Les Zellmann, who became the coach of the boys tennis team at St. James High School all the way back in 1979 and is basically the czar of tennis in this community, has been awarded the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Northern Section's Wolfenson/Ratner Community Service Award.
The award is given to the person for his or her outstanding fieldwork in recreational tennis, and it is also awarded for significant contributions in developing community-based tennis programs through community centers, schools, parks and community tennis associations, said Lisa Mushett, director of marketing and communications for USTA Northern. Zellmann was officially honored at a November 22 banquet at the Minneapolis Club in Minneapolis.
“The biggest thing (this award) represents is years of service--quality service,” Zellmann said. “The executive director of our Northern Section has come to our summer program twice in the past five years and considers it to be a model program.”
Zellmann said he most enjoys the summer program, because it's “pure teaching and watching them grow,” and he's built that summer time into a behemoth, with roughly a 160 players engaged last summer. “The kids like and enjoy it, we have fun and grow, and we're not overly engaged in outcome.”
Zellmann is the director of activities in St. James, the leader of the St. James Community Tennis Association, and he has always promoted an Open Court policy--encouraging anyone who is interested in playing to try tennis, Mushett added. In addition to coaching both the high school boys and girls teams, where he has a No-Cut policy, he also coordinates three local tournaments, runs Jr. Team Tennis programming, and led the fundraising efforts for new courts.
Like many outstanding coaches, Zellmann said he prefers practice to games, and he prizes the process over results. “You need a process to have competitive teams.”
He has worked closely with USTA Northern over the years and has received many grants for equipment and court improvements, Mushett said. Zellmann has also reached out to the ever-increasing Hispanic population in St. James in bridging the gap and bringing tennis to them through personal conversations and outreach, free clinics and player scholarships.
“The number one thing is to keep it inexpensive; there are not a lot of free dollars in this community for the costs,” he said. “You still need access to quality rackets; I buy lots of rackets, but I get a lot of donated rackets, too.”
As his program has grown, he's received tons of help from former players and volunteers in the community, he said. When he first started coaching, he had about 16 boys and 26 girls on his teams; now, he has about 40 boys and 50 girls.
The main catalyst for that growth has been the summer program, which he calls “critical.” During the season, there's only eight weeks to work with the team, and their attention is on academics and other extra-curricular activities; but, in summer, they can focus more on the tennis. Furthermore, he engages students in grades one-six in the summer, as well, so he always he's always cultivating a pipeline.
Page 2 of 2 - “You have to bring them to the table and get them interested early,” he said.
Zellmann's background is actually in basketball and baseball, but he was assigned tennis at the school, and he gave himself a crash-course in the sport he's come to love.
“It takes lots of time, but it's very rewarding,” he said. “That's a process, too, with lots of reading of books, trial-and-error, and developing best practices through experience--and we're always engaging new ideas and learning.”
He said one of the main issues with growing tennis among youth is the stigma the sport still fights that it's only for wealthy people of means.
“The USTA has found that other youth sports were doing a better job (of engaging players), and they're trying to be more friendly,” he said. “We're getting more grant money for court-resurfacing and equipment, and the USTA is developing more multi-cultural programs.”
“The goal of the USTA is to garner the best athletes and have that big star to get people engaged,” he said. “We need to get those two or three icons back, but I do think the UTSA is doing a pretty good job with youth tennis.”
Though Zellmann has already spent a lifetime evangelizing the virtues of tennis in St. James, he said he's not planning to slow down anytime soon.
“I still have the passion, and I really enjoy the pure teaching in the summer,” he said. “My goal is always to make sure every player has an opportunity to improve and get better; it's a fun game--enjoy the game!”