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March 2012 Article

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Productive Coaching

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

I would like to thank Oscar Wegner and the Modern Tennis Methodology Coaches Association for recently inducting me as an honorary member... See: http://www.tennisteacher.org/MTMCA/Honorary_Members.html.
MTM is clearly a "state of the art" approach to the teaching and coaching of tennis, and I strongly endorse this approach!
Oscar Wegner has for decades dispelled the myths associated with how the modern game of tennis is actually played by the pros, and more important, how we mortals can learn from the pros. I was fortunate enough to study under Oscar some years back. His books and videos are must reading and viewing for any player, teaching pro or coach who wishes to bring the best possible results to those who seek to play this wonderful game of ours. Please do make it point to visit Oscar's site at http://www.tennisteacher.com/. I assure the reader that the visit will be enlightening!
Apropos to my honorary membership (albeit coincidental), this month's column is dedicated to the basics of proper coaching. Many of my readers are junior, high school and collegiate players. Some readers compete in leagues such as those offered through the USTA. At some point, the truly competitive player will either seek a coach or be put under the guidance of a school's or club's coach.
Having been on both sides, I have been coached, and serve as a coach. I have seen effective coaching, and unfortunately, coaching that actually hinders the development of a team and its individual players.
Even the pros on both tours would rarely compete without a coach to assist them in their endeavors. Teaching pros may serve as a coach of sorts, but true coaches are those who either supervise teams and/or an individual player's competitive development. Generally, coaches work with intermediate to advance players. But thankfully, there are many more USTA leagues dedicated to the neophyte. In many instances, these USTA teams have formal or informal coaches.
If you are a serious player or the parent of a serious player, the overall development of strokes, strategies and mental fortitude are of critical importance. For some, the pro tours may be the dream. For others, competing successfully on a college or high school team may be the goal. Some play for club teams, which take their tennis competition very seriously. In each of these situations, having the right coach can make a major difference for all players involved.
So with all of this in mind, I will present some of my thoughts on what goes into proper coaching. My purpose is twofold. First, if you are a coach, I hope that these thoughts will help you become the best possible coach. Second, if you are a player or parent of a player looking for an individual coach, you will have a better understanding of how to arrive at the right choice.
With high school, collegiate and club tennis in the near future for those of us north of the equator, I hope these thoughts come at an appropriate time.
First, good players don't necessarily make for good coaches, and good coaches may not be superior players.
It is true that many of the pro coaches were at one time players on the two tours. However, the vast majority of these coaches were not top 50 or even 100 players! Yes, you have the Brad Gilberts, the Darren Cahills, etc. But, these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Years back when he was coaching Goran Ivanisevic, I happen to sit next to Bob Brett at the tournament hosted in New Haven, Connecticut. I was fortunate that he was affable and engaged with him in some serious conversation about the match that we were watching Goran play. Despite his somewhat diminutive size and the fact that he has not the grand slam record of the person he was coaching (Goran), Bob Brett is clearly one of the best coaches in professional tennis.
Conversely, John McEnroe is clearly one of the very best to have ever played this great game. Yet, his experience as Davis Cup Captain for the U.S. was short lived and relatively unsuccessful.
My point? Some coaches may try to impress you with their tennis resume. They will identify rankings that they have held, collegiate teams for which they have played, USPTR and USPTA teaching ratings, etc. These are certainly worth knowing and are a good starting point for evaluating whether a coach is able to meet your team's or player's needs. But, they are not all that is needed.
As a college professor, it is the standard practice to have applicants for teaching positions demonstrate their skills in the classroom by teaching a sample class. In shopping for a coach, it is my firm belief that the organization or individual should expect the same. Have the potential candidate "coach" a session! Much can be learned from this "sample" session!
I am always surprised by high schools and colleges that hire tennis coaches simply by looking at their resumes and conducting a brief interview. For me, I have never coached a player without first giving her or him a sample coaching session. In part, this is selfish on my part. I don't want to coach an individual or a team that I do not believe I can help. Coaching can be frustrating even when you are coaching the right person or team. Coaching the wrong player or team is a nightmare.
No two players or teams are identical.
Every player in this great game of ours is unique. He/she is an individual. Though much may be common among many players, no two are identical. Assuming that there is a single, ideal player profile that should be imposed upon all will result in lackluster results more often than not. No two people walk with the same exact gate to their movement. Why would we expect two players to play this great game with identical strokes, strategies, etc. Tennis players are like snowflakes. Each is different.
Each team is unique, as well.
If a coach is inheriting an existing team, it can be very difficult at first. The talent pool, player styles and team dynamics may not be what a coach prefers. But, every coach must accept the team that he/she inherits. Yes, any coach worth her/his salt will be able to help a team improve. But, a team coach may need a year or two of player recruitment and development to realize her/his ideal vision.
The most important ingredients in player/team and coach combinations are: mutual respect, open mindedness and a commitment to common goals and objectives.
Every coach needs to have an overall strategy and approach to the game of tennis. This approach should be one that is clearly expressed, and that fits the team and/or player.
For example, a serve/volley oriented coach who is given a groundstroke oriented team or player is not likely to result in a good fit. Traditionally oriented coaches who do not understand the modern game and its mandates are not going to help many contemporary players or teams.
The real secret to success is sharing commonalities between coach and player(s). Good coaching is an open-minded dialog where all involved feel empowered.
A coach who does not listen is probably not a very good coach. A player who does not listen is probably not coachable. Unfortunately, I have observed both of these situations too many times over my years in this wonderful game.
Parents need to realize their proper role in the coaching situation!
If a player's parents are intimately involved in the player's development (as is frequently the case with junior players) another fit is needed. Coach, player and parents must all be on the same page. This means dialog, clarity of purpose and open mindedness from all!!! Having coached on a individual level quite a few junior players, the best results are achieved when everyone is patient, respectful, working in common directions, having meaningful dialogs, and open to changes.
With all of this being said, the real lesson to be learned by schools, colleges, clubs and players is to shop for a coach before you commit to a coach.
A telling indication of a coach's mindset came to my attention when I was being helped in my game by Oscar Wegner. He used words like recommend and suggest. He always wanted my feedback. I suspect given Oscar's background in engineering, it is not surprising that Oscar was always results oriented. The means to an end were important, and Oscar understood many years before the myriad tennis academies that the modern game of tennis was played with some different principles. But if something worked well for me or felt natural, Oscar never attempted to dissuade me from the stroke execution, movement or strategy!
For many years, Oscar was ostracized by the mainstream tennis teaching and coaching associations. He was considered a maverick that had the audacity to challenge the traditional methods associated with tennis. If one looks at the modern literature put out from these same organizations today, they frequently have adopted the principles that Oscar put forth decades ago!
Good coaches understand the modern game and realize how to help every player become naturally in sync with the modern principles of the game.
Meaning no malice, but the continental forehand favored by John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg is not likely to cut it in modern tennis. The playing surfaces, racquet and string technology have changed the game profoundly.
But a good coach recognizes when something cannot or should not be changed.
I dare say that many accomplished collegiate players would have a difficult time today competing against either Mr. McEnroe or Mr. Edberg! These two pros know enough NOT to change their games.
Unfortunately at times, a player is given a coach by a club, school or college. Whether or not this coach is a good fit for a given player may be in question. In these situations, the burden is upon the player to communicate with the coach honestly and openly about any "differences." If these differences are presented to a coach in a respectful manner, good coaches hear what the player is saying and take it into serious consideration.
Regretfully, some coaching situations are imposed upon players that just are doomed to fail. If a coach is set in her/his ways and the same is true of a player, there is likely to be some conflicts, and the level of performance is likely to be diminished... if only for this player. Sometimes, I have seen entire teams that have been "molded" by a coach into something that just doesn't fit the players who have to compete on the court.
Although I believe players should not be overly result oriented, coaches in my mind should definitely be held to a standard that yields positive performance if not wins. As is the case in any professional coaching situation, the coach must be held accountable. Granted, there are times when any coach would be unable to produce a winning record for a team or player. But, every coach should be evaluated upon results. The win/loss is one index, but player improvement, team cohesiveness, the increased confidence and optimism within a player or team are also important result oriented indices.
Good coaches of teams dedicate equal time to all the team's players! Every player or doubles team is important. There is no room for elitism or favoritism. In team competition, every match counts the same and is equally important!
Singles competition is a very singular experience. Every player is out there on his or her own! Coaches should help players on teams feel less alone on the court. To achieve this, every player on the team should be treated individually with respect to strokes and strategies, but the same regarding respect and support.
With the exception of doubles competition, there is very little that is "team oriented" in the game of tennis. However when every player on a team feels valued and needed, amazing things can occur!
Years back in coaching Albertus Magnus College's Men's team we were facing an extremely talented team from Boston. We had excellent talent in the higher ranks and some fairly solid players competing in the lower numbered matches. What made this season unique is that these young men truly bonded together as a team. My number one player was encouraging the number six singles player during the contest. Every team member was in tune with every match being played. Despite the overwhelming odds that the "pundits" believed we faced, the team managed to pull off a 5-4 victory! We were eligible for post regular season, conference competition. A true sense of "team" enabled us to beat the so called superior team!
If you are coaching a team or part of a team, the benefits of developing a solid team spirit cannot be overemphasized. Unfortunately, coaches frequently spend all their time developing the best talent on their team. This sends a message to all players that the number one and two players are in essence more important than the lower ranked players.
For those reading this who are coaches, remember that there are some building blocks that are necessary for all players if you are to achieve the goals:

  1. A true respect by each player for everyone who plays, coaches and officiates in this wonderful game. Player and team conduct is the first priority!!!
  2. Player fitness. Too often in my opinion, coaches (especially of younger players) do not stress the importance of fitness. In a three set match, fitness can make all the difference!
  3. Player flexibility. Stretching before, during and after practice is essential. Players who are flexible get to more balls, experience fewer injuries and generally recover from strenuous points more quickly.
  4. Individualized stroke production improvement that is tailored for each player's "natural" playing style. You don't want to rebuild the house, but you do want to make the house better. Keep notes on every player, and what you would like to see changed or improved. Remember, if it doesn't fit... it doesn't fit!
  5. Player breadth with respect to tactics and strategies... for every player! Everyone needs a Plan B or C. The key is to help devise strategies and tactics that fit the individual players strengths and weaknesses.
  6. Team consciousness and cohesion. Everyone, including the coach is essential.
  7. Player mental fortitude. Players must learn to first control themselves, then the ball, then the point, then the game, then the set, and then the match. Mental fortitude in players is built on positives... never negatives!!! If a coach instills these priorities in her/his players, confidence and performance automatically improve. Players and teams must realize that tennis improvement is a never ending process. To prove this to players, look at the journey traveled by Novak Djokovic in his rise to grand slam wins and number 1 ranking!
  8. Respect for "The Code" regardless of situation!!! Every player should own a copy of what are the rules or the "Code" for this great game. You can't play by the rules or demand that your opponent does if you don't know the rules.

Coaches should have individual goals (broad objectives) and means (methods of reaching these goals) for every player and for the team as a whole.
These goals and objectives should be mutually agreed upon and understood. In addition, action plans that involve timetables should be included in the overall planning for players and teams.
To help coaches truly understand the realities of team/player performance, each match should be charted!!!
There are programs for computers, smart phones, etc. that can help chart matches and interpret multiple match data. But if you are not able to access such technology, here is link to one of my previously published articles that provides a simple printout form for charting matches: Turbo Tennis: Your Came Can Be "Off The Charts".
In order to keep every match covered and to promote team cohesiveness, it is advised to have team players chart teammates' matches whenever possible. For me, coaching tennis, in addition to teaching tennis, is a very rewarding experience. Whether it is individual players or teams, successful coaching is a thrill that is difficult to explain.
As we approach the outdoor tennis season, proper coaching can make all the difference not only in the Win/Loss columns, but more importantly, in the enjoyment that players derive from competing in this great game.
If you are in need of a coach, I hope that you will consider the information in this month's column as you begin your search. If you are a coach, I hope you will reflect upon my thoughts this month as you approach another season for your team or player. If you are a competitive player who is being coached, I hope this will inspire you to communicate and work with your coach to have meaningful dialog.
This wonderful game needs more coaches like Oscar Wegner! If we find a rise in the number of good coaches, we necessarily will find a world of tennis that produces more and more tennis overdogs!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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