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Tennis Program Decision Makers

Will you allow your people to be decision-makers?

By Bill Patton

Tennis leadership tends to usurp a player’s ability to make decisions. By doing that, they disempower players from owning their tennis experience and then bemoan how players don’t engage with programming. Great tennis leaders empower everyone underneath them to be tremendous or developing decision-makers. Everyone makes mistakes, and they should be encouraged to take risks.  Everyone should be free to express tennis in a way that jibes with their values. Instead, most tennis coaches take a coach-centered approach to introducing players to the game. The message commonly given is that if you pay me a few thousand dollars, you will learn enough technique to deem you an almost competent player, and I will then allow you to play matches.

I remember taking over a Director of Tennis position, where I inherited some staff and hoped to have some continuity. Unlike many directors, I did not immediately start teaching a lot of tennis but took on a few private lessons while doing a lot of listening to all the members I met. At staff meetings, the tennis pros in my stable were going crazy, “What’s your agenda? What’s your plan?” but I told them that first I need to know what the people want, and we will have status quo for a few weeks. This did not make them happy.  One quit soon after, informing me on a Friday that he would not be in on Monday, and the other would not comply with certain rules of decency, so I let him go before finding staff who bought into a player-centered approach, but that’s another story. 


Not long after that, I announced a new plan for USTA teams which I will explain later. I had heard my members tell me what they wanted, but my staff wanted nothing to do with that. Can you say service industry?

Around 80% of tennis players want to rally for 30-45 minutes, maybe an hour, get a great workout with their tennis friend or two, and then go home and finish chores. They also don’t want to play pickleball because their self-esteem is intact. Another 15% of tennis players want to play some social tennis, and they prefer to be not the worst player on the court or embarrass themselves, but winning and losing is not such a big deal to them as long as they don’t have to be near pickleball players. These people will play on club teams if you force them because they know they won’t get court time any other way.

5% of players will become weekend warriors or more; they play competitively, want to win, and want to play leagues and tournaments, some almost non-stop. But we often think that these are the only players we serve and that everyone should aspire to play like that; everyone else is a lower being on the ladder of tennis players.

In the first lesson with an adult, I approach them first with this decision because it guides all other choices. Recently, I took over a client from another pro.  The woman was a 1.5 and, with some encouragement, could be a 2.0, capable of playing some not-great doubles with ladies her age and ability. The former pro, however, told her, “It’s probably going to take a year of weekly lessons for you to have good enough technique to play a match,” to which I politely say ‘BS.' When I determined that the woman wanted to be able to make friends and play socially, we took a much different course. There are two unwritten rules in tennis. 1. If you can rally, people will rally with you. If you can’t, they won’t, but they will come up with exotic excuses not to play. 2. If you can serve, return serve, and hit another shot or three, then people will play a match with you. This is how I teach my beginners, first to rally, then in 5 or 6 lessons to be a 2.0, ready to play other 2.0’s.  

With children, every new child in my program is faced with these questions: There are players, coaches, and parents; “Who is the decision maker?”  Kids have never been told that they are a decision maker. When they realize this, they get excited. I then ask, “Who is your expert?” They then point to me.  When we get to “Who gives final approval?” They often hem and haw until they say that it’s the parents. Those questions set the tone for the program, solving many problems.

In reality, 80% of tennis teaching decision-making should center around rallying. And the rest about competently serving and returning well enough to keep the match from being boring. The problem is that hundreds or millions or billions of dollars are spent on lessons that do not offer these benefits. Players dumbly follow the edicts of the greedy tennis pros, clubs, leaders, and content providers who show the new ideal technique; the Ben Shelton,  take this fitness class, a neat doubles trick done by the high-flying doubles twins or another aging doubles legend.

What gives the fantastic joy of tennis is, “I paid $10 for a 3-hour Super Saturday, and now I can play tennis; I can’t believe it; it’s so much fun”, which is what Lila says every time I see her.

When I ask people which category they fall into, the numbers support what I have said above. Some people say I might end up in the lunatic fringe, but I want to play socially for now. So, tennis people, are you going to decide to meet the pickleball sociability head-on and provide the same thing in tennis, or are you going to be the reason that more tennis players defect to plastic racquets and balls, with little movement, impending hearing loss, losing an eye, and a myriad of injuries, simply for the sake of autonomy?

Make a better decision and help your players, then provide the programs that support their choices.

Your role and your serve! …


To finish my Director of Tennis story, I heard from many members that there used to be a thriving Saturday morning group of drop-in tennis players. It was overtaken by many USTA Teams that saw early Saturday and Sunday mornings as prime time, but that wasn't best for most of my members; it was best for my loudest members. My first move was to create a rule that all USTA weekend matches had to start after 11 a.m. It took a little time and made quite a bit of early friction, but the drop-in tennis came back to life and thrived. Soon, some players dropped off from USTA teams because they only wanted drop-in play.

Will you allow your people to be decision-makers?

Join my Webinar on Fostering Better Decision Making In Clubs
Friday October 13th at 10am PST, 1pm EST 
Send Me An Email For An Invitation

Bill Patton ~ Author/Speaker

YouTuber - Infinite Vision Coach

Master Tennis Coach - Contributor

SwingVision Ambassador

San Diego, CA

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