SEARCHING FOR EXCELLENCE
There has been much discussion recently on the best way to develop professional tennis players. Many national tennis organizations have chosen to go with a National Training Centre, where the country’s top junior players are brought to train on a daily basis with coaches who are considered to be the very best available, and who are also capable of helping these athletes achieve their absolute potential. The athletes are mostly “housed” with a host family while they are training at the Centre.
I have always believed the best way to develop a professional player is in a one on one relationship with a capable coach, who not only coaches the various aspects of the game to the player, but also manages the career of that player as well. The coach must share the goals of the player, and must want for the player to achieve them as much as the player does. The reason for my belief is simple...
There are many skill sets which must be learned if an individual is to compete at the highest level of Tennis. Coaches have differing opinions of how to teach the game… technique, strategy, etc. This is one area which makes the game so interesting. However, if you have a player receiving multiple suggestions on the same thing (as often happens at most Centres) you end up with a confused player- and several frustrated coaches!
The countries with National Training Centres will point to the success of various players who have “COME OUT OF” or who have been “A PRODUCT OF” their centre. But upon careful scrutiny (actually it doesn't need to be that careful!) it is nearly always the case that the mentioned player was a great player going in to the academy, and would have almost certainly become just as highly ranked, or possibly higher, as a professional, had they continued to develop outside of the Centre. That would be a possibility if--and this is my main point--they had the funding which was invested at the Centre available to them in their private coaching environment.
In other words...
IT IS THE AMOUNT OF MONEY BEING INVESTED in the players at the Centre, and not the Centre itself which is the reason for their ultimate success. Of course this last point is impossible to prove--except that there are many highly-ranked professionals who never stepped foot inside a National Centre.
The well-meaning individuals who are proponents of the National Centres agree that there is more than one way to develop a professional player, but feel that the National Centres are the best way. That is why they invest so much money in having them. But in deciding on whether that is true or not, it is important to examine the return on investment, along with alternative potentials. Is there, in fact, a better way… one which allows these young athletes to continue to develop in their original training environment, and continue to live at home with their families, while pursuing their goals of one day playing professional tennis.
I believe there is. I like the concept of having "National Centres." My issues are 1) whether they need to be separate facilities and 2) the purpose they serve. I believe these centres should be used to bring our top players together on a regular basis, with their independent coaches, and with the main goal of having them play matches and compete. These matches would be against each other, as well as holding dual matches with top players, teams (including University teams), and academies from other countries.
It is possible to name existing tennis clubs and facilities as "NATIONAL CENTRES" and may not be necessary to have separate structures as the Centres. This would save a massive amount of funds which would allow them to be more appropriately invested in player development.
The obvious inference of the National Tennis Organizations is that ”we know better” and “we are better” than you (the player's developmental coach, and their program) and therefore once your player reaches a certain level of play, we (the National Centre and coaches) should take over.
While that may be one way for a player to succeed, the question must be asked...
“IS IT THE BEST WAY?”
Not in my opinion.
While it is most definitely true that there are some coaches who are more capable of helping a player to the highest level of play, there are just as definitely a number of coaches “outside” of the National Tennis Organization system who are every bit as capable (or more) as the coaches in the system to help a player get to the top of the rankings.
The biggest difference in the two situations is the money and resources available to the players, and through association the coaches, within the system.
Another problem with the way the National Centres are currently managed is that players are chosen to go there as a result of excellent results in the U12’s 14’s and or 16’s.
There are a huge number of young players who could also have had excellent results--and in fact better results--had they had the opportunity to develop the skills in lessons and programs, but because of limited financing could not afford to do that. These players may have come to the game a bit later than others,or simply never had the financial resources to afford the coaching necessary to achieve national status, and therefore have not achieved the results necessary to satisfy the criteria required to gain access to the National Centre Program.
If funding for training was available to those capable Coaches outside the TC system, the results they could achieve would dwarf the results being achieved at the National Centres, while the players could continue to live in their home environment.
In speaking with my very good friend Jon Sorbo, he made another very important point on this subject. Jon was Frank Dancevic’s coach for 9 or 10 years and also served as Canada’s Davis Cup coach . He stated the importance in the overall development of a coach in being a part of the transition process as a Player transitions from Juniors to Pros. In other words, we should be focused as well on the coach’s development as part of the equation of becoming a powerhouse tennis nation. If we are always taking players away from their developmental coach and saying “Thanks, we’ll take it from here” then how does that coach ever achieve the experience necessary in developing the expertise to take a Player to the highest level? So at the very least some form of shared coaching and or a “mentoring” concept should be considered.
I have watched with interest the successes of our various players over the past 6 or 7 years--the time where our National Centre was a integral part of our tennis system.
The most obvious successes were:
Milos Raonic- ATP #9 - 9 years with Coach Casey Curtis - 2 years at the National Centre, which were primarily spent travelling and playing tournaments
Vasek Pospisil - ATP #46 - 15 years with Coach (and father) Milos Pospisil - never a part of the national program but did train with his personal Coach Fred Niemeyer at the National Centre for one year
Eugenie Bouchard- WTA #25 - Had several coaches, trained in Florida with and credits Nick Saviano for her tennis development from the age of 12-15 yrs old. At 15, she became a National Centre trainee until she again hired Saviano at 18 or 19 yrs old. Soon after reuniting with Saviano Eugenie exploded on to the women's tennis scene and reached a high ranking of #4 WTA. Since parting with Saviano in Nov. 2015, Eugenie has struggled to maintain her form (and her ranking).
Filip Peliwo- ATP #495 - Had independent coaching until he entered the National Centre as a 15 year old.
Francois Abanda- WTA #371 - Has spent several years at the National Centre.
I would mention Frank Dancevic here, however Frank was already playing Professionally well before the National Centre opened and therefore was never a part of the National Centre Jr. Program. Frank was Coached for 10 years privately by Jon Sorbo.
While others have had commendable successes in junior tournaments, it is not truly our goal to produce top junior players. We are trying to produce top 10 ATP and WTA professional players.
There can be no denying that the above-mentioned players achieved excellent results. The question is...
Could they have achieved the same results (or better) had they not attended the National Centre, but were afforded the exact same amount of funding--both for training and traveling--outside of the Centre?
Were the other approximately 35-40 players, who attended the National Centre over the past 7 years, a good investment by Tennis Canada (TC)? In other words, could our screening process improve where TC invests in players (and coaches) with a higher chance of success?
It is my belief that they can.
The argument for “spreading” money around over various players is that you “just never know” which players will succeed and which ones won't. That is just not the case. You may misjudge a player or two over the years and be pleasantly surprised (or disappointed) by their ultimate success (or failure) in the game. In my own experience, that would be the exception rather than the rule.
The annual investment dollar figure which is generally accepted for each player training at TC’s National Centre is in the $80,000/yr. range. If a player is at the National Centre for three years, the approximate investment is a minimum $240,000.
I would like to see TC give my idea a chance to evaluate the possibilities. They could continue to run the National Centre, while running a parallel program which supports the independent coaches whom they know can produce professional-level players. They could very easily set up a "Criteria" for Coaches in order to determine who and how much funding they would receive. The support to the independent coaches would obviously have to be meaningful, so as to allow them to dedicate the necessary time to their students with professional potential.