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The Great American Swindle

Since CAtennis.com got started we've had both positive and negative reviews. Several of our site frequenters have inquired whether some of our tips/suggestions (or "articles") carry a deliberate (or, perhaps, innocent) anti-teaching-pro tinge. Our answer is, as it has always been, "absolutely not". After all, we are, or have been, involved in the junior development business ourselves and, as a result, we would be hypocrites to attack ourselves or our methods. Nevertheless, what separates us from a number of our peers is that we constantly remind our students that the time on-court with us is simply NOT ENOUGH. We encourage the students to take ownership of their development and charge of their destinies. We remind them to utilize our knowledge and expertise as a guide/map, not a tour bus. "We're along for YOUR journey; not the other way around." Do the hard hammering and chiseling yourself; come to us when you require our assistance with the fine sandpapering. We do not presume to have all the answers (and are loathe to rely on the "authority" implied by our modest results). The primary purpose of CAtennis.com is to elicit a discussion of "what it takes" from people who have gone through the process. 

With the foregoing in mind, however, let's take a sledgehammer to that other great American tennis institution: the live-in tennis "academy" (I put this term in quotation because I doubt that subjects such as the history or physics of tennis are heavily studied, discussed and debated at such places). Enter "tennis academy" and "United States" into your basic search engine and you are likely to get over 1.5million hits. They all have enterprising sounding names and some are even associated with reputable former tennis players or teaching professionals. The cost of attending one of these live-in academies is usually pretty steep; most of the time, upwards of $25,000/year. At the more prestigious academies, the per-student tuition can run as much as $50,000/year - $68,000/year.  This cost usually covers housing, meals and entertainment, as well as coaching and training. At some academies, the tuition also includes education (although a lot of times this costs extra and, in several cases, it's provided through an online program), tournament entry fees as well as transportation and housing to/from the site. Most academies charge extra for racket restringing and almost none provide the basic equipment (save for balls): shoes, strings, RACKETS, grips, etc. Generally, parents - with BEST INTENTIONS IN MIND - send their children to some of these glorified day-care centers with the expectations that, upon spending $200,000+ over 4 or more years, the player will receive a full college scholarship and, perhaps, be good enough to try "the tour" for a couple of years. 

Now, you don't have to be a genius to realize that for LESS than $200,000 (cost of attending your average, high-end academy for 4-5+ years), the child could easily attend a reputable institution of higher learning AND have sufficient money left over to live in Paris and/or London or travel the globe for 1.5years after graduation. But this is not the reason why the academy system is a swindle; it's a con because, like many hucksters before them, they use limited examples (anecdotes) to market the perceived effectiveness of their program(s). Without naming names, you will often hear stories how so-and-so sent his young son to some far-off place in Florida where he trained all day and became top-10 in the world. However, what these examples dicount is the percentage of people "who make it" versus the sheer number of players who do not. For every academy player who cracks the top-100/200 there are THOUSANDS of kids from the very same program who do not. Similarly, for every player who gets a "full ride" somewhere, HUNDREDS of his academy-mates do not. Would you consider a law school to be reputable if only 1 out of 1000 graduates pass the bar exam?! What if you had to go in for major surgery and 999 of your doctor's patients have died on the operating table but he's had major success with 1 patient?! Would you let him operate on you?! 

Thus, when evaluating whether to spend good, hard-earned money on an academy you not only have to perform a cost-benefit analysis (i.e. would money be better spent on an Ivy League education?) but also look at the percentage of players who make it v. those who do not. Then, you have to ask whether those players who broke through would have made it regardless; maybe they just worked harder, were more passionate about tennis and had the qualities necessary to succeed. Some players may be very good - best in their countries or sections - but not have the resources in their home-town to develop further. These good players receive scholarships at the prestigious academies - so the process doesn't really cost them anything - that are funded by players who might not have what it takes (and never will). In other words, they serve the academy's marketing scheme to attract the paying suckers. In addition, these good players usually get to spend a lot more time with the "top" academy pros (and, if lucky, serve as sparing partners for the touring players) thereby improving at a faster rater than their colleagues. 

Conversely, the rest of the students (i.e., the average or bad players) spend 4-5 hours on the court with a "pro" who's getting paid $15-$20/hour. Wait! You thought that the academy pros are highly compensated individuals?! Did you think that the on-court ball-feeders are getting paid a king's ransom for their work?! Well that's just naive. The academy is a BUSINESS and someone's gotta be making money from this endeavor (as usual, it's the owners, not the workers). So how involved is that instructor going to be in your child's development if he receives a fraction of a cost of a lesson AND has 5-6 students to look after. Of course, some of these pros might not be qualified to teach at the local country club to begin with, but that's a separate issue altogether. Per-student, this instructor/babysitter is getting less than minimum wage. There are, of course, some who use this opportunity to learn about the teaching business, develop a clientelle and, perhaps, find one or two students with whom they can travel. However, at some point, burn-out is going to set in and the likelihood that the "pros" will continue to provide high-quality instruction will diminish.

Now let's look at the flip-side. For $30,000, your child could: (a) live at home, play the tournaments that she wants to play and not be subjected to the negative influence of the live-in peers (yes, drugs and alcohol abuse are often factors at live-in academies and you can't always count on some immature monitor - who many times is not much older than the pupils - to look after everyone's conduct); (b) at $60/hour, your child can take 300 private lessons per year (or 600 semi-private). Heck, your local pro can cut you a deal (a lesson package) and maybe work with your kid for 400 hours/year. That's 2 hours a day of individual attention (not counting days off or tournaments). We're not flip-flopping on the "lessons" concept; just pointing out that if you're sending the child away for instruction, then you can very easily secure instruction close to home. If the private lessons don't work for you, maybe you should consider hiring a gardner to mow the tennis balls around the court while lil' Johnny is grinding on the ball machine. That's $15/hour well-spent; (c) take lessons from someone who is actually getting paid a decent hourly wage ($50/hr v. $15/hr) thereby, more or less, guaranteeing quality advice and interest in the player's development; (d) have a relatively "normal" upbringing and not be removed from her friends; (e) have less stress and higher quality education; and (f) have the opportunity to work on her own development and not rely on someone else to force-feed her information. 

Again, the live-in academy system works for some and those "some" happen to be very good players who have put in the work early and have a proven commitment to the sport. Like first-born children in the middle ages, they get the benefit of the best training and attention and are groomed to become champions at the expense of the rest of the students - his "sponsors". These sponsor-players serve as the foundation of the academy pyramid scheme and are only there to fulfill their parents Walter Mitty fantasies. Of course, some parents will continue to be razzle-dazzled by the anecdotes of success. Rather than doing some critical thinking and planning, they will prefer to continue writing checks and pass along the development responsibility to someone else. After all, signing a check is way easier than being actually involved. The best advice that we could give you would be to contact the former players (and their parents) and see how the academy worked for them and whether they got everything that they wanted out of their investment and experience. 

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Reader Comments (3)

Great article. I think if you have a handful of really high quality teaching pros in your local area and your kid has high enough quality players to play locally with - then staying at home is clearly the smarter option. For kids that have true talent but live in the middle of nowhere (with neither of the above) - then maybe an academy makes sense. Alaska, North Dakota, Minnesota etc come to mind (no offense intended)

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTweener

Exactly..as long as the parents make an informed decision and are not falling for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow they can't blame anyone but themselves for the bad investment. Without a doubt, some players will improve and most will have a good time. Will they have achieved their goals? Some yes, most no.

October 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterCAtennis

For most its cost prohibitive anyway, but - it would certainly be sad to see a dreamer parent invest everything they have into sending their kid to one of these live in academies. Its probably happened.

October 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTweener

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