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Staight Talk from the Tennis Coach

I want to thank Danai C Samuriwo from tenniswithD for writing my guest blog today.  I met Danai through the tennisopolis social network.  Danai is  very involved in the tennis world as a tennis teaching pro, club manager, tennis shop owner and a top-level tennis player himself.  Danai writes great blog posts for both tennisopolis and his own blog spot

I asked Danai if he would mind writing a guest blog for me about what parents need to hear from tennis coaches.  Please note I did not say what they want to hear.  I appreciate that he agreed to do it since I am asking him to put his lively hood on the line (just kidding, we parents are tough and can take it).  Too often the coaches tell us what they think we want to hear for fear of the repercussions.  I am asking the parents to be reasonable and listen to the professionals.  Most coaches have the best interest of the tennis player in mind just as we as parents do.  If you can maintain an open line of communication between you and the coach you will have an environment that will best nurture your childs tennis.  Enough from me.  I hope you enjoy the article as much as I did.  Thanks again D.

Part of the challenges of leading a successful tennis program or business as a coach, as an instructor, is negotiating the delicate line between brutal honestly versus exercising restraint with the clients when dishing out our “professional opinions”, ESPECIALLY when it comes to the patrons’ children. A child’s behaviour is naturally tied closely to the environment in which they are raised, and as parents, this means the very household we work so hard to maintain. So, it is easy for a mere tennis instructor to unwittingly cause a “how dare you…” moment, as some of these “recommendations” can feel like reproaches, or worse still, personal attacks. Naturally, we the coaches shy away from the brutal honestly that is needed; it dries up the well quicker than Michael Chang, Lleyton Hewitt, and Gael Monfils put together!

I tend to agree with parents on how well-behaved their children actually are because even the naughty kids do not mean any harm. Deep down, they are well-natured kids who actually do try on the tennis court. When the resultant shot is not reflective of all their hard work and best efforts under the scrutiny of their peers, coupled with the need to do as their instructors teach, reactions vary and not always for the best. These are just coping mechanisms.

Crazy Tennis Mom came up with a pretty crazy idea to put myself out there, as a coach, and “let the parents have it!” I will say, much like parenting, coaching approaches can be vastly different, yet the ultimate goal achieved from these different approaches, equally successful. Simply, there are many strategies to winning a single tennis match.

 “Letting the parents have it” was simply too broad, so I thought I would recommend/reprimand parents, hopefully without repercussions, in 4 areas of personal concern, and to some of you these may not be new because these issues are as old as time.

1.       Switching coaches on a regular basis:

 

One thing most parents may not realize is that in tennis, being such a dynamic sport, coaching approaches THAT WORK are vast but put together can be conflicting.  There are several issues associated with having short relationships with your child’s coach. For those that meet with the coach irregularly, this affects continuation and therefore progression in their lessons and your child’s game. Every time you meet is almost like recommencing, especially for the early stages. The most significant to this point is that different coaches have different ideas of what the overall perspective of what the player’s game style should be. Where one coach can see advantages in moulding the player as an aggressive baseliner, another coach may project higher dividends coming out of an all-court game style instead. The environment needed to nurture both styles should be highly controlled and manipulated as such. The process behind moulding a certain style player, thought process, mental coaching provided, drills utilized,  artillery emphasized to bring about the attribute characteristic of that style, reinforcement practice drills, or matches arranged to make say a counter-puncher versus an aggressive baseliner are potentially similar and different contextually. Even in times when they are the same, they are not necessarily complementary of the respective the broader pictures aimed for. For example, though a big serve is always helpful and works well for an aggressive baseliner who waits for the response from the back, the same serve may not necessarily be ideal for a serve and volleyer, who needs to manipulate the direction of a return by accurate placement of that same big serve; successful serving and volleying is dependent on well-placed serves and not just pace alone, which, would be more than sufficient in the case of an aggressive baseliner. There are many of these conspicuous but important details. If left unexplained, these begin to blur and cause confusion in an instance where a player is seeing multiple coaches simultaneously or one who bounces from coach to coach. Some of these ideas can be downright conflicting as well if meshed together.  A potential technique conflict, Venus Williams’s straight take back preparation on the forehand side versus Kim Clijsters’ looping take back—which one do we follow and why? Another example in the mental department when formulating a player’s demeanour and decision-making of say a counter puncher, it is different to that of an aggressor’s mental demeanour. Where a counterpuncher needs to learn how to be a routine precise shot maker, under pressure, aggressors need to be comfortable to initiate an attack immediately in their position of comfort. These are just a few scenarios of many!

 

Now there is a recent trend on the pro-tour where “consulting coaches” are being used. A consulting coach might be a known transition game specialist like Mark Woodforde. This can be effective if used within the parameters of the main coaches’ perspective.

 

The ultimate result of bouncing around among several coaches is producing a conflicted player who is potentially knowledgeable even appears polished on the court but possess tentative an ill-timed shot selection and therefore unsure which route to pursue. The unfortunate part is either of the approaches which cannot coexist, separately, would have sufficed independently.

 

2.       Playing up:

Since Boris Becker and Martina Hingis won Grand Slams as teenagers, there has been a misconception on the notion of playing up. You should play your child up because they are out-classing the competition; to kill any ambiguity here I mean 6-2/6-2. Most parents mistakenly reason that “if I play my child, they will improve rapidly”. For this reason, I know numerous high-performance juniors who are getting terrible results for the sake of “progress”. Playing up is not always a motivator as in the instance where a complacent kid can be dropped in to test the deeper waters with the hope that they will realize that there is more work to be done; unintentionally, a player can learn to lose just as well.  This can result in loss of confidence. Loss of confidence is potentially worse than the guillotine of bad strokes because it is accompanied by other ill feelings like embarrassment, sense of desperation, loss of motivation, and patience. 

 

3.       Justifying a loss as a result of cheating

You rob them of 3 important lessons of surviving the competitive and potentially brutal tennis world:

1. How to be a gracious loser, because it is never easy, especially for the competitive type.

2. Maintain a cool, calm, and collected head on the court in a potentially hostile environment. Shut out distractions, maintaining a head clear enough to realize, IT WAS ONLY ONE POINT, THIS THING CAN STILL END WELL.

3. You risk sending the wrong message that they are “good enough”. Dismissing opponents’ accomplishments can overshadow the big lesson that they should go out and work harder to match or eclipse that level of competition.

 

4.       Assessing your child’s ability and being realistic

There is no worse feeling than investing time and not getting the desired result. Dejection is one of a few probable results. But being realistic with expectations relative to your child’s ability can help mute the impact of these awful feelings. By all means, we should go out and help our kids achieve their dreams, but we should not allow our partiality to cloud our assessment for the reality. For every athletic journey, there needs to be a decent base of talent in order to progress successfully in mastering the necessary skill. Hard work can complement talent but cannot substitute for it. Will, desire, hunger, or endurance will not cut it either.  Also, the higher they go, the stiffer the competition, and wins may not come as easily, especially as the talent pool deepens. Sometimes these victories cannot be quantified by Ws but rather, the time spent smiling or simply the experience and lessons learnt.

Parents, there is no substitute for hard work in athletics, there are no shortcuts to hard work, there is no “magic button” that Coach A knows versus Coach B, maybe Coach D (wink wink) , but be especially wary of the coaches whose big claims do not involve well-articulated goals and micro steps of execution; it takes time.  I have always maintained the position that the dynamics between a student and the coach is very much like any successful relationship or team; communication is one of the integral elements for success in that unit. When it comes to raising tennis players’ parents, we are that direct line of communication. Create a dialogue and try to understand your coach’s vision; I am by no means encouraging you to take everything coaches spew, but I am saying sometimes be open to having differing opinions if it comes down to it, agree to disagree without deflecting progress. The ideal yardstick after all is and will always be your child’s progress, not theoretical discourse.

6 comments on “Staight Talk from the Tennis Coach

  1. “Parents, there is no substitute for hard work in athletics, there are no shortcuts to hard work, there is no “magic button” that Coach A knows versus Coach B, maybe Coach D” Personally I find this totally incorrect. There are several of coaches with “magic buttons” Why do you think some coaches have long lists of solid players they have developed and others have few to none? What, a few coaches just accidentally get all the “HARD WORKING” students? You cannot teach tennis because you watch things on youtube or read a book, nor can you teach it because you were a fair player and spent $200 to get certified. That is ridiculous. Many yrs ago, I took 7 days to train a 3.5 level playing parent how to teach and then sent them off to take the USPTA exam. They passed with flying colors. The problem with coaching is that 90+% are motivated only by making a dollar and that they are not seriously interested in the progression, mental, physical health and results of their students.

    There is a HUGE gap in what certain coaches do and the way students both interpret and trust in what they are learning. I will have to completely disagree with the author on this one. Just like in many other fields, certain coaches just have the, ” It Factor” while the mass majority are just trying to look good to collect a check.

    • I will agree that there are bad coaches out there. I have paid a few of them myself over the years. I think a parent has the ability to see when they have come across a “bad coach.” Again this is why we need to be have honest communication between a parent and a tennis coach, so the parent can ask why and expect a good honest answer from the coach. I have also seen alot of coaches who like to pick up already developed players and make themselves look good when really they had very little to do with the development of the player. I completely understand what coach D meant by “magic button.” I sit in the club and at the tournaments with the parents and they are looking for a magic button to “fix” their childs game. Not every coach is good, and not every student is good. “Hard Working” comes from the values they are taught at home more so than what the coach does with them on the court. A spoiled lazy kids will not magically become a “hard working” student because of a certain coach. It can help but the parent has to back it. If the coach pushes the parent has to be there to support. Too often the parent changes coaches because little Johnny says coach is too hard on them.

      Getting to know your coach as a person and what drives them is the most important factor in hiring a coach. I have been lucky to have come across a couple really dedicated coaches that actually care about my child as a person as well as a player.

      I think we will all agree that there are bad coaches out there. But when you have to choose between good coaches, it is more about the fit between personalities.

    • Tim, I am the author and I would like to elaborate on the “magic button” comment. But I will give you a little background information. Firstly, as soon as I wrote this blog it became obvious immediately that I needed a complimentary blog; one that explores choosing a high performance coach. My sentiments actually immediately rang true because of your comment. Some of the reasoning withing the blog need contextualization. As you can see from the title, that would have been off topic also the blog was already long.

      Now to address your position, I actually was talking to the parents who have found the very coaches you describe as having produced “strings of proven players!”. There are parents who bounce around from these tried, tested, seasoned and experienced coaches too, month to month! I personally, know of parents who moved to work with celebrity coaches in FL/Spain but left as fast as they got there. Why, because they realize that they are subjected to similar grueling drills hours at a time on the forehand alone (and rightfully so), but now the bill has trippled. There is is no quick fix aka magic button aka light-switch method. Even with those good coaches, players STILL need to spend hours training, hitting balls solidifying the direction their coaches are trying to take them in.

      There is also the aspect of chemistry. Just because a coach has a great track record does not mean they can coerce the self belief out of a player. That is why even in pro tennis, saturated with the best of the best on every level, players and coaches are exchanged like baseball cards collection.

  2. Than you for having me as your guest!

  3. Guys, great post – thanks S and D! D, I wish I would have known to follow number 3 a couple of weeks ago. I should’ve known better, but the umpire (high school age girl) was friends with my son’s opponent and made some bad calls including telling the other kid when to challenge… and I let it upset me and I let my son kind of blame the loss on that. Now, I know. Thanks again! M

    • It is a fact that often they are cheated out of some key points. Usually I am angry myself and have to try to manage it. I acknoledge the bad call and then remind him that it should not have come down to one point to make the difference. Where their other mistakes that could have changed the course of the match.

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