November/December 2016 -- In January of 2015, I wrote an article that appeared in Tennis Industry magazine titled “50 and Fired.” The article chronicled the travails of being fired from a job I had held for more than 21 years. Some of the territory covered was purely cathartic, but the bulk of the article attempted to do what I have tried to do my whole life, which is to teach others what I have learned.
There were bits and pieces about handling the heartache of losing one’s job, how one can take a philosophical approach to what an employer can actually take from you, and some very practical advice about how to financially prepare for a worst-case scenario. I felt, however, that a follow-up article might offer a bit more insight into how a career tennis professional can arrive at some not-so-healthy attitudes about how his industry actually works.
Let’s start with what my professional moniker has looked like for most of my life. I have been what might be called a full-service, blue-collar pro most of the way. That is to say, I have spent most of my career taking care of my members, running tournaments or member events, and helping to raise the next generation of young tennis players. In most instances I have been in a position of leadership at the clubs where I have worked. I believe this to be representative of many of the tennis professionals in our industry. I have always been proud of how conscientiously I worked and that I was willing to stay at work as long as it took to get the job done.
As a young professional, I was fortunate to land a job with an education allowance and a general manager who encouraged me to continue to fine tune my craft. I dutifully attended as many conferences and education seminars as the schedule would allow. One of the things I discovered was that many of the speakers seemed to be on the “clinicians circuit” or speaking at most of the medium to large events. And many of these speakers were “working” at some very impressive places.
This is where my otherwise non-judgmental attitude began to go astray. I reasoned that if these pros were really as good as they thought themselves to be, they would be spending more time at their facility taking care of their membership. How could they have the audacity to speak to a group of go-getters whose programs were in some cases better than theirs. The reality of this mindset was that I was envious of the respect they were getting for having the courage to get up in front of their peers and share what they had learned. At the time however, I was too emotionally immature to understand that about myself. I reasoned that if they were not doing it like me, they were not doing it the right way.
For more years than I care to admit, I attended many of these conferences but rarely learned as much as I could have, except on the occasion when I would categorize one the speakers as a good guy, you know, like me. It never occurred to me that these hard-working professionals were doing the same thing for our industry that I was doing for my club, teaching what they had learned. My attitude from those days is embarrassing to even think about now. Thankfully, I was at least intuitive enough to not speak those thoughts publicly.
Many years later I have righted the ship and no longer look scornfully at those professionals who are more driven than I am or maybe are just driven differently than I am. I regret not learning as much as I should have, because I was fearful to ask questions about things I thought I should have already known. And so, rather than soaking up as much as I could, I missed out on some good conversations with some of the best minds in our business.
The good news is if you are an educator, whether it is tennis or some other discipline, you can keep on learning and keep on pushing your career forward. You just have to be willing to open your mind to the information being packaged differently than you expect or prefer. As tennis professionals, we are a cocky breed, and if you are waiting for the information to come from a once-in-a-lifetime humble source type like John Wooden, you may miss out on some really good stuff.
About three or four years ago the facility where I worked hosted one of the USTA’s stops for the 12s Zonals. The coaches that show up for these events are typically a great group of pros who are fun to be around and are good at what they do.
The first year we hosted the event I met a fellow USPTA Pro named Darryl Lewis from Winston-Salem. Because of his easygoing way with the kids, I liked him right away. I had known of Darryl by reputation, since he had spent quite a few years in Georgia, as had I.
Running a Zonals event really forces your hand, in that it makes you get to know the coaches, because there is a vast amount of communication necessary in order to do a good job. Darryl and I hit it off right away and chatted easily about family, careers and the kids. One of the early questions he queried me with was, “Have you considered applying to the Master Professional program?” My answer was an easy unapologetic no.
“Why not?” came his reply. “You know Mark, as long as you have been in the tennis industry and based on the different types of positions you have had, I’ll bet you have done much of what is required to qualify.”
After a bit more conversation I discovered that he was a Master Professional and counted it as one of the crowning achievements of his teaching career. He continued to offer encouragement, his knowledge of the process, and a final, “It’s a ton of work, but you will never regret trying.”
So what is the take-away from many years on the court and now looking in the rear view mirror of a long teaching career? One thing is for sure. I could not begin to summarize it all here, but I do want to share a few of the gleanings that are most obvious to me. In my opinion, many young tennis pros, like the younger version of myself, tend to be wired similarly in one regard. We tend to think we know more than we do and often don’t learn as much as we should during the early stages of our career. Instead we are guilty of selling bravado in place of a better understanding of our industry. The great news is the USPTA now has an under 30 category where young pros have a safe place to learn and share ideas in an environment where they can be themselves, offer up new ideas, and ask questions without being fearful of being judged by their older, sometimes more knowledgeable counterparts.
Another is naively thinking that as long as you work hard, keep your nose clean, and take care of your patrons everything will be fine. That is certainly a good starting point and should act as the foundation for your work life, but you need to do more. You have to continue educating yourself to the newest things going on in tennis and USE the resources the USPTA has made available to you.
Even if you land that perfect job, holding on tight is not enough. No matter how good your show is, it can be cancelled right away if they get a new producer. Maintaining your certification by completing the minimum requirements is no longer enough. Do you want a doctor who does the minimum, a financial adviser who has no acronyms after his name, or any contractor who never attends any of his trade shows?
Accept learning opportunities from every source. Do not limit yourself to like-minded instructors or people whose personalities you approve of. Our industry is not like the forums in ancient Greece where one could sit at the feet of Plato and Socrates where knowledge and ideas flowed freely. We have to seek out that knowledge from the best and brightest in our industry and then put it to work. The USPTA offers those opportunities all over the country. And if your travel opportunities are limited, DVDs and webinars abound all tied to education points, but more importantly an opportunity to learn.
My third take away is this; don’t procrastinate. It doesn’t matter what it is. Just do it now. I never realized how big a procrastinator I was until my wife came to work with me and took control of running the pro shop. She called me out immediately. To my way of thinking I thought I was doing a great job of triage, taking care of the important things first, secondary items later, and blowing off the things that were obviously too far down the list to receive consideration. In reality, I was doing the things I preferred and putting off the things that took me out of my comfort zone. When you do something long enough you can get pretty good at justifying your position on most anything. Suffice to say, there is no time like the present, particularly where your career is concerned. Start moving things forward today.
My final point here is that you need to encourage someone, especially if someone has done that for you. I know encouragement is a large part of what each of us does every day, but I am not talking about students. Go out of your way to encourage a fellow pro. Even as educators we still need for people to believe in us as well. Not so long ago, a fellow pro did that for me. And because he did, I was fortunate to join the ranks of other USPTA Master Professionals in Indian Wells this September. I have made it my mission to encourage other pros to keep going with their careers. I hope you will do the same. Our industry and our organization need the best and brightest in leadership roles. Make it your mission to inspire someone to go further than they would have. Take the time to tell someone they inspired YOU and then pay it forward by inspiring someone ELSE.
Mark Rearden is a USPTA Master Professional who has spent his entire work life in the Southern Division. He recently moved to the Midwest Division where he serves as Racquet Sports Supervisor at the H F Racquet and Fitness Club, learning another facet of the tennis industry.