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Meet the Northern Ireland coaches serving up a love of tennis

 

Aiming high: Anthony Sinclair at Seapark Recreation tennis courts
Aiming high: Anthony Sinclair at Seapark Recreation tennis courts
High standards: coach Lynsey McCullough
Sports mad: Trevor Octave at Donaghadee Tennis Club

By Linda Stewart

As Wimbledon enters into its second week, Linda Stewart talks to three Northern Ireland trainers about their work and what it takes to reach the top.

'The biggest thing is attitude... you have to accept losing and find ways of dealing with losses'

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High standards: coach Lynsey McCullough
 

International tennis player Lynsey McCullough (28), originally from Larne and now living in Newtownabbey, coaches with Belfast Boat Club. She says:

I started playing tennis when I was four and my mum played with Larne Tennis Club. One day we couldn't play in Larne, so my mum took me up to the Ozone in Belfast.

I was hitting the ball about and there was this guy, Joseph Henriques, who was coaching in the Ozone at the time.

He approached my mum, said I had really good hand-eye coordination and asked if I fancied coming along for a lesson.

I went in for a lesson and loved it. I ended up working with him once a week.

I was winning Ulster titles from when I was about nine

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For a brief period I was coached by Frank and Isaac at David Lloyd and then by Jim Watt, who was the head of Ulster Tennis at the time. He coached me from about 11.

I played four nationals for Ireland and at 14 was offered a place in the Irish national squad at Dublin City University, where they have a centre of excellence.

I lived in Dublin and went to school there for three years, training 28 hours a week.

It was very full-on between the gym, tennis, psychology and nutrition.

When I was 17 I came home to get on with my studies a bit more and trained with Carlos Miranda at Belfast Boat Club.

At 17 I was selected to play in the Federation Cup in Malta, which is the equivalent of the Davis Cup, and for four consecutive years I played on that team.

While I was still training for three hours a day, we had some juniors coming through from Ulster Tennis.

Jim asked me to come in and do my training as normal and then stay on for a couple of hours mentoring and training them.

I've captained four national teams for Ireland, I've captained the inter-provincial team for Ulster and I am heading to Baku in Azerbaijan for the European Youth Olympics, where I will be captaining the Irish team.

I had major wrist surgery about five years ago after I tore ligaments up the back of my wrists.

I was back playing for a year or so when I started feeling pain every time I struck the ball.

After they carried out the X-ray, they told me it wasn't good news - the lunate bone was showing up black in the scan, meaning there was no bloodflow getting to it.

They had to break the radius (bone), shorten it by 4mm and put in five screws and a plate.

The surgery was successful, but I lost quite a bit of flexibility in my wrist, so I can't push myself to the limit like I did when I was training six days a week.

I do coaching work for Ulster Tennis and Belfast Boat Club and probably the majority of the work is with kids aged between 12 and 18, although I do take adults and kids as young as four. You see them going through such a physical change at that stage - you see the strength with which they hit and the speed developing.

I think there are more opportunities for the kids now than there would have been a few years ago.

Lots of the players coming through the Ulster Tennis programme end up in college in the States, where they are competing every weekend to a very high standard.

If they get to a good level over here, they can get a full scholarship, but it's very costly to do so - they have to get up the rankings first to get the sponsorship to travel.

To make it as a young player, they need to be very agile and have good coordination.

You find the best players have good acceleration and good racquet speed. You need a strong athletic base - you find players are in the gym almost as much as on the court.

The biggest thing is attitude. You need to be able to accept losing and find ways of dealing with losses.

There's a saying that you don't learn from winning, you learn more from loss. You learn where your mistakes are. You need people who can suffer on the court a bit."

‘I was number two in the world in deaf tennis. Now I combine sport with teaching sign language’

Anthony Sinclair (34) lives in Belfast with wife Kristina and three children Patrick (4), Charlie (3) and Kate (8 months). He works with around 20 schools per year coaching tennis and teaching BSL (British sign language) classes and has recently launched a Tennis and Sign programme. Anthony says:

I've been playing tennis from quite a young age and have experience of playing in mainstream tennis. I was ranked number two in Ireland. In deaf tennis, I was ranked number two in the world, bringing home silver and gold medals from the Deaf Olympics.

I was the first Great Britain player to reach a men's final in 80 years and am the only Northern Irish athlete to bring home a gold medal.

Tennis has taken me from Florida and Taiwan to Melbourne - and pretty much everywhere in between.

I have friends from all over the world as a result. Wherever I travel or go on holiday, I know someone I can meet for dinner or a match.

Tennis has definitely made me the person I am today.

My work is also my biggest campaign. I am passionate about children having as much movement and outdoor play as possible, especially in this day and age, when families are bombarded with pressures and demands.

While studying for my undergraduate degree in sports science, I undertook tennis coaching qualifications and have combined all of this study, along with my PGCE qualification, to devise and deliver programmes that are movement and learning-focused. My research-based programmes combine movement and sign language and everything is learnt through play and fun.

Most programmes have an emphasis on tennis, so that children are equipped with fundamental movement skills, tennis skills and the ability to communicate and converse in sign language.

I teach Ready Steady SIGN! to children aged up to 11 and have other programmes for secondary school-aged children.

This summer I'm excited to be launching a sign and sport camp for secondary schoolers, where they can gain an accredited sign language qualification.

Children have no inhibitions and naturally reach out to communicate. In just a few short weeks the children I teach are able to introduce themselves and hold a conversation.

Giving these children these language and movement skills at this young age not only makes them smarter and healthier, but paves the way for a more inclusive and accepting society.

It's amazing to see how quickly children learn when they're playing and moving, and it's my campaign to see a movement-based sign language programme embedded into the curriculum.

I want to normalise knowing sign language and normalise an inclusive, fit and active society."

‘Playing tennis on a windy day in NI can be tough, but kids want to get out, be active and have fun’

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Sports mad: Trevor Octave at Donaghadee Tennis Club
 

Trevor Octave (57) coaches at Donaghadee Tennis Club. Originally from London, he lives in Donaghadee with wife Alison and daughters Sophie (23) and Lucy (21), a four-time Ulster Open champion. He says:

A t school I was really into sports - rugby, basketball, football and handball. I've played rugby for 25 years and my family is from the West Indies originally, so cricket was always big as well.

Sport has always been a big part of my life and was something I shared with my daughters from an early age.

I was a volunteer and helped at the club because of my daughters and then I started coaching when the coach moved on and suddenly they were looking for someone.

I was in retail for many years, working for Stewarts before Tesco took over, then I worked for 10 years in financial services. Due to a merger, a lot of the work was outsourced to Mumbai and there was an opportunity to take redundancy.

I had been volunteering as a coach for 20 years, so there was an opportunity to go into coaching and that's what I did.

Sport was always a big part of my daughters' lives. They were playing basketball, hockey, netball and tennis.

My wife enjoyed being active - she played tennis as a girl and was the one who got us into it.

Teaching tennis is as much about independence - you develop the individual, but then you also develop the athlete to play a sport.

You give them the skills to play a sport for a long time.

You want to give them confidence, so that they will still be playing at 18. Too many kids stop at 13, but if you are able to keep them in past the age of 15 or 16, you've got them for life.

It wasn't difficult with the girls, thankfully. They were in a peer group that was academic and sporty and they kept it up themselves.

All we did was provide the transport and give them a bit of encouragement to go out and play sports - going out to play tennis on a windy day in Northern Ireland can be tough.

Sophie goes to the gym six to seven times a week and loves being active.

Lucy got a tennis scholarship to the University of Utah in the States and has been doing well with Ulster seniors.

Being a tennis dad is great - it keeps you busy. The coaching is non-stop. It's full-on because at this time of year you want to get out as much as possible.

In the winter it can be harder, but you find youngsters just want to get out, be active and have fun.

We need more indoor facilities across the province on a permanent basis.

We try to get players to think about whether they want to compete at national level, provincial level or play socially.

There are one or two players who are competing at international level, but that's going to be a small group, so we need to keep the majority of players, old and young, playing for as long as possible.

Tennis has to compete with so many other sports that are all singing their own praises.

They're all competing for the same pool of active kids, so we have to look at ways to get more people coming in at the bottom and enjoying the sport.

We've done a lot of work on developing things locally, like getting schools to come in to learn tennis."

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