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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. 

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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.

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THE PROS AND CONS OF TENNIS ACADEMIES

The answer may be found in the order in which this business model was developed, usually, with marketing, the demand is recognized, and then the action to capitalize on that demand is filled.     

By Rod Heckelman

There is irony in this subject, because quite often the same characteristic of a tennis academy that makes it attractive, can also be a negative. 

Let’s start with the obvious.  Academies became popular because they created a strong environment of competition and a daily dose of extensive instruction.  If you had a top junior player and were hoping to have them prosper in tennis, an academy might be the best solution.  This was especially true for players that live in a community that had a weak local tennis program.  By weak, we are not necessarily referring to the instruction, but more often the lack of other young players to practice with or play.  With those attractions, there is a tendency, if not need, for academies to recruit, and in most cases from the top down.  

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If a coach wants to grow their program, they will want to attract the best players so that others will more naturally gravitate to that program.  It works for most everyone…coaches, parents, and players. But there can be negative issues.

 

If recruiting is done from the top down for development, it becomes an endless task.  It also becomes more and more of a political nightmare.  Since the position of being the best is a constantly moving target, the process essentially can never completely be successful.  There is also the fact that being considered the best, especially in the opinion of the parents, is frequently, just that, an opinion.  Running any program that is operated by another person’s point of view or opinion, is never going to have stability.  Yet, academy after academy continues this task in hope of becoming more popular, and in turn, more economically successful.  The battle of losing players to other academies that are perceived as being a better fit is never-ending.

This carries over to the coaches.  Again, by design, if an academy wants to prosper, it needs to attract the best coaches.  These coaches end up bonding with their favorite or most prospering player, and that process often results in that pairing splitting from the academy, and in some cases that coach will start up a new academy.  In fact, it’s safe to say, that probably more than 90% of the current academies started from someone who had worked at another academy and then moved on.  The bottom line is, the very nature of why academies can be successful if the very reason they lend to becoming a revolving door for both players and coaches.

What is often not recognized as an asset but can be a very emotionally healthy direction for some juniors, is the friendships and comrades that often develop in academies.  The journey of becoming a top junior and beyond, can be a lonely one, and often dominated by the parent’s agenda.  Academies can create a shared learning process, as well as a shared emotional process.  Having a co-player, their age and with similar goals, can create a great support system.  If the organization recognizes this, they will foster and promote this environment.  In some cases, the academies provide a live-in home away from home, that step of independence can be both daunting and overwhelming for some.  It’s important to note that most often the children that attend academies come from families, and of course parents, who are used to calling the shots at every turn. Some academies, knowing this will often encourage and provide residency for these families.  Again, an offering that can be very healthy, or very problematic.

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Too often a struggle emerges between the academy and the parents.  Both of those parties focus on their goals and aspirations.  The junior ends up being disregarded and is usually not provided any input, or at least such input is not solicited or recognized.  They get bounced back and forth, being the object of conflict and discourse, rather than the priority concern with a focus on optimizing their full development.  It would seem obvious to both parties that such conflict would be detrimental for any junior, but again, the goals of these two factions are so emotional, logic is often lost.

Historically, academies have produced some of our best players.  They can provide a wonderful learning and developing opportunity.  But as in so many business formats, radical success can lend to amateur copycats. Just because a coaching program has the term “Academy” attached to the title, does not mean they will provide great coaching.  In addition, just because an academy has produced top players, does not mean they will always be the best fit for every other young player.  And finally, location can be key, just because an academy has done well in one part of the world or country, doesn’t mean it will automatically do well in another location. 

These few issues are seldom addressed by parents when thinking about sending their children to an academy.  The goal, underpinned by a strong competitive behavior, lends towards emotional decisions that tend to prevent the complete process of review and scrutiny, or for that matter, the possible outcomes.  Seems that it would be natural for any parent when trying to find the best for their children to do the research, but the idea of what is “the best” is often lost in their emotional attachment to the process, even with parents that have the best intentions.  The only question remaining…who do we hold responsible when this choice doesn’t work out, the parents for being over-enthusiastic in trying to have their children succeed, or the academies who have recognized and capitalized on this vulnerable behavior?  The answer may be found in the order in which this business model was developed, usually, with marketing, the demand is recognized, and then the action to capitalize on that demand is filled.     

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