A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Strong Templates for Creating
What can a tennis coach learn about running a practice from an elite high school football team? I am a huge fan of the De La Salle High School Football program. For some of you, that could touch off controversy, but that’s another issue. I want to focus on how they practice. Every single move on the field has a purpose. That team, has what some consider, to be among the best conditioning programs in the country at any level, up through the NFL. Their practices are a well oiled machine, and unlike the stereotype of high school coaching, the players don’t stay late if they haven’t accomplished what the coach set out to do that day. Sometimes, they pick that same objective up, the next day. Another remarkable aspect of that program is the simplicity in the playbook. They have twelve plays, the same twelve plays, but when they add a thirteenth play for a special occasion the opponents are completely fooled. They run their twelve plays to perfection, without a single foot out of place. This is how we want to run a tennis practice, to perfection, or as close to it as we can get.
Foolish Consistency at High School Tennis Practice
The majority of teams practice in a very inefficient way. Coaches allow players, to practice in a way that does not reflect the same conditions, in which they will play and win. Styrling Strother, adopted the phrase ‘Transforming the Practice Court’, because of this need to get away from conventional wisdom, moving toward what really works. We are in firm agreement that traditional methods are not always best practices. If you remember nothing else, remember that one of our major rules is “No Mindless Hitting!”. Of course, developing some rally skills in the warm up phase is fine, but after that everything should be intentional.
Each time I have come to a program, at the seven different schools that I have coached, it takes my players at least a full month to get over the fact that, they will not be having any mindless hitting sessions. It’s universally true, that each group has had at least a few players who wondered out loud, “Coach, when can we just hit?”. My answer to them is that it won’t ever happen if everything is going the way I want it.
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To defeat mindless hitting, we send our players out to perform a point play situation, a shot combination, or another performance challenge. Every moment of practice can condition players to take advantage of opportunities, or hand them back. As Frank Giampaolo says, “Don’t play catch, play keep away.” Rallies longer than 9 shots only account for 10% of play, so we want to major in the majors by preparing our players for 90% of the play. We develop first strike tennis, and shot combinations, which by virtue of creating assertively strategic players, gives them a mental edge in the match. Do you want your players to be the ones who start rallies, or the ones who finish them?
Don’t Throw Out the Baby with the Bathwater
In the initial stage of practice I will have the players toss the ball back and forth ten times, from two steps back from the net. We then will take one more step back and rally ten times with a choked up racquet. After most are successful with that, then we move on to a ten shot rally inside the service boxes, then to ‘the big rectangle’ and finally to the baseline. Thats our daily warm up ritual, from then on, we play shot combinations in drills, simulated point play, situational games, sets or matches. Of course, when we need to teach a skill, we can spend 5-10 minutes on teaching the skill, but then we move toward executing the skill in a drill, then on to a point play situation. If there is a breakdown in performance, we regress back to the point of the breakdown.
Training Deep Patterns Deeply
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
~ Abraham Lincoln
Every year, I start with developing first serve and +1, +2 patterns where players are expected to develop the point with crosscourt play. Sure, in recent times, professional and college players have been attacking down the line with their forehand to the opponent’s backhand more often, but 95% of high school players lack the ball speed to make that an effective ploy throughout a match. So, we focus much more on what will make a high school player more strategically sound. Even among my top players ever, who are highly ranked USTA junior players, I find that they have the capacity to lose a winnable match, or struggle in a match they could control easily. One of the most common reasons for this is that they play the ball down the line too early in the point. There are actually many more opportunities to put the opponent out of position with a cross court shot, or pressure them deep up the middle of the court, leaving them much more vulnerable to the next shot.
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Between the wisdom of Paul Wardlaw’s Pressure Tennis, and Craig O’Shannessy’s BrainGame Tennis, we find that we want to put our players in position to succeed, rather than to look good according to conventional measures.
I love to see my players in position to control matches by seizing on opportunities from the beginning, looking to go through the Control, Hurt, Finish progression as quickly as they can efficiently do. Is there something wrong with me, if I enjoy the helpless look on the opponent’s face, who is wishing for longer rallies? Is it ok for me to smirk, when after the match they complain that they weren’t ‘consistent enough’?
Conclusion: Customize and Availability
Now, it's our job as coaches to set up an organization that allows for the progressive building of players games, so they can execute in a live match. If your players are struggling to do that, we invite you to a 20 minute phone call coaching session on how to bridge the gap.
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