“Being immersed in that environment is invaluable” – LTA Coach Isla Smith reflects on the ITF Coaches Conference in Colombia
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From 31 October to 2 November this year Bogota, Colombia played host to the world’s largest international event for tennis coaches – the ITF World Coaches Conference.
Hosted by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the conference brings together over 600 delegates from 80 different countries to share ideas, learn new skills and build relationships with coaches from across the globe.
This year, three coaches from Great Britain were able to attend the conference, including LTA Head of Coach Development and Support Merlin Van de Braam, LTA Level 5 Coach Stuart Twigg and LTA Coach Education and Qualifications Lead Isla Smith.
We caught up with Isla to hear about her experience in South America, her key takeaways from the conference and the importance of these events on coach development.
“It was my first ever experience at one of these events and it was amazing,” she said.
“The ITF run world conferences every two years, and then they also run regional conferences as well to support coaches across the world.
“Stu and I were the opening keynote of the whole conference, which was pretty nerve-wracking, but I think we did a great job.
“The theme of the conference was ‘Player centred coaching’ and our keynote was all about player development, specifically for 12U players. The presentation was called ‘Building the player by layering the drill’ and we had some local junior players on court to help us as we took everyone through the session.
“We were warned about this before but after we’d finished it took over 30 minutes for us to get off court – so many people came to us wanting to ask questions, get photographs, etc, and it was incredible to see how enthusiastic they all were for the sport and what we were covering.
"The delagates were all really grateful, super eager to learn and wanted to take the ideas away to immediately implement and build a strong coaching programme in their country."
Last year, the LTA were presented with a Silver Award at the ITF’s Advantage All Awards – recognising national associations work in improving gender equality in tennis – and this year, received a Highly Commended Award.
Thanks to funding from the 2022 award, Isla was not only able to attend the conference, but she was also invited to be a panellist for a discussion around women in tennis and getting more women involved in coaching.
“You never know what to expect from these things, but I couldn’t believe how many people came to ask us questions and hear us talk about women in tennis, Isla said. “There must have been about 600 people in the room.
“I was on the panel to speak from a coach education perspective, but there were also national coaches and Billie Jean King Cup Captains from Colombia and Brazil there to share their experiences.
“We got to do a Q&A and discuss how we can get more women in coaching and just playing the sport in general.
“I had two ladies, one from the Caribbean and one from Surinam come and speak to me afterwards and they were there in tears because they were female coaches, both of them were mums and they really related to some of the things I was saying about my own experience in coaching.
“The lady from Surinam had come over for two reasons – one was for the conference and the other was to find out the cost of gravel in Colombia to help her build some courts.
“She was there on a one-woman mission – she was a Mum of four, left her family at home and came over to find out how she can build courts and bring tennis to her community. She said to me ‘tennis isn’t for poor people at home, and I’ve got to do something about that’.
“It was incredibly inspiring and humbling to hear about the lengths people go to help more people play our sport.
“It was interesting as well because when we opened up the discussion at the end and we had so many men coming up and just saying how much they had been impacted by what we said and how much they had taken on, which is really positive.
“I have to think like if you just kind of inspired or like really talk to just one person in the room, then it's worth doing.”
After a busy and productive first day at the conference, Isla and the team then had the opportunity to run their own shorter seminar presentations, as well as attend various session from some of the biggest names in sport and coach development.
“Merlin, Stu and I all had a chance to run our own sessions across the three days and I decided to do mine on coach wellbeing,” Isla explained. “Because of my background as a yoga instructor as well, I’m really passionate about coaches learning how to take care of themselves as well.
“We’re on our feet all day, we always have niggles and just learning how to stretch properly can be hugely beneficial, so I just wanted to give them a few tools that they can use on a daily basis.
“If you can imagine a conference room, we decided to completely clear the chairs in there to make some space so people could have a go as we were doing it and I couldn’t believe how many people just kept coming in. It was great, everyone was rolling around on the floor trying out these different stretches and they all seemed to have great fun.
“I got a chance to go to lots of sessions myself as well. There’s a presenter called Mark Kovacs who is a PhD in Sports Science and he’s always incredibly interesting to listen to. Craig O’Shannessy, world renowned strategist and tactics coach was there as well and he did one of the last presentations on the last day, which was a fun interactive session on ‘Eight ways to force an error’.
With so much going on across the three days, there was plenty for Isla and the rest of the British coaches to take in and bring back to their everyday practice, but the experience and the relationships forged were arguably just as important.
“I think the main takeaway was seeing and learning from how different coaches approach things,” Isla said.
“Especially from my perspective in coach education and as a content developer it’s a real learning experience to see how other people might tackle different situations or teach certain skills. You see how they’re doing it and it might be something you’ve never thought of before and it challenges your methodology, which I think is really interesting.
“These events are massively important for coaches and for our development. A lot of the benefits are in the being together and the networking with different people from within the sport who are based all across the world.
“Going and watching the presentations, learning new skills, etc is obviously amazing and that’s a huge part of it, but being immersed in that conference, in that environment is invaluable.
“I can’t wait to put what I’ve learnt into practice, and I hope I’ll get the chance to go to one of these fantastic events again in the future.”