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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WAS THE FAILURE OF CLUB LADDERS AN EARLY MESSAGE?
 

By Rod Heckelman

Many, many years ago, almost every tennis club had a ladder.  Sometimes it was just one large group that hosted all levels of players, and sometimes it was broken up in several levels.  Even before rating and leagues came along, the popularity of ladders began to fade, not at every club, but most. Of course, the increase in more local tournaments added to their slow fade and popularity. These tournaments provided a new venue of competition that attracted a much larger array of opponents. Club ladders were just not privy to adding many new players and as a result, could not compete.  But the fact is, the slow death of ladders was a precursor and early warning that certain competitive venues were destined to become extinct.  Unknowingly at the time, they had a built-in time bomb…limits that were not recognized.  Who knew that certain types of competition would have a ceiling that would eventually put a halt to the attraction and lure that was so prevalent in the early stages of the program?  With so much initial enthusiasm, we were blinded to the concept of failure by attrition due to the inability to sustain interest.

 

Much like water rushing into an open hole…at first the water rushed around and there was plenty of activity, but after a while, the water would settle, and a calm took over.  Ladders experience that same phenomenon.  After a period of time, those who were at the top, stayed at the top and most of their matches after a while, became nothing more than an act of repeatedly defending a player’s position.  Even with rules put in place to require challengers to play down once before playing back up, the fact remained, numero uno had no place to go.  High school and college teams that had established ladders to help determine their lineups against the opposition, found that having team members wear each other down with challenge after challenge, realized that these programs became more of a deterrent to the team as a whole, than the benefits of having in-house competition.

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So it is very possible that the demise of ladders at most clubs, was a precursor to the fact that too much redundant competition may not serve as an ongoing stimulus to learning.  League play found that out very quickly when they realized that the reward of winning a district or county was not enough.  They quickly elevated playoffs to include first the sections and then on to a national championship.  Even with that expansion, after a while, players with set ratings got tired of pounding the head against an immovable object… also called a better player.  And, it went in the other direction, just like ladders, the better players got tired of defending their ratings and their prior success against what they perceived as only want-to-be competition.  Again, much like that person at the top of the ladder, a win was expected, and a loss was a real bummer. 

 

The lesson of ladders is still in a learning mode, but it seems to become more clearer every day…if all the focus is on competition and winning, using that as a measurement of your level of play seems to have a finite future in design.  Whereas, if the focus is on improvement, or the expansion of one’s game, that seems to provide a much longing lasting motivation.  To optimize one’s performance and chase away that ugly adjective “potential,” is a goal that usually has no end in sight.  Without an ending, it’s in our tennis blood to continue to work on our game. 

 

The race to the top has another bitter taste of reality.  It’s fair to say, everyone, at every level is facing old man time.  That brings in an entire new equation that simple math continues to support.  How many players have we seen become despondent, even at the pro level, because they realize they are no longer in the hunt?  Happens too often to the recreational player, and too often results in players leaving the game…the drug has worn off, a quick competitive fix is no longer the answer.  But there is another answer.

 

First, and most logically, players should work towards improving the diversification of their game, instead of always seeking out vertical improvement.  Expand the way you play…more spin, new shots, different tactics, all areas that may not require more physical subsidy.  Second, look at the data you have available to you these days.  Use that data, or video to see yourself and your game in a new light.  There are dozens of ways to enjoy new styles of playing and all of which will reintroduce you to the world of practice…not just simple and boring practice, but constructive drills and exercises that can help you focus on your new goals.

 

For the many tennis clubs, look at changing your programming.  Try seasonal ladders that last for a few months then have an ending date with some reward for both who finished at the top and also who played the most.  Split your programs up when organizing them to encourage a mix of players from different levels, gender, and ages.  Use short term competition, like one weekend event, or challenge courts with a theme like King of the Mountain.  Especially these days, with so many social challenges, find new ways to provide quick drop-in sessions that satisfy the need for some competition and a great workout.  There’re even ways with the use of data to reward improvement through achieved better statistics. 

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If I can take a paragraph here to reference my personal work, the main reason I wrote “Playing Into the Sunset,” a book for seniors that would help find new ways of improving play once reaching senior statis (I’ll let you define that), and also my other book “Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Play Tennis,” a book that provides, per the title, an arsenal of different drills and methods of competing under the format of practice. Anyone who loves this sport, can find this new approach of practicing a wonderful way to feed that emotion.

 

So, since it seems like a good idea to dust off the ladder board that has been fixated in the lobby for so many years, take it off the wall, and after repainting over that area that no longer matches the color of the rest of the room, replace it with a weekly announcement bulletin of a new fun practice drill that could help your tennis members find this new enjoyable tennis world that focuses on improvement through practice.  Watch your pros teach more lessons and your court time fill up.  Before you know it, people will be complaining about not getting enough court time…that should be music to our ears…and guess, actually grow and sustain our sport much longer.

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