I remember qualifying for the U14 Orange Bowl World Championships in Miami, Florida in the mid 90’s. I had never seen so many good tennis players at one site. I felt very intimidated by the quality of the players I would see practicing or playing on every court. Even Anna Kournikova was there with her entourage! I can distinctly recall the final between two players who, 10 years later, would be top 100 on the ATP world rankings. And you know what? Their games were almost identical to that of their 14-year-old selves
Have you ever seen the YouTube clip of Nadal vs. Gasquet at 13 years old?
Here is another one at the u-14 Orange Bowl between Juan Del Potro and Marin Cilic
You can clearly see that most of their game was already set by this stage of their development. Nadal hit a lot more backhands than we see now, but obviously once he turned into the physical beast he is today, his game went to a stratospheric level.
I am quite sure both Nadal, Gasquet, Cilic and Del Potro received a lot of tennis coaching in the intervening years, but how much of a difference did it really make? No doubt there were a few tweaks here and there, but ultimately these guys just had to wait for their bodies to catch up with their games and maintain a love for training and competition while remaining relatively injury free. The bulk of their game from a technical, and even tactical, perspective were already set.
So, if these players’ games were already 95% complete at age 14, and they just needed the physical side of things to kick in, then how relevant is traditional tennis coaching after a certain age or stage of development? Or should I say, what areas of the game should be coached in this middle to later stage of a young player’s development? Have we placed too much emphasis on technical coaching and not enough on the importance of competition, physical enhancements and psychological development that could benefit players to a greater degree?
When the Williams sisters, Nadal, Federer or next phenom come along, we get a slew of “experts” breaking down their technique, claiming that this is the new way to coach the serve/forehand/follow-through etc. Is this really the “new” way or did all these players just forge their own path and had the physical makeup and mindset to reach the top of the game regardless of their technical proficiency? From what I can tell, the majority of these great players are true originals, striving to the highest level they can reach and setting new standards of excellence along the way. They are creating the new normal and not copying others. Should future generations of players copy the top players of today or look to set their own standard of excellence?
I am never opposed to learning what I can from the best in the world within any industry, but where is the line where we let our young players figure out some things for themselves? Coaches need something to coach, and there is no shortage of great information available, but when are we going to give these players any freedom to be autonomous athletes? The lack of autonomy in players at the junior and college level is quite overwhelming, and these players don’t seem capable of functioning without the presence of a coach or parent. In many cases, they are completely lost as to what they should do unless a coach is guiding them at every turn. Is it really that hard to do a dynamic warm-up and hit some tennis balls by yourself without a coach there?
Junior coaches love to speak poorly about college coaches because they don’t focus on technique, as college coaches are too busy trying to teach them how to win. Isn’t the whole point of High Performance tennis to win matches? I coached a lot of players who went to full time tennis academies or received several private tennis lessons per week. For all that coaching, I would expect their technique to be a little better, but I will gloss over that for now. It appears that many of these good college players have their games built on a purely technical foundation. Most freshmen at college programs struggle to get through practice their first few months because they never trained with any intensity. They are not able to perform basic, fundamental strengthening exercises in the gym such as a deadlift or squat with decent form. They think it is funny that they can’t touch their toes when stretching their hamstrings, never mind do a pull-up of their own bodyweight!
When it comes to the mental game, they rarely have a pre or post-match routine and have not yet developed any mental skills to handle the inevitable ups and downs of a tennis match. They don’t really understand who they are as players, and spend most of their time just reacting, unable to break down opponents’ weaknesses or cover up their own. They can be seen frequenting donut shops and eating pizza before practice. Maybe I am being a little unrealistic here, but for the amount of time and money being spent on the development of these players, why don’t they have a more balanced foundation of technical, tactical, physical and mental skills? I know that most coaches are discussing these things with their players, but how much are they really emphasizing them as their players get older? Are they continuing to hide behind technical coaching and keeping both the coach and player within their own comfort zone? Isn’t it also unrealistic to think a tennis coach can be an expert in every area of the game at every stage of a player’s development?
The point I am trying to make here is that when you observe high performance players (ages 18-36), you can see that their game style and technique rarely differs from when they were very young. Given this observation, it would make more sense that we provide young players (ages 8-13) with the best technical foundation we can. If they have high aspirational goals for their tennis after that, then the emphasis probably needs to switch to the tactical, mental and physical aspects of the game, coupled with copious amounts of match-play sprinkled in, unless they still have a major flaw in their technique. Without a doubt, they are going to need a lot of help and guidance throughout their teenage years and beyond, but maybe not as much as our current coaching climate insists upon, or maybe that attention to detail needs to switch from the technical and more to the other three major areas. In PART TWO I will discuss what I believe could be a better approach or solution to help these players get a little bit closer to attaining their maximum potential.