, with the goal of developing, attracting and retaining competitive juniors. While many attempt to do so, the reality is that few are able to deliver a product that can be truly qualified as a high-performance program. The objective of this article is to highlight not only the necessary standards needed for such a program, but also to provide a list of actions needed to either develop a program from scratch or improve upon an existing one.
“If you build it, he will come.”
The classic quote from the movie “Field of Dreams” is a good way to start this discussion. It’s important to understand that, like with most ventures, having a vision of what the program will be is a crucial first step. As someone who is now developing junior programs at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, I can attest that having such vision can make a significant impact. In other words, knowing how your competitive program will look and feel will give you the direction needed to guide you through the ups and downs. More specifically, developing your program’s values and identity will improve your ability to create a unique image. This uniqueness can be the intensity that is implemented during your sessions, or the emphasis on technical/tactical development, or your staff’s ability to “connect” with the players and create a sense of community. Once you have this settled, other coaches and players who identify themselves with the reputation of your program will join you for the ride.
Another important factor is understanding that competitive players can sometimes have a “high maintenance” reputation. Some of the challenges include: Players often switching programs, difficulties with parents and the expectation of significant discounts or scholarships. However, be aware that there are ways to mitigate such issues, which we will explore later, and many underestimate the benefits associated with adding a high-performance track to a club’s portfolio. Here are five clear advantages to do so:
1. Impact the bottom line: Committed players are more likely to spend larger sums than purely recreational players, as they tend to attend multiple clinics, private lessons, etc. Some of the top players I work with spend as much as 17 times the amount of recreational players!
2. Create an aspiration for lower levels: Having a solid high-performance program is an indirect way to boost recreational classes, as those players have something to look forward to and build toward.
3. Boost staff morale: Coaches tend to feel more rewarded when working with more committed players. Even if the level is not necessarily high, most would agree that working with students who are willing to work hard is more enjoyable. Therefore, having more of these players at your facility can create a boost of productivity from within your staff.
4. Fill your non-prime time slots: Competitive players are more willing to come at non-ideal times as tennis is a priority to them, thus improving your ability to sell non-prime time slots.
5. Improve your club’s overall image: The reality is that most clubs tend to become associated with the quality of its junior programs. The better the juniors, the better your image will be.
With that said, below are some steps to be strongly considered when looking to either create or improve a competitive program. The order of these steps would be adjusted based on where one is in this process:
1. Develop your method, values, and culture that you hope to create: This will ultimately be your key differentiator and create a unique bonding between you and the player. A successful program is often known for a specific characteristic.
2. Offer a tryout event: Create a buzz about your program by promoting your staff, facility, program structure, etc. This could be a one-day event or a series of days throughout the year.
3. Use scholarships or other similar methods to attract top players in the area: While the programs I have been involved with do not engage in such practice, this is commonly used. The reality is that many players and parents often care more about “who else is training there” than the quality of the program or coaches. While this tactic can be helpful at times, being able to develop players from the ground up is a better strategy in the long-run. If the program is good, you should be able to charge for it.
4. Provide parents with lots of education: Despite their reputation, I feel that most tennis parents are not problematic. However, most of them are uneducated about the journey of building a competitive player. Providing constant communication, in individual and group meetings, while explaining the journey of a junior player and the parent’s role in that process, can be extremely helpful.
5. Be a role model for the players and develop a positive relationship with them: Most people will learn best if it comes from someone they like. We are tennis coaches, so we should live what we preach. In other words, if you are out of shape, get in shape. If you have a more limited playing background, work on it. One doesn’t need to be a world-class player to be a great coach, but it’s important to be able to know what the player is going through and see things at a deeper level. Being a more established player can help with that. Also, it’s important to know what your players like outside of tennis, show an interest in their overall life and personal growth, not just their forehands and backhands.
6. Continue to learn: Take every course you can, both in-person and online. Even if you learn just one new thing, you now have one more piece of information or concept to share with your players.
7. Train your staff: Put them through the drills you’ll do with the players, make them feed with the same tempo and trajectory, while providing feedback in a similar manner. Otherwise, if every court is different, you don’t really have a program; only pros running their own independent classes. One important aspect I try to emphasize with my staff, is that “the skill matters more than the drill!” So, drills should be simple and emphasize fundamentals performed relative to the player’s level.
8. Create a curriculum for your classes: What are the skills that players should have before moving to a higher level? Such a list does not have to be complex, in fact, simpler is better in most cases. If you don’t have one, I suggest using the Net Generation templates and adjust them to your program’s needs.
9. Attend tournaments regularly: Watch your players compete. Not only will you be able to better understand how your player performs under pressure, but you will also develop a closer relationship. This goes a long way in showing your players and their families that you care and have a joint interest and commitment in their progress and success. In turn, players and families will likely feel a greater sense of connection and loyalty. Additionally, other players and parents will see you there which is a nice form of marketing your program. However, do not make this an opportunity to poach players from other programs.
10. Keep track of your players’ success: Nothing speaks louder than actual results. While it’s important not to stress results and rankings at an early age, keep track of how your players progress by promoting their results to demonstrate your program’s availability to develop, retain and attract competitive juniors.
In all, developing a quality high-performance program is not easy. It often takes some years to get enough players through your system, and its key to have the right type of personnel. However, the clubs who do it right often have lower employee turnover, higher player retention rates, and healthier programs in general.
Joao Pinho is the Head Professional of 10U and High-Performance at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. He is a USPTA Elite Professional, a former NCAA DI coach and player, and has specialized in developing competitive junior players over the past decade. Currently, he is the private coach of three national champions and a WTA touring pro.