The Bear Weighs In: June 2012

Written by: Pierre Lamarche

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***We have decided to open a monthly Bear column which will deal with specific questions and comments from our readers. If you have a question and want a straight answer, which you might not like, or which might be subjective, what you will get is a no nonsense answer not colored by personal agenda (although it will be suggested) but by years of experience in the sport. The bear can now be reached at bear@oncourt.ca***

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OTP wrote on 2012/05/27 at 1:51pm:

Having spent last night reading over the lengthy chain in response to Tony Roth’s piece for the first time, I welcome the chance to discuss the issue touched on in the editorial: the state of Ottawa junior tennis.  I’d like to comment on that, as well as on the exchange.

My perspective is as an Ottawa Tennis Parent (OTP), and is based on our experience with several different clubs in Ottawa since our child was old enough to hold a tennis racquet (including Rideau, OAC and Carleton).  My comments will focus on OAC, but I am sure the Carleton group (the only other Ottawa facility in that league, as others have pointed out) could attract some interesting comments if put under a similar microscope.  What follows is written in the spirit that in sport, criticism is important, but should be teamed with positive commentary and suggestions for improvement.

So let me say up front, first, that as Pierre Lamarche alludes to, running a tennis training facility is probably like a tight rope walk, without a net, and with the parents in the crowd screaming for blood (and waving their empty wallets). Second, I respect the general direction of Tony Roth’s “Noble” tennis philosophy.  In spite of the corniness of how it sounds and is sometimes delivered, which undoubtedly puts some people off, several core ideas are right on. To me, anyway, the most important is sportsmanship. That’s a concept which may sound outdated and may be in the eye of the beholder, but I think most people – and hopefully most parents – would agree that such things as fair play, balanced competitiveness and a mutual respect for other players, umpires, other parents etc., are worth spending some time and energy on. It could also be improved among a few players (and parents) at some OTA (and Quebec) tournaments (generally outside Ottawa) we have attended over the years.  That, of course, can make for a very unpleasant and off-putting experience too.  However, as one of the comments in the chain put it, the presence of an (even valid) core philosophy should not be a veil to obscure examining the real issue – the state of tennis training programs.

In short, training should be guided by philosophy, not the other way around.

As a result, in my view, many of the more temperate critiques of the OAC are valid.  For one thing, as several comments noted, the edicts of the Noble philosophy were seldom well explained, and even less frequently translated practically on court – for example, in providing guidance to kids on how to deal with such things as pressure, sharp play or downright cheating. That is not to say that the philosophy is worth discarding – just that it needs to be used, and to be made more operational, in a way that players can understand and identify with. Otherwise, it may seem like a bunch of hot air, especially to kids.

In terms of training, what I saw from the bleachers for several years was a competent group whose intensity and enthusiasm was not sustained over a lengthy Sept-June program. One example sticks in my mind. At an indoor Provincials at ACE one March, I was struck, in contrast, by the energy and dynamism of the on-court fitness/footwork drills of one of the kids training sessions I happened to see. It had planning, pace and focus – I would sum it up as intensity. So, coming back to Ottawa, we are constantly searching for that consistent intensity which seems to be the key to improvement (books, like “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin, make a compelling case for determination and intensity – i.e. hard, relentless and painful work focused on what you are not good at – as the keys to improvement).

We know that in Ottawa we can’t compare to the ease of access to facilities and to competitive tournaments you have in the GTA. But one option for the latter, particularly when the new national ranking system came in, seemed at the time to be to go to Montreal (only 2 hours away). However, Tennis Quebec unashamedly discriminates against OTA players and makes it virtually impossible to register for Montreal tournaments.  The OTA and Tennis Canada have taken little interest in this issue (it would be worth another discussion to properly explore and explain if anyone were listening).

Also, helpful would be to entice GTA and even more Quebec players to Ottawa for tournaments. We do have very well run and competitive tournaments in the city.  Other than the Roman Cup, the former seldom come. A few of the latter do come periodically.  This highlights the unfairness of the Quebec rules.

The head-to-head system, unfortunately, has not helped. There seems to be little incentive for GTA players to come up to play here, probably mainly due to the points incentive/disincentive trade off under HTH. For a while, when Tony Milo helpfully started frequent tournaments at Carleton, there were several GTA players in the draws. That seemed to stop immediately after HTH came in (immediately after the system went into effect, even the few top-10 Ontario players from Ottawa at the time just seemed to stop playing in their own city!)  This impact of HTH has been ignored by OTA. It could be a factor, at least, in moving Ottawa from the fringe into the mainstream of Ontario tennis.  There surely should be some points awarded for play.  The old system had serious flaws, but abandoning all incentive for mere participation, win or lose, was a mistake. OTA staff acknowledged about a year into the new system that the number of matches played by kids had fallen. I see now that we may have another system coming. I trust OTA will consult widely before any change so we can fix some of this.

In the already small Ottawa tennis community, I see kids dropping out of serious tennis for lack of options and a critical mass of players. Probably, it is a sign of the dropping off of what Tony Roth sums up as “enthusiasm” – I think he is correct that it is a critical driver. Is that the problem for junior tennis in Ottawa? That is complex, with many factors at play. It is clearly not as interesting to play the same players all the time. Also, constant grousing by parents and infighting by coaches does not foster the right atmosphere, especially if it is not accompanied by constructive commentary on how we can improve things.

There have been some good ideas out there, like junior tennis ladders run by the NCTA (National Capital Tennis Association), and travelling to Toronto tournaments as a group. However, these do not seem to have had much success at the competitive level. Maybe a meeting among parents could stimulate the discussion and get these, or even some better ideas, up and running.  For example, how about cooperation between clubs on a rotating match play system, to mix up the players from various clubs and spice up training?

If we had more players here, there would be more coaches, more options, more competitiveness and we would not be having this discussion.  Tennis is a wonderful but a very tough sport to keep improving in, as we all know – given the cost, time, need for constant challenge and the inevitable emotional roller coaster, among other things. No complaints; there are lots of sports to choose from, but those are the facts. So, the last thing a fairly small tennis community, like Ottawa, needs is to become divided into several even smaller and increasingly stubborn (and rude) camps that will not communicate or participate with each other. There is some evident history that the On Court exchange has opened up. While the occasional Rick Mercer-like rant is certainly healthy, hopefully, that history can be set aside in the interests of the players and be replaced by listening. It is a sport, after all, and they are just kids, even those teenagers.

Dear OTP,

Thank you for your rational analysis of the situation that arose following “The Noble Tennis” article in ONcourt. Without a doubt, what we [and I mean all of us, parents, coaches and public associations] should retain is “hopefully, history can be set aside in the interests of the players and be replaced by listening. It is a sport, after all, and they are just kids, even those teenagers.” Simple and very well said!

A guiding philosophy is a must in all organizations, and this applies to tennis schools as well. Teaching the proper values is a must for all programs and coaches. It often pains me when parents or coaches condone behaviors, which are contrary to accepted values. It pains me because the one that suffers is ultimately the youngster. Parents and coaches are responsible for instilling proper behaviors in their players and children. It does not mean that the child or player will not make a mistake, but what is important is to recognize the improper behavior and make the children understand how that specific behavior will affect them in the future. Teaching and learning is what coaching and mentoring is all about. The hardest part for the child [and the parents at times] is to understand that the short-term gain of the players with improper values is not worth the long-term flaw it creates. Sportsmanship is a cornerstone of any philosophy, and it is certainly part of Noble Tennis and Tony Roth.

The comments on the competitive issues are a bigger problem. The difficulty lies in finding a solution, which improves the competitive opportunities for the Ottawa area players. Ottawa is a major centre of development for tennis in this country. Its history is rich, and its contribution to the development of the sport in this country must be maximized. Its top players must be provided with proper training and competitive opportunities. If Ottawa has given us 50 NHL players over the years, including Denis Potvin, it certainly can provide us with a Davis Cup player [Top ATP player, Jessie Levine from Ottawa, who plays for the US is an example of the talent available] . Who should be responsible for insuring the process, by which issues, such as a lack of proper competitive opportunities are resolved?

The top Under 16 boys and girls from Ottawa have to drive over 14 hours to play the Under 16 Provincial Championships in Windsor. That is a major impediment and cost to the Ottawa tennis community. When it comes to tennis, Ottawa is isolated geographically and politically. Ottawa is a member of the Ontario Tennis Association, but it requires its tennis families a ten-hour journey to compete [sometimes for one or two match] in the Toronto area. Ottawa players are affected by the time and cost demands that affect competition. The resistance from the Tennis Quebec to accept top Ottawa players in their tournaments is unfair to them but almost impossible to overturn, as Tennis Quebec lacks in proper competitive opportunities for their own players. As a result, Tennis Quebec is under heavy pressure from Quebec parents to restrict entry to tournaments for outside of the province players. A similar short sighted policy has recently been instituted by the Ontario Tennis Association as it relates to non-Ontario players in Selection events. The exclusion of players from competitive situations based on their “home” province excludes players that could make the tournaments better. Why is this short sighted? Simply, because you are watering down the level of competition in the name of fairness… It is an erroneous philosophy: let’s do what is right for the weaker players at the detriment of the ones that are the best. The answer lies in finding people with the foresight, insight, intellectual ability to arrive to a practical solution and mandate the provincial associations to work together to grow the opportunities for all competitive players. These people should probably be able to figure out a philosophy and a vision that would lead to a stimulating ranking system supported by a coherent integrated competitive infrastructure.

The provinces can mandate Tennis Canada to have a proper ranking and competitive system, but they have not, and as a result, Tennis Canada designed and imposed a system that is flawed and contrary to proper player development principles. The OTA and Tennis Quebec [and all other provinces] are not responsible for the design of the improper ranking system and the non-existent competitive philosophy, but they are responsible for accepting it. Well-meaning volunteers of the executive of Provincial Associations meet on an irregular basis under the auspices of “The Council of the Provinces”, voice their complaints and then ratify Tennis Canada’s development recommendations [unfortunately, these well-meaning volunteers just do not have the time, experience and knowledge to decipher the Tennis Canada recommendations]. They are pawns reacting to the system imposed on them, when really they are the stakeholders that should dictate the direction.

Another major component of proper player development is the training programs available to them and the coaches that operate them. Tennis Canada has made giant inroads in the area of coaching development. It now needs to support this coaching development with better guidance in the actual application of yearly training plans for groups. These plans must be scientifically based, parallel to long-term athlete development principles, integrated in a cohesive manner for all components [physical, mental, technical and tactical] and progressive from year to year. But first and foremost, a proper competitive philosophy and schedule supported by a stimulating ranking system is the key to domestic growth. The reality of the Canadian situation is that the major constraints we face [lack of facilities, tournaments, distance and costs] need to be addressed before being able to develop annual training plans which respect competitive priorities [peaking].

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