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Interview | Judy Murray
The former Great Britain Fed Cup captain on getting more girls and women into tennis
By Stephen Higgins | 8 May 2017
Last Thursday afternoon, I finally returned to Naas Lawn Tennis Club after a dark day in the Dublin League a few years back.
My unfortunate team was whitewashed by the home side. With dignity abandoned on the astro turf, we enjoyed some fine sandwiches and cakes in the clubhouse before slouching back to the capital.
How nice it was to be invited on this occasion to witness a demonstration of Miss-Hits, a program designed by Judy Murray to encourage young girls to take up tennis. Aimed at those aged 5-8, Miss-Hits uses bright colours, activities and characters like Sasha Smash and Bella Backhand to help youngsters develop the coordination needed for tennis.
Murray, accompanied by former Scottish international Laura Middleton, started the day with a workshop of (mostly) female coaches from around Ireland. That was followed by an outdoors session with kids and their parents, and a Q&A in the clubhouse.
The action on court was interspersed with tea breaks. During one of them, I sat down with the former Great British Fed Cup captain and mother of two world number ones:
Judy Murray on...how Miss-Hits developed
"It actually came about when I was captaining the GB Fed Cup team and I was looking at ‘how do we become a stronger women’s nation in the UK?'. When I started to look at the talent that was coming through in terms of our juniors, I realised there weren’t very many girls playing at a good level and when I started to look [at] girls coming into the game, I realised that was probably where our problems started. We had four times as many boys coming into the game as girls, and I also realised that we had very few female coaches, so I reckoned that there was some kind of a link between those two certainly in terms of the retention of girls in sport,"
On...the chief issues that put young girls off playing
"At entry level, when I started to research why girls were either not coming into the game or coming in very briefly and then dropping out again at a very young age, I discovered four things:
- Many girls found tennis too difficult.
- Many didn’t like the mixed groups. Boys are more noisy, more robust...more competitive and they were intimidated by it.
- [They] didn’t like tennis because they got cold. Often it was outside. Little girls don’t run around as much as boys, generally, so if you’re standing in a queue waiting for somebody to send a ball to you, you might get cold.
- And the fourth one was 'I don’t like tennis because I didn’t like the coach.' Usually in those situations, the coach was a male coach. And if you think about it, little girls are more used to being with a female parent and more used to their first teachers at school being female, then suddenly you go into a sporting activity where it’s a male coach. Often it’s the least experienced coaches who go with the very young starters. So if you have a male coach who doesn’t know to communicate and nurture, create content that is girl-specific, you’re not going to retain those kids.'
'So I kind of took all those things and tried to remove all those barriers by creating a program that is all girls...indoors so it can be delivered in a school hall, village hall, badminton court. It doesn’t require a tennis court to play it on. And [I] created a program where it’s fun. It’s attractive. It’s all brightly coloured equipment. It sparkles."
On...the importance of fun when starting out
"If [kids say] ‘I don’t like tennis because it’s too difficult’, yeah, we have got a difficult sport compared to some. But nowadays children are coming into sports with way less coordination skills than they used to simply because they don’t play actively as much any more. They’re looking down at screens inside, sitting down and twiddling with their thumbs, so often sports coaches are having to develop the basic coordination skills before you have any hope of getting them to actually play your sport. I was very aware of that.'
'...The way to retain the child in any activity is that they’re having fun and usually they’re having fun with their friends. I learned from my own children that, generally speaking, kids don’t want to listen to you, they don’t want to be taught, they want to play. So if you can create the activities that do the teaching for you, then you’re laughing really."
On...streamlining the Miss-Hits program
"It probably took us the best part of two years to get it to a stage where we were happy with what we wanted. You know we created everything. We piloted it. Then we would bring it back, learn from those pilots and then we'd change it. Pilot it again. We piloted it indoors, outdoors. Different age ranges. Different types of equipment, different activities and sometimes we took things out because they were too difficult. I took things out because they were hard to put on in a small space. You know we wanted to keep this ‘you don’t need a tennis court' idea.'
'The content is perfect for little girls’ birthday parties. It’s perfect for taster sessions in schools, mums and daughters sessions, bring a friend sessions. It’s a real fun way to engage little girls in our sport. It’s great to have a product that will, I’m sure, encourage more women to consider delivering tennis because it’s not formal, it’s not technical, it’s not difficult. You do it in small spaces so nobody should be afraid of that."
On...retaining adolescents in tennis
"99% of your tennis players are always going to be recreational, one percent are going to be performers, so any governing body’s focus has to be on the recreational because that’s where your big numbers are. I think that it’s about understanding that it has to be social. People take up sport for fun, fitness and friends so you need to create social activity around your sport.'
'With your teenagers you need to have your discoes or your movie nights or your theme nights around your competition. Maybe you need to have more mixed competition, or you have boys' matches on at the same time as girls' matches and then they have a mixed tea-thing afterwards. You have to look at what those teenagers want. What do they need? Create that.'
'Every sport has to work really hard to attract people into it and then you have to work hard to retain them when they get to that stage where other things are potentially becoming a distraction. But the social side of sport is crucial."
On...sexism she once experienced at a coaching course
"There were 18 men and two women [on the course] and when I got there to the first workshop, one of the tutors on the workshop said to me, almost like, ‘you’re really lucky to be here. We had a lot of men applying for places and some of them are not very happy that you got a place on the course'. So immediately I’m feeling like I shouldn’t be there and I’m thinking how inappropriate of the guy to say that to me. Then he tells me that somebody had a written complaint about me getting a place on the course because I had two young children and what could I possibly offer to performance coaching?"
On...improving the balance of male and female coaches
"We need to find a way to show that tennis coaching...is perfectly doable by women. It shouldn’t be anything that they should be afraid of and if they do want to progress with it, there is a way for them to progress. I think that days like today, where you bring 20 female coaches together, you remove that whole thing of the male-dominated domain.'
'I think having the option of girl or women-only qualifications and coach development courses...that is one way to start to combat that. But nowadays we have to give women and girls what they want if we want to bring them into our sport. You know you have to understand how they think, how they behave, how they respond and they are different to men."
You can find out more about Miss-Hits on its site or Facebook page.
I'd like to thank everyone at Naas LTC for the invitation to see the workshop and their great hospitality. Special thanks to the club's director of tennis, Maya Najdychor, who has been a great supporter of Crosscourt View since it launched.