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.
Portuguese soccer, Spanish tennis, Hungarian shot putting; I hear a lot about pathways to athletic excellence and have read countless books upon the topic. Every time a country produces a couple of champions in a sport, everyone loves to talk about the system this federation adopted and how we need to copy the exact same pathway in order to achieve the same results. Coaches get a lot of praise and are paid vast sums of money to write books and give presentations about their “system” of greatness. They get wooed by other federations and teams to sprinkle their magic dust and create the next batch of champions. Then, when you put these same coaches in a different culture with a fresh staff, and a hundred other new factors, they don’t produce the same results. There are plenty of recent examples like David Blatt at the Cleveland Cavaliers and Louis Van Gal’s time at Manchester United. Did these coaches suddenly lose their coaching prowess? I don’t think so! It is just the nature of sports at the top levels.
So what does make a Champion? There are too many variables to keep track of when it comes to producing individual champions or championship winning teams; luck being one of them. I am absolutely not saying that the coach is irrelevant, but I do believe that at the highest levels in most sports it has very little to do with the coach and everything to do with the individual players.
There are always improvements that can be made to nurture and develop talented players. However, many unique nuisances or chain of events need to align for truly great athletes to succeed at a world class level. There are factors deep within societies, far beyond the scope and knowledge of anyone to truly comprehend and be able to mitigate when trying to produce champion athletes.
If you speak to the top 100 tennis players in the world, you will see that each one has a completely different story to tell. Some come from wealth while others have very limited means. Some had success as juniors, others have been slogging away well into their late twenties. Some like to lift heavy weights, others do Pilates. The list is endless and you will rarely find two players who have experienced the same path. Ultimately, this type of achievement depends upon the individual’s talents and how passionate, desperate, and hungry they are to make it. There are plenty of talented players out there who have all the physical and technical attributes to win. The question, though, is this: who truly has the one-in-a-million mindset and collection of necessary life lessons to do the hard, lonely work day in day out while relentlessly believing in what they can accomplish despite any setbacks?
Of course, there are things we can do as a nation/ federation/academy/coach to help with the process and these players are no doubt going to need guidance along the way, but at what ages does it really matter?
I am really impressed with the LTAD (Long Term Athletic Development) guidelines and I hope every country does better to adopt these general principles so that we have athletes playing a lot of sports in their early years. Yet at the end of the day, trying to create the next Roger Federer is like trying to create the next Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet or Leonardo Da Vinci. It has to happen organically.
When it comes to tennis development, I believe the more people we have playing tennis, the more likely we are to produce great champions. While there may be exceptions to this rule, it is always a great place to start. Tennis is a difficult sport and kids are eager for instant proficiency and success these days. If enough children play, then the elite will rise to the top as they always do. Most importantly, if we have a lot of children playing and loving our sport, then our sport is in good hands for a long time to come. The best and brightest usually find a way to succeed despite their limited resources, lack of opportunities to compete, or outdated equipment and facilities. Furthermore, I contend that these very challenges could potentially contribute to the breakthroughs these athletes make.
Let’s stop worrying so much about identifying the most talented individual player and figure out what we need to do to grow our sport for decades to come. Our energies as an industry would be best spent figuring out exactly how we are going to get more children playing the sport and keeping them involved for the rest of their lives.
My opinion is that we are, at times, rewarding and praising the wrong coaches and “development systems”. We need to find ways to reward and praise those heavily involved in the grassroots of tennis. Increase their access to adequate equipment, coaching education and filter more time and money to increase the efficiency of their jobs so they may affect twice as many children as they do. Personally, the coaches I most admire are the ones with a copious amount of passion for developing young athletes and getting them excited about what tennis has to offer. Another reason why I love college tennis is because it keeps players in the game longer and involved in the sport. Tennis is a very global sport and at times I see coaches, federations, academies, or colleges make decisions in their own self-interest and not necessarily in the interest of their players and their sport.
There appears to be some snobbery in our sport and the coaches coaching the “better” players seem to think they are somehow “better” coaches because they work with elite players. I know I have definitely been guilty of this at times earlier in my coaching career.
Some people claim coaching the top players is extremely challenging because they can be “difficult to work with” in a team setting or as individuals. I find this sentiment quite laughable. In my experience, the easiest players to coach are the top ones. Getting to work with extremely self-motivated, highly skilful, hardworking players is easy. Yes, maybe they have some superior attitude and their rate of improvement is hard to measure. But the most difficult and rewarding thing about coaching is keeping people motivated when they are struggling, teaching new skills that appear complex and creating a culture of hard work, passion and love for the game. Personally, I am huge fan of the coach who nurtured a child’s passion for tennis, not the one who reaped the accolades for the almost-finished product.
I have been fortunate to coach at a number of different levels and I believe my skill set is best suited to the current demographic I am working with (NCAA Division I). I learned this very clearly when I started coaching my 6 year-old son and his buddies. I realized I had very little idea of current best practices and how to ensure I was helping them with their technique while having a lot of fun! I gained a new appreciation of just how difficult it is to keep kids engaged and eager to come back for more. When it comes to tennis, I can’t help but wonder if we are expecting our coaches to know too much in a lot of different areas and never really become experts in just a few. Tennis is such a vast game, with so many different shots, movement patterns, fitness considerations, injury prevention, mental and tactical situations to master. We don’t expect our teachers to be proficient at teaching every grade level.
During my playing career I was extremely lucky to be tutored by some outstanding coaches. I was fortunate to work with a technical coach who restructured my game when I was very young and held me to a high standard of technical ability. As I got older, I began to work with coaches who gave me a better understanding of the tactical aspects of the sport. It wasn’t until I got to college that I learned the physical nature of tennis and the type of toughness that was required to succeed at a higher level. It appeared that over the course of my career the right coach came into my life at the right time to help me understand a new layer as to what the sport required. I don’t know that if I had stayed with the same coach all my life I would have been as well rounded a player. Some players stay with the same coach their whole life and have amazing careers. Again, proving that there is no one path or magic pill for producing great tennis players. I know for myself that I did not make it on the professional tour because I did not have the required mental aptitude nor was I willing to sacrifice other areas of my life. I don’t blame anyone, have any regrets or think that if I had grown up playing on hard courts, or had more resources or a top 10 player from my home country to look up to or anything else that it would have been any different.
In conclusion, I believe we need to continue to improve education for not only coaches and players, but for parents too. We also need to understand that we live in global tennis world. What is so bad about players leaving countries to go elsewhere to develop their passion? Is it truly the federation’s job to develop players? At the top level of tennis, it is more about individual names than the country they represent. Players are playing for themselves 99% of the time and not for their country. Federations don’t have to be responsible for developing elite players past a certain point. Let the private sector take care of that and let players go wherever they want to go. The best always find a way; that is why they are the best. This is not an opinion I would have held when I was playing or even 5 years ago. But as I gain a better understanding of globalization and relate this back to the world of tennis, I can see more clearly now that our focus appears to be in the wrong place at times.
Let’s set a solid foundation for our players, provide adequate training facilities and a logical tournament schedule and ranking/rating system. Most importantly, let’s get our best coaches working with our young players and figure out how to make tennis as relevant as possible throughout the world. Federations everywhere have consistently failed at developing players. No one truly knows what it takes, so let’s stop holding them accountable for such an unrealistic target. No one is responsible for creating champions other than the individuals themselves that want to achieve greatness. Let’s reward those that get the most children passionate about tennis and turn the spotlight on these individuals on a much more consistent basis. We all have a responsibility to ensure the future of our game. Let’s stop pitting one development system against another. Let’s stop going into our silos and only associating with those coaches who are working with players of a similar level. Let’s stop telling kids to go “pro” when they should be going to college. And let’s all put our knowledge and resources together to encourage future generations of tennis players. The more children we have playing tennis, the more we will have to celebrate.