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Wayne Bryan asks Chris Lewis: “How to develop new American tennis stars”

“Questions swirl about the way the nonprofit U.S.T.A. spends money. Its budget comes almost entirely from the $200 million in revenue from the United States Open, which begins Monday. The U.S.T.A. spends 15 percent of its money on player development and 70 percent on community tennis development, said Gordon Smith, its chief operating officer… Patrick McEnroe suggested that it would probably take 15 to 20 years to see what the new U.S.T.A. initiatives produce.”

Written by: Wayne Bryan

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***Please note: This is a copy of a letter sent by Wayne Bryan, father and coach of the Bryan twins, who lead the doubles world ranking. He is also a very successful coach and speaker. It is a must read for anyone who really cares about the direction of the sport. He has no other agenda than to say what he has experienced in years in the field. He is not worried about backlash, as are the majority of coaches, parents and players. If you truly care about Canadian tennis, please read as much of what is brought forward as it should give us cause for reflection, unless we are worried about our jobs.***

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American tennis lost its dominance in the world, and it is in a deep crisis. Here is the excerpt from the article “Developing Top Talent or Hindering Process?” which was published in The New York Times. August, 25, 2012:

“Questions swirl about the way the nonprofit U.S.T.A. spends money. Its budget comes almost entirely from the $200 million in revenue from the United States Open, which begins Monday. The U.S.T.A. spends 15 percent of its money on player development and 70 percent on community tennis development, said Gordon Smith, its chief operating officer… Patrick McEnroe suggested that it would probably take 15 to 20 years to see what the new U.S.T.A. initiatives produce.”

I asked Chris Lewis, a tennis coach of America’s strongest junior tennis players, to share his thoughts about the issue.

Chris, if you were putting in place a national development program, and you had twenty million dollars plus available to you, how would you spend it?

Considering that no American reached the third round of the men’s singles at Wimbledon for the first time in 101 years, this is a question that needs answering, and fast.

Many believe that the appalling 15+ year decline in US tennis since the days of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang is occurring because the sport no longer attracts the nation’s most talented athletes. Others believe that continued American dominance is unrealistic due to tennis’ globalization in the past few decades. Some point to a lack of both modern coaching methods and competent coaches, or a lack of clay courts, or an obsolete “American” style of playing, or that the USTA isn’t doing enough to help players – the list is as varied as it is long. Every passionate tennis fan has strong opinions regarding the current swamp that US tennis is mired in, including me.

I’d like to address this issue at its most fundamental level; namely, the framework upon which national development systems are built.

Let’s examine the typical national model. The hallmarks of all such bureaucracies include: a top-down approach, centralization and conformity. A person (or committee) at the top determines how things are going to be done, and then everybody in the organization must conform to his decisions. Inevitably, the director of the national coaching program determines that young tennis players nation-wide must develop a certain style of playing, a blueprint is drawn up, and, in fear of losing their jobs, all of the coaches within the organization “agree” that players should play the way the director wants.

Aside from the fact that recruitment of the most talented young players in the country invariably involves severing an existing and successful coach/player relationship, this regimented approach neglects to consider that every player is an individual with particular physical and mental attributes and a unique personality. When you attempt to coach identical strokes to all the top tennis talent in a country, you deprive those players of the opportunity to learn to counteract a variety of styles. In the main, players are practicing with and competing against mirror-images of themselves — never learning to deal with the unfamiliar. By adopting uniformity, you preclude the possibility of an exceptionally talented youngster developing his or her own style, based on his or her own unique physical attributes and tendencies, and in harmony with his or her own unique personality.

Would John McEnroe have been a champion if, as a 12 year old, a Borg-like game had been imposed on him? Would it have suited his temperament to be molded into a patient, heavy-hitting baseliner?

When you nationalize a particular playing style, you exclude the possibilities of innovation and creativity. By necessity, uniformity only looks backwards. It usually takes the current top player in the world as the model, and then an attempt is made to produce clones of that player, thereby excluding the possibility of the future development of playing styles as unique and radical as Connor’s, Borg’s, McEnroe’s, Lendl’s, Becker’s and Agassi’s were in the days when national programs didn’t exist.

Would Pete Sampras have been allowed to switch to a one-handed backhand so late in his junior career? Development of unique individual tendencies cannot be planned or tracked, and is not related to previous statistical success. Because of the personal element, a national body is ill-equipped to produce champions, who, invariably, do not conform to the average of the points on a graph. Sampras’ late alteration was a bad idea in general, but a fantastic idea for him. A private coach adept in nurturing the personal traits of each player could help make such a decision, a national body could not.

A national body is not only in direct opposition to private coaching in philosophy and results, it is in direct competition to it in the real world, meaning the two options cannot co-exist peacefully. By establishing a national, centralized program, you quickly alienate the private coaching community when their best players are enticed away. This leads to an unhealthy ‘”us” versus “them” mentality, with the national organization being increasingly criticized as the nationalization of player development further expands. A further decline in playing standards accompanies this expansion as private coaches lose more of their players, and become increasingly hostile towards the organization that is meant to act in their interests, not contrary to them.

Such a bureaucracy, once established, will always expand, and always use their power to regulate, not persuade. Typically, they follow a pattern like this:

Someone within the organization decides that one reason why the country isn’t producing players is because the national program is inheriting players who have already been “ruined” by incompetent coaches. Their answer, then, is to grab the players when they are even younger (more expansion). Or, a clipboard-holder in the organization then decides that every 10-and-under player in the country should conform to his desire to see them playing with shorter racquets and pressureless balls (more regulation). The consequences of this dictatorial approach are devastating to player development.

Through further expansion, you deny coaches whose players have been enticed away any chance of actualizing their players’ potential. Consider the consequences when all the private coaches and their varied approaches to player production are deprived of the opportunity to develop their players, instead forced to watch them sacrificed to a homogenous program that demands uniformity at the expense of creativity and variety.

Would American tennis have been better off if Nick Bolletieri, Wayne Bryan, Robert Lansdorp, Gloria Connors, and every other coach who contributed to the development of a top player had lost their best students to a national program?

Think of all the hours each of those coaches spent planning and managing the details of what’s involved in producing a champion. This planning process happens largely off the court, in deciding the best course of action for each student as an individual.

Does the same amount of thought go into each of a national coaching program’s coach/player relationships, where, in many cases, the relationship with a coach is an involuntary one?

Through further regulation, by mandating that every 10 and under player be banned from competing with racquets and balls that a great majority of coaches think are in the best interests of a young player’s development, you preclude those coaches from acting on their own conclusions, which draw upon decades of practical observation and experience. At the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, all that expertise is rendered useless. Would Martina Hingis have won the French Open Juniors (18 & Under) as a twelve-year-old if she’d been forced to play with a toy racquet and balls until she was 11? I doubt it. What do you think?

At this stage, things usually degenerate to such an extent that it becomes obvious national programs are synonymous with failure. When it comes to producing champion individuals, centralization, standardization, uniformity, rigidity and regulation do not work.

What, then, is the antidote?

There are three essential components that need to be in place when it comes to producing champions.

The first is that the player needs to have a certain amount of physical talent and mental toughness to one day be internationally competitive.

The second is that there must be in place an environment that is conducive to ensuring that talented, tough players are given the best opportunity to allow their talent to reach its ceiling of potential.

The third component is player choice; i.e., whether the player chooses to actualize his or her potential by doing justice to both his talent and the environment that gives him the opportunity to maximize it.

When it comes to development programs, what we are really talking about is creating an environment within which gifted players have the best opportunity to flourish. When identifying these environments, the evidence consistently points to a committed, passionate coach teaching, guiding and mentoring a gifted player to a successful pro career.

How, then, do we best ensure that such relationships are given the best opportunity to thrive in the future?

First, it’s imperative to understand that tennis is a highly individualistic sport. Aside from a shared ability to win, the only thing that many of the great champions had in common was that they had virtually nothing in common. Nothing better illustrates this fact than the contrasting styles and personalities of some of the game’s great rivalries, like McEnroe and Borg, Evert and Navratilova, Sampras and Agassi, and Federer and Nadal.

Incidentally, it’s a useful exercise to look at who the primary coaching influences were in the development of these players (John McEnroe – Tony Palafox and Harry Hopman, Chris Evert – her father, Martina Navratilova – Billie Jean King and I also understand that Tony Roche had an influence, Pete Sampras – Peter Fischer, Andre Agassi – his father and Nick Bollettieri, Roger Federer – Peter Carter, Rafael Nadal – Toni Nadal).

Second, like players, coaches also have their own unique methods and personalities. The best ones are independent thinkers who wouldn’t survive for a second in a regimented environment, where they would be expected to ignore their own knowledge and conform to the dictates of a “one size fits all” approach.

Can you imagine Wayne Bryan, Nick Bollettieri and Toni Nadal working within the confines of a stifling bureaucracy?

With such a diverse range of players and coaches out there, it’s essential that players and their parents are free to determine for themselves who is the best coach. Any wider program or system must take this into account . . .

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