When it comes to tackling something new, at one point or another you may have heard someone say, “it’s too late” or “I’m too old” or “I’m not skilled enough”. It’s not uncommon to fear feeling like a novice when it comes to starting a new hobby – especially as an adult. Between work, errands, household chores or even catching up on sleep, it may seem like there is no time for a hobby. But if you look at a hobby beyond being a time filler it can morph into a passion that gets you excited, helps you recover from a long day, gets your mind working, and most importantly, helps boost your quality of life.
According to recent data from the Physical Activity Council’s (PAC) participation report, more than 21 million people took to the tennis court in 2020. Of that total number, nearly 3 million were new to the sport. It’s no surprise either – tennis is commonly referred to as the sport of a lifetime and is a sport that is accessible and easy to learn at any age.
“You can start playing tennis as a child or you can start after retirement, and both scenarios can result in enjoyment for the rest of your life,” says Adult Program Coordinator Jennifer Wysocki. “It may seem intimidating to start tennis later in life but having adult beginner play programs at parks and tennis facilities allows future players have a chance to find a sport they might fall in love with. All it takes to get started is the courage to pick up a racquet.”
USTA Florida encourages new adult players who think it may be too late to learn how to play, to get in on the fun of adult beginner tennis with its “Love to Learn” and “Love to Play” programs. Piloted in 2019, the programs aim to be a judgement-free zone to help those unfamiliar with the sport feel comfortable on the court and welcomed into the tennis community.
“Like the sentiment ‘dance like no one is watching’, we want new players to play tennis like no one is watching,” shares Director of Adult Tennis Christine Ducey. “We developed the Love to Learn, Love to Play program to encourage and incentivize adult beginner tennis providers to offer low cost, fun, and social group beginner clinics.”
Both programs are short programs that combine professional and mentor coaching to deliver a fun, fast-paced, no-pressure environment for participants to learn the basics of tennis. Beginners will start out working with teaching professionals to build fundamental skills, learn basic scoring and etiquette, and practice rallying techniques over the course of six weeks.
“Love to Learn, Love to Play is different from your traditional beginner clinic,” explains Ducey. “In Love to Learn, the teaching professionals use low compression balls to teach technique, start players rallying with each other quickly, and teach the serve early.”
The most obvious difference though can be found in the Love to Play series, where new players are introduced to volunteer ambassadors who use match sessions, in addition to sessions with a tennis pro, to teach players through experience.
“We teach the common traditions of tennis, which are many. Participants also learn how to perform a cooperative warm-up, how to start a match, keep score, and tiebreak procedures,” Ducey continues. “We teach how to work through common beginner tennis challenges using the tenants of good sportsmanship. This allows new players to have adequate tennis knowledge to hopefully avoid some early social pitfalls and keep them playing, having fun, and making friends.”
“The ‘Love to…’ programs move a player from never having hit a ball to playing matches with friends in less than three months,” adds Local Adult Play Coordinator Leigh Chak, who facilitates the programs in Alachua and Marion counties. “Players are encouraged to get out on the court and put the skills they are learning into practice immediately.”
The Love to Learn and Play programs have been well-received in Chak’s region of the Sunshine state. Since their inception, the Ocala and Gainesville areas have seen exponential growth in the number of players. Chak first ran prototype classes at the Fort King Tennis Center in Ocala at the end of 2018, and Laura Roberson was one of the original participants. She was encouraged to try tennis after a friend took up the sport.
“I really liked the program because it taught us the very basics; beginning with how to grip the racquet, how to swing and follow-through with both the forehand and the backhand,” she recalls. “Each week we progressed methodically and reinforced what we learned the previous week.”
The adult beginner series was Roberson’s first real introduction to the sport. Since graduating from the program, she now captains several USTA League teams and has been to Sectional Championships. She also serves as the Treasurer of the Ocala Women’s Tennis Association.
“I play tennis in some form or fashion five days a week now,” she says. “I love the social and competitive aspects of the sport.”
Roberson is just one of many in Chak’s area to develop a passion for tennis through the Love to Learn and Play programs. The program has become so popular, it’s even drawing in established players.
“The word is out and local players are all volunteering their time to serve as program Ambassadors,” Chak says. “Ambassadors are local players with experience and knowledge of the written and unwritten rules of the game.”
Volunteer Ambassadors are just as important to the program as the teaching professional. As new players progress, Ambassadors will take on a larger role; first by leading practice time to eventually leading the entire session. They also are one of the greatest resources for beginner players by assisting with communication and finding additional play opportunities within their tennis facility.
“Their job is to not only answer questions as they arise in the moment but to also be an encouraging, friendly face,” she confirms. “They are a connection for newer players to the local tennis community.”
Glen Gandiongco first got involved with the Love to Play program at the Fort King Tennis Center last year, after he was finally able to convince his wife Carina to get on the court and learn to play tennis. He agreed to be an Ambassador for her sessions.
“To help adult beginners means that I have something to offer to them in their journey to the fun world of tennis. In the process of serving as an Ambassador, I am also learning more about the game,” he says. “The adult beginners have been very receptive to what the Ambassadors have to share.”
As a member of the program, Carina agrees; she found the learning process much easier thanks to the helpfulness and patience of the coaches and Ambassadors. While learning the techniques and the rules of the game were challenging, playing more, doing clinics and playing with her husband helped her overcome the challenge of starting the game later in life.
“When my husband became an Ambassador with the program, I was able to spend time with him learning the sport that he loves,” she states. “It’s never too late to start a sport like tennis. I get to exercise and have fun at the same time.”
In 2019, more than 500 new beginner players began their tennis journey via USTA Florida’s Love to Learn and Love to Play programs. In Chak’s area alone that year, there were nearly 200 new players taking part in the beginner courses. Despite an extended hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic, her participating numbers, along with numbers in Florida overall, are growing again now that the programs have resumed in some regions.
“We were experiencing phenomenal success at the end of 2019 – 33 facilities around the state were offering the program,” says Ducey. “Unfortunately, even though we were off to a great start in 2020, our growth slowed due to the pandemic. But we are getting back on track and are hoping to continue the exponential growth that we were seeing before the shutdowns.”
“The Love to Learn, Love to Play programs open a door into the tennis community,” adds Wysocki. “We want those just starting out to walk onto the court, meet others at their level, and grow in the sport together. Our goal with these programs has always been to make tennis more accessible to adult beginner players, and we hope they learn to love the sport as much as we do!”
For more information on programs for adult beginners, visit www.USTAFlorida.com/LoveTo.