Champions Might Fail from Time to Time, but They Never Quit

Champions might fail from time to time, but they never quit. They simply keep on trying until they get it right.

Djokovic-Federer

When you are on a mission to achieve something, there will always be the critics, naysayers and those who say you can’t do it.

They are usually people who don’t understand having a passion or drive to succeed. When they try get to you, stop and visualize the finished product and let that bring you the energy you need. Keep your head up, surround yourself with positive people and keep moving forward. Champions might fail from time to time, but they never quit!

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The “Crazy” Tennis Parents

Todd Widom - Photo

Todd Widom

To become a high-level collegiate tennis player or professional, many times there are tough parents or “crazy” tennis parents as some would say, involved in the process.

I believe in tough love, which does not mean that you beat down the child mentally, but you explain and expect that certain things need to be done properly, and if they are not, there are consequences.

Isn’t that what life is about? As a parent, if you make a big mistake at work, you may get fired. If a player in college tennis makes a big mistake, they may get fired as well, which means thrown off the team and in some respects, thrown out of school.

The beauty of tennis is that regardless of the child’s tennis level, you learn so many more important and beneficial skills that you will transfer over to other aspects of your life when you decide to hang your rackets up competitively. It takes a team between the coach and parents to develop a great tennis player. There usually is a monumental driving force behind the athlete and it usually involves a “crazy” parent.

Many coaches do not want to deal with the “crazy” tennis parents, but I can tell you from experience that having parents who are soft and do not expect much from their kids will get a tennis player without much ambition a significantly reduced chance to reach their potential. I like tough tennis parents who expect excellence from their child, because that is what this sport requires.

If becoming the best you can be is your goal, remember, the apple never falls far from the tree, so do not forget that high-level tennis is a game of toughness and many times, that toughness comes from a tough parent, coach, or both.

Lastly, in lieu of “crazy” tennis parent, I prefer to use the term “dedicated and disciplined” parent. Success takes dedication, discipline and ambition from all involved.

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Should We Look for More Bad Practice Sessions?

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Marcin Bieniek

Tennis development is a roller coaster. It is not a surprise too see players perform really well one day, just to experience total breakdown the next day. There are many factors that have influence on player’s performance but on the other hand we know that the better we practise the bigger chances we have to play well during tournaments. Should we be scared when our players have bad practice sessions before the tournament? Not really!

At the beginning we have to take a serious look at tennis. Tennis players come to the court to have great training sessions. Coaches step on the court with plan to have excellent teaching time. Parents pay coaches and clubs to make their kids play better and get to the next level.

And suddenly players have few poor practice sessions in a row. Is it maybe a player fault? Is it a sign of bad coaching? Is there a hope for future wins? Bad practice session doesn’t have to put negative influence on performance. Actually, more mistakes and some struggle can lead to great results.

Practice makes perfect. That is correct phrase. Nobody says that this practice has to be always excellent. It is all about consistency. Of course we shouldn’t have 2 months of bad practice sessions with no corrections but on the other hand we shouldn’t also expect our players to play always with top quality. We are all human beings so we have our ups and downs. On the court, at school or at home. Related to tennis, family or friends.

And let’s not forget that we are all different – some players can practice well and compete badly while others make many mistakes during training sessions but when they battle for points they hardly make any mistakes. My coaching experience confirms that truth. During one year my player had many good and bad results. The funniest thing was that performance during practice sessions not always reflected actual performance during tournaments.

Before tournament in Algeria, my player was playing really badly. Result on the tournament? Second place in singles and second place in doubles. Before tournament in Morocco, my player was playing great. No mistakes, only winners. Result? Lost in the 1st round. Then we had tournament in Czech Republic. Training sessions were mostly so-so. What happened during the tournament? Won singles and doubles!

As you can see bad practice sessions not always have to show everything of your ability in the next weeks. Should we look for more bad training sessions? It depends on your approach.

The meaning of bad practice session

Many players and parents think that bad practice session happens when player makes more mistakes than usual. As a coach I think differently. From my perspective, bad practice happens when player doesn’t give 100%. When he doesn’t give his best. We have to remember that problems at school or simple fatigue can cause players to move slower and hit off the center but it doesn’t mean that they can’t improve. Only when they stop trying and they start looking for excuses they really experience „bad” practice session.

Bad practice reflects most of your tennis matches

We already know what bad practice session should mean to coaches, parents and players so now it is time to understand why we need these times of underperformance. During the whole year players compete in numerous tournaments and play a lot of matches. Only small percentage of all battles we can call „great” or „perfect”. During these matches players hit most of their shots with control and enough power, move really well and mentally feel perfect.

On the other hand we have also small percentage of matches that we would like to forget about as soon as possible. These are „terrible” performances. Nothing going into the court. Between these 2 small extremes we have big category that most of our yearly matches fall into. We can call it „OK” performance. It simply means that we play well but we still struggle with one or more areas.

That is why we should always accept bad practice sessions when one of our strokes is weak or our feet don’t want to move as we want them to do because this is a perfect situation that can prepare us for what is waiting for us during the tournament.

Bad practice sessions leave room for improvement

Coaches always look for ways to motivate players to reach higher levels. Player who are hungry to do more, learn new things and show that they can achieve great things are always the one who we later admire in front of TV.

That is why coaches who see that their drills are too easy for athletes should immediately make corrections. These few mistakes can make player understand that he still has to work hard and give own best to improve. This small room for improvement is motivational and can do more good for player’s performance than „perfect practice”.

We all love to see great practice sessions but too many times these are just short-term successes. When we look at player’s development in the long term we can quickly realize that some underperformance is needed to shape athlete’s character and see how he can respond to obstacles.

As I always say to my players: “You don’t have to worry about your match if you play well because most of the time you will win it. The art is to win the match when you play badly so every time you meet these conditions during practice be grateful for this opportunity and work with the goal in mind.”

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The Left Handed Tennis Players

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John Cavill

Being left handed tennis players has many advantages and statistics from the United States Tennis Association have shown that roughly 10 percent of players in the world are left-handed. Over the years there have been many lefties that have dominated the sport, from Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe to Martina Navratilova and Rafael Nadal.

Left-handed champions have used their advantages to win many major titles. The tactics utilised by world class lefties can also be implemented at club level. Whether you are left or right handed, I hope to explore a few of the areas in which lefties can be effective so that if you are a lefty, you can hopefully work on these OR if you are a righty, then hopefully you can work on how to combat a lefty.

Rallying cross court

There is a much higher percentage of right handed players out there and they are used to playing other righty’s, but a lefty will get to play more right handed players so they will automatically have an experience advantage when the two meet. It would be fair to say that most peoples strength is their forehand and a higher percentage of shots in a rally are cross court.

Obviously, when two righties play a cross court rally, they will hit to each other’s forehand but when a lefty gets to hit their forehand, they may have the advantage of striking it to their right-handed opponent’s backhand. Now you may say, “Well that’s the same for a right handed player hitting their forehand to the left handed player’s backhand.” That’s true but because the lefties play the majority of their tennis against righties, then they are more used to having to defend these shots on their backhand.

Out-wide Serve

Serving out wide is a fantastic weapon that any lefty can use to great effect against a righty. When a lefty serves on the advantage side of the court, they can use the slice serve to swing the ball out wide onto the right handers backhand. The lefty should then be looking for a weak response to take control of the point. Again, because the right isn’t used to receiving the ball at this angle from right handed players, they will have to adapt more to come up with a good return.

Using Spin

One of Rafa’s major weapons is his ability to apply a huge amount of spin on the ball so it kicks up high on his opponents or moves around a lot so it’s hard to judge. Now if a lefty can use spin coming in from an angle that the right handed players aren’t accustom to, then this makes for a very interesting tactical battle.

One very successful tactic for the lefty is to hit a forehand crosscourt and apply lots of topspin to a high looping ball. The ball will then kick up high onto the righty’s backhand which is always a tough ball to defend. Another good tactic for the lefty is to hit heavy slice off their backhand to the right’s forehand, so they have to dig-up the low ball.

Opportunity to get to the net

As we now know, the lefty has a great advantage off their forehand and serve to drag their opponent’s out wide. With this in mind, they should be looking to take the opportunity to get to the net and finish the point with a volley into the open court.

Things to consider when playing a lefty

To help prepare a righty for battle against a lefty is important and here are a few areas of consideration:

  • When a lefty serves, they are likely to apply spin that will make the ball move more to your left, so be aware.
  • When lefty’s use the slice serve you may wish to start a little bit further to your left so that you’re not over-stretched on the backhand return, but also be aware of the lefty serve down the middle that could swing into your body.
  • Try to hit your forehand crosscourt and your backhand down the line so that you keep the lefty stretching for backhands.
  • When serving from the ad court, try serving down the centre of the court.
  • Try serving as wide as you can to the lefty’s backhand when you are at on the deuce court and if you can apply slice to the ball, this will also help the ball spin away.
  • Try and avoid hitting to lefty’s forehand so they have less opportunity to use it against your backhand.

Scouting a player

Whether you are right or left handed, it is always good to watch your opponent in action before you play them, but extra attention needs to be paid for a lefty as they ball will be coming in differently from each direction. Look at how they react to their opponents shots and how you can get an edge over them.

There are certain clue like do they tend to aim for certain areas on the court more often than others? Do they have a preferred shot that always seems to be a winner? This will highlight their strengths. It is always good to look into player’s patterns and shot combinations from the moment they serve. You can find out whether their targets are consistent or random or whether they like to get to the net or stay back.

When in a match, righties must stay focussed as initially they could be disturbed with the tactics employed by a lefty. They must give themselves time to get into the match and not let their emotions take over. Many times have players taken a lead to have the match turned around once the opponent figures out how to play the person down the other end.

Final tip for a lefty

Check the direction that your grip is put on. Most rackets are gripped in line with the contour of the right hand, so put your grip on upside down. The racket will feel a lot better in your hand and you will feel a lot more comfortable.

My advice to any player is to try and practice against lefty’s whenever they get the opportunity so they are better prepared in matches. People are like locks and there is a key for every lock…you’ve just got to find it!

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How to Make a Junior Tennis Player Mentally Tough

This question came from a tennis parent.

“Hi!! I m a mother of a 13 year old boy and 10 year old girl. Both my kids play tennis. My son is really struggling to win matches and losing from the players he used to win few months back. In the fear of losing a match he doesn’t even give his best on the court. He is lacking courage to play big. He really loves the game and is willing to do anything to get better. But how do I make him more stronger mentally. Is it important to make him play
more matches to get over his fear??”

Below is the answer of our tennis expert David Mullins.

Hello, I am sorry to hear your son has been struggling a bit with his confidence recently. Here are a few recommendations based on my experiences as a player and coach:

1. “Losing to players he used to beat a few months back”

dmullins 150x150 - How to Make a Junior Tennis Player Mentally Tough

David Mullins

Understand that players develop in different ways, and at different stages throughout their early teenage years. These stages can be influenced by physical or hormonal adaptations within the body. He may be going through some of these changes that are holding him back, while other players have gone through them, or are yet to experience them.

Another issue may be he was possibly too focused on winning at a younger age, and not enough on his all-round tennis development. Some of the other players that may be passing him by now have likely emphasized their tennis development over winning. These other players may have been willing to lose matches while they worked through some grip changes or some other technical aspect that would help their games be better in a year or two.

Your son needs to understand that the results he wants are more likely to come if he focuses on improving all aspects of his game, ensuring his technique is sound and he is learning how to take care of his health and his mind. Learning to win is an important skill but should not be overly emphasized at an early age as players can get stuck in a fixed mindset that limit the ability to make significant improvements.

Your son should be thinking about how he can be a top junior player at age 17 or 18, not what he needs to do to win today. Results at age 13 mean very little in the grand scheme of things.

I can tell you that college coaches are not interested in  players results until at least their sophomore year of high school if not later. Get him to envision the type of player he wants to be when he is more physically and mentally developed several years from now, and figure out what steps he needs to take to get there.

2. “In fear of losing a match, he doesn’t give his best on the court”

This is likely a symptom of his current mindset. He appears to be fixated on winning and is losing sight of what he needs to do in order to improve. He is doing everything he can to please his ego, which will allow him to convince himself and others that he could win if he tried, but that he just did not want to give his best today.

Deep down he knows that he was outmatched, and that it would be much easier and safer for his ego to walk away from the fight. This is very common and something I may have been guilty of myself at times when I was his age. He is trying to protect himself, but ultimately it serves no purpose. He is far too tied to the outcome, and is not spending enough time focusing on the process.

Rather than approaching every match like WINNING is the only thing that matters, he should be approaching his matches as learning opportunities. These matches/tournaments are purely providing feedback as to what he is doing well, how his weaknesses are being exposed and what he should be working on after the tournament on his own, and with his coach. If he is not trying his best in matches when he starts losing, then he is not really learning anything from these matches.

He also won’t be able to honestly evaluate himself because he will be so wrapped up in his own ego. He is wasting golden opportunities to learn and be better. He also needs to start learning that at a certain level, everyone has a solid technique and hits a very good ball. What separates players is their attitude, effort and competitive output. If he doesn’t learn to give his best effort regardless of the situation he will not come close to reaching whatever potential he possesses.

The focus right now for your son should be on learning, development, effort, attitude, fun, and definitely not “winning at all costs”. The wins will come in time if he learns to focus on the elements that matter for his long term tennis development and personal growth.

3. “He is lacking the courage to play big”

I refer back to point number two regarding his mindset. It is hard to play big at the crucial stages of the match when you are so fixated on the outcome. In reality, the best players don’t play big on the big points, they simply maintain their level and composure at the same level they have throughout the match.

The lesser players let their levels and composure drop in the big moments, and the better players take advantage of this. If all he is thinking about are the consequences of losing, then he will not be able to maintain a reliable level, will tighten up, and will most likely lose. He needs to learn to have the courage to try his very best at all times throughout a tennis match, not just on big points.

When he has the courage and understanding that everything will be alright regardless of the outcome then he can be free to play at a level he knows he is capable of playing at. Having courage is experiencing fear and acting anyway. He needs to learn the tools necessary to recognize when he is feeling fearful and what steps he should take in order to overcome or manage this fear.

4. “He really loves the game and is willing to do anything to get better”

That is great, but have you asked him what aspects of the game he truly loves? Does he only love winning, or does he love the process of getting better? Does he love the challenge of problem solving when things are not going his way?

Does he love closing out a hard fought match? Does he love winning points that he should not have won and beating players he was not expected to beat? If he only loves winning, then tennis is going to be a tough road for him?

There can only be one winner each week and he needs to find something to tap into beyond winning in order to do the hard work it will take to be very good one day. If he is willing to do anything to get better, then he should start by promising to give his best at all times despite what it says on the scoreboard or how he is feeling that day.

If he wants to be better then he needs to come off the court after a match and be able to honestly critique his performance, use it as valuable feedback and apply those lessons to the practice court or his next match.

5. “But how do I make him mentally tough?”

There is no easy answer to this. He needs to start by changing his mindset from fixed to growth (Google Carol Dweck – Mindset). He needs to focus on his long term development and not the number of wins he picks up these next few years.

He needs to put the process ahead of the outcome and learn to love the process. He needs to develop routines and mental practices that work for him that enable him to stay present and to problem solve when his opponent is getting the upper-hand.

Personally, I am a huge proponent of mindfulness techniques that allow the player to become more self-aware while understanding how to bring your mind back to the present moment. A good book to start with would be “The Inner Game of Tennis” by to Timothy Gallwey.

6. “Is it important to make him play more matches to get over his fear?”

Firstly it is important that you don’t make him do anything when it comes to his tennis. You can provide suggestions, feedback, best practices but if he is forced into doing anything then it is unlikely to be very impactful.

Playing competitive tennis matches are vitally important to his development, but there probably is not much point in going to the expense and time of taking him to tournaments if he is not going to give his best effort.

If he is willing to work on these issues then he needs to be provided the repetitions in competitive situation to go out there and practice these skills. However, he needs to go out there with a set of tools or a fresh mindset (less outcome based) that will allow him to work through the current issues he is dealing with.

It is important to note how those around him are speaking to him about wins and losses. Maybe, he feels a lot of pressure to win from his parents, coaches or peers because of the wins or successes he has had to date. His expectations of himself or the expectations of those trying to help him may not match with his age, ability and his current stage of development.

It is important that those closest to him do not focus on wins and losses and keep reminding him to come back to the process of getting better. If witnesses others reacting positively and negatively during or after a match then it will likely have a negative impact on his mindset. It is important to downplay winning right now, and focus on long term development if his goal is to be a top tennis player.

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