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How the Lawn Tennis Association is Capitalising on the Success of British Tennis

The LTA’s Head of Participation, Rob Dearing, explains to Blake Richardson how the governing body is using the spiked interest generated by the achievements of British stars like Andy Murray as a platform to grow participation in the sport

At Wimbledon 2016, the awesome foursome of Andy Murray (men’s singles), Heather Watson (mixed doubles), Gordon Reid (men’s wheelchair singles) and Jordanne Whiley (women’s wheelchair doubles) reigned triumphant to add a new glorious chapter to the smashing success story of a sport whose star has been in the ascendancy since the 2012 London Olympic Games.

History has been rewritten on numerous occasions since Murray’s emotional victory over Roger Federer during that golden summer. He lay Fred Perry’s 77-year ghost to rest in 2013 with his first Wimbledon crown, and in June became the first British man since Perry in the 1930s to win multiple singles slams on the SW19 grass.

Murray’s third Grand Slam title follows hot on the success of Great Britain’s 2015 Davis Cup triumph, their first in 79 years.

The history makers have been peppered by plaudits, and richly deserved. But it is not just the players who are, to use modern sporting parlance, tearing it up.

The elite players may be the ones in the spotlight, but there is an equal amount of hard graft being put in behind the scenes by the dedicated network of deliverers, who together ensure there is an efficient structure in place which fully capitalises on the legacy of these achievements.

It is time the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), and the thousands of tennis coaches and tens of thousands of volunteers who align themselves with the governing body’s participation programmes, also received a standing ovation.

Coaching masterclass

Rob Dearing is the Head of Participation at the LTA, and he agrees that while inspirational achievements are great for capturing people’s interest in a sport and enticing them through the door, it is good coaching which keeps them coming back for more.

When it comes down to it, that is what the kids will remember,” says Rob. “Yes, of course, seeing Andy or Heather on TV is inspirational, but if you then turn up at a session and you have a poor experience, it doesn’t matter how good the experience was of watching Andy on TV, you’re not going to come back.”

There are 30,000 volunteers and over 4,300 accredited coaches making tennis happen.

They are, according to Rob, the people who really bring tennis to life.

“We can certainly help and facilitate, provide the resources, tools and the right programmes, but really we’re in a people business in the sport and leisure industry, and we’re very much reliant on the enthusiasm and motivation of those people delivering incredible experiences for the kids.

“Which is why we work so hard in supporting the coaches. And we’re very fortunate as a sport in having an incredible band of coaches out there delivering fantastic, high-quality experiences.”

It is difficult to gauge, in terms of precise numbers, how much of an impact a Murray success at Wimbledon, or a Great Britain Davis Cup victory, will have on participation figures.

But the feel-good factor and excitement generated certainly provides a welcome boost to the LTA’s cause.

 

“It’s been a really exciting period for a couple of years now,” says Rob.

“Certainly, we see anecdotal evidence that when Andy and the rest of the players like Heather, Gordon and Jordanne do so well, you see a pick-up in terms of interest in the sport. Our partners report back saying that court bookings are up, and we see a spike through bookings for our campaigns.

It’s hard to make a direct link but clearly when you see, like over the last couple of years, some incredible performances on the court, you start to see a boost in participation. But having said that, we are also doing a huge amount more as an organisation and a sport on participation.”

The professional game and the grass-roots game have a mutually beneficial relationship. 

And it is important they complement each other, as the success of one relies on the success of the other.

You can’t just expect players to win lots of titles and expect participation to grow,” says Rob.

To quote Rudyard Kipling: “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack” – with the ‘wolf’ in this case the professional game and the ‘pack’ the legions of budding youngsters the LTA are continually introducing to the game.

Participation peaks

Two of the LTA’s biggest consumer-facing campaigns are the Great British Tennis Weekend (GBTW) and Tennis for Kids initiative (TKI).

Both these projects were created by the governing body to celebrate the success of the elite players, and to harness the spiked interest they generated in the sport to get more people playing tennis more often.

The GBTW – launched on the back of Murray’s win at Wimbledon in 2013 – focuses on getting new or returning players into the sport.

“It is a free, family-focused event,” says Rob. “One of the big strengths of our sport is that it can be played by everybody within the family unit.

“Seventy-five per cent of bookings come from mums with kids under 16, so we try and target specific marketing channels on that particular audience.”

The weekends take place throughout summer, however the LTA put extra marketing resources behind one weekend in May (to pique interest ahead of the summer months) and one weekend in July (to tap into the buzz whipped up by Wimbledon).

 

Every year, without fail, when you look at the participation trends in tennis, you see a big peak in July, just after Wimbledon. We support the clubs and our other partners to capture that interest through the Great British Tennis Weekend.”

The LTA have an operational and strategic role, which includes setting up the campaign, providing all of the technology – in terms of the website booking process – dispatching guidance and resources to organisers, and then recruiting from their network of club-based coaches, and the parks who run the tennis programmes.

The LTA also shares responsibility for marketing the project through its communications team, via press, website and social media channels.

It’s our job to try and amplify the campaign as much as possible, but really it is to the benefit of the individual venues to run them because it attracts new people into their facility,” says Rob.

Five-star rating

The numbers add up to a resounding success, with customer satisfaction ratings hitting over 90%.

Around 25% of people who turn up to a GBTW event go on to sign up for an ongoing tennis programme or activity at the venue, and 15% actually join the club after their experience.

“People having a great time means people coming back,’ says Rob, “and in terms of returning, if you compare our percentages to industry standards, it proves the volunteers and coaches on the ground are doing a great job.”

I ask Rob if he has ever dreamt of the day when the next champion player from these shores stares out at him from his television screen, reminiscing about how they have the LTA to thank for falling in love with the game and setting them on the path to stardom, before crediting one of their inspiring participation schemes.

“We do talk about that actually, with the Tennis for Kids Initiative,” he laughs, “because that started really as a legacy programme following the GB team winning the Davis Cup. Legacy doesn’t mean one year, so we need to keep working hard with all our partners to grow the game.

“But ultimately, if one of those kids who are new to the sport were in 20 years’ time winning titles on the ATP or WTA Tour, that would be a great achievement. The more people coming into the funnel, the more chance we’ve got.”

 

Inspiration days

The Tennis for Kids initiative is a mini-tennis programme for children aged 4–10. It provides youngsters who have never played the sport before with an opportunity to learn all about the game as part of a free six-week course delivered by a trained LTA-qualified coach.

Every child gets to keep the racket they have been using to encourage them to continue playing tennis on completion of the course and to sign up for another programme.

The first wave of courses came to an end around the same time Murray was weaving his magic on Centre Court, and when the impressive statistics – which showed 14,000 children had come through the programme – began circulating through the corridors of power at the LTA, there was cause for double celebration.

Rob was thrilled to see the team’s efforts pay off.

They recruited more than a thousand coaches, who attended one of 15 ‘Inspiration Days’, where the focus was on how to provide an exhilarating experience for children, rather than on technical instruction.

Rob shared how great it was to have the Great Britain Davis Cup Team Captain Leon Smith in attendance at 90% of these days, adding some incredible insights on how to inspire kids on court.

The approved coaches went away and set up the courses when it fitted in with their own summer timetable.

Rob adds: “The reason we are so excited by the programme in feeding the future of the game is that over 40% of the kids are signing up for another activity, which is the strongest return we have had on any of our programmes to date.

“If in the future we can add around 15–20,000 kids into the sport every year, and nearly 50% of those are staying after that first experience, that is really exciting.

“We know from our own insight that the majority of regular adult players started playing tennis around the age of 12, so actually giving people the experience of tennis and trying to give them a love for the sport early on, will mean we’ve got a better chance of keeping them later in life as an adult.

“We’re hoping to get more kids involved next year and to work with the coaches who were involved this year to encourage them to promote the scheme to other coaches in their area, so we grow the number who deliver the courses.”

Players inspiring a nation

The performances of Britain’s top players on court is a great awareness driver for tennis, with the LTA’s job to then use these successes as a platform to grow participation in the sport.

As a combined force, the players and the LTA schemes serve as inspiration to those yet to pick up a racket for the first time to take that first step with relish, and to those who have already fallen in love with the sport to stick at it in the hope of emulating the success of their heroes and heroines.

Rob explains: “Our focus is trying to get as many people at grass-roots level to play, and the performance players and the elite side of the game we hope can take care of itself.

“When it comes to the tennis on the professional side of the sport, the big players are huge brands in their own right, so obviously you have to work within the remits of that, but the players are generally very supportive.

“We’re amazingly lucky to have someone like Andy, who is such an incredible ambassador for the sport. Every time he steps on a court, he helps us promote tennis.”

It is a view echoed by Chief Executive Michael Downey, who adds: “If Andy continues to do what he’s doing, he will keep inspiring a nation. Our role is to capture that inspiration.”

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