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UK Coaching Team
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Children Rapport Building and Communicating Improving Physical Ability Community Integration

Connecting in a Crisis: How Western Tennis Hit Upon a Winner

UK Coaching Week 2020 aims to showcase the coaching community’s amazing efforts to keep the nation physically and mentally healthy during the last six months. Charlotte Potterton speaks to Harry Sutherland, a coach at Western Health & Racquets Club (Western Tennis) about the experience of transforming their annual Easter Camp into an online entity during COVID-19 and the importance placed on opportunities to connect

Being locked in such a long spell of isolation and disruption has affected everyone from coaches and professional athletes, to parents of children suddenly out of school, to single adults living alone. But while the restrictions established to fight the insidious spread of COVID-19 ensured a shared experience, they were also responsible for isolating people within their households, however large or small, resulting in strained social connections and restricted opportunities to take part in physical activity.

A survey completed in April found that 24% of respondents said they had experienced feelings of loneliness in the ‘previous two weeks.’ When that question had been asked prior to lockdown, just 10% of respondents said that they had experienced those feelings. (For more information, read about the survey.)

It’s probably safe to say that most – if not all – of us are aware of the near-legendary number of Zoom video chats that occurred when the UK’s most stringent lockdown measures were applied in April. In the world of business, it provided an opportunity for more organisations than ever to hold meetings online, regardless of the number of attendees.

In lieu of meeting in person, people were diving right into alternative methods of communication, striving to maintain the social connections threatened by the restriction of movement while acknowledging the importance of keeping their distance. 

The same digital revolution took place in the world of coaching. Coaches of a variety of sports, from teachers to community activators, scrambled to offer a range of motivational online content designed to encourage people to incorporate physical activity into their new routines. Interestingly, though, it was the opportunity to connect with the people they coach that proved to be especially impactful.

Keeping people connected at Western Tennis

No more so than at the Western Health & Racquets Club (Western Tennis), based in Glasgow’s West End. 

As well as offering access to six tennis courts and coaching, team and social play, Western Tennis hold annual Easter and Summer Camps that provide opportunities for children to take part in a variety of sports and activities designed to improve general fitness. They made the decision to take the 2020 Easter Camp online when it became clear that bringing everyone together for the usual smorgasbord of delights wouldn’t be possible, with the aim to ensure both that no one had to miss out on the much-anticipated annual event and that everyone in the Western Tennis family could stay connected – a key part of Western Tennis’ ethos.

"The idea was just that we didn’t want people to feel like they were losing out," explains Harry Sutherland, a coach at Western Tennis and the producer of the online Easter Camp.

We wanted to stay connected with the players, the coaches and the families. It’s such a big part of the club, and for the people that come to the club, so it was important for us to do something.”

Taking Easter Camp online

It’s not every day that an annual Easter Camp turns digital. The approach at Western Tennis was to release daily videos featuring the club’s coaches and members. Familiar faces performed demonstrations of various activities, and at the end of each day a round-up video was released containing key highlights. 

At Western Tennis, the process taken to transform an in-person event into a structured online programme sounds deceptively simple. Essentially, they ran with a very good idea.

"It was a funny story, actually," Harry explains. "I got a call on the Sunday before Easter Camp normally started, saying 'oh, we’re going to do Easter Camp online. What do you think?' I thought it was a great idea. In my head, I was thinking that we’ve got a week to do this. It was only afterwards that I realised that it was starting the next day! We had to plan everything, and create and upload all the videos, all within a day."

Julie, the main coach at Western Tennis, their social media manager Geraldine, and one of the players, Pavla, were also involved in delivering the online Eastern Camp. It was "a great experience for us all, and a big learning curve," Harry reflects.

Developing a love for the game

An indispensable aspect of Harry’s motivation for coaching is instilling in others a passion for tennis, but he also has a strong appreciation for the social aspect of physical activity, and notes that people receiving coaching can take huge steps in confidence, developing as both people and players. 

This is in part due to the pressure-free opportunity to dive right in to playing the sport as well as Western Tennis’ person-centred approach to coaching. The coaches’ people skills are instrumental in their ability to teach their sport, and enthusiasm is essential. 

"I enjoy seeing people have that passion that I have, that love for the game. I also love that opportunity to pass on the passion and the love, and seeing kids especially enjoy playing and developing. You’ve had some sort of part in that development, and it’s really satisfying to see."

Due to the diversity of Western Tennis’ offer, they see players of all abilities come to learn and have fun on the tennis courts. But for many players, the opportunity to be part of the Western Tennis family and connect with like-minded people has proven to be just as important as the chance to improve their skills on the court. 

"It’s a big part of the club, and there’s always a community of kids that attend. It’s about having fun, and obviously about playing tennis, but also about other sports too, fitness, and being with your friends. There are people that don’t play at the club for the rest of the year, but they come for the Camps because their friends are there.

A huge part of sport in general is the social aspect, no matter what level you’re at, and sport is a great way to grow socially as well. That’s been one of the themes of online Easter Camp: staying connected. It was an opportunity to stay connected with our members, parents, other coaches, kids, etc."

Positive feedback

Harry is proud to acknowledge that online Easter Camp succeeded in keeping people connected and active, the evidence of which came in the form of great positive feedback.

"It reached a lot of members, a lot of kids really enjoyed it," says Harry. “One of the key things was to use familiar faces, not just coaches but also kids doing videos. They would do demonstrations of the activities, and we included those in the videos. That kept up with the connection theme.

"Because we had other coaches do some stuff from other clubs, in terms of social media reach, we’ve actually kept a lot of the followers that we’ve gained from that. It reached members within the club, and outside. 

"We got a lot of positive feedback from parents as well. Now it’s loosened up a bit, but at the time it was quite tough, being stuck in the house all the time, and lots of parents struggled to find things to do. It helped a lot of people, a lot of families. That was probably the main reason for us all to take it online: giving people the opportunity to stay active even while staying indoors."

A valuable all-round learning experience

As well as an enjoyable experience for the Western Tennis family, online Easter Camp also presented a unique learning opportunity for everyone involved in producing it.

Aside from delivering a structured programme of events online, they also needed to be creative and think up new ways of developing skills and training, including through activities that could be completed anywhere and without equipment.

I’ve learned new ways to coach, that you don’t need a tennis court to teach tennis, and that you can do anything in any space. Even when we were doing the videos and thinking of the activities, while there were some activities that required a larger space, we always thought of an alternative activity that people could do in their living rooms, because we knew that people had different amounts of space to be active in."

"It doesn’t matter how or where you deliver the experience, it’s making the Western family feel connected with the coaches.

"People all over the world keep coming back, and I think it’s because of that sense of connection and togetherness, and that family feeling that there is at the club. The environment, and the coaches, who are nice people, creates that environment of connection."

"Working entirely online presented its challenges," Pavla adds, "however the online Easter Camp we made was interactive, fun and engaging, which made it very successful."

Looking forward

Reflecting on the experience, Harry adds that it was an opportunity to become better acquainted with the way the world is developing – that is, with a greater emphasis placed on online delivery and opportunities for learning and connecting with one another online. 

At Western Tennis, they have already applied some of the lessons learned and new skills developed through online Easter Camp to further diversify their offer and reach more people.

"As a club, we’re always looking for ways to develop and get more people involved from the community. Recently, we streamed the Club Championships on Facebook, giving everyone the opportunity to watch from home. We are looking at doing some sort of fitness activity online.

"It comes to a point in a player’s career or journey that they have to start introducing more fitness into their routine. Taking into account court availability, it can be difficult to introduce that at the club, so we have this idea to do something online, with options available to do at home, in the garden, or at the park."

Advice for coaches on using video

For coaches interested in diversifying their offer through the provision of videos, Harry recommends keeping it natural and, where possible, closely connected to yourself or the organisation that you’re a part of. It can be tempting to bring in famous faces, but Western Tennis discovered that videos featuring familiar faces from the Western Tennis family were more popular.

At the start, we pulled in videos of other people doing tennis, like Roger Federer and Jamie Murray, and a lot of fitness stuff, but what we learned was that people like the home-made stuff. They like to see the coaches, the kids and the parents in the videos. People enjoy that, and it goes back to our theme of connection: it helped them feel connected to the coach and reminded them of the club and the place it has in their lives. That was the main tip I would give and would look to do again."

Head Coach Julie adds: “Blended learning is the way forward, combining both online and in-person learning. The biggest thing that I have learned this year: without doubt, the value of creativity, connection and motivation."

Online coaching: a staple of the future?

In the last 20 years, developments in technology have made it possible for people to connect regularly and reliably to people anywhere the world, and this rapid evolution shows no sign of slowing down. The events of this year have been widely reported as ‘unprecedented,’ but whether we do face further challenges in the next few years or have the time and space to regroup and consolidate, it’s clear that Western Tennis and the wider coaching community will be ready and willing to do all that’s required to continue reaching out and offering opportunities to get active and connect.  

 

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