Coach Earl Blanchard is a throwback to the days when gentlemen were the norm. He’s the type that would open the door for someone, pull out your chair, and end every sentence courteously. The Castries native is soft-spoken, with a razor sharp wit, which peppers his conversation as he provides sage advice and anecdotes, as he is wont to do. It’s hard to believe that this Zen-like figure is one of the most formidable tennis coaches to come from the island.
For the past two weeks, Blanchard has been teaching his brand of tennis at a summer camp hosted by Tiger Tennis and the St Lucia Tennis Association Incorporated. He has made a lasting impression on his young charges, schooling them on the mechanics of the game, mental toughness, and of course a few life lessons. But this is more than a job for Blanchard. It’s a chance to develop the sport he loves in an area close to his heart: The Gardens. He grew up across the street from the camp’s facility at what is now known as the Kenneth ‘Wriggler’ King Multi-purpose Complex; a place which holds childhood memories and first set the wheels in motion for his career.
“Living across the road from the Gardens I used to watch the guys practice. Vincent Devaux, ex-governor now deceased Vincent Floissac. This is where it all happened. We played Brandon Trophy which was St Lucia, Trinidad and Barbados. Dominica came over and they all played here in the Gardens,” Blanchard recounted.
He added, “I used to stay in my window and watch them practice. And when the tournament was over I would take a piece of wood, cut it,
put a handle on it and play against the wall and then I would play with my dad. We used the same piece of wood and the long handle from the local chairs at the market. We’d put it in and we played in the yard across the street. We would mark out our own tennis court in the dirt with charcoal. That’s where I started. I had a wooden racket and I played against the wall with no shoes. I just had one ball.”
As he improved with his makeshift equipment, Blanchard soon started facing local competition himself, playing with the likes of Dunstan St Omer, Brian Crick, Dennis Brathwaite, and Parry Husbands every Saturday and sometimes during the week at the Gardens and the Palm Beach tennis court.
After leaving St Mary’s College Blanchard embarked on a storied career, first working as a teacher at the Anglican Primary School, then as an accountant for Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co, and Barnard’s Travel before finally obtaining a coaching position at the St Lucian Hotel. Not content with having rudimentary knowledge, he got his hand on the Professional Tennis Registry’s manual and started coaching using their methods. His continuous drive to improve propelled him to travel to the United States where he underwent several teaching exams, eventually becoming a certified coach and practicing in several states and Canada. Blanchard is also a national tester, often conducting ten hour clinics for aspiring coaches. His career has spanned close to thirty years and he has unequivocally silenced critics and naysayers alike.
“When I was going everybody said you will never teach in the States. They’ve got too many tennis coaches. My one comment was ‘watch me’. And I went and I did it. My goal was always to teach tennis period. I didn’t care where.”
Despite his success overseas, Blanchard’s mind is never far from his homeland. He has regularly taught camps on the island and keeps a close eye on the state of the game locally, which has declined in recent years. He pointed out one of the potential hindrances.
“The national tennis facility that we have is beautiful. I think it’s too far away. We cannot centralize everything in Castries. I know that. But I still feel it’s too far off. The local people are not involved per se. The people who have the funds can afford to do it,” Blanchard said adding, “That was always the stigma attached to tennis. It was always an elitist sport. Half my problem was trying to break into it and I did.”
Still, the coach believes that the talent is definitely there minus one key ingredient: commitment.
He expounded, “I mean we can’t run a program at 9:00 and have it start at 9:30. The kids have to push the parents to get them here. There is that commitment. They have to want to do it. Punctuality is key and it’s a St Lucian problem. Anytime is okay. I’ll get there. But we do have the talent and we have the players. We also need the coaches to get together and understand that it’s for St Lucia and it’s for the kids. It’s not for us. That’s a major thing because everybody thinks everybody is trying to take from them. I think that’s a general thing.”
Blanchard touched on his teaching philosophy, which has astounded his students and fellow coaches. He is not the loud, profane type and his nurturing style seems to be getting the job done.
“There are different ways to teach people. I can come to speak to you and yell at you and talk to you for a whole week. And nothing will happen. I get out there with these six kids and each one is different. Each approach has to be different because the kids are not the same. Their upbringings are not the same. Their home environments are not the
same. Their economic standard is not the same. There are a lot of different things that goes on out there. So there is a kid you can speak to firmly but there is a kid you can speak to softly. Because that’s just how the kid will learn and if you treat the kids like that then all of a sudden yes you’re interested in each individual child not just the group. It’s not about money. If you start teaching because of money you’re losing the kids,” he explained.
Blanchard has many hopes for the development of tennis in St Lucia, one of which involves the progressive transformation of his old stomping grounds at the Gardens.
“I would like to see this facility here maybe grow into another four tennis courts with a nice construction right here so we can play tournaments in the middle of Castries. I would like to see that happen but the government has to get involved because the drainage around here is not good. It rains and it backs up and nothing can happen here.”
He is also optimistic that one of our locals can break the barrier and make it on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour, a lofty goal which requires another level of intensity.
“I think we can do it but it’s a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of physical training. There’s a lot of health stuff that has to go into it. We have to make sure the kids are not on drugs because there is a lot of testing. There has to be a lot of competition. I can play you every day of the week. I will not be able to play somebody else out there. I know what your strengths are and I know what your weaknesses are. When I go outside and I meet somebody totally different I’m at a loss. Right now we have Jean Phillipe (Murray) who is going out and playing tournaments. Great for him but he can’t lose sight of his schoolwork. That’s something that he just has to make sure gets done. It’s gonna take a lot of work and it’s gonna take money from some source to support him. There’s accommodation, there’s airfare, there’s food, there’s travel for him, for his parents, maybe a coach with him. Can he go to a gym? Can he work out? He is still slightly built but he’s doing well for his age group.”
Coaching was also singled out as an area critical to the success of the players. The profession has evolved significantly and Blanchard believes that St Lucia’s crop of coaches needs to follow suit.
“They have to get better. They have to know what injuries the kids have and what allergies they have. We have to know so much more about these kids to get them in there. If you want to get to the next level you have to get stronger. I’ve got one young lady who’s asthmatic and plays, and some of them I watch them run and I look at how they set their feet when they run. Some of their feet roll in. That’s our job. We need to look at that. We need to see who’s got a shoulder that’s out of whack, who’s hurting, what’s bothering them, and if they’re running out there and somebody’s gasping for air, is it heat induced asthma? Do they have headaches? Is it because they didn’t have breakfast? Are they dehydrating? It’s not just a matter of feeding balls to people anymore,” Blanchard emphasized.
The passion is clear in Coach Earl. He wants to see change and is dedicated to doing his part to make it happen. Firmly but with a gentle touch of course. That is the only way he knows!