Different Strokes

Unconventional tennis coach also teaches kids life lessons

IMG_7714The black van with the distinctive logo—a highlighter-yellow skull between two pink crossed tennis rackets—pulls into an affluent Summerlin neighborhood on a warm Monday evening. Out race eight kids ranging in age from 11 to 14, all armed with tennis rackets, and they storm onto the two nearby courts for their weekly group lesson.

What unfolds over the next 75 minutes is the most unorthodox tennis lesson you’ve ever witnessed. Sure, there’s the requisite practicing of forehands, backhands and serves, but that is almost secondary to the lessons learned in respect, honesty, communication, self-confidence and sportsmanship.

At the center of the controlled chaos is James Springer, whose eyes are seemingly on both courts and all eight of his students at once. “Are we hitting cupcakes or are we hitting weapons?” he blurts when he notices some of his students passively attacking the ball. “Weapons!” the kids respond in unison.

“I’m 38 years old, but I feel like I’m 12 or 14,” Springer says. “Youth and exuberance are just natural instincts of mine.”

Springer is a native Las Vegan who comes from a family of tennis coaches, and says he’s been teaching the game since he was 10. For the past four years, he’s been operating System Works Tennis, traveling seven days a week across the Valley in his conspicuous van, offering not only tennis instruction but life lessons to students from age 3 to young adults, both in private and group settings.

Like the prototypical tennis instructor, Springer works his kids hard and demands effort at every turn. But unlike the prototypical instructor, Springer, who sports a neck-to-toe tattoo on half of his body, offers continuous praise to his students and encourages them to communicate constantly on the court, whether it’s calling out the score during a game, reciting a technique that was recently taught or complimenting a peer on their performance or attire.

“First and foremost, to get anything out of any of these kids, you’ve got to acknowledge what’s going on with them,” he says. “You must acknowledge the individual, and not in an insincere way. And then after that, they’re willing to acknowledge you. And then if you do some decent exchange with them, they’re willing to do anything you ask.”

Springer’s approach clearly works. During one recent group lesson, his eight students (five girls and three boys, including two of his own children) were put through an intense workout, but never once did anyone complain or ask for a break. In fact, all had smiles on their faces from the moment the lesson began—with the students high-fiving each other, as all of Springer’s lessons do—until it ended.

“In today’s coaching and teaching, we have all these parents who are worried about a lawsuit, worried about injuries, worried about this and that. We’re not,” says Springer, whose 100-plus clients include adults. “We’re not afraid of physical [contact], we’re not afraid to tell our kids we love them, we’re not afraid to get involved in their lives. It’s cutting-edge because nobody’s doing that anymore. They stopped. There’s red tape; there’s fear. But we immerse ourselves in our kids’ lives.

“That’s the experience I didn’t get growing up, and that’s the experience they’re not getting anywhere else.”

And it’s an experience Jeff Butcher appreciates. His 12-year-old daughter, Angelina, took up tennis a year ago, and although Butcher was mostly pleased with the first instructor he hired, he thought his daughter could progress more rapidly. After a short break, Angelina expressed a desire to return to tennis and her old coach. But Butcher, who had learned of Springer’s program from a friend, suggested to his daughter, “Why don’t we give James a try?”

“After about three lessons,” Butcher says, “she came up to me and said, ‘Thank you, Dad!’”

Angelina has been with System Works for three months, and even more than improving his daughter’s serve, Butcher says he’s most grateful to Springer for bringing her out of her shell. “She’s a quiet girl, but you don’t get to be quiet out here,” Butcher says. “One of the things James does is he’ll get on them. … But he also gives the kids a chance to argue back. The other night, he got on my daughter for something and she said, ‘Ain’t going to happen again, Coach!’ and I went ‘Holy crap, that’s awesome!’ She had never done that before.”

To Springer, such stories of personal development mean as much if not more than any physical improvement on the court.

“Look, [Angelina is] here for seven friends. She’s not here to see some old coach,” Springer says. “So if seven friends are saying good things to her and enhancing her life and empowering here and telling her qualities they like about her, she’s going to roll out of here with a smile on her face.”