Tuesday, 10 December 2013

What American tennis failure can teach all of us

Driven out of New Zealand tennis by a “high performance” strategy adopted by tennis bureaucrats that was anything but, former Wimbledon finalist Chris Lewis is now appalled that the strategy of encouraging mediocrity is not only still in place, but being doubled down.

The National body presents its blueprint to associations this week, with a targeted junior athlete programme focusing on elite players aged between 12 to 18 the focus.
The new strategy is based on similar programmes run by Tennis Canada, Australia the British LTA and the US college system.
But 1983 Wimbledon finalist Chris Lewis says the Australian, British and US systems have failed.
"The only value I can see in Tennis New Zealand taking a closer
        look at these programmes is to pay careful attention to what's
        been done and do the exact opposite. Instead, they're copying it."

Lewis says what worries him is that a move to a more centralised, regimented and bureaucratic approach to player development won't work.

Those programmes are all failing, he says. Earlier this year he wrote at length about the reasons for this failure, just after Americans had discovered that for the first time in 101 years not one of their countrymen had managed to reach the third round of the men’s singles at Wimbledon. Chris, now coaching in the States, attributed the “the appalling 15+ year decline in US tennis since the days of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang” most fundamentally to

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.

The bureaucracy, in short, tries to exclude the entrepreneurial coaches, and change the game of the unique player.

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 moulded 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… 
    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.

There are lessons there for more than just tennis. Lessons about bureaucracy, about those embraced by it, and about those who are excluded—and why.

Read Chris’s piece here: How to Develop New American Tennis Stars [and enjoy the many intelligent comments at tfrom Chris’s colleagues].

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