Jeff’s desk

What is poaching? In tennis, the term is used when a coach approaches a player from another program and persuades them to move to their program or club. Poaching often provides less-skilled coaches the opportunity to fill their rosters with quality players in order to look better than they are. These coaches often convince players that their program or club is better and that they will have a better chance of winning tournaments if they join.

It is easy for parents to be persuaded by coaches or clubs who praise their child’s abilities and promise success. However, if the poaching coach or club is so good, why are they trying to recruit players? Shouldn’t their players already be the best? In my experience, these clubs and programs recruit athletes and coaches away from their competitors because they do not have faith in their own ability to turn what they have into a winning team. They can only create a winning team by stealing another club’s coaches and players. It’s important to be aware and to consider is this really the kind of team you want your child to join? Wouldn’t you rather choose a program that has a history of developing great players and coaches?

Most experienced coaches and players would agree that poaching is unethical and that it is primarily done by weaker clubs and coaches. I agree that it is unethical, but I also feel strongly that it is disrespectful to the students that currently support that club. By trying to recruit players from a competing club, the poaching clubs are saying to their current athletes that they are not good enough to receive their support and that they have no faith in their ability. Ultimately, these clubs care more about success than loyalty.

My point is, good coaches develop their own players to get results and they don’t need to steal players to do so. The CBC recently published an article, “Player poaching – the underlying message,” that highlights this point. It’s a great read and truly emphasizes the pitfalls of buying into this poaching culture and how it does not serve young athletes well.

Now that you’re more aware, how do you choose the right coach? When looking for a coach or program, or when being recruited by another club, look at the following:

  1. The coach or program’s history of developing players
  2. The environment that the coach creates at the club
  3. The coach’s previous playing background
  4. The coach’s certification or education

The most important quality I look for in a coach is their history of developing players. I have seen coaches with great certification and education that do not have the knack for coaching. Often, their coaching style is theoretical and not practical because they learned tennis in the classroom and not on the court. The same can be said of coaches with a great playing background; just because someone can play the sport, does not mean they can coach.

I like to think that the best indication of future results is past results. If a coach has trained provincial and/or national champions in the past, they will most likely continue to do so in the future. I look for this quality when interviewing coaches and I follow-up with players, those that have won a provincial or national championship, to see what they think of the coach and who they give credit to for their success. Unfortunately, many coaches take credit for another coach’s work simply because they took over that player for a few months or gave a private lesson or two. Be cautious. Look at the history of the coach or program that is trying to recruit you and if they are not the best in their area, they may simply be poaching.

A proper high-performance environment is also extremely important when developing players. One of the best coaches I have seen do this is Rico Policarpo. I had the pleasure of being coached by Rico and never left practice without breaking a sweat. Rico had a way of getting his athletes to run further than they wanted to and his training sessions were hard but satisfying. Nowadays, I see many parents place too much worth on whether their child likes their coach or not, when the focus should be on whether the coach makes them work hard and pushes them to strive for excellence. How many professional athletes thank their coach for being friendly or nice? I have been coached by some of the best coaches in North America and, while I respected each one of them, I was not friends with any of them. A coach needs to care about his/her athlete, but also know how to push them to strive to be their best. Coaches are coaches, not friends. Which would you rather have, your child come home from practice saying what a good pal their coach is or to come home from practice sweaty and tired?

In my opinion, if your child is not sweating after a practice or in desperate need of water, then they were not working hard enough. If your child consistently leaves practice without sweating, you should consider changing programs.

Playing background is also an important piece in the making of a great coach. There is a reason why many top professional players are now looking to former top-ranked players to coach them. To know what a player is going through you need to have been there. How can a coach advise a player on how to deal with choking, bad line calls, the tactics of their opponent and many other factors that young players face, if they have not gone through those issues themselves? A high level of playing experience is necessary to coach well, at the very least a top player in their province for singles. It would be preferable for a coach to have been ranked in the top 10 in the country, had a professional ranking, OR played for a top school in any of the US college divisions. If a coach has not achieved these minimum standards as a player, it is safe to assume that they do not know exactly what a junior goes through in their matches. A coach simply cannot advise the junior on how to handle the myriad of difficult situations they will encounter throughout their career if they haven’t had the experiences themselves. The more accomplishments a coach has had as a player the more personal experience they’ll be able to draw from and pass on to their players.

To illustrate how important it is for a coach to have played tennis at a high level, I will tell you a story from my senior year of college. For my fourth year at university, our head coach hired a player who had just come off the ATP tour; John Caras was hired as an assistant coach. He had played for the University of Southern California and had won a national title there. We had always been a good team but coach Caras was the final piece of the puzzle, taking us from third in our conference to top 16 in the country. He passed on valuable tactics and strategies to deal with the many things that happen in college tennis, knowledge that he had gained while being a part of the top college team in Div 1 tennis. Without coach Caras, we would not have made it to the sweet 16 my final year!

Certification can also highlight some important coach qualities. A coach that takes courses to reach a higher level of certification shows a desire to improve and a dedication to keeping up with the latest trends in the game. Coaches that do not attend annual coaching conferences such as Tennis Canada’s National Coaching Conference, the USPTA’s World Coaching Conference or the ITF World Coaching conference are not as dedicated to staying current. When speaking with a new coach, I recommend to ask when they last attended a conference for tennis. If the answer is over a year, I would be concerned. If they haven’t attended a course or conference in over two years, then I would not even consider them. Education alone is not a good indication of whether a coach is good enough to work with your child, but it does show how committed they are to becoming better.

Choosing the right program can be a difficult thing to do. If you follow my suggestions, I believe that you will find the right program for your child. Don’t be swayed by smooth talking coaches and clubs that promise the world to your child, they will not deliver.

I would like to take this time to say thanks to the many coaches that helped me be the best I could be, I owe the following coaches a big thanks:

  • Rico Policarpo taught me how to push myself to my limits every day.
  • Kevin Page taught me the technique that I needed to build a solid foundation for the game.
  • Pierre Lamarche, Ari Novick, Gatean Parent, Lorne Main, Wendy Pattenden and many more coaches at All-Canadian taught me how to play the game of tennis, and created the high-performance training environment that I often reflect in our Aforza Academy programs.
  • Ron Smarr (Head Men’s Coach at the University of Colorado) put together the best tennis team in CU’s history and help push us every day to become a top 16 Nationally ranked team. He also taught me to control my emotions, without which I would have never earned All American honors.

To each of these great coaches, thank you, I will never forget what you have done for me and countless others!  You spent your career focused on developing players, like myself, rather than poaching.