I attended the recent British Junior Open in Birmingham and came away with many observations which caused me concern. But let me begin with some positives.
The Under-19s boys’ final between two exciting English prospects was the cleanest match of the week, India’s Anahat Singh is a class act, Madison Ho losing the first 15 points of her girls’ U17 semi-final then coming back to win was amazing, Carlton Capella winning USA’s first ever male title is great for the game and the level of the Under-11s was quite incredible.
Much of what troubled me happened not on court, but behind the back wall.
A mantra I abide by is that coaches ‘should be heard but not seen’, but what I witnessed in Birmingham is a distasteful culture emerging of coaches wanting the limelight on themselves and behaving in ways which I think need to be cracked down upon.
Some coaches spent much of their players’ matches turning around from the front bench to berate referees and try to influence decisions. Some were telling the ref what a decision should be before he’d even given it. I also saw blatant coaching between points and coaches getting into arguments between themselves.
In one match, the referee came down courtside to check on a potential injury break at the end of the fourth game and was accosted for over a minute by a coach complaining about decisions. On a separate occasion, I witnessed a coach who I respect greatly shouting in the face of his player’s opponent about his conduct on court during the game.
At one point, coaches from one nation tried to take up the whole front row of seats before a match. Team USA fought their corner and insisted seats were shared, which I respected hugely.
To quote one person who I talked to, the back courts at the University of Birmingham were like a battleground. At times, it descended into chaos.
On court, I saw players blocking, screaming and shouting. My fear is that this behaviour is being allowed to creep into the game because coaches are not setting a good enough example. In fact, they are fuelling the fire.
I think coaches should be subject to the same code of conduct as the players. Poor behaviour should be punishable with a ban from the tournament and a succession of offences with a ban from future events. Perhaps incidents on the coaches’ bench during matches should even result in on-the-spot conduct warnings and strokes for their players?
We are seeing an increase in poor conduct on court – blocking, not calling double bounces or tins, screaming after every winner and lengthy disputes with referees. Are coaches working to improve this, or are they watching their players get away with it, so they then encourage it?
I know the knee-jerk response some readers will have to this: ‘Well, your behaviour wasn’t always immaculate on court, Nick!’ Maybe the players I now coach aren’t always angels either.
My response would be that there is a spectrum every player treads with overly-aggressive behaviour at one end and being overly passive and ineffective at the other. I didn’t always get it right. I played on the cusp of the line, because that adrenaline and aggression got me through matches against players with higher skills sets and better composure.
I see similar traits in Amina Orfi, the girls’ Under-19 World and British Open champion. Mostafa Asal hasn’t found the right balance yet. George Parker went from one extreme to the other and found that once he’d suppressed his aggression, he lost his dynamism and explosive hitting and movement. Mohamed ElShorbagy, I’d suggest, has found a perfect equilibrium between his ‘Beast Mode’ and controlling his emotions.
I don’t have a problem with players’ ferocity as long as it’s within the letter of the law. Those who do go beyond that invisible line of what’s acceptable need long-term guidance to improve their behaviour under pressure in a competitive setting – and that stems from the tone and culture set by the coach. That means the example he or she sets day in, day out through their work ethic, attitude, body language, professionalism, fair play and respect.
I think back to my early days when David Pearson coached me. He would bring me back down to earth immediately if I didn’t behave properly. My good friend Rob Owen gives his players the bollocking of a lifetime if they step out of line. It’s no coincidence that Ismail Khalil, Sam Osborne-Wylde and Jonah Bryant’s behaviour in Birmingham was immaculate.
Collectively, us coaches have a responsibility to the sport to lead by example with our behaviour – otherwise we cannot expect any better from our players.
Nick Matthew was speaking to Mike Dale