Commitment and Consistency, The reason behind America Struggling to develop great tennis players

I want to warn you that this month’s article is not about fitness (and may actually anger you), but it is very important nonetheless.  I wanted to share some experiences and thoughts from my personal athletic career (something I rarely do) as well as my own two cents on why America is struggling to develop great tennis players at the junior level, which in turn causes college coaches to recruit outside of the U.S.

 

For those of you that do not know, I actually grew up as a swimmer.  I swam during college at South Carolina and competed in the Southeastern Conference.  I had the opportunity to practice with Olympians and National Champions on my own team, and during conference dual meets, we competed against the likes of Ryan Lochte, Eric Shanteau, Kara Lynn Joyce and a host of others on a weekly basis.  Take a moment to Google those three; look at their world rankings and compare that to tennis.  It would be the equivalent of competing against Roger Federer or Nadal on a weekly basis – at the college level!

 

Over six years ago, I made the switch to solely focusing on training tennis players.  Yet, I have become increasingly concerned with the question of why the US is failing at developing World Champions consistently.  This problem seems so obvious to me but not to the rest of the tennis industry.  By the way, the last American man to win a Grand Slam was Andy Roddick in 2001.  The last American female to win a Grand Slam (aside from the Williams sisters) was Jennifer Capriati in 2002.

 

I have heard the excuse that tennis is now a world-wide sport, but this is not a legitimate excuse.  Look at swimming:  The U.S. has led the Olympic medal count in swimming over the past 50 years.  The U.S. has won 520 total swimming medals (220 are Gold).  The next closest country is Australia with 171 total medals.

 

Here’s another popular excuse: “All the good athletes are playing sports like football, basketball and baseball.”  This, again, is nothing but a cop-out.  U.S. Swimming is so deep with athletes (and we swept the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals so often) that we are only allowed to send two swimmers per individual event; the rest of the world gets to send three.  Just imagine: you are the third-fastest swimmer in the U.S. (which means you are probably third or fourth in the world), yet you cannot represent your country at the Olympics.

 

When comparing the success of U.S. Swimming (that gets virtually no media coverage aside from the Olympics) to the lack of success in U.S. Tennis, I have come up with two main conclusions:

 

1.) Commitment

Swimmers, from top to bottom, are flat-out more committed than American tennis players.  How many tennis players, honestly, would wake up at least three mornings a week and go to a 5 am practice for two hours and then go to another 2.5 – 3 hour practice every evening?  What about another 3-4 hour practice on Saturday morning?  Most swimmers that are Sectional-level and above practice at least 24 hours per week.  Most tennis players could not be bothered to play more than six hours per week.  I cannot tell you how many times juniors complain of having an 8 am match during tournament days – even at the Sectional level.

 

American tennis juniors also have a lack of commitment with their program.  (I will go into more detail on the power of a consistent message and training in a student’s program below.)  Oftentimes, when a tennis junior encounters a struggle that is a natural part of development in sport, they jump ship and head to another program.  In contrast, swimmers stay on their club team for years, through good times and bad.

 

2.) Consistency

One of the most clear-cut reasons that the U.S. is not developing great tennis players is the fact that it is extremely uncommon for a tennis player to be in one program for their entire development.  Typically, a tennis player will hit in multiple programs each week with different coaches who have different methodologies.  In my experience thus far, I would wager to say the vast majority of tennis players go to a minimum of six different programs during their junior careers.  In swimming, however, it is very uncommon for a swimmer to transfer to another club team.  The only way that this might happen is if a family is forced to move to a different part of the country or state.

 

The two swimmers listed below were both developed through my club team from the very beginning, and I had the opportunity to train with them daily for multiple years (both of these girls were Top 50 in the World in their respective events by the end of their careers):

Liz –

  • In high school, Liz was the #1 recruit (both male and female) in the country, 2x Missouri Swimmer of the Year, 2005 ESPY Athlete of the Year, and a 16x HS All-American
  • In college, Liz swam at Stanford University and was a 12x All-American and PAC 12 Individual Champion (among many other awards)

Jessi –

  • At the end of her high school career, Jessi was a Top 10 recruit nationally, placed 3rd in the 50 Free at the US Open and was a 3x HS All-American
  • Jessi was a member of the 2005 National Championship team at Georgia, team captain her senior year, an 11x All-American, a National Champion on a relay, and an American Record holder

I could list many more accomplished swimmers that came out of this same club team, but I am doing my best to keep this article brief.

 

One thing that I did not mention about the two girls above is that they are world-class swimmers in completely different events.  Not only did they swim for the same club team for 10+ years, they developed in different ways.  Liz could not be touched in the breaststroke or IM, while Jessi could burn everyone in freestyle events 200 yards or less.  Did Jessi get to train against the two girls that beat her in the U.S. Open on a daily basis?  No.  Did Liz have any girls during practice that could consistently help her raise her level in her events?  No.

 

How is this possible?  How did Liz and Jessi develop into world-class swimmers without getting to train daily alongside other swimmers who were faster than them?

Take another look at the honors listed above for the two girls.  Both are world-class swimmers and both got full scholarships to their respective colleges.  But did they get a scholarship during their high school years to continue swimming for the club team that they were developed through?  Absolutely not.

 

If they were tennis players, what would have happened when they achieved such enormous success during high school?  They would have been offered full scholarships to different academies and programs around the country that want to use them as marketing material to bring in lower-level players to fill slots.  These academies and programs did not develop them and likely would not further their game.  The academy or program giving them a scholarship would simply hope to keep the girls close to their current level so that, down the road, they could say that they developed the girls.

 

This is one of the biggest issues that tennis faces today. Everyone wants to go hit with the best people without doing any research regarding who truly developed those top players.

The simple fact is that most tennis players across the U.S. do not find a program that is effectively developing players and stick with it for years.  They tend to do little to no research, take the professionals at their word, and jump from program to program – following the “best” players and hoping that something will rub off.  This short-term thinking has not produced great American talent in some time.  And, if a change is not made, it will continue to be a struggle for the U.S. to develop top talent consistently.

So, how did Liz and Jessi continue to raise their level on a daily basis and eventually become world-class despite having no other world-class people training alongside?  The answer is simple: they had a great coaching staff who knew what they were doing (and had a proven track record of success); they had the support of their teammates; and, they focused on competing against themselves and getting better little by little each practice…..and they stuck with this program for their entire junior development.  They truly had commitment and consistency with their development.

 

This article is not meant to be depressing.  Rather, this is a HUGE opportunity for tennis players in the U.S. to change their future and the future of U.S. tennis.  But, they have to be willing to be the exception to the norm and do things differently.  It is a scary thing to truly go after your goals and hold nothing back.  After all, what happens if you give it everything you have and it is still not good enough?  A tennis player that finds the correct program (one that is actually developing players), believes in it and sticks to that program for years, and is willing to put in the hours and focus on improving every day, will play high-level college tennis.  No question about it.

 

The only question is: how many American tennis players are willing to be different?  How many are truly willing to sacrifice over the course of many years and put themselves through the long hours and the many ups and downs that are required to succeed at the highest levels?

 

From my personal experience, the sacrifice is well worth it. And I would do it all again without a moment’s hesitation.

By: Michael Farrington

Director of Fitness| Manager of Operations

Grand Slam Level Director of Fitness and Injury Prevention

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John Lutaaya- NOW is the START

When John was 9, he started as a ball boy at Lugogo Tennis Club in Kampala. It was a chance to earn some money and to be around what he loved… sport. The ITF Development Program that aims to ensure tennis at the highest level involves many nations. In 2009, an initiative focused on offering young people living amongst the ghettos in Kampala, Uganda, offered an unsuspecting young man the chance of a lifetime.

john mothers

One fateful day, Dr. Liz Odera, Director and Head Tennis Professional, Sadili Tennis Academy, selected him and 5 other students to play tennis. She encouraged John to focus on tennis and his education.

After a year of hard work and dedication to both sport and education, John was awarded a scholarship to the Sadili Tennis Academy, part of the Malezi School located in Kitui Ndogo Slum, Nairobi County.

Eventually, his hard work paid off and the East Africa ITF called on him to play tennis on behalf of Uganda in East Africa U12. “My first year I played nationals… I was ranked #3 in singles and #1 in doubles over the next three consecutive years!” John proudly recalls. He shone as a star in that tournament.

Unfortunately, Uganda was dropped from the ITF Development Program due to membership debts, leaving young aspiring players with a feeling of uncertainty and fear as they desperately attempted to cling to the fleeting opportunities available for a chance at a better life.

Despite such a predicament, John remained at Sadili Tennis Academy, and started looking for other sources of funding in Nairobi. His days there were very hard; his daily reality included a struggle to purchase food. He faced so much uncertainty for his future, and was only able to return home to visit with his family once each year due to the expenses. John needed ongoing support and reached out to John Nagenda, one of the advisors to the President of Uganda, and somehow convinced him to provide resources for his day-to-day needs. Mr. Nagenda became John’s savior during those times.

Although John now had his basic day-to-day subsistence needs met, he lacked assistance to continue his education. The average school fee for non-government secondary schools in Uganda is 300000UGX ($88USD) per term, a number unattainable by most of the poverty stricken families. However, in 2007, the Government of Uganda introduced free Secondary Education but the students would have to pay 100000UGX ($29USD) per term for basic amenities like uniforms, meals and stationery supplies. The unfortunate reality remains that the standard of education in government schools versus non-government schools differs vastly, and the majority of young people yearn to study in non- government programs.

Devastated by his circumstances, John was not able to find funds for school. He went to home schooling for 4 years after primary school because it was cheap and offered more time for tennis training. Teachers from Malezi School would come and teach students for 5 hours a day. Dr. Odera kindly sponsored John and several other students allowing them to share books. The long-term effects of this reality seemed insurmountable…

John was never able to take the exams required to continue his education at the university level in Uganda. Even if he had been able to take the exams, John knew the University fees were far too high for him to afford. On average, a student has to pay 4500000UGX ($1,315USD) per semester to enroll in University. John struggled for the 15000UGX ($4.5USD) needed everyday for his 3 meager meals and to pay for his transport to play tennis.

John’s mother always encouraged him to go to school and she urged him to create opportunities for his future because she was not able to provide for him, as she had wanted. She was not able to complete her secondary education. John’s father did indeed go to University but lived as a polygamist leaving his mother to raise John and his sister. While growing up, the family struggled day to day. John remembers Christmas day to be very special because his mom would save all year to provide John and his siblings with some new clothes.

He was given the opportunity to work part-time at Sadili Tennis Academy as a tennis coach, lifeguard, and on the maintenance staff in order to support himself and help to support his family. He would send close to half of his earnings, 100000UGX ($29USD) to his mother in Uganda. After taking care of his modest needs, he would save close to 50000UGX ($15USD) for his future.

John soon realized that one of the best things about Sadili Tennis Academy is that they have built relationships with coaches all over the world. With continued encouragement from his family, John pleaded with officials at Sadili Tennis Academy to help with any further opportunities for him, so that eventually he might travel to the United States and make a better future for himself and his community in Uganda. Sadili recommended him to a program in South Carolina.

William Blick, President of the Uganda Olympic Committee had taken notice of John and his talent. Mr. Blick set to work raising $1,000 for the travel expenses that would allow John to go to the United States to train. This experience would allow him to continue growing as a tennis player and pursue his academic goals. John eventually settled in South Carolina where Coach Jon Prenelle encouraged John to work hard and pursue his dream of going to college.

John indeed worked very hard to learn, improve and create new opportunities for himself. He trained day and night but unfortunately, not a single opportunity came to him in those three months in South Carolina. His training ended and he was to go back home to Uganda. In desperation he asked Coach Prenelle if it would be possible to extend his stay. Coach Prenelle called Ryan Segelke, his friend and CEO/Co-Founder of High Altitude Tennis, LLC in Colorado, and asked if he could help in any way. Later that evening, Ryan spoke to his wife, Leslie Segelke, Founder and Executive Director of The HAT FUND and just like that, John found himself on a plane to Colorado.

Training at High Altitude Tennis Academy provided another level of tennis training and experience for John. “This is the place where I have heard information that is not common to the many places I have been to. It is always more than tennis at HAT because I even learn stuff outside tennis and this creates success both off and on the court,” explains John.

Mr. and Mrs. Segelke worked with John to create an action plan that would lead to fulfillment of his dream. First of all, John needed to take the SAT exam, an essential step on his road to a college scholarship in the U.S. HAT arranged for John to work with a tutor and Susie Watts of College Connection donated her time end expertise to work with John.

John felt he was back in school again, as his tutors would direct him and lead him through his studies. Preparing for the SAT was not easy as the grammar taught in the United States was very different from that taught in Uganda. He indeed struggled with the studies but his tutors never gave up on him.

HAT arranged for John to visit several Colorado Universities. 
 Upon his visit to Colorado Christian University, John felt an
immediate connection. He felt like the environment at CCU was calling out to him and this was a huge motivation. With true enthusiasm he devoted more time and more focus toward his goals.

John was extremely excited to meet John Goodrich, the Head Tennis Coach at CCU. Coach Goodrich was the first college coach he had ever met and actually spoken to in person about the possibility of playing tennis on their team. He was glad that John found him. John regularly updated Coach Goodrich about his progress, as he was afraid he would change his mind about having him on the team. John had experienced many disappointments in his life but he was overjoyed by the coach’s reassurance.

HAT created a second family for John. His new teammates and their families in Colorado spent time with him on and off the court. He started to make friends in order to feel at home. He began opening up with them more and more, so that they could know him and he could know them. Being there never felt foreign to him, as he had the place to share his stories, and traditions from back home.

John’s dream became a great inspiration for the entire HAT family. They rallied around him offering support however and whenever they could. The HAT Staff made sure John had everything he needed to feel secure and be able to focus on his training and studies. Mr. Segelke worked closely with CCU to complete the requirements for admission. The HAT FUND provided John with the funds to travel back and forth to Uganda in order to satisfy all of the immigration requirements. Even Mr. Sadu, father of one of his teammates, after seeing him struggling with his preparation for the SAT offered to spend extra time working with John in his studies. A true team effort!

The road to his dream of a college education will continue to be difficult. However, John will not face these difficulties alone. The HAT FUND and its partners will continue to support John and the many other deserving young people struggling to change the course of their lives.

The HAT Fund has changed my life, I will be forever grateful,” says John. In the fall of 2016, John will hopefully be starting college. For his goal to be accomplished, he needs your support.

Join us in offering children the power to transform their lives through sport and education.

Learn more about John:

http://www.denverpost.com/sports/ci_28985827/world-away-from-home

http://www.thehatfund.org/tennis-phenoms-education-dream-hinges-on-test/

Be a support to John by becoming a part of John Lutaaya’s #GivingTuesday Campaign. Here’s the link, https://www.razoo.com/us/story/Hat-Fund

She is an athlete, an entrepreneur, wife & proud mother of 3 beautiful children.

Native of Boston, Massachusetts, Leslie was a gifted student-athlete ranking top 10 nationally as a sprinter.

Leslie Segelke
Leslie Segelke

Leslie studied Liberal Arts at the University of Maryland then followed her passion for nutrition and hospitality attending Newbury College and graduating from Johnson and Whales University in Rhode Island.

 

Leslie taught private cooking classes, ran a home-based catering company and worked as a baker in a gourmet food shop in order to pay her way through school. After graduation she accepted a job as the head pastry chef for a Boston based catering company.

 

Returning to her love of athletics, Leslie spent several years coaching the girl’s high school track and field team in Cambridge, Massachusetts as well as developing into an enthusiastic player and avid fan of tennis.

 

Now a devoted wife and proud mother of 3 beautiful children, Leslie’s love of sport and commitment to improving the life experiences and expanding opportunities for children has contributed to the vision of High Altitude Tennis Academy.