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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.

COACHING INTO THE SUNSET

Make those closing years, months, weeks, or moments, be your best and most memorable,
not for just you, but also for your students.

By Rod Heckelman

You’ve been on the teaching court for many years and hope to still be on that court for as long as possible.  In many ways, you are at the peak of your career when it comes to insight and experience.  Your analytical skills and ability to find cause and effect have never been better.  So, it’s only logical that you think of yourself as being very well-versed in your profession, and as a result, both desire and deserve to work for many more years to come.  But Old Man Time has something to say about that plan.  Challenges will emerge and need to be addressed, so how will you take on this task of extending your career, or maybe equally important, how will you continue to improve and stay relevant in your passion for coaching?  It’s not too late to make plans and discover a pathway that will make that goal obtainable. 

You will want to address these three fundamental areas of coaching.  First, your physical condition, second, your emotional motivation, and third, maybe most importantly, your mental approach to teaching or coaching.

 

Physically, one of the most common mistakes is believing you should be able to continue with your level of play, and in turn, your ability to hit or drill with strong players.  Every coach wants and tries to stay fit so they can continue to hit a good ball and cover the court.  But tennis, especially modern tennis, can be very taxing on the body. You may need to move on.  Accept the fact that you will need to adjust. 

 

This does not mean sacrificing the quality of your coaching, it just means you need to add a few new tricks to your trade.  For many, having physical setbacks or limitations is new and it can be difficult to accept and adjust.  As an example, you’ve developed shoulder or elbow issues, or for that matter, any joint issues.  Rehab is a good answer, but in the meantime, consider the aid of a ball machine, or possibly group lessons where the players can hit with each other. 

 

This is especially true when working with younger top players.  You may have been able to rally or drill with these players in the past but being able to pull that off and comfortably evaluate their game at the same time, can be a challenge and unproductive.  Standing side-by-side with them by virtue of a ball machine or compatible hitter is much better for you and probably for them.  There are many coaches that work with top players and never hit a ball, so the challenge for some is making that transition from being the person on the other side of the net to that coach that works side-by-side with their players.

Emotionally, although stress might be classified as another physical challenge, it’s another issue altogether.  Most pros go into a lesson with ample energy needed to help process their messaging, gear up for motivating a student, and create an atmosphere of enthusiasm. These assets help develop a more receptive student. They are key to a pathway leading to better learning and your students’ new ideas and accepting change. For many coaches, energizing these motivating techniques can be very taxing.  For some senior coaches, this can be more exhaustive than the physical requirements of a lesson.  Where you might have had this ability years earlier to teach long hours while maintaining a high energy level, you may now have to cut down the time spent on the court, especially if you have very demanding students.  

Know your limits so that you don’t go on the court flat and without the vigor needed to create a quality lesson.  When it comes to your emotional input and enthusiasm, you can’t fake it…you’re either all in or not.

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Mentally, your approach to coaching is the most important and maybe, the most challenging.  Just like a competitive match, staying focused and on task for the entire time on the court is always a challenge.  For senior coaches, this challenge is magnified by the variety of students, their level of play and their interest in learning.  Most coaches have few issues staying focused when their students are receptive and highly motivated.  So, the key question is, as you move on in years, will you be able to stay productive when you have a more challenging student?  It’s common, due to several circumstances, for senior coaches to favor the more motivated students, or more accurately, the easier lesson.  Cherry picking students might seem like an easy solution to making your time on the court less demanding, but it’s a cop out as a professional coach.  It is your job to find a way, a method and teaching plan that will work with any student.  After all, experience is what you bring to the court, and working with the more challenging students is where you can shine and contribute to the growth of the game. 

The other challenge for senior coaches is the tendency to retreat to their past successes. Understandably, every coach wants to believe that they are still relevant, but all the prior success of the past does not always result in automatic adulation from new students.  Taking too much time to enlighten new students about your prior successes as either a coach or player, is not needed, and is often seen as a waste of time by some new students.  They are not there to hear your war stories about match play or prior star students.  When it comes to being relevant, it is symbiotic, both the coach and the student have a common and equal need for each other.  

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A student’s current need is not enhanced by your recollections of the past, but by the experience and knowledge you bring to the court that day.

Always remember, you are not winding down your career.  That very thought can easily translate into slowing down or cutting back on your interest and efforts.  Try to take on this approach instead…just like any great performer, make those closing years, months, weeks, or moments, be your best and most memorable, not for just you, but also for your students.  After all, you may be leaving the teaching world someday down the road, but that road will still go on filled with your memories and legacy.

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