Organizer of the Month
September 17, 2019
Each month, USTA Eastern selects a passionate advocate who has made exceptional contributions within the community through tennis. This month we honor a Junior Performance Specialist whose innovation has not only made an impact on the kids he coaches, but their parents as well.
When Alberto Zacchino Jr.—the Junior Performance Specialist in charge of youth programming at Brunswick Hills Tennis Center—thinks about his career and coaching style, he always comes back to one word: Simplicity.
“[When I played] in high school and college, the game got to the point where it became so technical,” he says. “It almost became a job.”
As he started giving lessons to the 10 & Under set post-graduation, he rediscovered what he calls the sport in its “pure form”. “Kids have taught me how simple the sport really is,” Zacchino explains. ADVERTISEMENT “You realize that tennis is really just a racquet, a net and a ball, and the point of the game is to not miss. When you start thinking in those terms, you realize how much room there is to grow from that, and how as a coach you can really help develop certain skills.”
Zacchino emphasizes keeping it simple when coaching at Brunswick Hills. The hallmark of his 10 & Under program is his Star System, an innovation he designed that in some ways mirrors the belt structure in karate. Kids are first assigned a color ball (red, orange, green) based on their ability level. (Learn more here.) Every time they master a certain tennis skill (forehand, backhand, serve etc.) they are granted a star. Once they collect five stars, they can advance to the next ball. Classes are organized by the amount of stars a kid earns, so that everyone in the class truly has a similar skillset.
“I realized that was important in order to build the program properly,” he says. “And it was also more enjoyable for the kids. It makes their lives a lot easier on the court.”
In many ways, the Star System has been an overwhelming success for Zacchino. It is a simple, clean way to structure the 10 & Under classes and helps incentivize his students. But he soon realized he needed to do more.
“Part of the reason I designed the star program was to get rid of questions from some parents: ‘When will my kids move up? Where does my kid belong?’” Zacchino says. “Or they would think their kid should be in a different group. I wanted to give not only the kids but also the parents some kind of feedback—stars on a piece of paper, a checklist. That way they would always know where their child’s level was. But while [the program] was fixing some problems, it was causing others.”
Specifically, Zacchino says the more detailed information he provided about his classes, the more parents began to feel like they were experts in the technical aspects of the sport.
“I had these situations where parents would start giving their children bad advice,” he says. “[After a class], the kids would go home, play outside with their parents and their parents would say, ‘Do it this way, don’t do it this way.’ And then they’d come back to me after a week, and everything we’d worked on had changed. I realized something had to be done because if not, we’re taking one step forward, two steps back every time. So that’s when I started the Kids Vision Program.”
Zacchino runs the Kids Vision Program just as he runs his Star System, with one fundamental difference: The participants are now the parents. The parents come into a session at a discounted rate and receive the same lessons their children receive. Parents use the same modified 10 & Under racquet, net and ball, and they earn the same stars as they master a particular skill. For the sake of time the program is expedited, but the experience is largely the same. Zacchino made it very clear from the outset that they would go through everything the same way their kids do.
“The parents are treated like Red Ball Level 1 players, even though they’re in their 30s and 40s,” Zacchino explains. “We try to take them back in time, to when they were four or five years old and trying to learn a sport. And it really works. The adults absolutely loved it. They thought it was the most fun thing—they didn’t know that tennis could be this fun.”
But it wasn’t just the adults who enjoyed chasing down red balls with a smaller racquet. “The kids really got a kick out of [watching their parents play] too,” Zacchino adds. “So it’s really engaging, but more importantly the program really educates. We’re able to teach the parents how to properly engage with their kids so they’re not leading them in the wrong direction. That way, we’re maximizing development.”
The first Kids Vision “class” kicked off in November 2018, and the program is still going strong today. Many parents contact Zacchino during the off-season about participating.
“A lot of times parents just don’t really know what tennis is,” he says. “I really wanted to get them engaged, but in the right way. I feel like the Star System gets them engaged but not necessarily in the right way, at least from a parental perspective. All it does it shows them that your child can do this and your child is capable of this. I didn’t really feel like the parents knew what this was, and I wanted to teach them.”