SHAKY FOUNDATION - PART 1

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.

I WORK HARD; WHY AM I NOT WINNING?

Just work hard and the rest will take care of itself.”  

“All you have to do is believe in yourself and anything is possible.”  

“Stay positive, set goals and get a little bit better every day. Do this, and your dreams will become a reality.”

We have all heard clichés like these throughout our lives. While, they can be inspiring and comforting, are they really true for everyone or apply to just some people?

PARENTING FOR DUMMIES

Before I get started, let me just say that I hit the lottery when it comes to parents. They gave me every opportunity in life to be happy, and to lead a productive life. They sacrificed, encouraged and took the time to discipline me and love me. As a parent of two children myself, I now have an obvious appreciation as to how challenging it can be to navigate the parenting process which is fraught with missteps. Fortunately, I had two great role models in my parents, and view my role as a parent as the most important task I will be ever faced with during my short time on this planet.

MAYBE IT IS TIME TO LET GO...

Wow…. Congratulations….your child just received a tennis scholarship and will be off to college in a few months. How quickly the time has passed. I am sure you are reminiscing about all the ups and downs of this crazy whirlwind the junior tennis scene can be. The days were long, but the years were short! Undoubtedly, you are very proud of what your child has accomplished. I know how much you have sacrificed to provide the opportunities necessary to develop and showcase their talents in order for them to realize this goal. They are now part of a tiny percentage of the population competing at this elite level. So, what happens now that they are off to college and you don’t have to get them to tennis practice or give up your holidays to fly them across the country for yet another tennis tournament?

LET'S START OVER

Okay Millennials, Snow flakers, and up and coming Gen Z’ers, Linksters or whatever else they are calling you these days. I am referring to those of you who are entering into adulthood, and more specifically, those entering college campuses these next few years. We coaches are starting to accept the fact that you are not going to change or meet our long-established expectations and norms. Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s us?

A SIMPLE CURE

I had to retire from the finals of the Irish Junior National Championship Finals when I was 18. This was a huge deal to me at the time, and it should have been the impetus for some changes in my approach to the care of my body. The reason I had to retire was that for the first time in my young tennis career I experienced a significant injury. The culprit was the lower right side of my back, and it felt like a debilitating injury. I could not even put my socks on the morning of the final, never mind try to run around a tennis court!

GIVE ME A BREAK

Now that I am no longer coaching on a regular basis I am not around competitive tennis tournaments as much as I once was. However, in recent weeks I spent a significant portion of my days viewing a men’s and ladies futures event, a Junior National Championship and competed in a Men’s Open money tournament myself. I observed a lot of really good tennis but also some ludicrous behavior that does little to help these players or the sport of tennis. There appear to be certain behaviors that are embedded in our consciousness and culture at  high level junior, college and professional tennis in every part of the world, that we don’t seem to question, and accept as the norm despite there absurdity. I would love to say I wasn’t guilty of conforming to many of these cultural norms, but I will hold my hand up and say I was every bit as ridiculous at times. Here are a few examples:

TENNIS PARENT QUESTION

QUESTION: “Hi!! I m a mother of a 13 year old boy and a 10 year old girl. Both my kids play tennis. My son is really struggling to win matches and losing to players he used to beat a few months back. In the fear of losing a match he doesn’t even give his best on the court. He is lacking courage to play big. He really loves the game and is willing to do anything to get better. But how do I make him more stronger mentally. Is it important to make him play
more matches to get over his fear??”

DOES ANYONE REALLY KNOW HOW TO PRODUCE A CHAMPION

Did Erik Spoelstra suddenly become a worse basketball coach when Lebron James left the Miami Heat? Was Bill Belichick a bad coach when he got fired from the Cleveland Browns, and will he have the same success after Tom Brady retires? Would Phil Jackson have won 11 NBA titles if he was the coach at the Minnesota Timberwolves or was his timing just impeccable?  Is Boris Becker responsible for Novak Djokovic’s recent domination, or would John Smith be having the same impact on Novak’s game? These are just a few examples of why I am a little dubious about how much impact a coach really has over elite athletes and who is truly responsible for athletic success at the highest levels. It obviously depends on the sport but in most sports I just don’t believe it matters as much as we seem to think.

HOW TO RAISE A HAPPY ATHLETE

You know the scene: you are standing a few feet away from that “crazy” parent yelling at the referee, cheering wildly any time their child touches the ball, wins a point or hits a good shot depending on the sport. You think to yourself how “nutty” that parent is acting and you even feel bad for their kid. You thank the heavens that you don’t act or behave in a manner that could embarrass yourself or your child. However, you may unintentionally be acting in a similar fashion to that crazy parent, just in a more subtle and less obvious way. If this is the case then you are most likely impacting your child’s love for sport participation and, more importantly, you may be indirectly hurting your relationship with him or her for years to come.

Why My Roommate DID NOT Fail as a Tennis Player

A few months ago, I explained some of the reasons as to why I failed as a professional tennis player. This time, I want to discuss how one of my college teammates and roommates made it as a professional tennis player. His name is Peter Luczak and he reached number 64 on the ATP world rankings, beating several highly ranked players and reaching the 3rd round of the Australian Open twice. Many of you may not have heard of Peter, but to give you some context, if he was one of the world’s top 100 soccer players, he would be playing for Barcelona or Juventus. If he was the 64th richest person in the world, he would have a net worth of over $15 billion. He was at the pinnacle of one of the top 5 sports in the world!  

STOP THE MADNESS

There is this kid I know who is a talented soccer player. He trains twice per week with his club, two hours at a time. On the weekend, he and his teammates get to the grounds an hour early to prepare for their league or cup match, and sometimes they may have up to four games over a two-day period.  All the players are very technically sound and understand how the game should be played. The team has three coaches and they trawl the sidelines during the games criticizing, correcting, reinforcing good plays, congratulating successful and unsuccessful attempts, but they all appear to be a little on edge throughout the duration of the match.

Everything is Amazing and No-one is Happy

What I find troubling is that a high percentage of collegiate tennis players are quite unhappy with their student-athlete experience. They get to their college campus full of excitement, a little scared and a lot clueless. They have been told that their college days will be the best days of their lives, but fail to understand that they can only be the best days of their lives if they are willing to go through some adversity. It seems to me that nobody wants to explain why college can be some of the best years of your life.

WHY I FAILED AS A TENNIS PLAYER

anuary, 2003: I’m sitting on a Cliffside, overlooking the east coast of Australia, contemplating my future as a tennis player. I just battled through four rounds of qualifying to make it to the first round of a futures event. Today, I was up a set, 5-4 40-0 and lost in three sets against the 4th seed. My elbow is throbbing, my back is bothering me and my first round losers paycheck will only cover two nights of hotel bills. Is this really worth it??

TALK, Talk, talk....

I recently heard a statistic claiming that roughly 70% of what Donald Trump presented to the American population during his presidential campaign, was, in fact, false. There is a lot of debate about what President Trump truly believes and what he just put out there to grab headlines in his bid to win the election.

This serves as a reminder that we are all guilty at times of some delusional dialogue about ourselves and our goals. Throughout my years of collegiate coaching, I listened to many bold statements from players, and I learned to become increasingly skeptical when I would hear these lines from recruits or players on my team.

The Three Neutral Phases

Unless you have a huge first serve or a blistering return of serve, your success as a tennis player is often going to be determined by the quality (pace & depth) of your neutral ball.

To me, a neutral ball is one that is not an obvious offensive position where you are equipped to end the point with a winner or even force your opponent into an error. It is also not a ball that puts you on flat-out defence where you are scrambling just to get the ball back in the court. A neutral ball is typically one that is just continuing the point without much drama. However, I think the ability to understand what phase of neutrality you are in will often determine your success as a tennis player.