You've been together since your tennis infancy and, in many ways, your pro has served (no pun intended) as your tennis parent.
He (or she) was there when you chose your first racket and showed you which end of it to hit the ball with. He taught you the strokes and strategy and was nearby when you played your first "real" match. He's suffered right along with you during your crushing losses and popped the bottle of champagne when you finally defeated your annoying rival.
We've all had that special pro that introduced us to tennis and made the game an important part of our lives. Once a week we meet with our pro and often the student/teacher relationship evolves into a friendship.
The student/pro relationship is a special one which makes it all that more difficult when the time comes for the student to move on to another instructor. Each week I receive at least one e-mail from a player who wants to change pros but doesn't know how to gracefully go about it.
They feel awkward about ending the relationship and are too embarrassed to approach the pro. They're worried about offending him (or her). They also feel that by leaving they're hurting the pro financially.
So what do you do when the itch to switch arises? First, take a good look at the reason you want to make a change.
"I'm not getting better"
This is the most common reason player's site for wanting to make a change. They feel as if they're not improving quickly enough and it must be their pro's fault. The pro is an easy target but is it really their fault you're not getting better?
As a lifetime student of the game and teaching professional, I can tell you that lack of improvement is usually not the fault of the professional. Many players today want instant improvement yet are not willing to put in the practice time necessary to advance their games.
If you simply take your lesson once a week and don't step on a court in-between you can't realistically expect to make great leap in your level of play. If you're not practicing the techniques the pro has shown you with the understanding that change (and improvement) takes time, you're not really giving his methods a fair shot.
Players who want a quick fix often jump from one pro to the next in search of "the secret" that will take them to the top. Geoff Norton, Director of Development for the Professional Tennis Registry calls this "tennis pro hopping."
"Pro hopping is not like Friday night bar hopping," says Norton. "It can be a bigger hindrance that assistance." Going from one pro to another usually does little more than confuse the player. They have so many thoughts bouncing around in their head that their game actually gets worse and you know what that means--try another pro.
If you're not satisfied with your progress, sit down and discuss it with the instructor. If you're feeling frustrated there's a good chance the pro is feeling the same. Tell your pro your concerns and explain what you're looking for out of your lessons. Tell your pro what they do that you like and dislike as well as things you wish they would do. Be honest and then listen to their comments with an open mind. You should both learn from each other.
Remember, a successful student/teacher relationship is the two of you working towards a common goal: your improvement and long-term enjoyment of the game. To reach that goal both parties must do their part. The pro's job is to provide you with their expertise and your job is to practice and apply that expertise. If for whatever reason you are unhappy, tell the pro and give them a chance to make adjustments. A good professional can and will.
Sometimes however, a change is inevitable. Relationships grow stale and seeing the same face week after week and being taught in the same style over a long period of time can get tedious. It's just becomes time to move on.
A different pro can bring a fresh eye and new perspective to your game. All teaching professionals have particular ways of looking at a student and areas of the game which they feel are the most important. I personally feel that good footwork is the most important part of tennis, so when I work with my students my top priority is to get them moving their feet.
Other pros feel that strokes are the most vital elements of the game. When these pros see a student the first thing they look at are their stroking patterns. When I see them I first check out their feet because I feel that their footwork dictates their stroking pattern. One approach is not better than the other--they're just different.
Once you've made your decision to file for tennis divorce, they key to a successful transition becomes communication. Too often, I've seen players simply leave a message at the club office, canceling their five year standing lesson, because they can't bear to speak to the pro face to face.
Believe me, this is the worst way to go about it. Not only is it extremely rude, but it will make it awkward every time you and the pro see each other at the club. Plus, when the pro sees you taking a lesson with a colleague, it may cause tension between the pros.
Pick up the phone and call the pro or, better yet, sit down with them and honestly explain your reasons for leaving. It doesn't have to be a nasty, uncomfortable encounter. Simply tell them that you want someone else to take a look at your game and offer their thoughts on what you can do to improve.
Thank the pro for all they have done for you and your game and leave the door open for future lessons. Though the grass may seem greener elsewhere, you may well find that your current pro is the best one for you. Don't burn that bridge.
Keep in mind that a true professional will understand your feelings and not be offended. They recognize that people learn in various manners and that a different voice and viewpoint is sometimes needed. Many pros even suggest trying someone new if they feel they have hit a roadblock with a student.
A teaching professional's concern is for your continued improvement and enjoyment of the game. In fact, your old pro should make an effort to speak with your new instructor so that they can tell them about you, your game and style of learning.
Believe me, there is not a pro on the face of the planet that has not had a student leave them for another instructor. It's part of the business. By communicating openly there should be no hard feelings. The pro will appreciate your honesty and the friendship you've developed over the years will not be lost.
"If the pro is doing a good job, he should not take this personally. If the pro has been doing a poor job, maybe he should take it personally!"
Author of the popular Tennis Warrior series.