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?

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.

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.

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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