Sally Bolton reflects on her experience as a participant in Sporting Opportunities’ Tennis Coaching and Playing Project in Ghana.
Why did you decide to go to Africa to coach tennis?
I was educated and made aware from a young age that other children in the world were not as fortunate as I was. I had quite a bohemian upbringing and wasn’t from the most affluent family myself, so in a way I felt that I could relate to less wealthy people in the world. I have always shown an interest and sensitivity in doing humanitarian aid for groups of people who were from much more underprivileged areas of the world like Africa, and had done fundraising and donated money to charities like World Vision, Comic Relief and Save The Children. I was inspired to get into Tennis from watching Wimbledon and at nine years old pleaded my mum to buy me my first tennis racket and asked her to send me to classes in the local park. I then attended summer squads at Sutton Tennis Academy (where I coach children now part time ironically), played for a club and was then captain and president of tennis at the University of Chichester.
It was at university, whilst studying Geography, that I got the opportunity to go on a Field Trip to Africa to study life in The Gambia which really opened my eyes to the reality of life there as opposed to seeing images on a TV screen or charity magazines I would read as a child. Having my experience from The Gambia still fresh in my mind, a classmate of mine was seeking out gap year opportunities and that’s when he introduced to me to the work Sporting Opportunities do whilst looking at the website after lectures one day. Having just recently qualified as a certified tennis coach then, I was convinced that the Tennis Placement in Ghana was perfect for me – enabling me to combine my interests and ambition of using my experience and talent in tennis to give some fulfilling humanitarian aid to underprivileged communities in Africa who weren’t as fortunate as I was. I would think why should people not get a chance to try something just because they live in a poorer part of the world, we all live on the same planet after all.
Volunteering became part of my Duke of Edinburgh Awards and I currently volunteer for a tennis charity called Tennis For Free (www.tennisforfree.com) where I voluntarily teach children and adults tennis for free with a group of other volunteers in a public park court in South London. That aspect wasn’t novel to me, but I find it is a very rewarding and enjoyable thing to do. When ‘Tennis For Free’ heard I was planning to do similar volunteering but in Africa, I decided to go as an ambassador for them in association with Sporting Opportunities.
And of course I could combine this with my huge love for travel and adventure! How cool was that, all rolled into one!!? So I signed up for 3 months and ended up staying longer!
What was a typical day like?
My tennis placement was at the National Sports College in Winneba, about an hour away from Accra. The tennis volunteers stay there during the week with the National Head Tennis Coach Noah, the nicest guy in Ghana (he’d love for me to say that!). You can have the opportunity to train and help with the development of the National Junior Squad who are really friendly and always willing to have a hit with you whatever your standard – they love to play and have some serious skills going on you’ll be very impressed! Their training starts at 7am, which you can instruct or join in with for however long you want. The rest of the day you can spend playing tennis, exploring the Sports College, hang out with Coach Noah and play basketball, getting to know the pineapple lady in the market, having adventures in and around Winneba and St Charles Beach is a must (in my opinion, one of my favourite beaches in Ghana and you can go Turtle Trekking and motorbike nature rides with the ranger there) it was great to be a tennis volunteer!
Before you know it, 4pm arrives and the school children aged 8 – 13 are anxiously waiting for you, having waited hours to get on court with striking enthusiasm. They love to learn new games and skills and they will play right up until they can’t see the ball anymore! There are tons of opportunities to organise tournaments and talent spotting clinics, like we did, as these don’t happen very often in Ghana. After dark, slap on the DEET (you’ll get used to it) and you’ll sample the cuisine of the restaurant circuit of Winneba (you’ll know the waiters and menu’s off by heart!). Usually the tennis players would join us so it was nice to have our own little world and stories out of Accra. We went back to Accra at weekends to spend time with the other volunteers, having adventures travelling, visiting the orphanage or riding tro tro’s around the city. There’s also the opportunity to go and live in a rural village in the Eastern Region – I went back three times! In all, there is always an adventure to have, even if it’s going to give your laundry to Linda who owns a store across the street!
What were your biggest achievements during your placement?
I knew how scarce tennis equipment would be in Ghana, so inspired by a past Sporting Opportunities football volunteer Lucy Mills, I started my own appeal and named it ‘Ghana Tennis Aid’ where I collected rackets, balls, shoes, clothing, equipment and anything to do with tennis from Tennis For Free and in my area in South London. I managed to get a construction company (Taylor Woodrow) who has headquarters in Accra to ship it out there as I ended up collecting over £2,500 worth of stuff! When it was brought to The National Sports College, I beheld how much this would help the development of tennis in Ghana from people simply donating something they don’t use anymore. It was pretty rewarding seeing the delight it had given the players by giving them a sack of tennis balls and a ball basket! With all the equipment, us volunteers were able to do structured drills, games and lessons with the National Squad and children, contributing to our own experiences, skills and creativity in tennis to help them gain something from coming to lessons, even if it’s just to make them laugh!
Other achievements I consider is when we organised and got on Ghanaian Radio to talk about a 3 day knock out tournament which turned National, as players were coming from all over Ghana to compete which was pretty exciting in Mens, Ladies and Junior Events. We also went to the local school in Winneba and organised talent spotting clinics of 150 children over 3 days, and gave the donated rackets to the children we invited to come to daily training after school. This was extremely rewarding to give these children an opportunity to play tennis like I was given at the same age, some of which had never even picked up a racket before – even if they don’t reach the top, it’s a stepping stone for them.
I also feel happy to have donated stationary to the local orphans to continue their education and frequenting the village placement enabled me to donate money and other volunteers donations of clothes, shoes and sports equipment for the village community to use. Something that is of no use to one person can be the most useful thing to someone else.
What are your most memorable moments?
My most memorable moment by far was the 12 hour Tennis-a-thon that two brave (and slightly mad!) tennis volunteers organised and participated in. They endured the hot African sun to play 12 hours of tennis at the National Sports College in Winneba in order to raise money to send one of the best Ghanaian juniors for a scholarship in South Africa. Rob ‘Posh Tom’ Sadler and Joe ‘Joey’ Page played tennis non stop from 6am to 6pm for sponsors to contribute towards a plane ticket to Johannesburg to send Jeff Bagerbaseh (aged 14) to try out for a tennis scholarship. He could not afford the airfare so myself and other tennis volunteer, Ed Banks, donated some money towards it and Rob and Joe decided they wanted to undertake this challenge, Rob never having played tennis continuously for that amount of time before and Joe had never even played a competitive tennis match before! They had t-shirts specially made for the event and over the 12 hours of peanut butter sandwiches, drinking milo, chasing children who would steal the balls, Coach Noah shouting at them that they were crazy and the pain of aching muscles and impressive blisters – they eventually prevailed, playing a impressive total of 26 sets of tennis and making $300 towards the ticket. The tennis-a-thon was so interesting to the campus population and passers-by that the tennis players had to hold the crowd back to stop them running on the court. Well done boys!
Go to the bottom of this page to read an interview with Rob and Joey
Other favourable memories of Tennis would be the National Tournament we organised where we had players coming from all over Ghana to compete. We had prize money, prizes from my appeal to give and also being interviewed on the Winneba Radio about it as well as courtside seats during the finals. It was a huge success and I’ve never seen such good quality tennis from all the competitors and the hysteria that was created during the three days – very different from what I was used to in a silent tennis match to people running on the court and lifting the winner in the air! Brilliant.
Going to Ghanaian Radio a second time ‘Radio Peace’ with the other volunteers to talk about the talent spotting clinics we had done for new players and that we were hosting a Junior Tournament for them was very memorable. Live on air, the interviewer got our names wrong so we were getting introduced as random names and even the male volunteers were introduced with female names! I can’t tell you how hard I tried to compose myself while talking live on air. Classic.
Living in the village in the Eastern Region was an awesome experience, going to work on the cocoa farm and teaching in the school. There are so many memories I could write a book, but everything that involved tennis with the other volunteers I will remember forever and of course the adventures of travelling in Africa – being a Tro Tro mate, the 31 hour boat journey up to the north sticks out and those elephants – breathtaking.
What were you doing before you went away?
I love to travel so I’ve been on a number of gap years since leaving university. I guess you can call me a ‘serial gapper’. I had graduated from university with my degree in Geography in 2005 and qualified as a certified tennis instructor the same year. I then started getting experience in tennis coaching, teaching children at Tennis For Free and at Sutton Tennis Academy where I got a job while I spent a year doing acting jobs in London. I then got a job in the USA at a Girls Summer Camp where I was a tennis counsellor for the summer and later backpacked around the states. After returning to Britain, I set about seeking funding, sponsorship and fundraising for the 2007 Sporting Opportunities trip and working a lot! In between, I set up the Ghana Tennis Aid appeal to get lots of tennis equipment for the community I would be working with. Now I’m back, I’ve been spreading the word about Sporting Opportunities and how people can help give sporting opportunities in Ghana through Tennis Magazines, Radio, Television and the Internet. www.tennisforfree.com, www.tennisforafrica.org, www.tennislife.co.uk . Myself and past tennis volunteer Ross Brown have also recently sent some more donated equipment to Ghana from Sports Supplier PWP Europe and the Junior Clay Tennis Registry
What have you gained from your time in Africa?
First of all, it makes me appreciate running water SO MUCH! Having had to experience living without it, but that’s the challenge! And when you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Africa, it does put things into perspective returning to a regimented, materialistic world in Britain. Life in Africa highlights a different philosophy of life and makes you think about what really is more important as well as teaching you to go to these countries with a mind like an open book and a blank canvas. But don’t expect everything to run smoothly in Ghana, you learn quite a bit of tolerant skills! But anything is possible to do over there. It teaches you how to adapt and I thoroughly enjoyed living with a new group of different people in a really interesting culture which I tried to embrace as much as I could. I also like to think I’ve made some good friends with Ghanaians and the other volunteers.
From my placement, I was fascinated to see how a completely different culture views sports. Seeing the outstanding level of commitment, motivation and athletic ability of the Ghanaians made them very rewarding to teach. I also felt lucky how easy it was to organise tournaments and matches with top players in Ghana and seeing how they were taught from a different perspective, enabling me to learn new ideas and techniques. I feel really fulfilled that I have aided less fortunate people in giving them a chance to play tennis in the first place and to offer assistance with my coaching knowledge to help the development of the sport in Ghana. I had always wanted to teach underprivileged communities in Africa and I think if you’re in a position to be able to do that sort of thing and are able to get support and collect and donate equipment etc. I think you should use it for good humanitarian causes. I also worked with a team of other wonderful tennis volunteers with that common interest to help.
From the placement, I think I proved a point that if you believe that you can do something and have a sincere drive and motivation for it, you can achieve it.
What are your top 5 must-see places or things to do in Ghana?
1. Go on a Game Walk at dawn to see the elephants at Mole National Park
2. Go and live in a Ghanaian Village – a really unique experience
3. Nzulezo Stilt Village, near Beyin
4. Hike up Agumatsa mountain to see the upper and lower Wli Waterfalls and then go in them!
5. Walk/Run/Dance across the canopy walkway at Kakum National Park at Cape Coast
Would you recommend it to others and if so why?
I would definitely recommend it because whatever humanitarian work you intend to do, there are always people that need help and however big or small your contribution is, you can always make a positive difference to someone’s life and future with very rewarding consequences. The adventures you will have and stories and memories are priceless and will definitely give you essential life skills. My experience with Sporting Opportunities has been one of my most fulfilling personal adventures ever. There are people waiting for you out there, so don’t sit on the bench… go play!
Interview with Rob and Joey (participants of the 12 hour tennis-a-thon)
Why did you guys do the tennis-a-thon in the first place?
R: Coach Noah (head coach of tennis placement at Winneba) was open and honest about the dire financial state of the Winneba Tennis Academy, we wanted to help in some way and later the idea came to head.
J: I wanted to do a baked bean bath originally, but they didn’t have any Heinz!
Did you think it would be difficult playing for that long?
R: As soon as we had the idea and announced it to the other volunteers, I thought we were crazy considering the length of time, the stifling heat and the fact that I hadn’t even played half of that length of time continuously before!
J: I thought it would be difficult and was a little nervous after we had announced it publicly – I felt we had a lot riding on us – no going back now! And also the fact that as a keen rugby player I had never played a competitive game of tennis before, let alone for 12 hours.
So how did the tennis-a-thon go?
R: At the start (6am), another tennis volunteer called Ed came out to umpire our first set. I think we were both in a state of disbelief we were actually going ahead with this! Thankfully the weather was overcast and we both prayed it would stay that way… but it didn’t!
J: We started well even though I was half asleep. Halfway through it was quite impossible and at times hard to keep score, but Ed kept score and Sal brought us out bread and Milo.
R: About 5 hours in – my mind started to wonder and at one point I got so dazed I was only going for winners left, right and centre to keep the points as short as possible!
J: Blister time around 7 hours into it and a previous back injury from rugby made it a little difficult for me at times. We attracted quite a crowd of passers by and some of the students at the university – by virtue of good looks, and good tennis! Ha ha. It even went as far as two of the academy players having to keep the crowd at bay.
R: Coach Noah hadn’t realized it was just the two of us doing the 12 hours and jokingly told us we were crazy!
How did you feel after the 12 hours was up?
J: We felt relieved that we’d done it and felt very proud of both of us that we’d achieved something worthwhile during our time in Ghana.
R: I felt pretty jubilant and glad having done what I’d set out to achieve and also pretty smug that I’d won!
J: We’ll play 12 hours of Rugby and see who wins that!
Best Moment, Worst Moment?
R: Best – serving an ace on the final point of the tennis-a-thon! Worst – 9 hours in, on knackered legs having to chase after a kid who’d stolen one of our tennis balls!
J: Best – winning the opening point of the tennis-a-thon and peanut butter sandwich time! Worst – I was physically sick in the early stages which wasn’t too great – bad chicken and rice the night before!
Would you ever do it again?
R: Definitely! I’ll be rounding up the troops at my club in London to do 1 hour shifts but I’d don’t think I’ll be inviting any of the first team!
J: Not in the near future now the Rugby season’s started, but it’s a good story to tell.
What has the money you’ve raised gone towards?
R: The money has allowed up-and-coming world class junior, Jeff Bagerbaseh who trains with us to fulfil his lifelong dream of taking up a tennis scholarship in South Africa – without the money he couldn’t have gone.
Other Highlights from Sally Bolton's Experience
Ghana Tennis Aid (Charity Appeal)
For the 10 month build-up after signing on to do the Sporting Opportunities tennis placement in Ghana, I knew how scarce sports equipment and resources were in Africa so inspired by past Sporting Opportunities football volunteer Lucy Mills, I set up my own appeal Ghana Tennis Aid in Association with Sporting Opportunities and UK charity Tennis For Free. It appeared in tennis magazines, the internet and local newspapers appealing to the public and sports companies to donate money and tennis/sports equipment towards the community I would be working with in Africa. Tennis For Free donated brand new rackets and balls from their sponsors and as a result I was interviewed on a local South London Radio show. This got tennis clubs to collect unused rackets and coaching equipment and local sports shops. Save The Children and Sutton Tennis Academy who I worked for in London donated tennis clothing for the appeal. Writing hundreds of letters to trusts and sponsors resulted in over £1,500 in sponsorship and donations from Sutton Sports Council, The Torch Trophy Trust, London, Sutton and Cheam Round Table and from the general public. I ended up collecting over £2,500 worth of tennis rackets, clothes, shoes, tennis balls and coaching equipment and Construction company Taylor Woodrow kindly agreed to ship the equipment out to Accra for me. I also set up a group on facebook.com for the appeal.
Donating the tennis equipment made the work of collecting and appealing all worth it, arriving at the Tennis Academy at the National Sports College in Winneba in July. They had very little to work with so it was great for us volunteers to be able to say, ‘here, have 400 balls instead of 20!’ We also donated a ball basket and cones so the players could have some structured drills as well as being able to set up the tennis court using the equipment to do ‘International Tennis Number Assessments’ which is a test to rank the players if they wanted to compete.
We gave the children some t-shirts and new shoes to replace the falling apart ones they were playing in and also giving children who were sharing a racket their very own one was a very rewarding to do. We taught them new games and were able to help improve their co-ordination with exercises using the sports equipment.
With the donation of cones, extra balls and a ball hopper we were able set up the tennis court to give the Junior National Squad an on court assessment to get an International Tennis Number (ITN). This on court assessment is widely used in other parts of the world to rank a tennis player’s ability for competition. The ITN is slowly progressing worldwide in the tennis world to encourage all tennis players to get this number.
The assessments involved marking out the tennis court in relation to the ITN Assessment guidelines to test the players’ groundstrokes, serve and volleying depth and accuracy. A timed athletic and speed test was also included in the assessment. This was a great addition to the National Juniors training routine as it was challenging and exciting for them to get their own number between 1-10 (1 being Professional) as a ranking for competition.
Ghana Tennis Aid National Tournament
A former tennis volunteer had sent over lots of brand new tennis balls for the players so with all the brand new clothes and rackets we had brought to Ghana, myself and other tennis volunteers Dave Semple and Emma Hutchings organised a 3 day knockout tournament consisting of a 16 draw Mens Single Tournament, Ladies Singles and Boys and Girls under 14 contest at The National Sports College in Winneba. The head coach at the sports college, Noah, invited players to compete with an entry fee of about 60p while we constructed the draw and made posters to put around campus of the University of Winneba.
The best thing about Ghana is that everything is so easy to organise and you can pretty much do anything! The interest was huge and the tournament ended up being labelled ‘National’ as we had players coming from all over Ghana to stay at the university to compete – it felt like Wimbledon – very exciting! We also had referees coming to help manage the tournament as well as recruiting children to be ball boys and ball girls and others as line judges.
It was the talk of campus and Coach Noah arranged for us volunteers to go and talk live on air about the tournament and what we were doing in Africa on Ghanaian Radio Station ‘Windy Bay FM’. The tournament lasted 3 days with outstanding quality tennis, a few injuries and a tennis atmosphere that I’ve never seen. When you watch a serious Ghanaian tennis match there’s a lot of banter, people running on the court and lifting the winner into the air in celebration! Even Windy Bay FM came down on Finals Day and interviewed us again courtside! The players took it in turns to umpire all the different matches and the eventual winners were Charles Abu for his electrifying men’s singles, Lizzy and Jeff Bagerbaseh for the Under 14s and Anita Kodjoe was the eventual Ladies Winner. Even Emma, a Sporting Opportunities volunteer had a go at competing in the Ladies Singles!
At the prize ceremony, we awarded prize money from our Sporting Opportunities placement fee to the winners and runners up as well as spare trophies, medals and certificates that I’d brought over from the UK. The players were also given a brand new racket, and a bag each of sports clothing and other prizes. All the women and girls who competed were awarded prizes to encourage competition as well as the quarter finalists and semi finalists. To finish we had awards for ‘Best Senior Performance’, and ‘Best Junior Performance’ of the tournament where a new Babolat tracksuit and Tennis Bag were prizes up for grabs. And then it was all over… but great memories.
Because the tournament was such a success the draws and results were sent to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) of West Africa for their records of active tournaments in West Africa.
With the equipment I had donated to the tennis Academy, I paid for a secure storage with the money I had been sponsored and raised. With over 50 rackets and new coaching equipment, Coach Noah, myself and other tennis volunteers Rob Sadler, Joe Page and Ed Banks had an ambition to get a new generation of tennis players at the academy so we arranged with the local school on the campus, University Practice Junior Secondary School, to go and visit the school’s Headmaster and discussed the opportunity of allocating a period in the pupils timetable to come to the Academy for talent spotting clinics.
We did 3 days of spotting clinics with children aged 8-12 years taking 50 children each clinic. We first split them into numbered groups and allocated them to a tennis volunteer. We all had designated activities we would do on our court and rotated the groups amongst the coaches every 20 minutes, noting which students showed possible potential. The activities included teamwork, co-ordination, movement, speed, physical conditioning and basic tennis skills with the sports equipment and rackets we had donated.
Out of the children who participated in the tennis clinics, we selected 25 and invited them to come to daily training after school to encourage a new generation of young tennis players.
Winnebledon – Junior Tournament
To encourage healthy competition between the new players, we organised a Junior tournament at the National Sports College and named it Winnebledon for Boys and Girls Under 12. Tennis volunteer Kate Leafe brought some sweets so we used them as prizes with certificates for the winners.
Interview in Radio Peace
Radio Peace is the biggest radio station in Winneba so I requested to the studio to interview myself and my fellow tennis volunteers Ed Banks, Polly Crawford, Kate Leafe and Ross Brown in a live 30 minute slot about Ghana Tennis Aid, the work of Sporting Opportunities and how we were rejuvenating tennis in Winneba. We were able to speak of the talent spotting and the tournament we had organised for the new generation at the Tennis Academy.
One of the Junior National Players, Albert, came to translate our English into the local language, Fante, for the Winneba population, so we were told to speak very slooooooowwwlllllyyyy!
This ended up being an unforgettable and hilarious experience because the DJ got all our names wrong and was introducing the male volunteers with female names live on air!