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Sid's Corner - Learning from a Rookie

by Sid Newcomb, USPTA National Head Tester

Its 99 degrees on court 11 at La Camarilla Racquet, Fitness & Swim Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’m at the Southwest Division Conference, in the middle of an education and certification session. As I step back for a moment to take in what’s happening, I can’t help but feel excitement for the future of our association. Here’s the picture — a group of 11 coaches, diverse in gender, age, ethnicity, you name it, all on one side of the court. They are split into three distinct teams, each in an animated discussion within itself. There are swings and stances, positions, postures, all very lively with lots of laughter. “This,” I think to myself, “is cool. Even in the heat.”

What I am witnessing is an Educational Module taking place as new applicants go through their USPTA certification. This is a 2018 addition to the certification process. The intent is that our new applicants get a taste of what we are all about as a tennis-teacher certification and professional development association. To continue to “elevate our standards as tennis-teaching professionals and coaches”, we collectively and individually need to never stop learning and growing within the tennis industry. The certification experience is often the first personal touch an applicant has with the association. With that being said, all of our applicants, whether they are being tested here in Scottsdale, Arizona, or in Pensacola, Florida deserve to see who and what we really are, not just get “tested”. The various applicants have already been evaluated on their group lesson and still have the private lesson to come. But in this moment, they are together, learning and having fun.

Each of the three teams is guided by an experienced tennis-teaching professional, which is one of today’s testers. The task at hand is to identify cures for a recreational player’s abbreviated follow-through on the forehand groundstroke. Each team has three minutes to come up with their best antidote to solve the problem, and then they present their big idea to the entire group. (The big idea, by the way, is presented by the least experienced member of each team!) At first glance, you would think the most experienced member out of the group should be presenting the solution to the group. By having the least experienced pro present the solution, that pro is learning how to present their ideas in front of their peers and this gives them practice when it comes time to present to their students.

All of us that were on-court had a total blast at the education and certification session. The interaction, presenting and the teaching aspect during the session all were very lively. Peer to peer and master to novice, we coaches couldn’t get enough. The ideas, tips, concepts and even philosophies that were expressed during the session all were thrilling. I thought to myself during the session as the applicants were collaborating, there is no other place I would rather be. Quick, back to your groups — “too big of a swing on the volley” — how can we fix that? And the teams are back at it.

45 minutes in the sun pass in a flash, and it’s time to wrap it up and get on with the private lesson evaluation. Was it worth it? The time spent to give the applicants a firsthand look on how we evaluate lessons? Yes, that may have been the most valuable time spent all day. During our Educational Module, one common stroke error after another was discussed, and one big idea after another was presented. There are so many ways to get a point across! Good pros can never stop adding tools to their belts and today I walked away with some valuable knowledge.

In my current role as the USPTA national head tester, I travel to many of our 17 divisions certification days and I see a lot of tennis lessons... I mean a lot. What I have come to find out during my experiences is that the least appealing tennis-teaching professionals and coaches are the hot shots; you know the ones who think they are the greatest in the profession and that they have arrived at some pinnacle at which there is no longer a need to learn anything. With the acknowledgment that our game is ever evolving, we must continually strive to keep up and to keep improving, regardless of what level we are at; that is the sign of a true professional. Be humble enough not to be surprised where you might learn something. It can come from a wise old coach (those “Master Professionals” you see sauntering around at conferences with the sagacious presence of some kind of tennis Yoda), witnessing a beautiful match, or an ugly match-- even a red ball student, pretty much anywhere there is tennis going on!

I think about these things as I fly home to Orlando, Florida and then my mind drifts to Brian, a 31-year-old student I have there. You might ask why is your student that is miles away on your mind on the flight? Well, let me tell you about Brian. Brian started playing tennis 18 months ago, when I first moved into my Lake Nona neighborhood and began giving evening lessons. He is an absolute tennis junky. He went from being a total beginner to a 3.0 league player and now he can’t get enough! His story is a prime example of why tennis-teaching professionals and coaches do what we do. To have a student go from never being exposed to tennis, to wanting to be out on-court hitting balls is amazing!

But as I think about how far along my student has come, one thing immediately comes to my attention on the plane. Brian’s forehand is stiff. He uses too much grip pressure and muscle on-court. I had been struggling to loosen him up, to lengthen his follow-through and add fluidity to his stroke. And now I can’t wait to show him a tip I learned from a novice coach, a USPTA applicant – a rookie, on a sizzling hot court in Scottsdale, Arizona.

About Sid Newcomb
Sid Newcomb is the national tester for the USPTA. Before joining USPTA’s national staff, Newcomb was the director of tennis at Peninsula Community Center (PCC) in Redwood City, California since 1996. After a successful college career and a short stint in the minor leagues of tennis, he joined the coaching ranks at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy where he was the European academy director for seven years. He launched Bollettieri Academies in Belgium, Germany, France and England before leaving Europe for Northern California.

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