Weekend interview: Connelly’s on the up, Down Under

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JAMES CONNELLY has been in Australia for almost eight years and the Jerseyman’s accent has lost itself to an antipodean inflection.

Based in Perth, the 31-year-old has been steadily building up a reputation for himself as a promising coach of talented young tennis players, which recently led to his nomination for Tennis Australia’s annual Coaching Excellence Development Award.

Though self-employed with his own tennis school, Connelly has long been working closely with the national development centre in a country that has a long and rich history of producing court superstars, including Rod Laver and Margaret Court in the past to Ash Barty, who was set to play in the women’s Australian Open final this morning.

A new star is never that long in the pipeline and one such player is currently in the custody of Connelly’s coaching, in 15-year-old Lily Fairclough. This month, she made her debut in the Australian Junior Open in Melbourne, going out in the round of 64 in the singles to Canada’s Annabelle Xu.

Connelly has been working closely with Fairclough since he arrived in the country and predicts a bright future for her, but his hard work is also laying the ground for a successful career of his own.

The former Island Games gold medallist had just finished university in Brighton and was a practice partner for a number of professional tennis players in the UK. One such player was Australia’s Bernard Tomic, a top-20 player at the time. It was through him an opportunity arose to work Down Under.

‘It was just meant to be for a year to begin with and then I guess it went pretty quick and it felt like it hadn’t been long enough,’ says Connelly.

‘I ended up having options to get my visa and once I’d done two-and-a-half, three years I thought I may as well stick it out for five years to get my permanent residency. Then I got citizenship this time last year to be to be an Australian citizen as well. It’s gone super quick and I can’t believe I’m saying I’ve been here eight years.’

Since his arrival in Australia, Connelly’s work has included being a talent development coach and wheelchair development coach for Team Australia, with a roster of ITF juniors, national and state-ranked players under his tutelage. He says he spends about 40 hours a week on court and another 20 to 30 off it with administration, planning and organising.

‘I have eight-to-ten kids who I’m really serious with and they’re really serious about their tennis. It is what they are prioritising and they want to go to college and get scholarships in America or go professional,’ continues Connelly, who also spent a year at a college in the US, at Florida Gulf Coast University.

‘If you’re at national level you can get a full scholarship quite easily. I’ve had about five or six girls already go to scholarships and a couple of boys too. The first boy just came back and now he actually coaches for me, which is really awesome. That’s been really nice to see the cycle come back round again. Now he’s coaching the kids that saw him when he was 16, 17.

‘I’m really lucky with Tennis Australia because they give you funding for the level of athletes that you work with. When I first came out, no one knew who I was in Perth and after two years I was getting state regional funding towards the programme I was working on. Then it started to pick up after I was getting players to the Nationals. The better you do, they recognise it and then they give you funding. They pump a lot of money into professional development.’

Sport has always been taken seriously in Australia, with a general lifestyle of a nation that makes the most of its advantageous weather for outdoor pursuits.

Connelly says that Fairclough is ‘a stereotypical Aussie kid’ who displays an all-round athleticism, having grown up playing a number of different sports.

‘Up until two years ago she was playing Aussie Rules football, cricket, basketball, all at a really good level. It’s really normal here,’ he explained.

‘You drive past the park and kids are playing all the time. The girls are just as athletic as the boys so there’s not so much a separation from the boys playing sport like there is at home. It’s a different culture and attitude towards sport and you get well rewarded for it.

‘The weather is unbelievable. You want to get out and make the most of the day.’

Approaches to coaching in sport have changed a lot over the last couple of decades. Coaches now take a more hollistic approach to the needs to their players and not only focus on practice on the court and refining technique. Connelly has qualifications in strength and conditioning and has done work on sports psychology, too. Meanwhile, a player’s general well-being and improved communications between coach and player are just as important.

‘It’s very true that happy kids equal better athletes and for me it’s putting in the time and understanding the athlete as an individual,’ he said. ‘I will be looking to find out what really flicks the switch and what motivates them. Once you have that end target it’s easy to then build short-term goals which they will buy into. We have to put a lot of time into that and put the right people around them and make it quite fun. I want to make the kids feel part of something.

‘I don’t take too many on. I try to keep my numbers manageable so I am not coaching a ridiculous number of kids. I end up having 20 to 30 kids and they each get about three hours a week coaching and it benefits everyone really.

‘I learn a lot off the kids. I get things wrong, quite often as you can imagine between a male coach and a 16-year-old female. You get it wrong an awful lot but every time that you get it wrong, the next time you are more prepared.’

Connelly hopes to continue to work closely with Fairclough, although she will soon be moving to the new National Tennis Academy in Brisbane, meaning communication will be kept to a distance. However, there is no doubt in his mind that she has the potential to make it big in the game.

‘Every once in a while someone comes along who’s a little bit different, and just has something that you can’t teach. She is one of those people,’ he says.

In the meantime, he will continue to look to unearth the next Ash Barty at his academy at Hensman Park Tennis Club, although but he hasn’t ruled out moving up the ladder – or returning to the UK.

‘I would like to think that at some point I will take on a full-time role with the governing body when I feel like I’ve done my own thing in the private sector for longer,’ he added. ‘To be a national coach or something like that would be my aim. But that’s not to say that I wouldn’t go back to the UK either and do the same thing there.’

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