Five Questions For… Mike Skinner, Executive Director of Youth Tennis Advantage

Mike Skinner

Michael W. Skinner is the Executive Director of Youth Tennis Advantage (YTA). For 50 years YTA has served youth in Bay Area inner-city communities through a comprehensive program of tennis and academic tutoring that promotes the physical, educational, and life skills necessary to prepare and empower them for leadership in their communities and success in their personal lives. YTA’s free after-school and summer programs for students aged 8 to 18 are held five days a week at the Lloyd B. Scott tennis courts in Hunters Point, John McLaren Park in San Francisco, Bushrod Park in Oakland, and the Hellman Tennis Complex at Cal Berkeley.

YTA is a member of National Junior Tennis and Learning, an organization started by Arthur Ashe in 1969, with the core belief that underserved kids’ lives could be changed through a comprehensive program of tennis, academics and life-skills.

1. What role has tennis played in your own life?

I started playing tennis when I was 13 years old. Tennis has enriched my life ever since. It has opened so many doors. It has helped me get into good schools (I played #1 at Occidental College), gotten me jobs including teaching tennis through college and graduate school, introduced me to my wife and great friends, gave me a tool to give back to others, challenged and delighted me and kept me healthy. When possible, I love to play singles three times a week.

2. As a third-generation San Franciscan, did you play on public courts, such as at Golden Gate Park, growing up?

Golden Gate Park is very important to me. I received my first tennis award there, presented by Jack Kramer. I’ve played many junior and senior tournaments there including winning the All City High School doubles championship (representing Lowell). YTA has held many junior events there. I look forward to GGPTC becoming a great regional tennis center again!

3. How did you get inspired to develop youth tennis programs?

Forty-four years ago I had been talking with my good friend Lloyd Scott, a Cal Club member like me, about how frustrated I was with how the poor parts of SF seemed to have the worst recreation programs -- really, no recreation programs. And I felt that something like a tennis program could be very meaningful and maybe transformative. Coincidentally, I was invited to a tournament in Palm Springs at which Arthur Ashe was playing. And I happened to get to talk to him and share my thoughts and he told me about what he was doing and thought San Francisco would be a perfect place to start a chapter of his national tennis program for underprivileged kids (NJTL). He sent the head of NJTL to meet me and then I got together with Lloyd and his friends and all of a sudden we had this powerhouse Board of Directors. Ashe was so instrumental for us and helped us for several years.

We ran summer tennis programs on public courts in the most isolated, underserved areas of San Francisco including Hunters Point, the Mission, and Western Addition. Gradually we added an after-school program and then academics too. Tennis proved to be an attractive year-round sport that kept underserved kids in our programs for up to 10 years. The combination of tennis and academics is powerful for kids—especially when it is free and year-round. It helps these kids compete much more effectively with affluent kids. In 1999, our NJTL merged with Youth Tennis Foundation (started by Peter Folger Sr. in 1968) to form Youth Tennis Advantage. I stayed on the board for 39 years until the board asked me to become Executive Director in 2014. Besides Arthur Ashe, many people have helped YTA to be successful including Jack Kramer, Rod Laver, Joe Montana, Red Fay and Robin Williams. Our strong boards and coaching have been cornerstones of YTA’s success.

Mike with Bear Trax kids_2018

4. How does the YTA and its mission inspire you?

The kids, coaches, parents, staff, board, donors and partners all inspire me. It is a joy to serve underserved kids year-round with such an effective and fun tool — tennis and academics. We see daily that we make a big difference in our students’ lives and that serving them is a necessity. What is not to love about having fun and making a difference? Our YTA family keeps teaching me what is possible. One of the top Cal tennis team players who volunteers for us graduated last year to go on to medical school. She excelled academically in premed at Cal, excelled on Cal’s exceptional tennis team and helped YTA. That is impressive!

What YTA has done over the years is complement other programs that cities would like to do but can’t do because they don’t have the money. It’s a real complement to what SF Rec & Park does. We’ve been doing this for 50 years. We’re very proud of that legacy and all those kids. It’s precious.

5. Can you share a couple success stories of kids who have participated in YTA?

I consider most of our kids a success story. They learn tennis and improve their academics and leave with valuable life skills. Some kids even had their parents in our programs as kids. One student saw her parents killed during a home break-in. YTA turned into a second family for her.  She excelled and earned a college tennis scholarship.  Another student just graduated from high school after being with YTA for seven years. She is entering a junior college as a sophomore having taken extra college courses for the last year. Her undergrad college expenses will be more manageable than normal. She expects to finish at UC Irvine.

One of our parents wrote us a note recently saying “Thank you YTA, you have made my dreams come true.” She was referring to what the YTA had done for her four kids in the program, one of whom entered Harvard last year. He went to Lowell and is now thriving at Harvard.