Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Agency Problem

If you accept that an awful lot of great players in tennis are jerks, especially when they are young (ages 6-17), then why would the USTA's national and regional coaches value "attitude" and "coachability" highly in selecting juniors for national and regional training center sessions? A positive attitude is at best not correlated with future skill at all and at worst it's negatively correlated (bad attitude >> good player). So why use such a bad metric? Because nice, coachable kids are better for the coaches. Who wants to work with jackasses?

Time and time again we find professions set up for the professionals. Ever make your doctor wait in a waiting room until you're ready to see him?

In economics this is called the Agency Problem. The interests of the two parties are not aligned. The USTA has a goal (producing champions). To achieve the goal it hires coaches (agents). The coaches actions benefit them, not the USTA. Agency problem.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What To Do?

I've been thinking about the Wayne Bryan vs Patrick McEnroe blowup over USTA Player Development for the last several days.  Player development and national systems have been things I've been thinking about for many years.  For tons of reasons, I'm not a fan of national systems, especially in a country as large and diverse as the US.

That being said, the USTA is a private organization that has chosen to get into the business of developing players.  The USTA leadership believes that having world-champion players from the US will help grow the game, largely through the popularity of the US Open.  As of 2010, the USTA took in revenues of $205 million, roughly $177 million of that from the US Open.  Clearly the health of the US Open matters to the USTA.  USTA Player Development takes in (from a USTA grant) and spends about $14.5 million per year.  I won't argue about whether the USTA should be engaged in player development.  I'll simply accept it and say how I think they should proceed from here.

Most of the USTA Player Development budget goes to salaries.  Coaching is labor intensive so that's not a surprise.  Recently USTA PD has opened training centers in Boca Raton, Florida and Carson, California.  USTA PD is also seeding regional training centers.  The one closest to me is in Las Vegas, Nevada.  I don't know how many others they have around the country.

How significant is the USTA PD's role in player development? I don't really know.  My guess is that it's minor, but the Wayne Bryan letter and the firestorm it's generated indicate that it's large.  Why do I say it's minor?  Because the US is a very large, diverse, and wealthy country.  Annual tennis spending in the US is over $3.5 billion according to a 2010 report from the Tennis Industry Association.  Actually, they put the annual value of the tennis industry at $5.6 billion, but I'll use the lower figure since it represents annual spending by "frequent tennis players."

So the entire USTA only accounts for $205 million out of the $5.6 billion US tennis economy.  That's less than 4% of the total spending on tennis.  If we look at USTA Player Development's spending as a percentage of spending by frequent players, it's even less.  USTA PD spends about 0.4% of all spending on tennis by frequent players. Obviously only a small fraction of the $3.5 billion spent annually by frequent players is spent on junior player development.  Almost $600 million went to equipment of all kinds, so that leaves under $3 billion.  I'll spare you my math, but probably 40% of frequent tennis players fall into the 6-17 year old age group where USTA PD concentrates its coaching.  So forty percent of $3 billion is $1.2 billion per year.  The USTA PD annual budget is a small fraction (about 1%) of the total amount of non-equipment dollars spent by young, frequent players.

My numbers can be off by a factor of ten and USTA PD remains a small player in junior tennis.

That doesn't mean their impact can't be enormous.  They may be leveraging their effect by coaching only the very best juniors. In fact, that's their goal. How they do this, then, might make a difference in the development of world-class players.

So how should they go about spending this relatively small amount of money. I think the basic structure they have set up is fine.  A couple of national training centers and some regional training centers subsidized by the national organization makes sense. My preference would be for the USTA PD to get out of the business of picking and choosing who comes to these training centers. Let the players and parents decide who comes for this training. That doesn't mean that any kid who wants to should be able to show up at a regional or national training center for training.  But close. For scarce spaces, I would simply go with rankings. The top kids get first chance at the spots. Most great players already have great coaching and training and won't need or want the regional or national help. Fine. That just frees up a spot for the next in line. The USTA shouldn't force any player to come to the training centers.

These training centers can be magnets for great players all throughout their junior years. The USTA coaches should be very respectful of the coaching the kids already have, including letting the kids' coaches come with them to the training centers if they want to. No favors should be given to kids who choose or choose not to make use of the USTA PD coaches and facilities. The USTA should charge modest, subsidized fees for using the training centers. The USTA should also provide need-based scholarships to those centers for juniors from poor families.

The USTA and USTA PD should absolutely get out of the business of providing wild cards for entry into tournaments based upon anything other than results. If the US Open wants to provide wildcards to players who will increase spectator numbers and dollars, fine, but don't kid yourself that some junior at the national training center will move the needle. A recently injured Serena Williams, for example, would be a no-brainer wildcard. So would a John McEnroe, Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi if they wanted to play. Novelty acts can be entertaining and the US Open is an entertainment product. But some promising junior that nobody has ever heard of should come through the qualifying like everybody else. The idea of a US-only wildcard tournament is fine with me. Just make sure that entry into that qualifying tournament is based upon rank, not based upon "potential" or "attitude" or being part of the USTA PD system.  Tennis has a perfectly good, fully developed system of Futures and Challenger level tournaments for players to earn their way onto the ATP World Tour and into tournaments.  USTA PD would be wise to keep their thumbs off those scales as much as possible.

So to sum up, I think national and regional magnet training centers, subsidized by the national organization to some degree, is probably the best way for the USTA to move forward with player development. They should never force any junior to come to a training center, nor should participation or lack thereof in USTA training programs be a condition for entry into any tournaments. The USTA should get out of the business of giving wildcards to up and coming players, favoring some over others.

That's my advice.  If they're asking.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Teaching and Greatness

I've been following along as Wayne Bryan, Pat McEnroe and tons of commenters over at Zoo Tennis debate the efficacy of USTA Player Development.  I've written a few posts about that here, including a post on talent ID just below this one.  I'm skeptical of large scale systems for producing world champions.  I think world champions, and especially all-time greats, are fundamentally Black Swans, rare and unpredictable.

What occurred to me, though, in thinking about all this player development stuff is that the truly greats in most fields became great without much aid from teachers of any kind.  Perhaps chess is a counter-example and perhaps greatness in the future will be different from greatness in the past in such way that teachers or coaches will play crucial roles in player or scientist or mathematician or poet development.  But as I look back, I see so many examples of greatness emerging without the aid of teaching and coaching that I wonder if coaching has any role at all in true greatness.

I'm thinking specifically of how the all-time greats seemed to go off on their own, fueled by their own passions, independent of teachers and coaches.  Einstein had a notorious disdain for traditional schooling.  Richard Feynman, too.  Feynman learned algebra and calculus on his own from books he borrowed from the local library.  He did experiments in his room on his own.  Nobody taught Newton calculus.  He developed it on his own.  And so discovered laws of motion that, at human scales, still hold sway today.

Ben Hogan found his swing in the dirt.  Same with his contemporaries Byron Nelson and Sam Snead.  Who taught Larry Bird to shoot, pass, and see the court as well as he did?  Walter Gretzky told his son Wayne to look where the puck was going, not where it went, but Wayne developed his skills on his own on their backyard rink.  Gordie Howe came off the sloughs of Saskatchewan to dominate the NHL.  Bobby Orr honed his skills on the ice of Parry Sound.

Rod Laver got his start on the anthill court in his backyard in Rockhampton, Australia playing with his brothers.  Sure he credits Harry Hopman for developing him, but I think Hopman's role is minor compared to Rod's own passion for the game.  Laver was able to get some mentoring from Hopman because he was great.  Hopman didn't make Laver great.  Laver's greatness preceded Hopman's coaching. Same with John McEnroe years later.

My view is that teachers and coaches can help the masses get a bit better at things.  We can show them better ways of doing things.  We can teach them the rules for doing algebra. We can encourage them.  We can offer suggestions that accelerate their learning.  But when it comes to the rarest of the rare, the truly great in any field, my best guess is that coaches are more likely to retard than to accelerate their progress.

Fortunately, it's very unlikely that any of us coaches or teachers have ever encountered any of these one in a billion people.  So we can sleep easy that we most likely haven't deprived the world of the next Newton, Einstein, Hogan, or Laver by ruining them with our input.