Lunch with... The Deaf Tennis player (and coach)

Lunch with... The Deaf Tennis player (and coach)

Tennis : Deaf tennis, coaching and the future of tennis in the UK.

Lewis Fletcher and his wife Catherine have picked up both national and international medals in deaf tennis for over a decade. They have competed in Deaflympics and are a driving force behind promoting deaf tennis in the UK. Their business, Tennis Xperience UK was setup in 2006 to provide high quality coaching to adults and children alike. Catherine is a national deaf coach and Lewis has managed county teams at every age group. The Sporting Blog met Lewis for a (booze free) lunch and a chat.

Venue : The Bell, Ramsbury

Format : Lunch, sensible.

The Sporting Blog: So Lewis, can you give us an insight into the specific challenges a deaf youngster might face in terms of learning the game? 

Lewis Fletcher: If you break it down… it's communication; no deafness is the same, so there will be different communication needs. Some might only sign, some might speak well and so on. You might have a child whose whole family might be deaf, in which case the way you teach them would be tailored around their experiences and needs.

So when teaching, you have to overcome that challenge before you can start delivering the actual sporting side of a lesson. One thing I do think is that in tennis, coaches can change their style too much. You should try and coach the same way as you would a hearing person, no matter what the disability might be.

I tutor coaches in how to deliver lessons to deaf players, I run about 4 courses a year, and I make them wear noise cancelling ear protectors. I also get them to deliver a lesson without talking, using gestures only.

TSB: Do you think it is easier for a deaf child to learn an individual sport like tennis as opposed to a team game?  

LF: Probably not, I think it’s harder. Deafness is a hidden disability, so it is more difficult to find other deaf children to play with in individual sports. There are no specific deaf units or schools like there used to be so you have to go and find the kids. Deaf children are also not generally the most confident so they prefer to be around other people. Deaf football is massive.

TSB: The general perception is perhaps that a deaf person would not be comfortable around a group of lads or whatever in a team environment?

LF: Generally they like to be in a group. Even trying to get 5 deaf children to play tennis is so hard. Catherine and I were thinking of doing a tour in a minibus to try and find more players, that’s what it takes. You ask most people how they got into deaf tennis and it’s mostly by luck.

TSB: What are the things a deaf child might miss out on compared to a hearing child when learning tennis? How about yourself? What are your own experiences?

LF: Well I missed out on loads. The problem is there are only 1 or 2 deaf tournaments in a calendar year. In the meantime you have to make it up somewhere else and play regular tournaments. I mean people can try and take advantage of you. Luckily, I don’t let people walk all over me.  An example is a let on the serve, they might try and get away with it. Or if you don’t keep calling the score the other guy will just make something up. I sweat loads so have to take my hearing aids out or they get ruined...

Once the aids are out I don’t hear anything. You don’t hear the court squeaking beneath your feet. Judgement of the ball is a problem because you don’t hear it come off the strings. The best way to describe it is like watching an action film on mute. The whole experience feels like it's closed off to you.

That’s why deaf tennis is what it is. The number one rule is that you have to take the hearing aids out. It is supposed to be a level playing field. You have to be hearing 55 decibels or below to qualify, so someone at around 57 can still hear certain sounds. I’m can't hear even 89 decibels so I don’t hear anything, not the ball bounce, nothing at all.

Clay courts are a nightmare. I remember playing at La Manga and taking the hearing aids out and I just started falling over. You go for an overhead and put your head back, and just keep going! It’s a bit like when you have too many drinks and start running in the dark, you think you're going quite fast… that’s the sensation I get.

Another thing that is different when playing deaf tennis is the way you glance at the umpire after a serve. You might hit a big 'T' serve, the other guy returns and you are into a big rally…. Only to find out that the serve was out, so emotionally it gets you, especially if it is a big point. So the habit of looking at the umpire creeps in.

TSB: Did you play team sports growing up?

LF: I didn’t start playing tennis until I was 14. I played football as my first sport. I was in the youth squad at Southampton until I was about 15 but I was too skinny for a centre back and my confidence went a bit. So I started playing tennis. People talk about being in the right place at the right time and that was what happened to me. A coach at the club told me that a guy had heard I was playing and was deaf, so I got invited to a tournament in Cardiff. I turned up and there are 40 deaf kids playing, which was unique.

TSB: So, was that the first time you’d ever played with other deaf people?

LF: Yeah, first time. The first guy I really met through tennis was Dan Tunstall, Katy Tunstall’s brother. He was my first opponent and he beat me badly but he was involved in the whole scene. I also met Catherine at that tournament!

Highlights from the National Deaf Tennis Championships 2012 featuring Lewis & Catherine

TSB: How does your deafness impact the way that you coach tennis?

LF: I like to think I’m more visual but I have learned a lot from other coaches. Louis Cayer was massive for me. I try to be a lot clearer in what I am explaining. I can read people's body language well and the deafness has helped with that.

Small things like not talking too much when I rally… I can’t lip read and hit the ball at the same time so there is less talking but clearer explanations before and after.

TSB: In general, are there enough opportunities for deaf children to get into sport in the UK?

LF: The opportunities are out there, there is no question about that, it’s finding them that is hard. Again, it is the hidden disability factor. How many people have heard of the Deaflympics?

I have a big headache with the ITF about deaf tennis. If you look at wheelchair tennis it has gone off the charts; sponsors, money, TV. Everyone knows about it. No one knows deaf tennis is there. We’ve had meetings with the ITF to try and establish it. We want a minimum of 4 tournaments a year. Also why can’t we have the top 8 play doubles at Wimbledon to get some exposure?

But back to your question! It’s about getting the opportunities out there. The deaf community can sometimes keep themselves to themselves and occasionally they might not work well with the hearing community. For example you have 50% of people that want to keep the Deaflympics separate i.e. in a different country and in a separate year from the Paralympics. The other 50% want to do it at the same time but it is tough. The Deaflympics has around 5000 competitors, so mixing it with another event would be tough but you could just take the better competitors from Deaflympics and narrow the down the field. You want the quality not just an event for an events sake.

TSB: Do you ever feel the deaf tournaments are undermined by lack of coverage and general lack of knowledge from the public?

LF: I just think in today's society, with the amount of technology and exposure for the Paralympics, the Deaflympics isn’t given anywhere near enough exposure. In the back of my head I know that what we are seeing with Para sport now will happen with deaf sport but in 30-40 years time.

It’s difficult also as people underestimate the standard. Top players are around 800 ATP level. These are really good players, I’m number 12 in the World but a win against the top 6 is really hard.

TSB: Where is the change going to come from?

LF: The Tennis Foundation have put a lot into it. The funding is good for our players. They support individuals who want to play. Without the Tennis Foundation help/support/staff I wouldn't be able to play Deaf tennis due to having a family and the time tennis takes away from work. They have been a rock throughout my tennis career. I cannot thank them enough. Catherine and I have both said publicly that they are doing good things but of course it is not at the same level as wheelchair tennis just yet.

TSB : And what about recognition for those players?

LF: Well when Catherine won gold at the Deaflympics she was the first Brit to win a medal in tennis at any such event (including the Olympics and Paralympics) since the 1930’s. Gordon Brown was PM and she didn’t get anything from his office at all. We did get invited to sports personality of the year and got sat at the back! Cliff Richard invited us for Christmas dinner which was actually very nice.

Aside from that there was nothing in the media, no recognition at all really. The guy from Taiwan that won about 10 golds in the ten pin bowling is a national hero!

TSB: Are there any deaf players making an impact in the able-bodied game?

LF: There’s a Korean guy called Duck Hee-Lee. He’s only 19 and ranked around 130 in the World but he looks promising. Nadal is a big inspiration of his. He often says that it’s an advantage as it allows him to focus.

TSB: Away from deaf tennis, what are your thoughts on us developing good tennis players in the UK?

LF: There is no exact path for becoming a top player. There are a number of boxes to be ticked; talent, a good coach, the hunger, the parents support and the programme in place.

TSB: Do you think things like ratings systems work? It has changed a lot over the years...

LF: They are good and bad. Some countries simply have a big ranking system. That’s a much easier way of evaluating standard. I think you can forget the system and just get kids playing matches. Whether the pressure is there to win or lose it helps to play for a reason.

There is no question in this country there is too much coaching and not enough competitive play. It should be a 50/50 balance.

TSB: It’s difficult with tennis to recreate the atmosphere of a competitive match. No matter what is riding on it, a practice match is just that. Is it tough to find enough competition to get the right level of competitive play?

LF: Yes. I coach in a rural county (Wiltshire). I have had a couple of good players who have to go to London or Scotland to find tournaments to play against some different people. Facilities are also a problem… there are only around 12 indoor courts in the whole county. Although, Leon Smith mentions a lot that Andy Murray played in the wind and the rain and it helped because you adapt the lessons. You might not play 90 mins of tennis but you can play some football on court and keep the pupil invested in the whole process.

The LTA are running a good initiative with ‘Tennis for Kids’ which is an incentive for both coaches and the kids. They got 13,000 kids playing last year so that’s a big step.

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