It was September 1982, I was in graduate school at West Virginia University earning my master’s degree in sport management. This career field was just in its infancy at the time. It was a step I was taking toward my career in the tennis industry. Alongside my master’s degree, I determined it was necessary to become certified by the tennis industry’s leading trade association, the USPTA. So I tracked north to Fort Washington, right outside of Philadelphia where USPTA Pro Drew Sunderlin was a great host for a weekend of testing. I had to wait a few weeks, but I still remember the excitement of receiving the notice that I became certified as a USPTA Professional. What a "game changer" for me! Since then, I have been fortunate to experience other "game changers" in my career. The game has evolved and grown in many ways, and I suppose that many tennis pros will have their own story. Here are my most memorable "game changers" since I passed the USPTA exam 30 years ago.
Jim Loehr and the "Ideal Performance State"
My first hands-on exposure to USPTA Pro Jim Loehr’s Mental Toughness program was at the 1985 USPTA National Convention at Saddlebrook. I attended the mental toughness seminar he presented at the convention. I had read articles and books regarding mental toughness in sports, and I even took a sport psychology course in grad school. However, Loehr’s theories were unique. He broke sports psychology down so that it was easy to teach and easy to understand for my students. In addition, he had years of hands-on research and interviews with world-class athletes to base and prove his theories. Overall, he brought sport psychology out of the theoretical lab and onto the practical court. He shared discussions that he had with pros such as Tom Gullikson and Tim Mayotte regarding what they were thinking and feeling when they played at the top of their game. He then gathered all of these discussions and created a system. It was what he called the "Ideal Performance State."
This seminar was a definite game changer for me. I immediately went home and bought his "Mental Toughness Training for Sports" book along with his Mental Toughness video, which consisted of 12 basic training tips on improving one’s mental toughness. Again, these tips included easy-to-understand, practical ways to improve mental toughness on the court. Since 1985, I have consistently included his information in my teaching. I believe it is a fundamental building block in tennis development. I coach a high school tennis team, and watching this video remains a preseason team tradition. Interestingly, I’ve tried to find a more recent video to use but have found nothing that introduces the basics of mental toughness training in a more practical way than his game-changing information that I came across 27 years ago.
In 1991, the USPTA, along with Nick Bollettieri, introduced System 5, the five keys to tennis. It was a logical, common-sense approach to learning and teaching tennis. At the time it was controversial. Questions were asked such as, "Are USPTA Pros being asked to all teach exactly alike?" I believe I have used it through the years as it was meant to be utilized: as an additional tool in my "tennis-teaching toolbox." I have incorporated System 5 concepts into my own teaching system. I appreciate the way System 5 links the backswing, follow-through, court position, and net clearance into an interconnected five-part system. It is a logical and organized way to teach these important parts of the game. It is also an easy and understandable way to learn it. Twenty-one years later, rarely does a day go by in which I don’t use the System 5 method when giving feedback regarding the backswing or follow-through, especially when it comes to groundstrokes, approach shots and volleys. The book, which outlines the system, is called "The 5 Keys to Tennis." Although now out of print, I would highly recommend finding a copy as it may present some game-changing tips for your own students!
USTA Junior Team Tennis
In the early ’90s, the USTA began a national junior team tennis program. Prior to that, the USTA focus had primarily been adult leagues. Many tennis professionals at this time may have been lucky enough to have a local junior tennis league. For others, interclub competition consisted of calling up pros at other clubs and individually organizing matches. There was almost no organized junior league play through the winter. USTA junior tournaments, with most being of the single elimination variety, were the only other option available to junior tennis players.
Then came the USTA Junior Team Tennis program, as it was called at the time, which became a cornerstone of my winter junior program. The kids and parents loved the fact that the indoor program no longer only consisted of instructional clinics. They could apply their skills in a match setting to supplement the teaching and learning in the instructional setting. The format also allowed coaching on changeovers! What a terrific hands-on learning tool at the early stages of match play. Further, they had more opportunities to play doubles. This program became a stepping stone to USTA tournament play. As soon as the juniors could play real tennis, they could be playing USTA league tennis. I believe this game changer for me was the initial lead-up to the 10 and Under Tennis program that we utilize today.
Joe Dinoffer and Oncourt Offcourt
My first encounter with Joe Dinoffer came at the USPTA Palm Springs convention in 1996. He utilized his Rope Zone system as he gave a presentation on creative drill design. Dinoffer’s style was unique, to say the least! However, his content was rock solid. I believe his contribution was very similar to Jim Loehr’s and Nick Bollettieri’s. Their contributions were simple, logical, easy to understand and easy to learn, and they created organized systems to teach and learn the game of tennis. The Rope Zone brought visualization to learning and was all about targets. Ropes were laid out, usually in the form of runways, and gave a tennis player feedback based around visual targets. Moreover, they could observe where their ball went in relationship to the designated target. Next, they could formulate what to do differently to get the next ball closer to the target. By easily maneuvering ropes around the court, all kinds of new and interesting drills and activities can be created.
But Dinoffer didn’t stop with just the ropes. He created an entire company based on teaching aids that made teaching and learning the game more fun, visual and easy. Dinoffer was, and still is, on the cutting edge of new instructional trends in the tennis-teaching industry. One of my first teaching aids – a slower, softer ball (more to come on this later) – was a ball that I purchased from him. He also was ahead of the game when it came to explosive performance training for tennis. He saw the game changing before most of us did. He recognized that this type of training would need to become a staple in our programs, not just at the professional level. Similar to what he did with the Rope Zone and other teaching aids, Dinoffer delivered for explosive training as well. Today, he continues to offer equipment to make this type of training fun, interesting, and most of all, effective. Along with the instructional support aids, Dinoffer was one of the first to offer a full array of tennis-specific explosive training activities. A good friend of mine in the tennis industry once observed all the gadgets I purchased from him and remarked, "Gee, you are paying for his children’s college education." My reply was, "Thanks to Joe, he has helped put my kids through college!" With his industry leading training techniques and training aides, Dinoffer was a game changer for the industry and myself.
Paul Wardlaw and "The Directionals"
In 2000, coming across Paul Wardlaw and "The Directionals" was a "perfect storm" for my tennis career. By now, I was several years into using the Rope Zone on a daily basis for teaching targets. In addition, I was integrating explosive performance training into most of my programs. I was working with a good group of juniors at the time, several of whom went on to play Division I college tennis. The Directionals tied all of these elements together. Wardlaw developed the directional system, which is included in his book, "Pressure Tennis." His book is a must-have, in my opinion, for every tennis professional’s library. It is an organized system (do you see a pattern here?) of teaching and learning where to hit the ball based on where you are standing on the court, where the ball came from, and where you are hitting the ball in relationship to your body. It is primarily based on when to change the direction of the ball. The combination of Wardlaw’s "Directionals" with Dinoffer’s Rope Zone made for highly effective teaching and learning sessions, especially for advanced juniors. Wardlaw’s theory in a nutshell was to only change the direction of the ball when you are standing on or inside the baseline, you are on balance, and you can hit the ball in your strike zone. How often have we all had discussions (sometimes heated) with our students regarding shot selection? If you teach your students the directionals, you both now have a proven system as a reference to frame your discussion. Do you always have to follow the directionals? No, but like so many things in tennis, the percentages are in your favor when you do. Therefore, whether changing directions or not, Wardlaw’s system was a game changer for myself and my advanced players.
Call it what you like. Scaled-down tennis. QuickStart tennis. 10 and Under Tennis. It works. It is right. If you are not on this train yet, you need to get on it right now! I can clearly remember trying the large foam ball with a 10-year-old student back in 2000 for the first time. I was amazed! After she completed the longest mini-tennis rally of her life with this ball, I knew this ball was a game changer! Like I said earlier, I purchased my first softball size foam balls from Dinoffer. I progressed to using low-compression balls, too. Dinoffer called them "Champs Balls" back before the industry standardized them as "Orange 60" balls. The results are inarguable. Players who use them are more successful starting out in the sport of tennis because they have more fun and their rallies are longer.
This is an exciting time to be part of junior tennis development. This generation of tennis professionals are trailblazers for junior development when it comes to scaled-down tennis. This will be normal for the next generation of tennis pros and young children learning the game. Right now some of us are confronted by questions such as, "Why are we using these balls? When are we going to play ‘real tennis’?" These questions won’t be asked in a few years. These will be the normal balls for younger children. This will be real tennis for 10 and Under players. For most of us in the industry, this game changer already is a part of our instructional practice.
Has the game and tennis industry changed in the past 30 years? You bet is has! The experiences I have given in this article are but a tip of the iceberg regarding the changes that have taken place. I didn’t even touch on other game changers such as racquet and string technology, consumer purchasing patterns, or even the Internet!
However, in other ways the tennis industry has stayed the same. We are still trying to grow our piece of the recreational pie. Tennis is an easy sell for us because we know of all the great lifetime benefits the game provides. Research continues to point to tennis as one of the great activities to keep one both physically fit and mentally sharp. The game probably will continue to evolve with various game changers, but sharing our love for the sport of tennis will never change.
Doug Kegerreis is a 30-year USPTA Professional who lives in Fairfax, Va. He is president of Chantilly International Tennis, providing tennis services to facilities and organizations in Northern Virginia. His website is www.cittennis.com. He is also an elementary physical education teacher in Oakton, Va.