Coaches can have a positive impact on the lives of junior tennis players and this responsibility is the catalyst to work harder, learn best practices and improve. While true professionals create opportunities for their students, self-important one’s are boasting that they are "High-Performance" coaches by displaying only their student's rankings. They hope you will infer that they must be a great coach because they have great students by conflating their ability to expertly lead with their willingness to shamelessly promote themselves. Such pretension devalues and undermines the integrity of the profession.
Events and numbers can be spun to say anything you want because you can always find a correlation or connection between things, but correlation is not causation. A student may achieve because or despite the coaching they receive, and while everything may happen for a reason, it's not always for the reason that we would like others to believe.
As the great American author Mark Twain once said, “Figures don't lie, but liars figure,” and the line that is often credited to former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, "There are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics.” Simply stated, you can make figures say anything you want them to say because you can always find a statistical correlation between events, but as anyone who was paying even casual attention in high school knows, correlation is not causation.
Great coaches are an invaluable asset to the development of top players, but what all experienced coaches know is that the drive and enthusiasm of talented students can make even an average coach look like a genius. Therefore, what masquerades as an accomplishment may really be underachievement when viewed in a different context. Here's an illustrative example: Let's say you were introduced to the coach of the 11th, 12th and 13th ranked players in the nation in the Girls’ 16s. Sounds impressive, right? Maybe there is a little more information that you might not have been told. These players were ranked third, fourth or fifth in the nation eight months ago before this coach started to work them and the number one and two ranked players this person coached? They’re both injured and not playing.
Don't think this happens? Think again. The takeaway here is that high performance coaching is not about producing high performers, but rather, producing the highest, most sustainable performers possible. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the quality of the student fully indicates the quality of their teacher, since coaching ability inferred from students, while valuable to know, is not a defining or definitive quality. Some of the least skilled coaches I know coach top players, although many take great license with the term "coach," which can mean anything from a long-term mentorship to chaperoning a player to one tournament. From my personal experience, I recognize that while I am known for working with students who achieved professional rankings, some of the best coaching I've done has resulted in more modestly capable students ascending on their high school and college teams.
While it's useful to recognize that current and former students' success can be seen as one of many factors used to assess a coach’s suitability to maximize a new student's success, there are other markers that make for a great student-teacher fit. I have talked extensively about those specific qualities in other articles I have written for this publication, including: “Ten Things to Consider When Choosing a Coach: A Two-Part Guide” (page 58 of the November/December 2016 issue) and “Why You Should Look Beyond the Hype When Selecting a Tennis Coach: A Two-Part Guide” (page 38 of the January/February 2019 issue).
Remember to be cautious when you hear tennis coaches using hyperbole to suggest that student's rankings are the singular compelling factor to prove their success because these numbers are a quantitative "snapshot" of the student, not a qualitative measure of their teacher. Further, don't assume that the highest ranking a student achieves tells the whole story because it might not be. A true exceptional coach will not only help a student perform, but also protect them from injuries. A list of student rankings often camouflages a coach's career filled with leading a few to success, and most to the orthopedist. A coach's actions speak louder than student’s results, because while results don't lie, liars promote figures to exaggerate, mislead and sell.
Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.