Written by: Lauren Wege
Last month, we had the pleasure of hosting the inventor of the junior curriculum (ROGY Ball), Sandi Procter, at the VTC. Procter is a coaching program aficionado from Britain who pioneered the terminology for using the scaled down racket, tennis ball and court for children. She named this program Mini Tennis Red, Orange and Green—a transition and technique program that is now used by 123 countries around the world.
Procter visited VTC to conduct a workshop on the intricacies of Red Tennis, which is the most critical of the three levels, as everything else builds from the techniques learned in this level. USTA PNW tennis professionals were in attendance, watching Procter closely and participating in interactive activities to help inform their teaching. She is an amazingly influential woman in the tennis industry, and the reason for the USTA PNW’s junior curriculum.
Before Procter’s return back home to Britain, we had a chance to sit down with her—diving into her background, experience, the development of Mini Tennis Red, Orange and Green, and advice she has for those interested in tennis.
Q: Can you please walk me through your background and experience? You mentioned that you started your career as a P.E. teacher, transitioned to coaching tennis, and now you will soon be the Deputy President of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA). What happened between teaching P.E. and entering the influential role you’re in today, and how did you get on this path?
A: The reason I turned from a P.E. teacher to tennis coach is because my husband’s job took us traveling, so it was impossible to keep the P.E. job going. Tennis is everywhere in the world, it doesn’t matter where I’d go, I would be able to teach tennis and I soon learned that. We went to Scotland, Dubai, Cairo, and I was able to do either a little bit or a lot of tennis coaching, and so that’s really how I got into it.
My first major tennis-coaching program was in Dubai. I took over an expat club and I coached all sports. This is when Sweden had developed Short Tennis [Mini Tennis’s predecessor] and I thought it was the best thing. I had space in the Dubai country club and I thought, “This is going to bring tennis to younger children.” It meant that all of the little brothers and sisters of the kids I was coaching could join in as well.
My husband and I then moved on to Cairo, and then back to Scotland, and then to London. That’s when I specialized in coaching children under ten years old with Short Tennis, and I just loved it. Children of that age are sponges, they learn so quickly; you can see really good progress, and you’re not judging the progress by whether they win matches, you’re judging by how much they can rally and whether they can get their serves in. It’s very rewarding, and the parents really love it as well.
When I got back to London, I actively looked for a place where I could coach Short Tennis and a club said to me, “You can coach here if you’d like. You have to get your own kids—it’s an hour. You can have Wednesday at four-o-clock.” I did that and it filled up. Within two years I was coaching not just 16 kids, but 250 kids, it just grew. No advertising, just word of mouth. About five years later, we were really noticed by the LTA because we had ten national players in the 11 to 12 age group. Somebody noticed that these children were all coming from the same club, chosen for a national program and national teams, so they wanted to know more about what we were doing there. The club just absolutely thrived.
We went and gave a talk to the LTA about what we were doing. According to the LTA, there were only small patches of the country that had odd little programs like this doing Short Tennis really well. And so I got asked to consult for the LTA, and that’s when I found out what else was going on in the rest of the country. Soon after, the LTA decided to appoint somebody called the Mini Tennis Manager, and they offered me the job. I accepted, and for the next six to seven years I went around the entire country training coaches and writing resources, but honestly, it was brilliant. I absolutely loved it, and I met so many nice people along the way.
After working for the LTA as Mini Tennis Manager, I took a more local job at Kent, where the office was located in the Bromley Tennis Centre. After two years there I took over the Tennis Centre. I didn’t know how to run a tennis center, but I did know how to run a program. I brought in some really good people and focused on Mini Tennis Red because that’s what I believe in the most. We tripled in size, tripled in income, and now the Centre is very successful and one of the best in the country.
Because I had stopped working for the LTA, I was then allowed to be a volunteer official representing Kent on the bigger LTA Council. Then I got that little tap on the shoulder that said, “It would be really good if you put yourself forward to be elected for the Board.” So I ended up getting elected for the Board. There are incredibly smart people on the Board and I’ve learned a lot from them. Then a year ago I got the next tap on the shoulder, which was, “Why don’t you put yourself forward for Deputy President?” So I did. It involved three rounds of grueling interviews. I got appointed in May and officially start in January 2020, and then I become President in 2023.
Q: What an amazing story, and now there are 123 countries around the world teaching the program you developed. What were the challenges of developing this program and streamlining it for use across multiple countries?
A: Well, the Orange and Green balls had already been developed, but they were under different names. The ball manufacturers had already created a softer tennis ball. Different countries did it in different ways, but the core principle was that we did persuade the manufacturers to call their balls Orange and Green, which took quite a long time, and to come up with the specs of a Red felt ball, which didn’t exist. We just had a foam ball that could only be used indoors.
In the U.K., all of our Short Tennis had been played only in clubs that had badminton courts, so, of course, not many people played. In order for us to do a better job of getting this out there, we had to make it more flexible. So that’s when we all worked out that you could make one tennis court into six Mini Tennis courts. But, we realized that the foam ball isn’t great outdoors, so that’s when we went to all the manufacturers to try to get them to develop a Red felt ball, but no one was interested, until we met an eccentric man in Bath who said, “I’ll give it a go.” And he did. After seven versions of it, he got what he thought was a good recipe.
A few years later, the other manufacturers started to pick up and take notice. For us in the U.K., this brought a whole new group of coaches wanting to do this because they could do it on the courts that they had without any extra markings, and they didn’t have to worry about having access to badminton courts. That’s what made the big difference for us.
Then, in 2003 or 2004, there was an epiphany moment where the French decided to go the Red, Orange and Green route. Then the U.S. joined in as well, encouraged by Kirk Anderson of the USTA PNW who had worked with me on an International Tennis Federation (ITF) participation project group. Once France and the U.S. joined in, it exploded.
Q: Your program spread to so many places, did you create a handbook to be shared?
A: In the U.K. we did. We created a Mini Tennis Manual and we also created a level-one coach education course (our coach education courses go from levels one to five). The first qualification for coaches became entirely for Mini Tennis. That meant that any coaches stepping onto the pathway of being a coach got Mini Tennis first, and it’s all in Mini Red. They were taught the idea of the short rackets, how to set up the courts, how to do little rallies and activities, fundamentals, agility and balance.
So yes, I wrote lots of resources, including competition resources, so we had to think carefully about how to run competitions for very young children. We also did road shows where we went around the whole country for three years in a row to deliver a whole day with coaches in those areas. We had 40 to 60 coaches at every venue. They were such lovely people.
Q: What was your ultimate goal when creating Mini Tennis Red, Orange and Green?
A: The ultimate goal is to get more children playing tennis, knowing that they can be successful and enjoy it. Of course, what comes from that—once you’ve got them—is that it inspires them to play more. They can play straight away. They enjoy it. I think the majority of our coaches create a great, fun environment. It’s a good sport. So the big objective is to get them playing.
The side objectives are to pick out the talented ones, and they are the future of the sport. But not just the future of the sport for playing, they are the future of the sport for all sorts of other aspects. They become coaches, administrators, referees and officials. So the big objective it to get kids playing, and the other advantages are that you get talented kids out of it.
It’s worth focusing on this young age because if you gain the physical confidence of being able to play a game when you’re a kid, it’s much more likely that you’ll carry on playing throughout your adult life. It’s real tennis, scaled to the size of the child to build confidence through a successful, positive tennis experience.
Q: What advice would you give to a parent wanting to sign up his or her child for tennis lessons at the USTA PNW?
A: Clearly, what goes on around here is really wide ranging. There are lots of different ways that a child can get involved in tennis at the USTA PNW. You’ve got tennis going on in the parks, clubs, public centers, and after school; so first of all, you’ve got your choices.
If a parent goes, “Woo, I just watched Serena Williams, and I think tennis is a thing for my little girl,” then first of all, look at all the options. Secondly, find the option that works for knowing that your child will be safe. Thirdly, take an interest in the sessions that you watch. Ask yourself questions like, “Is the coach nice? Was the receptionist welcoming? Was the coach welcoming? What is the level of activity? How many times are the kids playing, hitting a ball, running around and being taught?” Make sure your child is having fun and really learning.
The other side to being a parent is to be patient. You don’t learn tennis in an instant. Tennis is like everything really; you don’t get progress by steadily getting better and better, you get progress with lots of lumps and bumps. Sometimes the children are consolidating and then they make progress, and then they consolidate again and then they make progress. So patience is a word I think parents need to have.
It’s a journey that’s well worth it. A lot of parents of my kids I taught who are still playing think of tennis as something that their kids have learned life skills through and not just a sport. Which I think is brilliant.
The USTA PNW prides itself in providing high quality tennis programs, and is very thankful for Sandi Procter’s support and sharing of ideas. With the USTA PNW, you can rest assured that your child is receiving instruction from professionals who are aware of the most beneficial training programs and techniques available. Click here to learn more about our junior programs.