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The Bear Weighs In: August 2012

Written by: Pierre ‘The Bear’ 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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Bill wrote on 2012/07/31 at 10:30pm:

Pierre, my thoughts are some players will make it and some won’t. Anytime you invest in players in any sport for that matter, whether it’s in the private sector or National Centre, there are going to be some hits and misses.

Let’s take Pro Hockey for example, 16 goalies were picked before Ryan Miller in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. 52 teams passed on Nicolas Lidstrom in the 1989 draft. Mark Messier was passed on 47 times before he was drafted. By the same token, players like Patrik Stefan, Pavel Brendl and Alex Daigle were all top picks in NHL Entry Drafts. Should all these GM’s who made these hits or misses be held accountable? Fired? How can so many GM’s be wrong, aren’t they all experts to some degree??

The fact is there are always going to be a few players who are funded and make it to the next level. For every one that is funded there will be a handful that are not funded and don’t make it. That’s the simple reality of investing in players in any sport. It’s a gamble. Whether they are 5, 14 or 18 years old, it’s still a crap shoot. A calculated one, to say the least, but still a gamble. Sometimes it can be a player with all the tools but just some bad luck, or sometimes that player loses interest or decides to pursue academics etc.

Let’s say for example, Tennis Canada gave that $80,000 a year to a private sector academy for a specific player or two. Who is to say that the same player would make it in the private sector? I think we can agree there are no guarantees, and that for every 10 players that would be invested in the private sector maybe 1-2 would even make it to the top 100. Wouldn’t that be the same odds as a National Center?

Dear Bill,

Thank you for your response to Pierre, which he liked on many levels due to the non-personal nature of it and because it allows him to deal specifically with issues which, could make the whole player development process better in Canada. I put together the following synopsis of our discussions re: your letter and I hope you can see our side to the story: more kids, lower cost, better synergy between the private sector and Tennis Canada.

You state that pro scouts, managers and experts cannot predict accurately how a young adult of 18 years old in hockey will perform at the next level. This relates to the various hockey prospects, who, as you mentioned [how about Dick Wickeneiser… I am a Canadian fan], had been overlooked or overrated.

I agree with you, it is very difficult in hockey to project how an eighteen year old will perform when he is 21. Where there is a difference with the present Tennis Canada system is that in hockey if you are not drafted high, you can still continue your development in a proper competitive structure [junior hockey or U.S. college hockey] while being subsidised. In the space of three years, a lot can happen, and someone’s mistaken perception of your potential can be overturned. In tennis we do not have that competitive safety net, like junior hockey which you can access between the ages of 18-21. So players wanting to access Tennis Canada funding must be picked at 18 and have certain performances. The question which you have provided the answer to is that is it possible that we are missing out on the Millers and Messiers who develop later?

If we have problems with experts picking 18 year olds, what do you think the chances are to be right when you pick a 14 year-old or even worse an 11 year-old? Those that are picked in tennis receive training subsidies with Tennis Canada coaches and access the international touring opportunities. Those that do not get selected feel as if they are somewhat impotent and certainly will have difficulties reaching their potential, which as you have pointed out, could come later. For example, Raonic and Nestor might not have been selected as prospects when they were young, as they were gangly, clumsy and certainly, not top of their class in the fitness tests administered for talent identification. In Canada, the competitive structure is very weak for players which are not selected for international tours. So what are the opportunities for them to improve and show their future potential? The selection of a few becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as only a few have any chances to access international results used for selection. Would it not be nice if the Tennis Canada coaches could help more athletes and their coaches, at least until they are 14, by visiting the clubs, regrouping kids and coaches from the area and creating a team atmosphere? Instead of having a kid travel from Oakville two or three times a week to train with a Tennis Canada coach at York [think of the logistics and cost of that] and then train with his private coach at his local club, why not regroup all the kids and coaches three times a year in a week-long camp, where everyone works together on developing the plan for the player. The personal coach is responsible for implementing it and gets subsidised for it, and the national coach supervises, visits the club and looks at the other kids. All this can be done at a lower cost, with better results and FULL cooperation between the private and public sector. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Bill, do not get me wrong. I believe that Tennis Canada is essential to the equation. I only suggest a different alternative:

1. A low-cost [to the player] summer and holiday entry level professional schedule for players not identified by their profile and performance at the age of 16. 12 weeks of summer events coupled with four weeks of winter [holiday events] would provide a low-cost opportunity for US college players and top Canadian junior players the opportunity to compete and show their potential and their performances. Tennis Canada, as they do with all transition players, can provide TC coaches or outside coaches [as for Milos] to those players that have been selected or suddenly show the promise to reach higher levels. This competitive philosophy is the backbone of Spanish tennis, not a national training center. In fact, if you want to regroup these “Transition” players for training, you are better off doing it in Spain or Florida, where the weather and training partners are more conducive to success. The cost of doing it this way would greatly reduce the cost of the present system which results in a lot of money being spent for a few players with a resulting low ratio of success. Also the possibility of missing late bloomers is magnified.

2. Regroupings for U12 to U16 players should be done on a periodic basis with cooperation between the private coach and the Tennis Canada coach. It is simple to establish if the environment is correct. A 14 year-old champion probably has 6-8 older players which are better than him in a club setting. The only thing he needs is support from Tennis Canada to make sure his coach knows what is needed and that he receives financial assistance for his work. The kid gets to work in his club with an approved coach, in a good training environment, while living at home. What happens if the kid does not have that option where he lives? Easy, Tennis Canada can place him somewhere where the environment will be right while supporting him financially. Is it not better to find a solution for the one player rather than displacing a whole bunch of players, weakening club programs, creating animosity with the private coaches and most importantly undermining the basic coach/player relationship? Again, this process would help greatly in reducing the costs, reaching more people and creating unity between the clubs, academies and Tennis Canada. Is this not what we want?

3. Regroupings for the U12 players should be open-ended so that all children can dream of achieving their goals. What this means is that again, a system must be designed where the financial benefits of Tennis Canada can be accessed regardless of where you live. Should a family from London or Ottawa have to spend six weekends a year of travel and hotels for their kid to attend a regrouping, or could it be done in a different manner? Less regroupings, longer in length with more cooperation between private and public coaches. Cost-efficient, cooperation, the player wins.

So Bill, let’s make sure we understand each other. I agree with you that future performance is hard to predict, and that there will always be a cost associated with failure, but I am suggesting we can expand our talent identification net at a lower cost with a greater harmonious relationship between Tennis Canada and the private sector. You must agree that this is what would be best for Canadian tennis and Canadian tennis players?

Thanks for your questions.

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