October 9th, 2014

Tennis Game Changer Blog: Wayne Bryan on USTA Professional Development

Game Changer
wayne bryan and bryan bros

Wayne Bryan (center) with sons Bob and Mike

The USTA Florida Game Changer series examines the leading tennis industry products, tips and industry insights. USTA Florida members get first access to the information, and can share using the hashtag #GameChanger. Share your insight in the comment section below.

In the spirit of dissenting opinion and the departure of former USTA head of professional development Patrick McEnroe, USTA Florida asked Wayne Bryan to share his vision on what direction USTA professional development should take.

By Wayne Bryan

What should be done with USTA Professional Development?  If it was my say, it would be time for USTA PD to go.

They have overstayed their welcome.  No results.  No accountability.  Bad feelings everywhere.  Time to try something new.  Let the private sector have a chance without USTA meddling and top-down authoritarianism.

This is America for crying out loud.  Bottom up, not top down.  I like and respect the grossly-overpaid people on the USTA PD staff, I am just against this system that has never worked and never will work.  They have spent well north of $300 million.  Where’s the results?  Try that in the private sector and see what happens.

If USTA PD is to go on?  The philosophy needs to change.

History has shown that champions come from the ground up and not the top down.  Our greatest basketball players don’t come from a National Basketball Governing Body, they come from the streets — they play and learn at their local asphalt court.

The Beatles came from Liverpool, playing in their own garage and out on the street corner, not from being taught by the National Music Academy of England.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart became perhaps the greatest pianist and composer in history because he learned from his dad, who made the piano and music fun for him from age 3, and he was touring Europe playing concerts to packed royal halls at the tender age of 6.  Note that he was not brought along by the National Music Governing Body of Austria.  If he had been, the world would have never enjoyed the beautiful music of Mozart.  No doubt.

Brian Wilson the famed musical writing and arranging genius of the Beach Boys came from my Hawthorne High School.  Our musical director gave him an “F” for writing “Surfin’,” a song that the Beach Boys later recorded and it went on to sell millions of copies and led to their long and great and still-continuing musical legacy.

We cannot dictate greatness from on high.  Greatness is passionate.  It is creative.  It is enthusiastic.  It comes early.  And it is relentlessly dedicated to playing and practicing each and every day and playing tournaments every weekend and team matches every week.  Greatness learns from the past, but often does things in a new way.   Greatness does things that have never been done before.

Jimmy did not play like Stan.  John did not play like Jimmy.  Pete did not play like John.  Andre did not play like Pete.  Andy did not play like Andre.  Chrissie did not play like BJK.  Tracy did play like Chrissie.  Jennie Cap did not play like Tracy.  Martina did not play like Chrissie.  Lindsay did not play like Martina.  Venus did not play like Lindsay.  Serena did not play like Venus.  McEnroe ‘n Fleming did not play like Smith ‘n Lutz.  The Woodies did not play like Mc-Fleming.  The Bryans did not play like the Woodies.

Greatness is not cookie cutter.  It comes from Main Street, USA, not White Plains, NY.

I laugh to recall how five suits from USTA PD came out to Ventura County a while back and hosted a lunch meeting at a beautiful Westlake Village Hotel.  The speakers from New York gave us a splendiferous Powerpoint presentation with lots of graphs and pie charts about the brilliance of their new U10 Program that featured a bewildering amount of colored soft balls that would soon have hundreds of thousands — even millions — of youngsters flocking to the game.  There would be so many new juniors we were going to have to build more courts.

They told us how us hicks in SoCal had to coach and how we had to send our top players over to Carson when they became good.  They would take them from there.  White Plains was where the Wizard of Oz lived.  They knew everything.  We knew nothing.

When they wrapped up, they asked for questions from the audience.  There were some very unhappy local coaches in the audience who had some very pointed questions.

At the very end,  the coaches sorta looked over at me.  I had promised myself I would keep my mouth shut.  I couldn’t.  I had to bestir myself and I rose to my feet and thanked the suits — most of them friends of mine — for their dedication to tennis and for their mind-boggling presentation.

Then I said that 3/4ths of the United States Davis Cup Team grew up playing within 12 miles of this hotel.  “How many players on the US Davis Cup Team come from your White Plains area?  The next time you come out here, maybe you want to study what we are doing out here with our juniors and not tell us how we have to do it.  Not mandate to us.  Learn about the Junior Team Tennis program that originated here; learn about our Ventura County Junior Tennis Association which hosts some 35 incubator junior tournaments within a 50 mile radius and that said ‘Hell no’ to your Green Ball Mandate and we continue to offer regulation yellow ball tournaments to our U10s; our USTA SoCal series of tournaments and other solid junior programming; and the junior programs these hard working and dedicated and excellent coaches have at their clubs and parks and schools.”

Despite the millions upon millions the USTA spent on 10 and Under Tennis, we have fewer kids playing in the 10s than ever.  It has chilled U10 tennis in SoCal and across the country.  Would Andy Roddick have wanted to play with soft green balls?  The Bryan Brothers?  The Williams Sisters?

Parents ask me everywhere I go in my travels across the country, “Coach Bryan, my child is fired up about tennis and has been playing with yellow balls since they were six and now that they want to play tournaments as an 8 or 9 year old, should I have them go back to playing with soft Green Balls or play up in the 12s and get kicked by the bigger and older and more experienced kids?”

That is where the rubber meets the road and after all my years in junior tennis, college tennis and pro tennis, I have no answer to that Hobbesian Choice.

We have the Alice in Wonderland situation out here in SoCal now where lots of 10s are playing up in the 12s and the 12s don’t want to play the 10s so they play up in the 14s.

We have the situation where young players play with regulation balls all week in their workouts and practice matches and then when they go to their U10 Tournament on the weekend, they are forced to play with soft Green Balls.

More and more I am hearing of parents simply taking regular balls and asking the opponent if they would rather play with them.

Is this any way to run a railroad?

We have fewer men and women in the Top 100 in the world than ever.  We have fewer America kids playing college tennis than any time in our history.  USTA PD, despite huge salaries for our  execs and coaches, despite millions of dollars being spent, has been spectacularly unsuccessful.

If we’re going to move forward with USTA PD we need to:

  • Get rid of the top-down management style.  The arrogance.  The “we know better than you.”
  • We need to value and appreciate coaches all over the country.  We need to empower them.  Thank them.  Encourage them.  Same with parents.  Rather than getting rid of the influence of local parents and coaches, we need to appreciate them. Every great player in American history came from a great local coach or parent or mentor or all three.  The great players we have had all came from a good home-tennis situation.
  • We gotta have more fun and more team tennis.  Less top-down and heavy-handed coaching and more programming and exciting events.  More Jr. Team Tennis, more Zonals team play, more Intersectionals team play.  More doubles.
  • More socialization.  More social events during the tournament, BBQs, trips to amusement parks, miniature golf, bowling, movies, dances, talent shows, inner-tube rides down rivers.  More t-shirts, more bells and whistles. More fun.
  • Fix the broken USTA national tournament schedule.  USTA PD cut down all our great and long-standing “Redwood Tournaments” — the Fiesta Bowl, Copper Bowl, the Westerns, the Southerns, the Texas Open.  The 12s Nationals in San Diego was a wonderful tournament with all kinds of bells and whistles.  They ripped it out by the roots never to return.  What a massive loss to Amercan junior tennis.
  • Fix the broken rankings system.  It is no longer accurate.  No longer fair.  We need less points per round and more Star Computer System with required minimums that rewards the quality of the win or loss.
  • We need a much, much better USTA web site at both the sectionals and national level.  It has got to sing.  It has got to have bells and whistles. Lots of names and pictures and immediate results.  Immediate and accurate rankings.  Look at the ATP web site.
  • We need to give more love and support to high school and middle school tennis.  We need a High School National Championship held during the second week of the US Open.  The top team from each state.  Have some regionals and the top four teams come to the US Open.  Akin to the Little League playoffs system.  Playoffs drive all major sports.  Creates massive enthusiasm!
  • Stop messing with the college format, and return it to AMERICAN college tennis.  College tennis needs more love, more local kids taken on trips to see college matches, to get inspired.  And we have to address the elephant in the room, the fact that more international students play U.S. college tennis than Americans now.  We have lost some 400 programs over the past few decades because when athletic directors look to eliminate programs, they see tennis programs that are mostly international players.  U.S. college tennis should be for U.S. kids — why are American tax payers footing the bill for $60+ million in foreign player scholarships?
  • Spread out the courts.  The USTA is building a 100-court complex in Orlando?  Huh?  “Hey Joey — you go out to court #93 and practice.”  Ugggh. We need 10 courts built in 10 key communities.  Or five courts built in 20 key communities.  Tennis needs way more warm incubators, not some big ol’ sterile concrete laboratory.
  • More doubles tournaments for juniors.  Adults love doubles. Juniors love doubles.  Some kids just love the team thing, and it gives them a second chance at tournaments.  There are more smiles on the doubles court.  It rounds out skills. It teaches additional life lessons.  We need to run the doubles rankings up the flag pole and promote them on a much improved national WEB Site. More mixed doubles for juniors too!  Mixed is a wonderful part of our sport and tennis is one of the few sports that has an important coed part to it.  We need to cherish that and use it!!  Kids love it and it teaches a whole ‘nother set of life lessons.
  • No USTA national coaches, but more coaches conferences where regional and local coaches come together to share ideas, drills, insights.  Not to be pontificated to by national coaches. Leave coaching to the private sector. It has always worked in the past and will work again.
  • The head of USTA PD should not be paid $1.2 million, and they should not use it as a part-time job or have other jobs at the same time, and he or she should go around the country and learn from good programs and good coaches.
  • Less mandates. If someone uses red balls or green balls or purple balls or polka dot balls that is fine.  If someone wants to bring kids along with yellow balls, that should be fine too.  If one Section wants to have U10 Green Ball Tournaments and U10 Yellow Ball Tournaments side by side that is just fine.

To reiterate, governing bodies should not be involved in coaching.  The USTA should be our main frame computer.  Private coaches and parents should be our software.  Governing bodies do not create champions.  Never have, never will.  They stifle creativity and enthusiasm and all the things that are the basic DNA of champions.

In the end, I say get rid of USTA PD altogether.  After spending over $300 million on USTA PD with one regime after another and mandate after mandate and minefield after minefield with nothing to show for it, it is time to go in a completely new direction.  Like John Lennon sang, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”  All I am saying is, give the private sector a chance.

What is your take on the future of USTA Professional Development? Share your opinion in the comment section below.