In Part 1 of “A Shaky Foundation,” I pose several questions about the current high- performance tennis coaching model. In Part 2, I do my best to answer some of these questions. In recent years, I have spent time looking at my environment and examining my relationship to the world around me to determine when I am just following the crowd and mindlessly conforming to societal norms. I am fascinated by different people’s thought processes, how diverse cultures view the world, and when and why they conform to certain behaviors that may not always serve their best interests. I am also curious about what actions really count; what decisions or actions really move the dial in igniting change in our world?
When it comes to high-performance tennis, I can’t help but wonder about how much coaching occurs and if the coaching provided is really benefitting the players as much as we think or hope.
Research shows that athletes are more likely to improve in an environment that encourages autonomy. They also need high levels of intrinsic motivation and self-determined extrinsic motivation if they are to succeed at the highest levels of their sport. Yet, we currently have a system that provides little to no autonomy to tennis players.
As a college tennis coach, I often tried to contemplate my own coaching habits and understand when I was just going through the motions and copying traditional coaching- routines. Do I run 2-hour team practices every day because that is what other coaches are doing and because that is the norm? What if I did 45 minutes and the players were really engaged and focused for those 45 minutes instead of spreading their limited focus over 2 hours? What if I trusted 100% in heart rate training rather than pushing them when their bodies had not fully recovered? What if I followed the psychological theories to developing mental toughness rather than over exposing them to physical adversity to cultivate mental toughness? I did not always have the courage to go against the grain at the time, but at least I was questioning its validity.
The typical coaching model, which has been the model for many decades, is that the coach swaps an hour of their time for a 60-minute lesson fee. I assume, somewhere along the line, we agreed that 60 minutes was a nice round number that tied in nicely with the court booking system? Traditionally, many former top players I know would take one lesson per week then usually spend the rest of the week practicing on their own, with their peers, or maybe in some structured group coaching. Now I see some players getting five 1 -hour private lessons per week. Others have taken it a step further and now have their own live-in coaches! Despite this explosion in coaching opportunities, I do not see a correlating upswing in the level of talent entering the college game. Even if all this coaching does not impact their technical games in any significant way, I would at least hope that by the time they enter college, they have better habits ingrained around their approach to training and competition. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
I propose that parents take a closer look at their annual budget for coaching. Let’s say it is $5,000. I would then ask them to look at how they could spend this $5k in a holistic way to ensure their child is getting the most out of the time they are putting in, both on and off the tennis court.
Firstly, you need to decide what is the role of the coach. Is their main role purely technical to ensure that the strokes your child is adopting are efficient and won’t lead to potential injuries in the future and breakdowns under pressure? Then, you need to question if your coach is the best person to do this job or would an expert in Biomechanics be better served to do this on a short-term basis? Maybe it is worth $500 of your $5k budget to get a full biomechanical analysis so that the personal coach can be very specific on what areas need to be improved upon. Maybe these technical changes are worked on with the coach a couple times a week initially. But after the technique becomes more reliable and automatic, the player is checking in with the coach less frequently.
Whatever the stage of development or expertise of the coach and player, wouldn’t both parties benefit from the coach watching the player compete? Why does every coaching session have to be on the court? Could one session be watching an hour of a taped match and discussing the details of this match with their pupil? The following week the coach and pupil are back on the court working on the things they noticed on the video a week earlier. Sometimes less (hitting) can be more, especially if it adds some direction and relevance to the coaching sessions. Coaches should be compensated for their time, so if some of the coaching budget needs to be spent on having a coach travel to a tournament with your child, then the benefit of that could be worth 25 private lessons! Pay the coach to do some match analysis and then reduce the number of private lessons; I assure you that their lessons will be considerably more productive!
I spoke about top college tennis players’ lack of understanding regarding the fundamentals for strength training, nutrition and mental skills in Part 1. When you speak to performance experts, they tear their hair out when it comes to the sport of tennis. It is such a complex game. Firstly, it is a year-long sport with little rest period. Secondly, you don’t know from one week to the next if you are going to play one match or seven, or how long those matches will take. Furthermore, you are trying to train both the aerobic and anaerobic systems while making the body injury-proof without adding too much bulk. It requires world class endurance, outstanding agility and perfect balance. Lastly, training and fueling an athlete such as this can prove very difficult, and very few tennis coaches would have the education or skill set to expertly advise a player on what is truly required in all these different areas.
Would it be worth taking a portion of that $5k budget and investing in some sessions with a personal trainer, sports performance nutritionist and a mental performance coach? Again, these things do not have to happen on a weekly basis. Maybe 2 sessions with a nutritionist would allow your child to gain clarity on just a few changes they can make that will have a major impact on their energy levels, sleep and overall health. Could 6 sessions a year with a sports psychologist help keep your child on track with their goals and address any major psychological issues impacting their performances? Maybe a handful of sessions with a personal trainer will help them get comfortable with navigating basic strength moves in the gym and maybe that trainer can send them off with an 8-week program before checking in again. All of this knowledge would then converge to help develop a well-rounded, high-performance tennis player.
A current example of how most parents invest in their child’s tennis learning is the following:
$5k budget for coaching = x number of lessons per year = one dimensional, relatively uninformed, high-performance tennis player
It is not feasible for any tennis coach to be an expert in all these areas I have discussed. Sometimes you will need to rely more on the coach and other times, it might be the sports psychologist. Let me be clear: I am NOT saying that more money should be spent on a child’s tennis development. Instead, I am saying that the money being spent can be put to much better use by looking at tennis/athletic development in a more holistic manner.
I would not be writing this if my experience had shown that with an increased investment in a high-performance tennis player’s development showed a correlating increase in preparedness for top college tennis. I believe there are better ways to invest your coaching budget that will benefit your child in numerous ways, not only on the tennis court but for decades after their tennis careers come to an end. My hope is that these talented young athletes can enter college with more tools and coping mechanisms at their disposal in order to tackle the challenges college tennis and college life will throw their way. Take a look at the path your child is currently on and decide if you are following the herd or really analyzing what makes sense to your child’s athletic and personal development. You will probably notice some gaps that need to be filled; once you identify these gaps then align your budget to see what relevant changes can be implemented.