The Early Days
It all started back in 1976 when my mother, brother and sister all moved from a small country town, 330 km north-west of Melbourne to Caulfield, Victoria to be near my grandparents. Mum was a very good tennis player and had won a mixed Australian junior title. Back then, country Victoria had a very strong tennis culture so we would travel around to tournaments watching mum play. There are many photos of us running around at tournaments with tennis balls in our hands. On moving to Melbourne Mum continued her love of tennis by establishing a tennis coaching business that still operates today.
When we first arrived in Melbourne in 76, mum started a coaching business on a couple of local council courts with just four ladies. Mum’s parents, our Nana and Pa, helped out as assistant coaches and I have very fond memories from these early years. Mum would start coaching in the morning from 9 – 12 while my sister was being looked after by the grandparents. After school, I would walk home past the tennis courts as mum worked until 7pm. Occasionally I would jump into a lesson but mostly it was home to the grandparents with instructions on what to cook for dinner.
From about 9 years old I was answering the phone and taking bookings for coaching. I guess you could say I was bred into the profession.
During the school holidays, mum ran coaching programs and we were expected to assist where needed. From early in the morning, we would jump in and play or act as assistant coaches, filling the ball machine, cutting fruit for the other kids or just being a general assistant for mum, grandparents or other coaches. We would still have a family holiday in the second week of the holidays but coaching tennis was the family business and we all loved it.
Pa went on to become a participant in a program the over 50’s Tennis Group. Many were over 80 but they got together once a week for a 2 -3 hour session to keep Nan and Pa active and it still goes on today. We are attached to the Glen Eira tennis club for returned serviceman with many over 90 players.
Hewitt Tennis Coaching has been running for 38 years and is now coaching the third generation of players. With around 500 students, it is still a family business today that I am very proud of.
Although tennis was the family business, like every other boy going to school at Caulfield Grammar, I wanted to play AFL. When I left school I went to University and studied teaching, Bachelor of Applied Science in Human movement but I never stopped coaching.
After gaining my teaching degree I travelled to Japan with the intent to teach English but naturally ‘fell’ into coaching tennis as well. Some of my students invited me to go down for a hit and started coaching very quickly on Saturdays and Sundays. We had a fabulous cultural exchange with a background of sport.
The aspects of silence and listening are very important. The pedagogical significance of demonstration instead of lengthy explanations was something that I didn’t really appreciate then.
After Japan, my wife and I spent eighteen months in Singapore where I was Head Tennis coach at the American Club. Working in the American Club in Singapore was very demanding in terms of customer service and long hours. I would often work from 6 am until 11 pm but I look back on those times fondly although they were challenging.
Study to be the best
Once I had travelled, I then launched into the academic pathway all centred around coaching.
I coached full time through my Honours degree (aspects of coaching), my Master’s degree and my PhD (study in coaching methodologies and tennis teaching styles). I would coach seven days a week all the way through my academic pathway which all focused on coaching.
Even through all of this, I imagined that I would only do Tennis Coaching as a part time job until I identified a ‘real’ career. I was, of course, unaware at the time that coaching would become my career. If there was anything I could change, it would be to recognise and appreciate that coaching is a very ‘real’ career pathway. That’s part of what we do at Tennis Australia now to get young coaches to recognise that it can be a long term, genuine vocation with fabulous rewards.
If you are going to be a great coach these days, then I think you are someone who cares about the holistic development of the person. We look at the physical, psychological and affective aspects of the person and each means different things to individuals. You may deal with students with less physical capacity or natural inclination but you will might enrich them in other domains. All domains now fit into the job of coaching.
Specifically you need to be patient, creative, energetic and respectful for the profession of coaching. There is a huge responsibility to the individuals who are paying for your service. You are a custodian of the profession of Coaching and your influence is significant and needs to be respected. When the kids run out of the gate at the end of the lesson, regardless of their differing abilities, you want them to experience a sense of success, fun and enjoyment.
Since I started coaching, I’ve seen the certification and accreditation pathways become far more rigorous. Tennis accreditation is now nationally recognised and attached to Certificate III and Certificate IV qualifications which I feel are far more comprehensive and relevant for younger people. Our programs are aligned and share many complimentary features within the Australian Sports Commission philosophy of “Playing for life” which is underpinned by the Game Sense approach which integrates technique, tactics, maximum participation, inclusion, problem solving and inquiry.
Tennis coaching methodology and teaching styles have also changed. I started coaching using traditional methods where tennis was taught very didactically with a central focus on isolated skill practice limited to the psycho-motor domain. With the implementation of Tennis Hot Shots we now also focus on the cognitive and affective domains as well as the physical aspects. This immensely successful tennis development program sees kids as young as five playing with modified racquets and balls. This innovative initiative also extends into schools with the Tennis in Primary and Secondary school programs in addition to introducing the program to pre-service undergraduates at various Universities across the country. All designed to impact positively on the physical activity levels of children, adolescents and young adults.
Integrating the technical elements of the game within the tactical objectives while engaging students in the affective domain is essential for relevancy, retention and success.
As for mentors, I have been lucky enough to have had many – all from various educational and sporting disciplines. I recall, many years ago, having David Parkin as my lecturer at Deakin University for a unit on Children in Sport. I also garnished a variety of skills from the Physical Education teachers who worked in our tennis coaching business.
For new coaches starting out, I would offer the following
- Invest in your craft. Being a prolific reader and seek out the knowledge you need. Don’t be afraid to go outside your own discipline and learn from other perspectives.
- Attach yourself to a good mentor, then be a good listener.
- Experiment and take risks when you are coaching. What works for one person may not work for another. You have a choice to progress or regress.
- Check your ego at the door. You will never know everything so keep an open mind.
- Don’t teach idiosyncratically. It’s not about what you know or necessarily what you think is right or the ‘best’ way, it’s what the student needs. Be flexible, and always reflect and consider the developmental readiness of your students
- Most importantly, love what you do.
I am often asked when I will transition off the court but to me, the hours of a tennis coach together with the physical demands are natural. I recently took 2 weeks leave from Tennis Australia and ended up working back in the family business. I couldn’t help myself. After all these years, mum is still on the court. In fact, we still even coach together, so I see that I will always be on the court. In my role at Tennis Australia, maintaining relevance and currency is critically important but at the end of the day, my reasons are also a little selfish – I just love being on the court and engaging with the students
In the future I want to continue to integrate the practical elements of the profession with the theoretical aspects of pedagogy An area, I believe, coaches need to further explore.. I think Judith Rink explains it best when she says “You don’t want to know that something simply works, you want to know why and how it works in different conditions. This allows you to develop a pedagogy that is constant with the why. Only then you can be creative and innovative.”
The life of a coach is challenging with lessons often commencing early in the morning and ordinarily not finishing until late at night – but I wouldn’t change a moment of it.
Mitch is the National Coach Education Coordinator at Tennis Australia. His role includes a variety of curriculum, content development and professional development initiatives designed for tennis coaches, primary and secondary school teachers and tertiary students. Mitch has coached tennis across all levels for over 27 years as well as working as a Physical Education teacher. He continues to coach in the family tennis coaching business.
He has a Bachelor of Applied Science (Human Movement) (Hons), Grad Dip Ed. (Teaching) Masters in Education and a PhD in pedagogy.
Powerful Stories, Tips and Amazing Insight
Ready, Set, Go! Everything you need to know to start coaching from the legends in the field. As well as the Business and Life coaches, our launch edition features David Parkin (AFL), Lisa Alexander (Netball Australia), Adam Commens (Hockey Australia), Simon Cusack (Swimming Australia), Sean Douglas (FFA) and many more!