Herne Bay Heroes: Cutting it with Mustard

I hadn’t been a member of the club long when I asked Dave Mustard whether he ever got sick of coaching. It’s the sort of provocative question we hacks like to pose as it often gets the sort of interesting answer that elevates a run of the mill piece into something special. But I didn’t have a journalistic assignment, nor a microphone in my hand, but was making small talk. Dave looked at me as if I was a cretin and responded rhetorically: “So how do you earn your living?” and stormed off.

Almost a decade on I have the same person in front of me as my first subject in my quest to find out what makes this club of ours so special and I’m feeling a tad apprehensive.  I’ve seen a lot of Dave over the years. His black SUV probably spends more time in the club car park than it does outside his other home: the place where he eats and sleeps. And he makes the journey between the pro shop and the tennis courts so often it’s a surprise there aren’t tram lines on the carpet. But I needn’t have worried; Dave is a wonderful interviewee, so my unfounded apprehension was replaced by concern that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to his eloquent responses to my clumsy questions.  

Dave was one of six, born and brought up in Lower Hutt. His mother was a keen tennis player who took him along with her to Naenae tennis club. He was given an old racket and sent off to play on the Naenae’s clubs volley board. He found that he so enjoyed thumping a ball against a wall that he continued practicing at home bashing a ball against one of those metal up and over garage doors.  The ball would come back at crazy angles which sharpened his reflexes and the noise made him popular with the neighbours. The club ran kids days where they fed you balls to hit but there was no formal coaching. It didn’t matter: Dave was a natural not only at tennis but every other sport he went in for. Sport was his life, he was alright at other school subjects but it was sport that grabbed him.

He was taken to Australia to play in a tournament when he was ? to see how he’d get on. He showed promised so was drafted into the National Development Squad which at the time operated from Wellington. He did OK.

What really turned Dave’s life around was a trip to England and mainland Europe to play in small tennis tournaments when he was 17. He left with should-length hair and was overweight. Apart from his trip to Oz he’d never been out the country. Things started badly when he left his ‘fag bag’ containing his passport and money in the taxi taking him from Heathrow to the B&B but the driver returned with his valuables minus $100 US. in Thomas Cook Travel Cheques. This tells you everything you need to know about London cabbies.  The trip lasted 4½ months and Dave competed in Belgium and elsewhere on mainland Europe learning to play on clay in the process, he lost lots of weight, traded his bell bottoms for fashionable garb from King’s Road in London, had his hair cut and returned to New Zealand a totally different guy. He proceeded to win every junior event he went in for and became NZ Under 19 champion. He was given a wild card for the NZ Classic where he beat a player with a world ranking of 152. He was also selected for the NZ Davis Squad. He was on his way. For the next seven years he travelled round the world. If you type ‘David Mustard’ in Wikipedia you’ll discover a concise summary of his playing career including the time he took a first set of then World number three Mats Wilander giving the Swede a scare in the fourth before losing.

Dave left the tour aged 25. He’s not sure why:  his world ranking was falling from an impressive 121 in singles and 85 in doubles. By this time he’d been married three years so maybe he felt it was time to put down roots. But he’s got buckets full of memories and has experienced things and seen places most of us can only dream of. He continues to play and compete and has won over 25 New Zealand titles.

It occurs to me that his early retirement may have been brought on by a sense that his true vocation was coaching rather playing. Apart from a spell selling carpets, coaching has been his life for the past 32 years. Whatever the reason that decision has been a huge benefit to our club and everywhere else he has coached. 

I asked Dave, and later our squash coach Mike Weston, what makes a good coach. The pair of them used different words to say the same thing. “When you play at a high level”, Dave told me, “you think you know it. You don’t. You just know different parts of the game. You have to learn how to deal with people, anyone from five upwards.” The oldest person he’s coached was an eighty-five-year old woman he helped prepare for an over-eighties tournament. “Coaching,” he went on, “takes a certain type of person. There’s the technical side, the mental side and the organisational side. You need people skills to understand different people. I’ve seen a lot of people who play great [tennis] but can’t coach.” Dave reckons he coached in every situation except wheelchair tennis.

As a club coach he feels his job is to stimulate and help nurture the membership ensuring they get a great tennis experience. Mike Weston and Dave both agree that playing at the top is an important factor in their ability to bring on the best players. Yet it’s rare that top players make great coaches so this pair is a breed apart.  

 Dave described his role. He takes what he calls ‘Mustard seeds’ up to hot shots. He installs good habits and techniques in beginners of all ages through to intermediate and beyond. It’s what he calls creating pathways. He also runs an adult programme which includes players of all levels who come for drills of workout sessions to practice parts of their game. Our interview took place on a Monday after he and his support team put players through a routine called D&A: defenders and aggressors. All four courts are used and at each net one of the coaching team feeding balls out to the playing quartet (OR IS IT A TRIO?) Avoiding the necessity of someone having to serve ensuring that everyone is involved all the time they are on court. Players are moved from court to court and introduced from the sidelines making sure that everyone who turns up gets a maximum workout. Dave is feeding balls on one court while keeping an eye on the other three games while overseeing the various arrivals and departures.  Dave also gives private one to one lessons and has hosted corporate team building events for outfits that include IAG, MTV and Flight Centre. Like Mike, he also works closely with nearby Bayfield School and with Jacqui runs a tournament to raise money for St Mary’s Hospice.

Then there’s the pro shop. He tells me it’s run on a shoe string and he made it clear that it is not his main priority but the great advantage is that he can help members find a racket that best suits their game and you can always try it before you buy it which is something you can’t do if you go to Rebel Sports or buy on-line. The racket I bought from him four years ago has served me well and it’s so handy to have a re-stringing service in house. You post your broken racket through a letter box with a note stating what you want and how soon you need it and your racket is waiting for you next time you come to the club. It works like clockwork and is easy to take for granted. Like traders in the high street Dave is finding that some people check out his stock then buy the same product on-line but is grateful that there are still members who support him as price isn’t everything.

But it’s coaching that Dave Mustard’s main focus. “I’m 57,” he says, “I’ve been doing this for 32 years. I do a lot of hours. First of all it’s my business. I can farm some of it out but not all, so I spend a lot of time on it. I’m the face of what I do. It isn’t easy standing out there in the sun. Westie [Mike Weston] at least is inside. Some days I’m absolutely shattered. The most I’ve done is spent 13 hours on court. Eight or nine hours is pretty hard. You’ve got to be motivated. You’re only as good as your last lesson. It isn’t easy to keep motivated and like anyone working in sales what you do is repetitive and you’re dealing with people all the time. I’m lucky because I’m doing something I have a passion for. There are ups and downs so it’s no different from a normal job.”

But is it? Self employed people like Dave haven’t got the job security of someone with a cushy government number. His schedule can be ruined by rain and he has to be available when clients aren’t working at their day jobs which means early mornings, evening till sunset and weekends. Dave spoke of the dangers of becoming what he calls a cosmetic coach someone who goes through the motions, uttering banal positive statements. But he doesn’t complain about the challenges that come with his job. He’s one of those rare innovators who come up with loads of good ideas all the time. The night I was there he was talking about setting up a tournament where everyone used the sort of wooden rackets that haven’t been used since Bjorn Borg’s day.     

We continued talking about his role, his life in tennis, his thoughts about the club, his kids and much more. There were interruptions. God there were interruptions: phone calls, chivvying players for the next session and other tasks but he dealt with each one on everything from before returning to my latest question as if that interruption hadn’t happened. Who says men can’t multitask?

It’s difficult to quantify the contribution great coaches bring. But we have two who in their different ways have a profound effect on our club. Even if you don’t play tennis there is something inspiring about Dave Mustard. His energy, drive, larger than life personality is infectious. He helps people improve their game making them as good as they can be. He works players hard but also makes his coaching sessions enjoyable. Over the decades he has planted thousands of mustard seeds, many have gone on to be prize exhibits but many more have benefitted from his encouragement, energy and expertise. Herne Bay wouldn’t be the same without him.

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