"It would be a dream to find a Grand Slam champion from Hackney…"
• 7 MINUTE READ
For Christopher Diaz coaching isn't just a career, it's his vocation.
The 30-year-old Sports Youth Worker, based in the London Borough of Hackney, has been working with the LTA and its SERVES programme to bring tennis to a generation of players from under-served communities.
Here, he discusses how he is helping to change perceptions of tennis, how the second England Lockdown will impact young people and why it’s so important for children from BAME communities to have black role models both on TV and in their everyday lives.
“I really feel for kids at the moment. They’re the first generation to have a whole summer taken away from them, being stuck inside. The effect it’s had on their mental health has been huge and we’re trying our best to give them an outlet to exercise and, importantly, socialise when we can.
“Fortunately during this second lockdown young people can still go to school so they can socialise with their friends and take part in PE lessons rather than being confined at home. However, this alone doesn’t stop Covid-19 affecting how active kids are outside of school.
"Stricter lockdown measures mean less access to sports hubs and after school clubs, resulting in young people being less active. I think this could have a negative impact on the way kids view excercise in the long-term, as once you're out of the routine it's hard to get back into it.
"At Hackney, we are working hard to find innovative solutions and ways in which young people can be kept safe but still get the amount of daily exercise they need.
"We know how important it is for young people to be physically active for their mental, emotional and social development and at the moment it’s frustrating for us. We had been working with the LTA and its SERVES programme for about a year and a half and before the Coronavirus Pandemic. We were making really great strides.
“When I was first asked to start working on the SERVES project the LTA was very clear that they wanted to bring tennis to the local community in Hackney. With their support we were able to run taster sessions in youth hubs, schools and playgrounds giving children from different backgrounds the opportunity to play tennis for the first time in a six-week programme. We made huge progress in a short space of time – from having 5-8 kids in our first week to having 30 children coming after a couple of weeks, because they realised tennis was something they enjoyed.”
“Schools are still asking us to come back and we are really close to being back delivering Tennis SERVES sessions again. It’s something I can’t wait to get started because when I’m seeing these kids in the street now they’re asking me ‘can we play tennis, we can’t wait to get back on a court.’ That’s refreshing to hear and makes me even more motivated to deliver the sessions for them.”
“Before Coronavirus we were trying to develop a Hackney Community Tennis Centre as we had a lot of people coming to our sessions who were very talented, but were being held back – they didn’t have the right equipment or court hire was too expensive. The LTA have really helped with that, and when we had kids coming regularly to sessions we saw they were very talented and progressing quickly. So we tried to set up a place where they could come and play semi-competitively with the goal of us becoming a feeder club – we could refer young people to a bigger tennis club from our talent pool which covered the borough.”
“It would be a dream to find a Grand Slam champion from Hackney.
“How far away are we from finding that person? I think they could be playing tennis now, someone who is in year four, year five, year six who’s coming along to one of our sessions. But in order for the UK to consistently produce world-class players from communities like Hackney we need to change the way people think about tennis.
“Other factors play a huge part as well. I mean if your family is going through a difficult time financially, it can be hard to find additional funds to just travel to a session. That’s where our local community sessions come in. We help to bridge that gap. But, I think the most important thing we need to do is to get kids to change their mindsets and think ‘Tennis is for me’. There are great role models now for children from BAME communities with the likes of Naomi Osaka and the Williams sisters, and a lot of my work is to tell these kids that if you apply yourself and keep practicing then one day you can be like them and the sky’s the limit.
“There’s no silver bullet in changing these kids’ mindsets, though. Having superstars they can relate to is one thing – Tao Geoghegan Hart winning the Giro D’Italia and being from Hackney as well will have been huge for kids from this area. What’s also important is having a diverse range of role models that they can relate too in their everyday life as well. Even me, just having a sports coach who has afro hair plays a part. Having someone who looks like them that they know they can speak to if they have an issue. Having a place where they can go where lots of young people look like them also allays those fears that they are an outsider. I think it’s a mosaic of ideas that’s key to changing perceptions around tennis”.
“I can’t remember ever articulating that ‘tennis wasn’t for me’, it was just a feeling. Growing up in South London my first exposure to tennis was watching Wimbledon on TV with my grandparents, but playing the sport never really entered my mind. The landscape when I was growing up was very different. I think I did one PE tennis lesson when I was in school, and I think it’s changed a lot now because people are playing tennis for the first time at a much younger age – or they’re being given the opportunity too. It’s slowly changing, but I think we still have so far to go in making it a recreational activity that young people actually choose to do with a friend. There’s a big difference from going to an organised session and a young person choosing to call up their mate and say ‘let’s play tennis’. That’s the level we need to get to”.
“The SERVES programme has been amazing for us in Hackney and whenever we’ve needed anything the LTA have been there to help. They have also organised for our kids to come to the National Tennis Centre at the end of a six-week course to have a session, go on a tour and even meet Tim Henman and watch the elite players. The LTA also organised for me to take another group to Wimbledon. That has a massive impact and there needs to be more of that as we know it works. If you’re a football fan and you grow up in London you’ll see stadiums like Wembley, The Emirates, the new Tottenham stadium. That helps kids dream that they can play there one day. I’ve seen kids leave Wimbledon and the National Tennis Centre with that same feeling.”
Find out more
Read an update from LTA CEO Scott Lloyd, following his open letter in June outlining the need to do more on equality, our commitment to listen and then put in place the actions needed.