When Aaron Kolz was in high school, he had a decision to make.
He was weighing his career options and saw two choices. The first was inspired by his history teacher, a Vietnam veteran who was “so warm-hearted and wanting to be there for his students.” The second was to follow his father’s footsteps into coaching tennis.
Both offered the opportunity to work with kids and impact their lives. A schoolteacher touches the lives of more kids on a daily basis, but it’s hard to relate to students that don’t necessarily want to be there. On the tennis court, though, “kids are coming because they want to come. They’re going to be more likely to open up and communicate about how their day is,” he said.
Tennis had always been a part of Kolz’s life. His father Mike, a longtime high school coach and parks & rec director just outside Milwaukee, started taking him to the courts for practice when he was about 4 or 5, and he grew up hitting on local courts with his younger brothers.
So when it came time to make the decision, he chose the court over the classroom and enrolled in the Professional Tennis Management program at Ferris State University in Michigan.
In truth, his decision wasn’t all that hard. In fact, in a way, he had already made it. He was in the third grade and it was Career Day.
“Seeing what my dad did and how much fun he had on the court, to me that’s what I wanted to do,” Kolz said. “Seeing a role of what your parents do and how it affects the community, to me as a third grader, that’s what made me think this is what I want to do.”
Learning to swim in the deep end
At Ferris, Kolz immersed himself in the game. He was below a 4.0 rating as a player, so he was expected to be on-court between 10 and 15 hours a week to hone his skills. He connected with some guys on the Bulldogs men’s team and started hitting with them at 6 o’clock in
“We would probably hit two or three times a week, then I would drill for three hours, then I would go play a match,” Kolz said. “I was on-court five to six days a week.”
The PTM program at Ferris offered credit to students that completed an internship at a club, so Kolz reached out to USPTA Master Professional Jay Massart, who was the director of tennis at the Milwaukee Country Club.
“He was very professional,” Massart said. “You could tell that he had been taught through his father and through the PTM program. He was always there early, always had a lesson plan, he took our club’s students very seriously.”
Still, Kolz showed his youth. And at Milwaukee Country Club, “expectations are high,” Massart said. One day, he pulled Kolz aside for a reality check.
“You’re not an intern,” Kolz remembered Massart telling him. “You’re working here, you’re on my staff, you’re going to do the things that are expected of you. You’re in the real world, so you can’t rely on school for help.
“With him, it was learning to swim in the deep end,” Kolz said.
Kolz worked for Massart for two summers during his time at Ferris. But he wasn’t progressing through the curriculum on schedule and started getting burned out from school, so he took a year and a half off and worked as an assistant coach at Elite Sports Club in Milwaukee.
“I didn’t know how to ask questions and go to professors,” he said. “It was the learning of it’s okay to say you need help. When I took that year and a half off, I started practicing that. I would ask my director, how can I get better? What is the expectation? That’s when I really started to grow as a teaching pro.”
He took a U10 travel team to a Midwest junior team tennis tournament and placed in the top five.
“After seeing the interaction for that weekend of the kids with myself, I thought that was a true calling,” Kolz said. “This is what I’m meant to do.”
Invigorated, he enrolled at Tyler Junior College in Texas to complete his PTM degree.
“That beats any paycheck”
A graduation requirement of PTM programs across the country – 11 colleges and universities currently offer PTM – is that students become USPTA Professionals.
“I didn’t feel prepared to just go take the USPTA exam by myself,” Kolz said. “I wanted to go through the PTM program because one of the things all the schools do is they walk you through the entire exam and how to prepare yourself for it.”
Kolz never lost sight of the value of applying what he learned in the classroom on the court. So when he arrived in Texas, he started working at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in New Braunfels. Monday through Friday, he was a student. On Friday afternoon, he would drive nearly 300 miles to Newk’s, work the weekend, and drive back Sunday night.
“It’s one thing to teach your peers,” he said, “but to be able to put the practice into going off and actually teaching an eight-hour weekend for random guests at one of the most well-known resorts for tennis, that’s a different animal. That’s making sure you’re on your A-game the entire weekend.”
Kolz earned his associate’s degree in PTM from Tyler in May 2016.
He took a job at River Place Club in Austin, where he worked under Beverly Bowes, a USPTA Elite Professional and former WTA top-100 player. Kolz said she taught him to be more flexible and “how to be a good country club pro.”
Homesick, he then moved to Oshkosh, Wis., where he was the head pro at the YMCA. A few years later, an old boss invited him to the Green Bay Tennis Center to be a staff pro and the 10U director. He says he feels valued as a coach, “and having that beats any paycheck.”
“The one thing PTM helped me out with the most is understanding that education is foremost in the sense of once you’re done taking your exam, you’re only as good as the last thing you remember,” he said. “You need to continue to find material to learn how to be a better pro because you can always be replaced. [The value of] education was one of the biggest things Ferris and Tyler instilled in me. The other was the ability to network. The more you network, the more people you have that can help you progress in your career.”