Rod Heckelman's career started in 1966 when he began his five-year role as a teacher at John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch in Carmel Valley, California. Later he opened as the resident pro for Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch on Camelback in Scottsdale, Arizona.
In 1976 he took over as head professional/tennis director at the Mt. Tam Racquet Club in Larkspur, California, and added the title and responsibilities of general manager in 1982.
In 2010 he was awarded “Manager of the Year” for the USPTA NorCal Division and the “Manager of the Year” at the USPTA World Conference. Rod has written several books including, “Down Your Alley” in 1993, “Playing Into the Sunset” in 2013, and most recently, “250 Ways to Play Tennis.”
He also produced the “Facility Manager’s Manual” and the “Business Handbook for Tennis Pros,” which is distributed by the TIA.
WHERE ARE ALL THE YOUNG TEACHING PROS?
The future of our coaching industry is in jeopardy, and we need to remember,
the teaching pro is the gatekeeper to our sport for almost all new players
By Rod Heckelman
There are alarms sounding everywhere in our industry concerning the slow addition of young tennis instructors to our industry. This somewhat new dilemma has stymied teaching organizations, but break it all down, and it’s simple economics…the fact is, it’s not always easy to make a living as a teaching pro and here are a few reasons why.
First, the nature of tennis clubs, like golf clubs, is to be located in the more affluent areas, including both residential and metropolitan. These areas are usually associated with a higher cost of living. This cost of living impacts any young teacher trying to get a foothold on a new career.
Second, and more importantly, the pay scale for many teaching pros is way too low, especially considering the cost of living in these elite communities.
Lastly, many coaches come into teaching tennis as a natural segway from being a top player, most often not by choice, but by default. They play tennis, compete, age out of that world, and coaching or teaching may be the only choice left for them. Sadly, their investment in trying to play at the top levels of the game often takes away any opportunity to take advantage of a more experienced and well-rounded education. This doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be good teachers but taking on a career by default is not the best motivating reason.
Let’s look back at those three issues one at a time. The first issue has been a reality of the tennis world since its conception. The tennis industry would like to believe that they have morphed into reaching a broader and more economically diverse market, but the bulk of tennis players still reside and play in affluent communities that can host quality tennis facilities. The client base living in those communities is more likely to take lessons and pay more for those lessons. For that reason, these markets naturally attract more young ambitious tennis pros.
Which leads us to the irony of the second problem, although the income of this clientele is much higher, the price for lessons has not kept up with the cost of living. The reason for this is over the last 20 years plus, more corporations have moved into multi-purpose clubs that include tennis. Those running these corporations are hoping to reward their investors handsomely. As a result, when reviewing their cost of operating, they view tennis teachers not much different than they see swim coaches, massage therapists, and any other occupation that exists in those facilities. For that reason, they have adjusted the tennis pros' pay scale to be in harmony with those various occupations, instead of calculating the pay for the tennis pros pay based on the supply and demand of the tennis market. In addition, until recently, there were plenty of tennis teachers to find and easy to hire. As a result, for years most teaching pros worked at the pleasure of the owners, not the customers. They were thought of as easily replaced and not really that impacting the growth of the facility. In fact, many of these companies have in place a model that has their tennis coaches rotating from facility to facility to prevent any strong loyalty with their members.
Another issue that has impacted the pay scale for tennis pros has been the gradual decline in the club pros' involvement with the playing of the game. Even though the pandemic changed the demand for tennis pros, this trend away from the social aspect of the game, largely due to league play, has resulted in a weaker repour between members and club pros. To further distance the tennis pros, many memberships-owned clubs formed committees that took over that role, leaving the relationship between student and teacher to be developed solely on the teaching court.
There is also this trend of believing that learning tennis can be had by a ball machine with a little help from a few books and videos. The onslaught of internet coaching has impacted the tennis coaching world in the same way Peloton has impacted the fitness industry. As a result, the cost of a tennis lesson has had to compete with a very inexpensive alternative. The result is that many teaching pros either indulge in a healthy commute or struggle to survive in these expensive communities.
Maybe the most unfortunate development in the tennis coaching world has been the influx of young strong tennis competitors, believing that they can easily and successfully start a coaching career because of their playing skills. Too often they discover that having a great game and providing a great workout has its limits for many students. Ultimately, even if they have great playing skills, the quality of their coaching, along with the social skills needed to interact with students, will be what is most important. It’s true, there are, and always have been, students that just want a good hit and are happy to pay for that service. But this relationship is often both shallow and short-term. These students may find another top player they can hit with, they may find other players whom they enjoy competing with, and most importantly, they may not be improving their game. The fact is, in recent times, due to the pandemic, finding the time and the competition has recently been a struggle, so the tennis coach who was great at drilling or just hitting filled that gap.
The many new players to the game have quickly discovered that they need instruction on how the execute strokes and actually play the game. If they are not chauffeured through the process of learning the game correctly, especially stroke production and proper technique for their skill level, they can soon become frustrated by not being able to play at a higher level. For these players, their retention level is very low, and they often drop out of the sport in frustration. They turn to other physical activities, where the rewards are more immediate and provide an easier path to more long-term commitments.
The solution to finding new young teachers is not easy. It should be noted that teaching organizations have recognized this issue and are addressing the problem the best they can. Promoting experienced mentors has helped, providing affordable learning platforms for young people helps, as well as working with several different colleges that provide tennis pros the learning skills to get into the tennis industry. But the fact remains, you’re not going to get new blood until the industry recognizes that it needs to create more income for these freshmen. Which means first, owners and corporations of tennis facilities need to raise their prices and pay more. Second, financial rewards need to be built into the tennis operation that incentivizes tennis pros to help grow the facility's income. How about a piece of the dues for bringing in a new member and retaining them? Also, pay more to these pros that organize social activities and events. Focus on building a trust between the owners and the pros so that their loyalty to the facility is more natural and conducive to a healthier long-term relationship. These are all big steps to take, but the future of our coaching industry is in jeopardy, and we need to remember, the teaching pro is the gate keeper to our sport for almost all new players.
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