Expert Advice: Masterminds of Tennis
Originally published on: 11/07/13 00:00
What drew you to coaching? I liked all sports and I played lots of different sports. I was a fair tennis player but realised I wasn’t going to be top 200 or 300 in the world so it was sort of a career choice. I enjoyed working with people and I enjoyed the rapport and it grew from there really. I became the assistant coach at The All England Club at the age of 18 and now I’m the head coach, which is my dream job.
Do you believe better players make better coaches? No, not necessarily. I think you need to have played sport to a certain level and you need to have been a competitor because you need to understand how players react when they’re competing – how they might be trying to do the right thing but because they’re nervous or they’re this or they’re that it’s not happening.
We last featured the Wimbledon Junior Tennis Initiative three years ago. Can you give us an update on how it’s going? We’re doing really well at Wimbledon. The kids on the programme have to go to school in Merton and Wandsworth and can’t have played tennis before. We’ve had two internationals [come through], we’ve had numerous nationally ranked players, which we still have, we’ve a girl at college in America playing on a scholarship and a lot of coaches on the programme are now from the programme that started with us 10 or 11 years ago. So just from a small area and kids who’d never played we’ve actually managed to do unbelievably well.
Is participation the biggest challenge facing British tennis? Yes. The more kids you have playing the more you have to choose from. We’re not less talented but if we’ve only got a small pool of kids then there’s less selection at the top end. Obviously we don’t know who is going to be the best player but we know if we start the kids off in the right way and we teach them how to work hard there’s a lot more chance you are going to have kids reaching every level of the game.
How can we prevent juniors, particularly girls, dropping out of the sport around 14 and 15 years of age? If I knew the answer to that I think I would be working for every government in the world. I think you've got to make it really fun, you've got to try and keep lots of girls together and you’ve also got to give them routes where they can maybe move through [juniors] to playing for the ladies team, starting their coaching badges, something that keeps them going. We’ve got female coaches at Wimbledon so [the kids] can see females still playing sport in their 20s, 30s and 40s. It’s really important that they have good role models. I mean Heather [Watson] and Laura [Robson], how fantastic are they? They’re nice girls, athletic girls, trendy girls, cool girls, it’s like a dream for British sport.
What do you look for when you’re spotting talent in youngsters? It isn’t that difficult because one kid will come along and they jump 10 feet into the air and land as soft as anything, or they’ve just got great agility, or the way they move their feet. Sometimes in one school you will have three or four kids who are fantastic and then in another you might only have one or two.
At what age should kids start playing in competitions? It’s interesting. When you are in the schools you could be doing something very technical and good fun and they like it but when you suggest a race they all go, ‘Yeah come on!’ So I don’t think they’re particularly scared of competition. It’s in kids. The question is how we handle the competition. Do we put them in when they’re ready, how is the event run? How the parents behave is another big question. But if you get all the things right I think it’s good.
Any advice for parents of promising athletes? Be supportive but neutral. Don’t get over excited. Be humble, keep your kid working hard and the moment you start to try and push doors open for your kid then you probably need to have a look because good kids will make things happen for themselves and the kids will find their level. You’ve just got to be supportive and offer encouragement and be proud that your kids are playing while others want to watch TV. That’s a win in itself.
Dan specialises in youth sport and is responsible for delivering the Wimbledon Junior Tennis Initiative – a community initiative run by The All England Club. Since its inception in 2001, Dan and his team have visited over 450 schools and given more than 100,000 kids their first experience of tennis. He is also a sports ambassador for HSBC.