Learning from a failing sports governing body…

So there is finally a British Wimbledon men’s singles champion 77 years after the last.  The week after Murray’s win this headline appeared: “Welsh National Tennis Centre: LTA trying to protect facilities” reading on – “Crisis talks are taking place in an attempt to keep the Welsh National Tennis Centre in Cardiff Bay open after operator Virgin Active announced it will close amid financial problems.”

”In the same week Judy Murray was interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight, where she expressed her fear that tennis does not have the infrastructure to capitalise on her son Andy’s victory at Wimbledon. Asked about the current state of tennis in this country she maintained that it was still elitist and that there were not enough accessible courts or coaches.

Asked about the impact of the London Olympics, she said: “You have to plan for legacy and that has to start before the event starts. If there isn’t a facility or a coaching team, if there isn’t the opportunity on your doorstep you lose interest pretty quickly and find something else to do.”

In the Independent on Sunday this week Lord Coe stated ‘I feel he (Andy Murray) did more in those three sets at the Wimbledon final than the LTA have ever done to encourage more kids to play tennis in inner-city centres.  We have always used the ‘Wimbledon syndrome’ as a sort of sporting shorthand – the tennis racket comes out for a week over Wimbledon, a week later it goes back under the stairs.  Then, for the next year, we wonder why we’ve never had a Wimbledon champion.”

Well, now we have – yet something about Coe’s ‘sporting shorthand’ strikes me as a bit like the hit and hope tennis player.  The LTA have now got their men’s champion, yet, as pointed out in the last entry, Murray is not a product of the LTA system.  It is unlikely he would have made such a successful transition from promising junior to top 10 player had he not spent some of his junior years playing in Spain.

Much has been made of the LTA’s failure to develop elite competitive tennis players in the UK but from the comments from Coe and Judy Murray, there is a significant lack of investment into the infrastructure to enable significant growth in grass roots tennis.

Having worked on the remediation of failing projects and organisations over the last decade or so, the LTA displays some of the symptoms of failure that we have seen.  Why and what can we learn?

VISION
One characteristic of failing change programmes that we have consistently seen is not that there is no vision of the change but that the change is not communicated out to team members and stakeholders.  Roger Draper, who is now in the process of handing over, has led the LTA since 2006 and all looked promising when he started.  He launched a consultation, which led to the publication of a blueprint for British tennis. While I believe this was wrongly slanted towards developing elite players and lacked a credible plan for building grass roots participation (more of this later) it was still a vision and was published.  However, this, or any amended version, did not get communicated to the wider tennis world outside the National Tennis Centre on a regular basis.

Over time people lose clarity as to what they are aiming for if they are not continually reminded.  A key to the success of any change is to keeping communicating the vision of the end state and how you aim to get there as simply as possible.

PLAN VIABILITY
The Blueprint was the groundwork for the plan, however, there was much feedback from folks in British tennis that the base, or grass roots, needed significant development.  The comments above, from Judy Murray, indicate that this is her view also.

When the plan lacks credibility it is nigh impossible to engage people to drive it forward.  Additionally, as Kotter maintains, there is also a need for a coalition of senior change agents to lead change successfully.  The culture of the LTA would seem to be hierarchical but also they have sought to control other initiatives, as well as the development of competitive players as they progress.  The latter has led to much discontent amongst British coaches, as good coaches have lost talented players to the LTA system, only to see them fail to progress.

The LTA set targets for competitive players in terms of numbers of men and women in the top 100, which they were unable to meet.  This highlights the lack of credibility of the plan and those running the organization.

I’m convinced that the LTA would have seen far more success had they worked as a facilitator, empowering other initiatives, rather than trying to control anything they thought might be successful.  In Spain the work of developing competitive players is done by private academies, which have a structured approach from very young beginners to tour players.

Tennis for Free (www.tff.com ) has been doing some good work, with a tiny budget, getting councils to make park courts free of charge and setting up free coaching programmes on park courts, however, they have continually battled with the LTA, as they don’t see it as their programme.  It is this kind of initiative that could be even more successful with support from the LTA.

TEAM
The last point also relates to team engagement (in the widest sense).  If the plan is not seen to be credible there will be murmuring, in failing environments team members generally feel they have no voice or are not listened to.  In contrast high performing team encourage team members to speak out and challenging is part of the culture.  The LTA have often sought to silence or ignore those who challenge or speak out.

Good teams have a mix of skills and personalities.  That may well be the case at the LTA but typically, as tennis is a middle class sport, those who have gravitated towards the offices of the LTA have been middle class and there would seem to have been a culture of hiring in their own image.  Not the kind of approach that is going to take tennis to inner city areas.

Séverine Thieffry, Director of Fête le Mur, the charity set up by Yannick Noah in France to use tennis to develop kids in urban areas, said that this was a problem in France also.  Until they could develop kids from their programmes to work for them they needed to take middle class coaches and educate them as best they could to work in the inner city areas where most of their programmes are sited.

With the new CEO due to come in to the LTA in September there is opportunity for a new start and a sea change in British tennis.  Murray’s success can be a catalyst but only with other elements in place as well.

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Murray win masks LTA failure…

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It might seem like a golden era in British sport and undoubtedly Andy Murray’s achievement in winning Wimbledon is amazing, particularly given the pressure he was under. However, for British tennis, Andy Murray’s history making win masks the epic failure of the sports governing body.

Every year around this time there is a spate of navel gazing on the state of British tennis, in the British press, often centred around the question ‘when will we ever get a British champion?’  Now we’ve got one, the barons of British tennis must be hoping Murray’s victory will inspire a generation of youngsters to take up their racquets.  What hope, given the performance in past decades of one of sports wealthiest governing bodies?

Every year the LTA receives in excess of £30m from the All England Club, in the form of the surplus from the championships, in addition to substantial funding from Sport England, yet since 1977 and Virginia Wade’s jubilee year triumph in the ladies singles, they cannot claim credit for one singles triumph, which includes, in Murray, the only men’s champion since Fred Perry.

Murray, along with his brother, was encouraged into the game by his mother and became a promising junior.  There have been a stream of promising juniors in British tennis over the years, but rarely has any graduated in to the top ranks of the men’s game, Tim Henman being one notable exception.  Henman, himself came through a privately funded initiative.

So how did Murray do it?  Not through any LTA programme but by realizing that he needed to go elsewhere – in his teens he headed off to the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona.  There he was able to develop his game on clay, learning how to work out points and practice with some of Europe’s most promising players.

This weeks ATP rankings have only one Briton in the top 100, while the number two ranked British player is Dan Evans at 252.  In contrast there are 13 players each from France and Spain in the top 100.  France and Spain provide different models of how to develop successful tennis players.  However, as the latest highly paid head of the LTA leaves his post after seven years of underachievement, why did he or his team not learn from their success?

It is not only at the visible elite level that the LTA can be seen to have fallen short, over the last five years overall participation in the sport in the UK has dropped from 487,500 to 424,300.  The same excuses are being made that were made over 20 years ago – competition from other sports and activities and the more sedentary habits of youngsters.  Yet British cycling reported a growth of 160,000 people getting on their bikes in the first six months of 2012 – before the Olympics and Sir Bradley Wiggins’ historic Tour de France win!  Similarly, over the last ten years British triathlon has seen a consistent year on year increase in membership.

When Roger Draper took over at the LTA in 2006 he received plenty of advice on the need to both develop grass roots participation alongside elite athletes, yet in his first few years at the helm funding for elite performers has dwarfed that allocated to grass roots tennis.

I had likened the situation similar to that inherited by the late Philippe Chatrier when he took over the helm of the French Federation in 1973.  At that time French tennis was languishing yet he managed to combine support of elite players with a comprehensive development programme at grass roots level.  France may not have had a grand slam champion since Yannick Noah but they have two players in the top ten with a further 11 in the top 100. While Britain have not win the Davis Cup since the same year that Fred Perry last won Wimbledon, after years of drought the French have won it three times since 1991.

During the first week of Wimbledon, after the exit of all British players other than Robson and Murray, I received an email from a friend who now lives in France.  It reads:

All fine down here in Bordeaux. I just had to make contact with you to get this off my chest! After watching and enjoying Roland Garros, I’m now settling down for Wimbledon. Totally shocked that still British tennis can only produce 2 players making it through as true contenders, Murray and Robson. Here we are in the second round and still only those 2 making it through. When you consider the huge funding from Sport England that the LTA receives, questions have to be asked. It must start at grass roots. Here in France I see young kids from any background having cheap access to play the sport. My son for example, loves his tennis. The local club has 7 outdoor courts, 3 indoor, coaches available from the large sports science university. He plays and trains 3 times a week, access to courts  at any time all for 65 euros a year. My membership is 70 euros pa. lessons for me with top coach, 7 euros for a 2 hour lesson. The local Mairie offices subsidise these clubs, they want to make sure kids from any neighbourhood, class or background have access. This is why we now see so many French players making it through. Tennis in the UK has to change, clubs up and down the country have to change their attitude, it is still seen as this elite only sport which, unfortunately, has been created over many years and those that govern the sport. What is this funding being spent on?

The impact of a Murray win at Wimbledon may inspire many but it will only have long term results if the infrastructure is there to support new players.  For many at the LTA they still see the solution based around the clubs but it is these clubs that retain the elite social environment that is unique to British tennis.  More impetus to free tennis in parks, as encouraged by the charity Tennis for Free (see http://www.tennisforfree.com) is one area that is worthy of more attention. Similarly, Yannick Noah’s charity Fête le Mur (www.fetelemur.com) – which aims to develop life skills in the young using tennis – provides an interesting model.

So what can we learn from the failure of the LTA and what characteristics do they display as a failing organization, that might help us both in tennis and in other areas?

 

Many thanks to Bob Humphreys for the input from France

Part two to follow…

Murray shows his mental strength…

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The first British Wimbledon men’s singles champion since Fred Perry, overcame world number one  Novak Djokovic in a less than straightforward three sets.  The hottest day of the year so far in the UK (not saying much given the year we’ve had) saw the match start with brutal hitting and long rallies.  Not unexpected, with two of the best defensive players in the game having both had tough matches in the last week, this was always going to require immense fortitude just to compete.  This was a three set match that lasted well over three hours.

It was a match of break and break back.  In the first set Murray broke for 2-1 but was broken back had to go again to break to take the first 6-4.  In both the second and third sets Djokovic was a break up, only to be pegged back by a relentless Murray.  In the second Murray managed to break for 6-5 and serve out the set. In the third Murray was 2-0 up, only to lose four games in a row, then took the next four to win the match.

Breaking for 5-4 and serving out the match was not the end of it.  Bjorn Borg once described serving out the Wimbledon final in the fifth set as feeling that he could hardly lift his arm, yet Murray dispatched the first three points in straightforward fashion – to bring up three championship points. Almost at the point of celebration he was pegged back.  Ask Federer about having match points against Djokovic – in his last two US Open semis against the Serb he has held match points only to lose. Murray must have only been too aware of Novak’s fighting qualities, as he created break points but he continued to play positively, taking each point as it came, to finally create his fourth match point, where Djokovic netted a backhand to give Murray the match.

The match was tight, with similar stats in most departments, however, one is revealing – Djokovic made nearly twice as many unforced errors as Murray (40 to 21), admitting after the match that he was Impatient, trying to shorten the points.  The drop shot became a frequent ploy in the third set and, with both players feeling the heat, may have yielded more points but Murray is too good and quick a mover to be caught out regularly.  It indicates that Djokovic was less prepared to battle it out than Murray, with such similar games this may have been Djokovic’s downfall.

This was a tough match for Murray in so many ways – primarily in playing and beating the number one player in the world but also with the expectations of a nation on him, he succeeded where so many have failed over the last 77 years.

Have patience when it’s difficult to find rhythm…

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So we’ve got the men’s final that the seedings predicted, though with plenty of upsets along the way and two great semi finals, of which one, Djokovic against Del Potro, was a classic.

Both winners in the men’s semis yesterday faced the problem of having to win against big hitters who provided different problems but one was the difficulty of getting into a rhythm.  This was particularly true for Murray, playing against the promising, big serving and big hitting Jerzy Janowicz, the lowest ranked of the semi finalists.  For Murray this was another potential banana skin, Janowicz had nothing to lose and came out firing bullets and, despite being set points down on his own serve, ran out the winner of the first set in the breaker.

This is where Murray had to be patient, trusting in himself, as mentioned in the last post, having come back from two sets down builds confidence to deal with situations like this. While Janowicz’s serve is difficult for sheer pace, it doesn’t provide the variety that some players have and being patient, starting to pick direction comes after a while.  The top players read the servers body, necessary when there’s only around half a second between the ball being struck and hitting the return. This is one of the reasons Federer’s serve is so difficult to break – he doesn’t hit the ball anywhere near as hard as some but can hit a wide range of serves off the same basic motion, making it one of the most difficult to read.

It became clear during the second set that Murray was starting to pick the Janowicz serve, chipping the first serve back into play to get a foothold into the rallies and doing more when he got a shot at a second serve.  Despite being a break down in the third set against a player serving bullets he didn’t panic and, form 4-1 down, managed to win five games in a row, breaking Janowicz twice, to take the set.  Despite getting annoyed at the decision to close the roof at the end of the third, potentially disrupting the momentum he had built, he came back and broke early in the fourth to take the match.

The final is tough to pick – Djokovic, dropped the first two sets of the tournament in his semi but played some of his best tennis to overcome a superb display from Del Potro – a big man who can hit the ball with frightening ferocity but also has great touch.  Djokovic, himself, said that he believed it was some of the best tennis he had played at Wimbledon, which he needed, given some of Del Potro’s shots, particularly off the forehand.

On the other hand, Murray despite a couple of challenging matches, has come through playing solidly and will have the benefit of the vast majority of the Wimbledon crowd being behind him.

Djokovic has the edge, both in overall head to head and in best of five sets, however, Murray has the experience of outlasting Djokovic in a five set final, at the US Open last year and their only match on grass, the Olympic semi final last year, Murray won in a tight two sets.

Belief the difference… Again!

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So Andy Murray dropped his first two sets of this Wimbledon but came through to win in five, from two sets down.  The value of having done it before cannot be understated and, despite shortcomings in Murray’s performance, stand him in good stead for the rest of the tournament.  Of Murray’s last eight matches that have gone to five sets, he has won seven of them.  He has also won on Wimbledon’s centre court before from two sets down, notably against Richard Gasquet in 2008.

Just like people and teams (both at work and in sport) get used to losing, winning can be a habit, as can the instilling of belief.  Just like Manchester United have built a reputation for being able to mount a comeback or score late goals, if a player can demonstrate the ability to come back from the brink can create that inner belief that, whatever the situation, they know what it takes to win from behind.  Additionally, it puts pressure on the other player knowing that their opponent has a reputation for coming back.

On the other hand, while Murray’s game has developed over recent years, one weakness, which may yet be his undoing at Wimbledon is his second serve.  While Murray will regularly put down first serves in the 120-130 mph range, his second is often in the 70-80 mph range – the biggest gap between first and second serves of any of the top players and, consequently, he often has a low percentage win rate on second serve.  This puts a lot of pressure on Murray to make a high percentage of first serves.  Should he get through to the final, first serve percentage from Murray may be the key to the match.

Wimbledon upsets for week two?

Because it is the second week there are far less likely to be any upsets and this year the seismic upsets in the first week make it unlikely that we’ll see any more. However, to speculate where they might come, one interesting game today is that between Serena Williams and Sabine Lisicki. While currently Serena Is head and shoulders above just about everybody else in the women’s game (literally in most cases) – don’t rule out Lisicki.  Not only does she normally play with a smile on her face but she’s hitting the ball as sweetly as anyone this Wimbledon and, if she can get her head right, she might trouble Serena.  Other than this match there is little that might trouble Serena, though a potential next round against Laura Robson (who might get some added momentum out of the home support) might be interesting though unlikely to derail her.

The men’s seems on course for a Djokovic – Murray final, though from early assessments that Murray was in the toughest section of the draw with the removal of Nadal and Federer his run to the final looks more straightforward than that of Djokovic. The highest seeded opponent he can face before the final is Mikhail Youzhny, who he plays today.

Look out for Tommy Haas today against Djokovic – a potential banana skin. At the grand old age of 35, Tommy has regained the form that once had him ranked two in the world this year and his style of play suits grass and is the kind of game which could trouble Novak.  We may even be seeing something of a resurgence of serve and volley tennis on grass, Tommy will be looking to get forward as much as possible and keep the points short.  If Djokovic successfully negotiates his match against Haas, potential opponents are Berdych, in the quarter final (if he overcomes Bernard Tomic) and Del Potro or Ferrer could be ahead in the semi.