The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is responsible for staging the world’s leading tennis tournament at Wimbledon. The first meeting of The Lawn Tennis Championships in 1877 attracted just a few hundred people. Now, the Wimbledon Championships is the only ‘grand slam’ tennis event still held on grass, and attracts 450,000 spectators a year, plus worldwide media coverage. More than 6,000 people work at the tournament.
A crucial part of the tournament’s success is having highly skilled ball boys and girls. The club needs to select and train 200 each year.
Traditionally, it has selected its ball boys and girls, who have an average age of 15, from local schools. In the past, it was up to these schools to vet pupils, give preliminary training and put them forward for selection. But, according to Anne Rundle, head of Wimbledon ball-boy/girl training, this caused major problems.
“The method of selection varied between the 18 schools. Some schools under-trained, some over-trained and some did no training at all. This meant we had pupils coming through who were at very different levels,” Rundle says.
Applicants need a firm grip on the complex rulebook used at Wimbledon – covering everything from the basic rules of tennis and scoring, to special Wimbledon etiquette, such as the correct stance on court and ball-rolling.
“We had to rely on schools teaching applicants the rules. And for some less academic applicants, it was hard for them to get past their school’s selection process,” says Rundle.
Rundle suggested that selection and training be standardised to streamline the process and to make sure the best applicants were put forward. The system also needed to be accessible to applicants.
In August 2005, the club approached technology giant IBM to develop an online training system. The final selection of ball boys and girls was due in January for this year’s tournament, so time frames were tight. However, IBM met the deadline and the new system was live by mid-September to coincide with the new school term.
IBM developed the system to allow applicants to fill in an application form and then complete a six-module ‘pre-training’ programme. Only on passing this programme could applicants go forward for selection and qualify for the final stages of training, which involve general fitness and movement.
Richard Thorpe, the IBM software developer responsible for implementation, says there was no room for mistakes, and joint decisions with Rundle had to be made quickly.
The system also had to be tested before it went live. “We asked potential ball boys and girls to test the system. This provided valuable feedback, mostly on usability. It wasn’t until they said: ‘Where do I click to do this?’ that we realised it needed tweaking,” says Thorpe.
The system was also designed so that ball boys and girls could keep accessing further training material, view timetables, and even log their travel expenses.
Rundle says that the e-learning system has reduced her workload significantly. “Now that we have everyone’s details stored on the system rather than on paper, we can ask last year’s ball boys and girls back again without having to repeat the process.”
The training also seems to be sticking better. Rundle says: “At the end of each module, there is a quiz to check what people have learned. They can also access learning sheets to help information sink in.”
Storing training material on the system means that Rundle can set tasks for learners before their next face-to-face training session. “They can look at a certain module before the next session so they can familiarise themselves with it and come back to me with any questions,” she says.
The system is also much fairer and has made the application process accessible to more pupils.
By far the most important outcome is that the skills of this year’s recruits have improved, meaning performance on court should be the best yet. “I only wish I’d had this system last year,” she adds.
Guide to implementing an online training programme in five steps
- Clarify your aims. What do you want to achieve from the training system?
- Decide on content. Think through the course content very carefully. Get feedback from trainers and learners on what the system needs to cover.
- Make sure it is user-friendly. Test the system’s features and functions with a group of users before going live.
- Link it to other systems. Make sure the new system is compatible with other software used by the organisation to increase accessibility and provide scope to link in extra features.
- Work closely with the provider. Communication with the system developer before and during development is essential if the system is to meet your aims.
Richard Thorpe, IBM software developer
A questionnaire completed by the ball boys and girls who passed the selection tests revealed that all of those surveyed found the online training useful, with 79% stating that they found the training very or extremely helpful.
Comments from ball girls and boys taking part in the survey included:
- “Easy to navigate”
- “Very clear instructions”
- “Interesting and fun”
- “Easy to stay focused”
- “Simple and easy to understand”
If I could do it again…
Anne Rundle, head of ball boy/girl training at Wimbledon, says that the system has caused few problems so far.
“I’m sure we’ll find little things we can improve on and keep tweaking the system,” she says.
One area that has caused a few headaches is the log-in name used by applicants. “We told applicants to use their e-mail address – the problem was they kept changing their address, meaning they would get stuck and be unable to get online. We’ll be introducing a new log-in identity for next year,” she says.
Richard Thorpe, the IBM software developer responsible for implementation, believes that having more time to gather more information up front would have helped the system run more efficiently.
“If we didn’t have the same time constraints, we could have collected more information to make the system more useful. For example, the system has the capacity to pay travel expenses straight into ball girls’ and boys’ bank accounts, but we didn’t have time to collect their bank details at the start,” he says.