GreatBase Tennis' Story
The story behind the GreatBase Tennis (GBT) pathway is about a journey and a quest to find what the game of tennis still needs, truth. Truth is needed, yet honesty is often missing when people sign up for tennis instruction. The GBT pathway is a product of Steve Smith's five decades in tennis teaching, and its goal is to provide a better beginning for players and teachers. Steve’s lifetime of work provides a clear and proven pathway for learning how to play and teach tennis. The pathway's name is self-defining; only a fool would argue with not having a "great base" in any sport or form of education.
Sadly, the reality is that the vast majority of tennis players still learn tennis through guesswork. Students are subject to the opinions of misinformed and often egotistical teachers as opposed to scientific principles. The trial-and-error approach is far inferior to one based on detailed rationale.
Steve Smith is a product of the tennis boom that began in the early 1970s in the US. The late James van Allen invented the tiebreaker that was first adopted by the US Open in 1970. The shortened scoring system put tennis in a time capsule, thus allowing for matches to be telecasted. Even though he is now immersed in tennis, Steve was born into an ice hockey family in northern New York, a few of miles from the Canadian border. Having played youth, prep, and college hockey, Steve initially saw a tennis ball and court as perfect tools for street hockey. However, prior to going away to a New England prep school, Steve's parents got him a job as a dish washer at a boy's camp in the Adirondack Mountains. His cabin was next to two tennis courts and a backboard and, without any formal instruction, he began to “bang balls.” Steve was still on the outskirts of tennis, yet his interest in the game grew. Within a couple of years, the tennis boom had become a full-fledged tennis industry. Steve, knowing he wanted to make a living in sport and see the world, saw tennis as his answer.
Just prior to turning twenty and without any contacts or guidance, Steve left the snowbanks of upstate New York for sunny Florida to totally immerse himself in tennis. He hit balls all day and took the role of the starving artist by working a wide assortment of jobs at night to support himself. In just over five years, he went from being a complete neophyte to being ranked in the top twenty in Florida. Steve claims that for a few years there was a chance he hit the most balls on the planet, spending hours and hours under the hot sun hitting the backboard. He did not know it at the time, but he was practicing myth after myth that he had been taught. He slowly learned that his father’s saying, “The cream comes to the top, but so does bullshit if you stir it,” summed up the typical tennis teacher.
Steve had been told that he had to first learn how to play before he could teach. To do so, he served as a volunteer teacher. He created his own school of hard-knocks, switching from traveling to tournaments in his minivan to traveling to tennis camps and academies to observe master tennis teachers. Still today, such a task is unheard of in tennis. Surgeons observe case after case prior to being licensed to operate, but the norm for tennis teachers is to just grab the ball hopper and start teaching without even one day of training. In contrast, Steve served apprenticeships under three of the most accomplished teachers in the history of tennis: Vic Braden, Dennis Van der Meer, and Welby Van Horn.
In 1981, Steve got lucky. Put differently, he was prepared and an opportunity was presented. The late Dr. Eugene Allen, the president of the board of trustees at Tyler Junior College, knew Steve's background and was in a position to make the arrangements for Steve to revise a general recreation curriculum into a comprehensive curriculum and degree plan for students seeking occupational competency as tennis-teaching pro-managers. “Tennis Tech,” The program Steve designed and directed was the first of its type; students from over forty states and over thirty-five countries enrolled. Each month, a highly respected industry leader would conduct a ten-hour weekend seminar, and every summer students were placed all over the world to complete internships. It is often said that the teacher learns more than the student, and in this case, the tennis experience Steve acquired was second to none. In addition to training individuals, who are still making their mark on the game as tennis teaching professionals, Steve also trained players. During the last five years of Steve’s ten year in Tyler, Texas, a small group of local players trained by Stave won more high school state titles than players from Dallas and Houston combined.
Steve produced an online course called "Tennis Intelligence Applied,” referencing eight educational contributors. Each of those individuals, had a major impact on the “Tennis Tech” program at Tyler Junior College. Their names are Vic Braden, Peter Burwash, Harry Hopman, Bill Jacobsen, James Loehr, Jim Verdieck, Dennis Van der Meer, and Welby Van Horn. Another source for the content was the daily journals students from Tennis Tech would log and present from their summer internships. It was as if each new concept or drill was evaluated as a potential golden nugget or pearl of wisdom to be added to a tennis-teaching treasure chest. Upon compiling all of this information, a system of systems was created.
The backbone of GBT is principled on Vic Braden's research. The late Braden was a pioneer in the field of tennis teaching, bringing science to the forefront. The decade in Tyler, Texas, was filled with endless hours of lectures and labs that allowed Steve to cleverly combine Braden's scientific approach, for example, with Van Horn's checkpoints of balance and visual cues from Don Leary's word picture method. All four components of the game were covered: technical, tactical, physical, and mental/emotional. A fifth component, statistical analysis, was covered by Bill Jacobsen, the electronic pioneer of match charting.
The system, which was fine-tuned by the end of the ‘80s, was not given a name for over twenty years. Unlike nearly all the tennis educators online, Steve gives credit where credit is due, being the first to say that there is no “Steve Smith Method.” Steve's number one mentor Braden would always say, “There is no Vic Braden method, just the method of physical laws." One of Steve's former students and long-time associates, Richard Hernandez, once told Steve that tennis needs a "great base initiative." Simply put, the standard of tennis instruction needs to improve. For this reason, Steve is optimistic about GBT being accepted as a supplemental curriculum for families, because tennis lessons are expensive.
Steve's background in ice hockey gives him a refreshingly honest approach to tennis. A hockey locker room does not have the sugar-coating and false praising that is often heard courtside in tennis. In hockey, if you can't skate, you can't play well. To Steve, it is the same in tennis; if you have no strokes, you can't play well. To remedy this epidemic in tennis, he created a unique way to assess players technically, tactically, and statistically. Before starting with instruction, video and written files are established. The goal of this assessment is to start the documentation of development. Players must check their egos at the door, listen, and study a report that prescribes how to improve. Probably the biggest factor that helps Steve in his fight against tennis ignorance is the pre-post videos of his students. The "before-and-after" films show drastic improvement.
Most tennis programs are built on recruiting, having a large percentage of tennis teachers hanging out at weekend tournaments handing out business cards to juniors who already can play well. Few embrace the challenge of teaching new beginning players, and because of this the welfare and growth of tennis is in jeopardy. Steve calls tennis teaching “the credibility business.” Credibility does not mean one is truthful, but it means one is believable. Just because someone knows how to play well, does not to any extent mean he/she knows how to teach well. Teaching can be defined as information transfer, and entry-level students need well-informed and well-trained teachers.
According to one of Steve Smith's associates, "Steve has enough credibility to choke a horse." Steve's students have won the US National Junior Championships (girls’ and boys’ 18s), and so have his students’ students. He has had over ten players he developed in their formative years win NCAA national titles, and he has had over ten of his students be recipients of USPTA Pro of the Year awards. His son Connor was ranked two in the US (18s), honored as an All-American, and ranked 200 (ATP) in the world in singles. On a regular basis, Steve's students and his students’ students reach noteworthy accomplishments. He has served as a coach, clinician, and consultant in over thirty countries and is a member and former tester with both the PTR and USPTA.
In summary, GBT is a proven pathway for all associated with player development. GBT is an education for players, parents, coaches, and special-interest groups. GBT is also a worldwide community, serving as an organization to help tennis.