An independent all-girls boarding school in Berkshire over the last six years has developed its tennis coaching programme from a run-of-the-mill private school regime to one of the most enviable in the country, boasting a roster consisting of a host of ex- and current professionals, most notably former British Number Two Josh Goodall. We spoke to Tim Allen, the Head of Tennis at the school, about why Downe House is becoming a role-model for schools across the country.
Britennis: So an all-girls boarding school isn’t exactly the place you’d expect to find professional players plying their trade as coaches! Tell us about the school itself and how tennis first began to become a bigger part of the life there.
Tim Allen: Downe House is an all girls independent boarding School in Berkshire for girls from 11 to 18 years old. Tennis has always been played by the students, but only in the last five or six years have we really started to push tennis to the next level. Without losing our original ethos of having the sport available for all, we adapted to more elite, performance based tennis. In summer, tennis is compulsory, with all girls developing the ability to play a match, and inter-house competitions. However, a further 70% opt in to extra lessons. We currently have over 350 girls having lessons each week, with 7 full time coaches and team of pros to cover all the bases of levels and ability. Girls are able to have lessons throughout the day with coaching hours between 9am and 6pm on weekdays.BT: What first inspired you to recruit Josh Goodall to the coaching staff? Why did you pick him, and how difficult was it to persuade him to be a part of the team?
TA: When I first got the job at Downe in 2009, I said that I wanted to change tennis and make Downe House the school of choice for those looking for a tennis and an academic school. I really just wanted to prove that I could make a difference with my slightly maverick approach to teaching and management. In truth, I never thought in my wildest dreams I would get Josh to work for me, but I saw in the news that he was thinking about retiring. I took a punt, knowing he was fairly local to the school, and through initial contact on LinkedIn and various follow-up emails, I got him to come and meet me. I approached Josh because he was (and still is) a recognisable name in British Tennis, and because I wanted to offer our students something that other schools couldn’t – an insight into professional tennis. I spoke to Josh initially with the idea of helping him with sponsorship, and maybe for him to offer the odd demo day, but after our conversation I ended up offering him a job. He didn’t take it straight away, but after two years of persuasion, we started working together and the rest, as they say, is history. We’re now good friends as well as regular working colleagues.
BT: Aside from Josh, are there any other pros that you have or have had on your books, and how did you recruit them?
After Josh joined, and spoke very highly of what both I and the school were trying to achieve, it was a lot easier for him to use his contacts and start a professional player programme. We now are fortunate enough, due to the flexibility our programme allows in terms of working hours and amount of lessons we can offer, that Dan Cox, Marcus Willis, Neil Pauffley and David Rice are all part of the Downe House Tennis family, while Sean Thornley has since left for a job in recruitment in the city. The players come in and coach around their tournament schedules, teaching the girls that the attend the school and giving them a chance to experience what professional tennis is all about. On the flip side, we are helping some of British Tennis’ best players continue their pro careers by providing them with much needed funds for travelling. In today’s tennis climate, this sort of thing is becoming more and more popular, as sponsorship and funding is often very hard to get, and to continue to get, as players reach a certain age.BT: What are the facilities like at the school?
TA: We have 10 hard courts and 12 astro courts, but no floodlights and no indoor space. Coaching takes place in all weather conditions as the courts are equipped to handle all but the very worst weather.
BT: What do you think professionals and students benefit from the most from what you provide?
TA: Our students can only be inspired to learn from such tennis players and the wealth and knowledge they have. The upsurge in lesson requests has been amazing since I bought in the pros programme: the main improvement has been that the girls have a much more competitive mindset and play far more aggressively than before. Numbers are up in all areas, so purely from a financial point of view it’s been a huge success. The professionals earn very good money: we offer a very competitive package including travel expenses, a free meal, flexibility to coach around their tournaments and great working hours; most tennis programmes are weekends and evenings, we are neither!
BT: Have any of your students gone on to have professional careers as a result of your tennis programme?
TA: This would be our ideal scenario, but realistically we are an academic school. While we do have some amazing players, girls will choose to join our school for academic reasons, and not because of the tennis programme. Saying that, only recently we have had parents from as far as Hong Kong travel to view the school on the recommendation of our tennis programme. So, the word is spreading that we offer something very unique and very unlike any other school in the country.
BT: What are your plans moving forward for the future?
TA: To continue to help and support British Tennis pros; to increase participation in tennis within the school; to bring in an outreach programme taking our coaches to help and support other local schools and clubs; to make Downe House a beacon for tennis is schools. If just one set of prospective parents chose Downe House for their daughter because of our tennis programme, I will at least feel I have made a lasting impact during my time here.
To learn more about Downe House, you can visit their official website or find them on Twitter @TennisAtDowne