March 21, 2017
Insanity: Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.
~ Albert Einstein
Too Much Love for Technique
The infatuation and saturation with technique is insane. Here watch this brief video of a player winning his first round match. https://www.instagram.com/p/BRwB_YDFKqE/?taken-by=usatenniscoach when you see it, note that it is very representative of how that player looked all match long. People have been missing the point of what is shown in the video. Many think that somehow it was taken to denigrate the player, but just the opposite is true. The video is there to prove how over-rated technique really is. A no point in this rally does the player show anything approaching perfect form. Yet, we as coaches obsess on developing player’s technical abilities. In your mind, what is the actual percentage that having perfect technique plays in the game of tennis? Sure its hard to pin it down, but it’s certainly not 100%.
All The Intangibles
One of the greatest examples of a player who had somewhat flawed technique, was able to overcome that, to win multiple Grand Slam Events and become #1 in the world, was Andy Roddick. His very different serve, his great athleticism, his drive, and later his mental and emotional maturity all came together. His backhand has been often criticized, and there are some who believe that if he had learned to flatten out his forehand more, his stay at the top would have been longer. Andy furthered himself by realizing that players had caught up with his forehand, and that he couldn’t serve 145 MPH all the time. He began to work on his net play. There are so many ‘what ifs’ surrounding him, but no one can take away his great accomplishments even with flawed technique. The factor that put him over the top, was when he learned to be more even tempered on court, channeling all of his energy into one purpose.
Is the Player with Technique Really Better?
Perhaps you have seen the book, “If I’m the better player, why can’t I win?” by Dr. Allen Fox, it’s written to those with superior technique who lose to those with inferior technique. It happens quite often, and those who have the better trained strokes many times develop a deep complex about why they aren’t beating players with inferior training. What is the reason for that? They haven’t been taught how to play tennis. They have been taught strokes, but not how to compete. Those superior players, are not superior players, because they don’t understand the strategies that beat them, making the necessary shift in their own game. They might look good on the outside, but they lack the mental and emotional strength to compete under tough circumstances. Many people walk around with the false notion that they will be judged on whether they execute a few crushing winners, or look good and admirable while playing.
Of course, working on technique and continuing to refine it over time is a great idea, and the matter of hitting a ball a few miles an hour faster, in a way that is more repeatable is valuable. It’s far more valuable to spend time working the ugly scenarios of a match, the high looping ball, how to hit a drop shot back, essentially teaching the whole game of tennis.
All the Strokes, But Not Enough Understanding of Playing the Game
I had a funny moment on my high school team that was filled with academy players who also held fairly strong USTA rankings and many of those players went on to college tennis. On the very first day I wanted to check their comfort moving forward to play the net. I set up a simple drill where they would hit an approach shot, come to the net and simply make a volley. I was astounded when a fairly large % of their approach shots went cross court to the forehand. (Since that time, it has been discovered that the inside out forehand approach to the backhand side is actually the most effective ploy in coming to the net on the ATP and WTA Tours.) I stopped them and asked them ‘Who taught you to play tennis?’. They responded with names of private coaches, and academies. To which I said, ‘No, they did not teach you to play tennis, they taught you how to hit the ball. That’s it!’. From there I showed them exactly how easy it is for a player to pass them with a forehand when they approach the forehand crosscourt. I did not neglect their technique and did introduce more subtle changes, but it was never a point of major emphasis.
Underachievers? Are You Serious?
Prior to my arrival at that school, those teams had underachieved. They were quite capable of going deep into sectional championships, instead, if they felt like they did not have a chance of winning it all, they would tank. I had witnessed efforts where players didn’t seem driven to go to a new level in playoff action. In fact, some notable players had skipped a playoff match in order to prepare for a test, thus dooming that team to defeat. In taking over the team, the first thing I did before accepting the position was to talk with the top players and captain about what they expected from the season. They had no idea. When I expressed in our interview that I wanted the team to win a section title because they were good enough they tacitly went along with it. At the first meeting where 71 players showed up for a team that would keep 24 players, at a school noted for being one of the highest performing schools academically in the state of California, I said, “This program has been under achieving, and I plan to win a section title while I am here. It might not happen this year, but thats my goal. You will never hear me say that again.” These kinds of things have absolutely nothing to do with technique. Every player I coach, I work on the same type of vision setting, and help them with developing their goals. In my first year with that team we came in as a #9 seed, beating #8 and #1, before losing to #5. The following year, we won it all from the #3 seed, beating #2 and #1 in the same day in 97 degree heat, a story some of you are getting tired of hearing. The moral is that there was very little in the way of technique to be done.
‘Baseball is 90 per cent mental. The other half is physical’. ~ Yogi Berra
Ever since I made my own discoveries about teenagers, through the use of a Jim Loehr test of mental and emotional capacities, the way I worked with players was forever changed, beyond the technical aspects. Most people agree that the mental part of the game accounts for a large portion of success, but they still refuse to take any time away from stroke development to give the mental games of their players enough training. Nearly everyday, on my court, there is some discussion about the mental and emotional game of tennis at my practices, before and after matches. I won’t outline here what the specifics are, but I use at least 20% of my time in the early going engaging players with mental game material, and once that is absorbed, then having private discussions with each player about their particular strengths and weaknesses in this regard.
Practicing with Purpose
If practices include mindless hitting, and are not at least 75% point play situations, then that coach is crippling their players. Frank Giampaolo talks about a time, when among top players in the USTA Developmental program, they did an experiment. They divided the players into two equal ability groups. The first group was trained to be very consistent, keep the ball going. and rally to one another to groove strokes and perfect techniques. The second group was trained to play ‘keep away’, working hard not to hit two shots the same, and generally keeping their opponent out of a comfort zone. When the two groups were united again, they played a team competition where the ‘keep away’ group absolutely destroyed the grooved and consistent group. If you think that’s a new thing, go back and read Match Play and the Spin of the Ball, by Bill Tilden, where he says, “Know your opponent’s favorite shot and never hit it there, and discover their weakness and hit it there, when you really need a point.”
Carry on, do it your way, obsess on technique, our players want to beat your players.
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