On Wednesday 5 June 2019, former Fed Cup Captain Judy Murray spoke at the Scottish Parliament as part of the seminar series with Leaders in Sport and Physical Activity hosted by the Futures Forum and the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe).
Judy reflected on her experience of coaching in tennis in Scotland, the lessons she’s learned, and her aspirations for the future of sport and physical activity in Scotland, including how we can use the success of international stars like her sons Andy and Jamie to build a healthy nation for the future.
Chaired by Alison Johnstone MSP, Co-Convener of the Cross-Party Group on Sport, the seminar was open to MSPs, their staff and Parliament staff.
Listen to Judy’s presentation in this podcast:
I want to talk about my experience of sport, which has of course been a massive part of my life. I have sporty parents—my dad was a footballer. Back in the early 1950s, in the days when people didn’t make any money from sport, he played for a number of clubs, including Hibernian. He tells a great story about how he would line up with the others outside the manager’s door after a match to wait for his £1 wage. In the context of transfer fees nowadays, it’s clear that the sporting world has changed a lot since I was small.
I’m very thankful that I had sporty parents who wanted me and my brothers to enjoy sport as much as they did and consequently played every sort of sport with us. We played badminton across the washing line in the garden, and we had cricket stumps and home-made goals that my dad made out of wood. What I remember about my dad is that he never, ever let me or my brothers score past him. I took that approach when Jamie and Andy were small—I never let them beat me at tennis, until they could actually beat me, which was probably when they were about 12 and 13.
I was fortunate to have sporty parents who played with us whenever, at whatever sport. As a result, we developed good hand-eye and foot-eye co-ordination skills, which are the skills that underpin any sport. In those days, there was no high school in Dunblane, as it was a wee village of about 3,000; it is a bit bigger now. It did not have its own high school—well, it did, but it only went up to third year. When I was in primary 5, my parents decided, because I loved sport so much, to bite the bullet and send me up to Morrison’s Academy. I will be forever grateful that they were able, and had the foresight, to do that.
The sporting opportunities at fee-paying schools are vastly better than those at state schools. As a result, I enjoyed playing in all sorts of team sports at school. I loved being part of a team. We are all products of our environment, and all the things I enjoyed about sport ultimately became the things that I put back into sport when I started to coach it: big numbers, the social aspect, volunteering, a sense of community and lots of team events.
The two main sports that I played were tennis and badminton, which are quite similar in that they are both played with a racket. When I was young, there were no tennis coaches because nobody aspired to be any good at tennis. Nobody saw tennis coaching as a job, because in those days there were no jobs in tennis. There were no indoor courts: we played tennis in the summer and badminton in the winter. My experience of both those sports came first through my family and then through local community clubs, the church hall and the local tennis club, followed by playing at district and then county level, and eventually national and international level.
You cannot play tennis for Scotland—it is part of the Great Britain team, which is a disadvantage in some ways. If we were able to play tennis for Scotland, we would perhaps be able to grow more of a sense of identity up here, but tennis is a GB sport.
I won 64 national titles, which sounds unbelievable—every time that somebody says that, I think, “Did I really?” In those days, the junior level was just under-18s, and now there are under-10s, under-12s and under-14s—we’ve got everything. Back then, there were very few people to play against. Tennis was—and probably still is—very much a minority sport in Scotland. Back then, there were very few females playing competitively, so the competitive pool was very small.
As a result of that environment, there was no infrastructure. There was a part-time national coach, so once in a blue moon I would be invited to a training weekend in Inverclyde. As I remember it, those weekends were great fun: get the train from Dunblane to Queen Street Station, get across Glasgow, go to Central Station, get the train to Largs and walk up the hill with your bag on your back. It was great to get away from your parents for the weekend—you’re away with your pals, sharing a room. I loved it: the responsibility, the independence and everything else. The most fun part was being with the other kids.
What I remember about the coach was that he had no interest in the girls. There were two halls: one with two proper tennis courts, and an air hall with one of those bubbly things and a rubberised floor; it had all sorts of equipment lying around at the sides so we would crash into things all the time. The coach would send the girls into the air hall, and he would come through when it was time for a break or to change an exercise and then disappear again.
That experience was formative, and now I very much try to promote the importance of having more women coaches and female PE teachers in order to get more girls playing and staying in sport. We think and act on behalf of girls because girls are our world. We understand the changes in their emotions and their bodies, so we understand how to create an environment for them. In my view, the whole issue of getting more girls into sport and keeping them there depends very much on having a bigger female workforce out there.
At school, I had a couple of really great female PE teachers who made all the team events happen. I was very much inspired by them. All through my high-school years, I thought that I was going to be a PE teacher. In my fifth year of school—back then, you could leave after fifth year when you’d done your highers—my form teacher said to me, “There are no jobs in the teaching profession—it’s a mess at the moment. I advise you to go to university and do languages.”
That is what I did, after a brief foray into trying to play tennis, which was impossible at age 16 or 17. My mum was looking after my younger brothers and my dad had his own business, and there was nothing in Scotland whatsoever, so I had to travel on my own. In those days, there was no internet and there were no ATM machines or mobile phones—you were on your own and completely disconnected. You not only had to coach yourself—you had to look after yourself, book your travel and accommodation, do your budgeting et cetera. I didn’t last particularly long. That environment produced a lack of opportunity in Scotland.
Many years later, having done my degree, I started work. I ended up as a sales rep and a national account manager for a confectionery company; anybody who follows me on Twitter will know that I’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth. Just before Andy was born, we moved from Glasgow back to Dunblane. I decided that I couldn’t do my job any longer, because I had to travel a lot. I had two kids 15 months apart—anybody who does that is perfectly mad and will know what I’m talking about.
I gave up my job, but I felt trapped at home with two little kids. When I left Glasgow, I left my friends, my tennis club and my job, along with my car, which went with the job. My world completely changed. I rejoined the tennis club in Dunblane and discovered that, all those years later, there were still no coaches in our area. I started to volunteer—I wasn’t a coach; I was just somebody who loved tennis, and I wanted to create opportunities for the older kids at the club.
My first success as a tennis coach came in 1994, when the Dunblane High School boys’ team won the Scottish schools championship. It was nothing to do with my kids, but whenever I’m asked about my biggest success as a coach, it’s always the first thing that comes to mind because it was local and community based. It was just a bunch of kids from the tennis club—none of them were superstars, but collectively they were a great team. It represented everything that I’d experienced in sport coming through.
I spent several years building things up at the club. As most volunteers find out, the more you do, the more people expect you to do. With two young kids, I couldn’t do everything. I thought, “Okay—I’m happy to do the coaching, but I need an army. Who do I bring in?” I brought in all the mums, because who wants things to happen for the kids more than their parents? The mums are, by and large, the ones who are around. I had mums running a cafe, running competitions, writing things in the local paper and the school newspaper and organising matches. I started my own army at the club.
I then started to move into the wider local area. There were still no indoor courts, so we used school halls during the winter. Those were the days when you could go and pick up a key from the janny and open the school or the sports centre and just go in. They weren’t proper tennis courts—there were shiny floors with lines everywhere, and when you swung your racket back, you would hit the wall. However, it meant that I got good at catering for big numbers of kids in any old space that I could find. My message from that experience is that it’s not what you have—it’s what you do with what you have. I kept 66 kids playing through the winter because of those school halls, going in once a week on a Sunday evening or even practically all day.
Working in the local area, I began to realise that a lot of the kids I was working with were getting really good, and I didn’t know enough about coaching. There were all these new techniques such as Western grips, topspin serves and double-handed backhands. I had learned with a wooden racket—you just step in and swing through over your shoulder. My skills just weren’t holding up in modern tennis, so I went and upgraded my coaching qualification. I’d done a coaching qualification before I went to university as a means of making some pocket money—I’d never used it, but it allowed me to go to the second stage of training, which was a week-long course.
At the end of the course, however, it hadn’t given me what I wanted. It gave me a lot of information, but it didn’t really give me anything that I didn’t know. I needed to know how to practically apply all the stuff that I’d learned. The best way to learn is to work alongside somebody who is great at what they do; who organises, communicates, plans and delivers well; and who is experienced. There was nobody to learn from, as nobody was doing player development in Scotland.
Everything that I had to learn as a tennis coach, I had to learn by and for myself. About a year and a half after I did the course, I applied to do another one because I had a lot of good kids and I needed to invest in myself in order to invest in them. I applied for a 12-month course with several three-day workshops that were held down south. It was the first year of the course—it was called the performance coach award, and the Lawn Tennis Association had been planning it for about four years. I applied for the course and I didn’t expect to get a place, but I did.
When I got to the first workshop, in Basingstoke, I felt completely out of my depth. Coming from Scotland, it involved much more of a time commitment and a financial commitment for me because I was so far away. When I got there, there were 18 men and two women. Out of 20 people, 19 were full-time coaches who all worked in big posh clubs with indoor courts, and I was a volunteer in Dunblane. I felt completely out of my depth as a female, and probably as a Scot as well.
I really began to wonder whether I’d done the right thing when a tutor said to me, “Welcome to the course—you’re very lucky to have a place.” I said, “Yes, I know—thank you. I’m looking forward to getting started”, and he said, “We had to turn a lot of guys away.” I just said, “Right—okay.” One of the biggest things I’ve learned from coaching is that the ability to make people feel good about themselves is absolutely crucial.
You can get a change in anybody’s behaviour or performance if they feel good about themselves, but if they don’t—if you make kids or adults feel bad or that they don’t belong, or they’re not any good, or they’ve made a mistake—you’re wasting your time. I just looked at the guy with my best death stare. He said, “We actually had an official complaint about you getting a place on the course from someone we turned down.” I said, “Really?” and he carried on. He said, “Yes—what could you possibly offer to performance coaching when you have two kids?”
I just looked at him, and then I went away and sat and sulked for about an hour. Then I thought, “Oh god—whatever”, and I went into f**k-you mode. That approach has served me very well over many years of being a woman working in a man’s world. I thought, “I’m here, I’ve paid for the course and I’m going to get on with it.” I passed the course—not because I was a good coach, but because I was clever. It was information based—it was all lectures. I wanted to watch great coaches, to see what they did and how they did it day to day, because I wanted to create opportunities for the kids I worked with. I didn’t get that from the course.
Again, that experience has formed me as a coach, and as a coach of coaches or a teacher of teachers. I do everything with my audience, and then I bring a class in and show them a class in action. I put myself in front of classes of kids or adults who I don’t know and I’ve never seen before, and I show them what a session looks like. That is the best way to learn. So much of what I learned about coaching and teaching others came from bad experiences. If you think about it, we always learn more from our failures, defeats and mistakes, and from the things that go wrong.
Three things happened for me. First, the head of coach education at the LTA was a woman, and she gave me a place on that course. Secondly, as a result of passing the course, I got the chance to work with the British under-12 and under-14 national girls’ teams, which allowed me to travel to other countries. I was offered that opportunity by a female captain. The experience of going abroad and learning from other coaches who’d been there and done it for years, and learning about travel, standards and the international circuit, gave me all the learning I wanted to be able to help the Scottish kids.
The third thing that happened was that Scotland applied for a national coach. The position had been vacant for about 18 months, but nobody wanted the job. The reason was that we had no track record, no home, no national centre, no international workforce and no infrastructure. Nobody from another country with any pedigree or track record was going to apply for the job, because there was literally nothing there.
Who was going to apply for that job? Me. Well, I wasn’t going to apply, but the secretary of Tennis Scotland at the time, who was a woman, persuaded me to apply. She said, “You can do it—you’ve got the passion.” That is another a product of your environment: passion underpins absolutely everything, and it can trump experience much of the time.
So I became the Scottish national coach. I started with a £25,000 salary and a £90,000 budget. The indoor courts at Stirling University had literally just opened. That was it for the whole of Scotland: four courts in Stirling. I realised that I had to start small, so I did. I started with 20 children across Scotland, aged between seven and 11, who I thought had the most potential. Andy was the youngest, and Elena Baltacha was the oldest. We started out only on weekends, and then it started to grow and grow. We got four Davis Cup players and a Fed Cup player out of that.
As I went on, I realised that I couldn’t do it on my own. I had my hopper of balls and my block booking at Stirling University, and I brought in the parents to help me look after the kids, put them up overnight, do car shares to tournaments down south et cetera. I realised that I had to build a workforce, because I couldn’t do all the coaching and travelling myself.
I got some money from Sportscotland for a performance coach development programme: £10,000 a year for six successive years. I used that money to bring in people from other countries, because there was nobody up here to learn from—there was no tennis expertise in Scotland at all. I brought in physical trainers, physios and mental skills experts—not just for one-offs, because one-offs don’t work. You need to bring people in for two or three days at a time, three times a year, to create relationships. If you create relationships with people—not just between coaches, but with players—we have a chance to make something happen.
I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was going on common sense and things that I had experienced. I knew what worked—or what I thought worked—and what didn’t work.
As a result of that programme, we got a number of coaches who went on to be experts in their field in British tennis. One of them, Karen Ross, was a coach to Gordon Reid, who was the world number 1 wheelchair player at the end of 2016. She also headed up the British tennis disability department, which is a huge job. The other one is Leon Smith, who is the head of men’s tennis and the British Davis Cup captain. He started with me when he was 20, and Karen started when she was 22. I became the Fed Cup captain for the British women’s team.
Out of our little cottage industry, with literally nothing, we created some great players and some great coaches. I’m a huge believer in investing in people and bringing them together, and in community and making things happen. That is my coaching approach.
I left the job of Scottish national coach after 10 years because I needed more support for the players. We had so many players who were world class, and I needed money to enable them to train in other countries because we didn’t have the right environment for them. Nobody, including Sportscotland, was willing to give me that extra money. I got used to having hands put in my face and doors shut on me. It was partly because tennis was a minority sport and not really something that we did in Scotland, but I think that a lot of it was because I was female and a parent of two of the players.
Andy had just won the US Open Juniors—only 10 years after we started with nothing, we had a junior Grand Slam champion from Scotland. How good is that? I was on cloud nine. I gave a presentation to Sportscotland and they basically said, “No—no more money. We’re interested in Grand Slam champions, not junior Grand Slam champions.” At that point, I realised that I was wasting my time, so I left.
I decided that I was just going to give my kids the best chance that I could possibly give them. It was a big risk for me, because I was giving up my job and the car that came with it. I thought, “Where’s the money going to come from?” but I had to believe that Andy winning the junior Grand Slam would attract some sponsorship. We were living hand-to-mouth for a long, long time.
Andy trained in Barcelona from age 15, and Jamie trained in Paris after he finished school. The biggest challenge was getting the money together to pay for all that, because we had nothing in Scotland. We still have nothing. It is a huge source of disappointment to me that we haven’t been able to capitalise on everything that has been achieved, and on the excitement and the profile.
The boys did what they did—you’ll have read about everything that they’ve done. They’ve been quite remarkable and incredibly resilient. They are incredibly hard workers and great role models, and they’ve remained really humble and grounded despite the world in which they live, where it would be very easy to get carried away.
About five or six years ago, I realised that there was a very good chance that there would be no legacy from what they had achieved, because nobody appeared to be really taking hold of the tennis thing up here. We had very weak leadership in Tennis Scotland for many years, all through those golden years. I started a programme called Tennis on the Road, which basically involves me and a van full of equipment, and another coach. We work 50 days a year, and we take tennis into mainly rural and disadvantaged areas and build workforces in local communities.
We teach people how to teach tennis, whether they are parents, teachers, students, youth leaders, community workers or club members, because we don’t have a big enough workforce. If you don’t have people delivering activity, you ain’t gonna grow the game and capitalise on the excitement.
The other part of the puzzle is the need for more public courts and more courts in state schools. My bet is that, if I can grow the workforce, I can share all my enthusiasm and experience to get more people involved in getting others started. Over the past 18 months, Tennis on the Road has become my foundation; I put all my own money in to set it up. That is basically what we do, in deprived and rural areas.
My experience in the Fed Cup taught me how much harder it is to make things happen on the women’s side of the game. I learned that in the first week of the Fed Cup, when I was arguing that a video analyst should come with us so that I could video the opposition playing. That was what I’d always done with the boys’ tennis—you video who you’re playing next and analyse it, and you set the strategy and off you go. Every step of the boys’ careers has been about learning what the next stage is and what we need to do in the next year. It is about learning, and finding the right people, the right environments and the right places. There is no book that tells you what to do. Everybody’s path is different, but you have to learn.
First, I had to learn to coach, and then I had to learn to manage the juniors, and the transition circuit into the men’s side. Then I was managing teams of people—tennis coaches and physical trainers—and also managing the business side. I’ll have you know that I learned how to do tax returns in four different countries. If you can’t afford to pay people to do those things, you have to learn them for yourself. Over the years, the team has grown bigger and bigger because of Andy’s success, and we can now start to invest that money in the right people to make the whole thing work.
When I went to the Fed Cup, I got really into the women’s side of things. I asked for a video analyst to come with us. There was me, along with a physio, a fitness trainer and a team manager, but I wanted a video analyst too because I wanted to do it properly. At that time, we were in an obscure part of Israel where nobody came to watch us, and there were no media. I was fighting tooth and nail for a video analyst. I said, “Excuse me—I’m asking for a fourth member for our team.” They said, “You’ve already got yourself and three other people.” I said, “I know, but I’m trying to build a team here, and I want us to be successful, so I want to take a video analyst with us.”
At the last Davis Cup I was at, there were 19 people in the team. On the women’s side, you have to fight all the time, but look at our Fed Cup team now: we are in the world group. We developed players and created a profile; we had no media with us, so we did social media. We did features with all the dresses in Hello! magazine and the Daily Mail. We created our own profile ourselves, because no media came to watch us. Five or six years later, we are in a great place.
That led me to start a programme that is aimed at getting more girls into the game, because we have four times as many boys coming into tennis. It is called Miss-Hits, and it is for girls aged five to eight. It is great fun: a girl-friendly programme that attracts female coaches, or mums or students, to get involved in delivery.
I then started another programme called She Rallies, which is all about building a bigger and stronger female workforce across the UK. I started it with a female-only conference: 120 female tennis coaches and 26 part-time ambassadors that I trained up over two days. They go out into their patches and grow their own armies, just like I did at the tennis club. They bring in women in their area and train them up, and they start to grow things that way.
I started with 26 ambassadors, and I’ve now got 50. I’m coming to the end of my third year running the programme, and that will be enough for me; I’m ready to pass it on to somebody else. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is the importance of having a succession plan. I created a succession plan in Scotland with Karen Ross and Leon Smith, and some of the others who came through. I tried to create a plan at the club, but when I left, everything fell apart very quickly. If you take a key person out and there’s no succession plan, it’s amazing how quickly things can fall apart.
My final project is to try to get the Murray Tennis Centre off the ground. It is just outside Dunblane, and we aim to make it community focused and family friendly, which are our values. We want to use it as a national workforce development centre for tennis in Scotland. People—wherever they work, whatever they do, at whatever level—can come to me, and I can share my 30 years of experience to build the workforce.
In the future, our strength will be in our people. If we don’t build the workforce, we won’t capitalise on what has been achieved. We won’t have the leverage when Jamie and Andy stop playing—it needs to be done now.
This seminar was part of a series from Leaders in Sport and Physical Activity. Information about all the seminars is available here: