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.
Too Much is Too Much
By Rod Heckelman
Watching Osaka lose in the Olympics brought to the forefront the pressure modern athletes are under. She earlier pulled out of Wimbledon and withdrew from the French Open, but this is not the first time we have seen players wither under the pressure of being an athlete/celebrity. So, let’s start with that description. It’s time we recognize that athletes these days are also celebrities, or more accurately, entertainers. This is why they make the big bucks. They can draw an audience, and if you can draw an audience, you can draw advertisers, and if you can draw advertisers, you can draw big money.
The obvious next step in such a sequence has to be marketing. It’s fair to say, the common fan or spectator has no idea the amount of work needed by the athlete in marketing. It’s time-consuming and mostly performed outside their skillsets.
During any scheduling, rehearsing, or shooting, there is a tremendous amount of energy and focus put on the athlete. They are being asked to perform, but also being put in the focus of everyone’s attention. It all becomes about building an image and the impact that created image will have on the world of consumers. Although often not shown or reflected during that process, this process often falls on the shoulders of younger people. Suddenly they are being exposed to responsibilities that are far more than just winning or losing a match…they are now, via extension, literally playing for a company or product. This someone else could also include sponsors, the fans, and even their extended coaching teams. Which brings us back to the Olympics. Tennis players often feel greater stress and anxiety when they are representing their countries, especially the younger players. All the hype, the pageantry, and the attention from the press is maximized at these games as they compete with other athletes from all sports. Again, a lot of pressure.
Part of the problem is that this industry does not properly recognize the role these players are taking on. Like any celebrity, there is pressure to stay on top and in the press 24/7, but unlike most celebrities, they also must compete in a sport to maintain their ranking. Here is where it gets sticky. Like any athlete in any sport, there is always a need to stay hungry, or often put as chasing the rabbit or after the carrot, to help keep them motivated. Once an athlete wins an event, he is happy for a while, but soon realizes the next week is on him/her and will need to go back into battle to win. That requires a constant hunger and desire that can never, nor should ever be satisfied. But if you put a few million in their pockets and add a substantial fan base, and that carrot or rabbit may not seem so tasty. You add the new dynamic of social media, and you have the makings of a very emotionally complex world that can be a real circus for any athlete.
At that moment there has to be inner conflict. All those years of practice and preparation to achieve very definable goals and now those goals are blurred. On top of that, those goals are questioned and challenged by the family, coaches, and the press. That combination must be stressful and, to some degree, threatening. Especially when so many fans and sports enthusiasts add their opinion about how an athlete is supposed to handle the press and their obligation to the press, media, and the sport itself.
Is there an answer for this stressful situation? Probably not one that could fit all the variations that enter this new sporting world. But it should be noted, few other sports, especially team sports, have the athletes responding to the media right after they play, especially if they lose. In most sports, the losing team simply exits and maybe the coach must deliver the closing epilog. But tennis is unique, much like the Olympics, the winner and runner-up(s), are part of the closing ceremony, and although a very sportsman-like finish, it is awkward and hard to swallow if you just got off the court. It could easily be proposed, if an athlete is going to make that kind of money, the task of responding to the press is part of the package. The only consideration that needs to be questioned is the new impact of social media, the increase in sponsorship and advertising, and the ramifications of never really having time off.
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