How to Choose a Tennis Pro

When Selecting a Tennis Teaching Pro, It Pays to Do Your Homework

Tennis pro on phone
Checking a pro’s qualifications is critical, but so is watching her or him in action. If a pro is constantly on the phone or otherwise not present during clinics, camps, tournaments, or lessons, all the education and certification in the world doesn’t matter.

As I’ve noted, the Silicon Valley is rich with tennis teaching professionals, so that means there’s lots of access anywhere you’d like to learn. But, it also means you have to take some care in assessing and selecting a pro who’s right for you or your kids. Just because someone teaches on college courts or in a country club doesn’t mean he or she has particular depth in experience or education. Often, pro selection in these settings is a financial matter that highlights a marketable personality and administrative skill over genuine teaching experience and expertise. As I noted in an earlier post, the big money in tennis instruction is really in high volume clinics, camps, and tournaments in which there’s often very little learning going on. If you’re looking at a pro whose main focus is running camps, clinics, or tournaments, you really want to dig into his background a bit more.

Here are five questions that will help you to evaluate any pro, regardless of her or his teaching setting:

1.  What is your competitive background?

A good pro will have at least 5 years of competitive experience at the junior or college level. It’s okay to ask a pro about her or his rankings, and to ask for verification of this. Most pros are pretty honest, but some do tell stories. Recently, for instance, I learned that a pro in a local college program had wildly exaggerated his college ranking. While the pro you’re considering might, indeed, have been “Number 1 in singles and doubles” on his college team, it makes a big difference if that team was Division 3 rather than Division 1. Another pro used her sister’s college record rather than her own less illustrious one in ads on Craigslist. One of my former assistant coaches, whose responsibilities were mainly ordering uniforms and filling water jugs during matches, claimed on his website that he’d “coached at the college level” for several years. You get the idea. It pays to look at college websites and check USPTA rankings. Note, too, that competitive league play is generally not an adequate indicator because league rankings are not standardized from region to region. The number 1 player in Ohio probably wouldn’t make to the top 100 in Arizona, California, or Florida.

2. How long have you been teaching tennis?

A pro worth your time and money will have at  least 5 years experience teaching tennis under the supervision of a more experienced teaching pro. It’s okay to ask where and with whom a pro has taught and to request references. When you meet a young, energetic pro with a solid competitive background, it can be easy to assume that she or he will naturally be a great teacher. That’s very often not the case. Such players may be great hitting partners, but the very fact that they’ve mostly been playing with similarly talented players can mean that they’re not particularly good with beginners or kids.

3. What is your educational background?

John McEnroe and Kelly Simons
A good pro will have all kinds of amazing competitive experience. A great pro will enhance that experience with education and certification. Did I play with McEnroe? Yep! And, that makes for some great stories. But it’s my education and teaching experience that make me the coach I am today.

A qualified pro should have a bachelors or masters degree in a field related specifically to athletics and coaching: E.g., physical education, human performance, kinesiology, sports psychology. Think twice about pros with utterly unrelated educational backgrounds and educations focused more on the business side of coaching (e.g., marketing) than on coaching and teaching itself. Again, teaching tennis is not the same as playing tennis, even if you’re a very good player. In my practice, for instance, I work a great deal with kids with special learning needs. Approaching tennis instruction with these players is certainly not something I learned as a Division 1 college player. I actually studied how to adapt my approach to instruction to the different learning styles, abilities, and experience of different players. Generally speaking, that’s not something you pick up on the street.

4. What is your certification?

In a pro-saturated market like the Bay Area, there is no reason to work with a teaching pro without certification from the U.S.P.T.A. or P.T.R. Both organizations have “find a pro” databases that allow you to identify pros in your area and review their basic qualifications. ALWAYS verify certification before you talk with a pro as it is not at all infrequent to find pros listed on Craigslist, Google, or Yahoo who claim to be certified, but who have never been or who have allowed their certification to lapse. Pros will usually not be certified by both organizations, and though the USPTA is the more common certification, either one is credible. Certification is important because it (a) shows a professional commitment to tennis instruction as a career; (2) verifies teaching expertise; and (3) gives pros and their clients access to insurance in the case of accident or injury.

5. What is your court arrangement?

Legitimate tennis teaching professionals will not poach public, high school, or college courts, on which private instruction is usually prohibited without a contract from the city, high school, college, or university. Ask to see a copy of the contract. This is important not only because it ensures that you will be able to have a court for your lesson, but also because any insurance (if a pro has it) may be invalidated if he or she is not teaching on a court with appropriate authorization.

BONUS QUESTION: How do you display professionalism with clients?

This is actually a question that you’ll answer more though observation than direct inquiry. A high quality tennis teaching professional will exhibit a number of behaviors that have very little to do with experience or education but which make a big difference in your learning experience:

  • Returns phone calls within 24 hours
  • Is at the court at least 5 minutes before and after your scheduled lesson, clinic, or camp
  • Does not take or make phone calls or text messages during lessons, clinics or camps except in emergencies
  • Does not eat during lessons, clinics, or camps (You may laugh, but I once worked for a head pro at a country club who routinely would sit on a bench and eat a sandwich during lessons.)
  • Dresses in clean, professional tennis clothing

To check on these behaviors, observe one or more lessons and talk with other clients.

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