Maybe you have heard the phrase “Major in the Majors, and Minor in the Minors”. It really is great advice. If you are like us, and want to achieve the maximum amount you can with your players, consider carefully what your major objective is with your team. For me, in my first year with a team, I have noticed the importance of teaching directional play, so that players are building their points with crosscourt shots, setting up the kind of point they want to play. Strangely, players learn tennis, go to camps, and attend academies, but they don’t learn this well enough at those places. Still, with other lower level teams, my objectives may simply be to help players develop fundamentally sound technique so that they can’t be easily beaten. Any talk of complex strategy is a waste of time, when players can’t put two shots together very often. With my doubles teams, many times in the first year, I find myself stressing strong fundamental positional play, and situational reaction movement. In the second year of working with a team, then my creativity comes more to the fore because the foundation of their strategic house has been built. I have also had teams where our major objective was learning to control and maintain positive energy, because the leaders on that team struggled with that.
In today’s entry we will give a few examples of how best to plan to achieve a major objective or two, some issues to look out for and how to make the plan to be successful. We will talk a little bit about the stumbling blocks along the way. When you finish this piece it should be very clear while working hard on very few major objectives is very important. How the work is planned to be accomplished a season is also an important factor for the success of your team in achieving your major objective(s). Plan the work and work the plan! Finding the best balance between teaching (boring), coaching (annoying), and free play (fun) can be the largest factor in the player’s tennis experience.
Sort Out Players Before Going Full Bore
One major objective that many coaches would like to achieve with their teams is helping all of their players to become more effective at the net. When I want to help my team globally on this, first I need to identify the levels of my players. If you want to get somewhere, first you have to know where you are, then where you want to go, before you can plot a course. First, I like to sort out my players between those who can move comfortably forward to make a decent approach shot, and a decent volley, and those who can’t. On Day One, I will run the challenge of having players simply come forward to approach on a short ball, and make one volley. I then can see the number, and make a realistic goal of increasing the number of players who can do that. I then know who does not need to be taught the very basics of that move. We lose a lot of morale with our teams when we presume that they don’t know how to do something, and begin to teach them what they already know, and we waste time. From there I can do some instruction to the group of players that are not as comfortable moving forward to the net. I can have another activity ready for the players who are fairly confident, one they can with independently or with the help of an assistant coach. After working with the group that needed some basic instruction, I would identify an aspect of the performance of the top group that was a common issue and have those players work on that.
Minimal Instruction Maintains More Interest
After a short period of instruction, less than 5 minutes if possible, I would have the players play some type of point play situation where one player must come to the net. The points can be tallied or not. It’s more important to look for players who are getting closer to achieving the objective than it is to criticize those that don’t. Players will gravitate toward that which gets them praise. If you take a look at my video course, you will see some good examples of what happens when you pay attention to the right stuff. Depending on the dynamic of your group, you may even want to hold one player up as an example for the others to follow on any particular objective. From point play situations that you place players in, it’s vital to observe carefully what seems to be more effective for certain players and what are the top one or two items that cause them to lose the points. When you bring the players together, ask them what they thought was effective and ineffective, see how their answers differ from you answers. Consider those differences.
Building Ownership of Concepts in Players
From last week’s blog when we considered listening on purpose for purpose, now we get more practical. What is more important to your players? Is it more important that they understand your experience of their play, or is it more important that they understand their own experience of their play? After they have shared their experiences, you may or may not need to share what you thought. How magical is it when the players have all the best answers, and they don’t require the opinion of the coach? Then you can praise them for being smart players. It’s awesome when the coach says “I agree with you”, or “I agree with you up to a point, but I want to clarify something…”. The player centered coach builds much more empowered, mindful players whose tennis is a self expression, rather than an imposition by an outside force. Ultimately, the players will either own the objective or they won’t and their level of ownership of it has a large bearing in how well they do under pressure.
Achieving Greater Cohesion Can Be a Season Long Pursuit
I had a girls team that was quite talented, but before I arrived at the school they were underachieving. They seemed very content to win their league and lose in the first round of the playoffs every year. With my doubles teams, our one objective was to control the center of the court, and it was not an easy thing to accomplish with those girls. The level of buy in was not 100%, but when they were winning more and easier, then the percentage rose. Even so, in a tense playoff upset win, I had to urge my players to continue to be aggressive in their movement at net. After winning that 10/7 matchup, the same thing happened when we took on the #2 seeds. The girls wanted to shrink back from being aggressive. We won two of the three doubles matches and the decisive match was at #2 doubles, where on every change over I reminded the players what we had worked on all season. They won that match in a third set tiebreaker and the team went crazy. Had I not been extremely determined as a coach to teach, coach, encourage, remind and urge my team onward, then that victory would not have been theirs.
The Mystery of the Ego
Two amusing anecdotes in working with one of the best players I have ever coached is very telling about this process, and how egos can get involved, and if not held in check can make a mess of things. I saw this player getting better at the net, and also experimenting with a one handed backhand groundstroke. I suggested that he consider switching to a one handed backhand because it would help him be even better at the net. He resisted, we talked about it a few times, and he did not switch. A couple weeks later he was hitting nothing but one handed backhands. I teased him, “I see you took my advice.” Nonplussed he snapped back, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” Kabam! That was a bit a slap to my ego, but I let it go.
After his net game became appreciably better, I suggested to him that he consider serving and volleying some. He tried it a few times, failed and seemed to blame me for some lost points in practice matches. A few weeks later after winning our league tournament, he stately boldly. “Coach, I have decided to become a full time serve and volley player.” I was pleased and said, “Wow, that’s great we talked about that a few weeks ago, I’m glad you are ready.” He looked at me like I had lost my mind. He did not remember our conversation. I smiled inside, because it didn’t matter if I got any credit as a coach, what mattered was that whether or not he acknowledged it, he had made the change. The awesome part of the story is that he far exceeded expectations, made the semi-finals and would play a future #1 USTA Sectional Player for third place, losing a thrilling three hour, three set match 7-5 in the third, coming to the net 114 times and winning 71 points, if he had won 74 points he would have won the match.
An Approach and One Volley Can Be All It Takes
Many of my players become the garden variety net players who patiently wait for the right ball, make a good approach shot, and make one volley to win the point. If they have to make two volleys to win, it’s going to be a little dicey. Even so, to develop enough confidence for players to feel confident in a completely new tactic, or one where they have a track record of failure you will need to devote a significant amount of practice time to your chosen major objective(s). It might not be wise to choose more than two, as they may conflict with each other. One of my highest priorities is almost always to find a team wide weakness that I want to bolster. In some cases I look for a strength that has not been developed enough to truly give an advantage on match day. In order to build that advantage, players will need time, and a wide variety of experiences in which they have succeeded.
Use the Early Window, Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone
When planning to achieve an objective, there is a short window before formal play starts against other teams. It’s imperative to make full use of that window. For those that have only ten to twelve week seasons, its the very early part that allows you to introduce something new. This year our team has two weeks and three days before our first match. If I were going to develop net play in them, I would want to devote the ‘developmental’ part of at least seven of the thirteen practices to that which I want to build into my players. Of course, practices need to be planned in cohesion one to another so that if for three days in a row I am working on net game, then the fourth day I would work their groundstrokes, then begin alternation a well rounded program. See in a previous blog some sample practices. It’s imperative that when you have a major objective you are working on with your singles players and doubles teams, that they not only go through a progression of simple tasks, to more complex tasks to then using skills in point play with controls, point play without controls, practice sets with special rules that reward use of the objective, practice sets with no special rules, and finally a live match against another team with an expectation that players will use their new skill in that match. When players get to a point where the challenge level is fairly high, then its best to dwell at that level until they gain a certain level of mastery, but don’t wait for perfection.
Don’t Wait for Perfection, But Allow Some Mastery
Once everyone in he group has 70% to 90% mastery of a certain skill, I move on to the next level. Once a player or two reaches 100% mastery, they almost immediately can become bored with the process. Sometimes its wise to work with top players at a 100% mastery level, and also their self discipline to continue to hone and perfect their performance. For 99% of high school players, this will be seen as rote work and very boring. You can lose their interest. Be sure to keep moving players up the challenge levels. If there is a 20 minute period where players simply fail to do what is asked, its best to consider regressing back to the level where they can perform well, before returning to the higher level.
Allow for Early Stumbles, Awkwardness
It’s almost guaranteed that when you put players in their first competitive situation of the year against another team, using a new skill, the combination of nerves and newness will make performing quite difficult. I can’t think of a time when players really shined in that first match playing competitively, while using a new skill or strategy. Depending on what happens in that first match, there are decisions to be made. More than likely, you or I would need to let the players know that we salute their efforts trying to make the strategy work, but now that they used it in live competition, there are some things to work on. Again, ask the players, don’t tell them. Ask them where they did well, and what the breakdowns were. If you agree, discuss that, if you don’t agree try to understand why the players think that was where the breakdown came. “I kept missing my approach shots.” Sometimes means that they missed the first approach and the third approach, and after that it was fine, but that’s what they remember from the match. Many times, I saw. “I know you feel that way, and you remember X, but I really saw Y. What do you think of that?” If your program is organized enough you can have players chart matches specifically to see the objective you are training.
Measure the Next Step Carefully
After they have played, you might decide that they don’t need much more training, because you were very pleased with their progress, I would still schedule in one or two refreshers into the practice schedule. If they struggle, take the players who struggled, building them up with two or three more practice sessions targeted that their specific issues. If you don’t intervene, you run the risk of a significant group of players not achieving your major objective. Generally, by the second match you should see a big improvement, but players may still not feel fully confident, most likely they will need more encouragement and some fine tuning of smaller issues that reduce their effectiveness. So while most of the work gets done early on, the job of coaching it up in players continues all season.
All of this can be done in 20 minute sessions, if you plan them well. 5 minutes of a warm up activity where players make a basic move, followed by 5-10 minutes of coached activity, then 5-10 minutes of higher intensity and/or point play situations can make all the difference in the world. Many times coaching players in the midst of point play situations with multiple players on one court can speed the learning curve. When a player does something exceptionally well, players can follow the visual example. If a player does poorly, showing the error, and the proper move to everyone again teaches everyone on the court.
Observation of the Process with Patience
All along the way, be a great listener to how your players are feeling and what they are thinking about the objective. Do they understand why its important? Observe closely, not only their technique, but their body language. Do they look confidence or at least competent when they perform? Or do they look scared, shaky, or under trained? Ask them about it, don’t always trust your eyes, because sometimes players may feel very confident, but it doesn’t always show on the outside. As the season progresses, you can remind players of things previously learned, encourage them as they gain greater confidence, console them and encourage them if they have a bad performance. It’s how you finish the season that matters most, and I find that if the work of teaching and coaching is done in the early going, then the free play will be the laboratory where the player finds their own way.
As for the team I mentioned at the beginning whose leadership struggled with ‘negative energy’, they learned that lesson over a full season, and when presented with a very strong negative circumstance, they were able to maintain positivity and it lead to a very fulfilling finish to the season.