Time Lag Between “Knowing” and “Doing”

Ray Brown

Ray Brown

A long and complex mathematical computation may take several trials to complete. Each trial is a practice run at getting it right. The combination of trial followed by “gestation” can take as much as three days. After three days there is a good chance the solution is right.

There is no difference between this activity and learning to hit a tennis ball in that it takes a lot of trials to get it right. We know from brain evolution that mathematical skills were built on top of physical skills requiring many of the same processes in the brain. However, physical skills also required the development of a neuromuscular infrastructure that is not required in mathematics.

The implications are significant. When a student of tennis believes that they have got the stroke right in only a few days, it may be true as far as the brain part of the stroke is concerned. But they still cannot execute correctly. The difference is that the neuromuscular infrastructure to “hit it right” takes far longer to develop. Hence the student may become frustrated because their view of what is possible does not agree with what their body can execute. This is particularly true of juniors.

This frustration may be acted out in various ways that are mostly unproductive. Whereas if they understand that there is a significant time lag between getting the right sequencing in the brain versus developing the neuromuscular infrastructure to execute the stroke, there might be less frustration. The frustration can also delay development significantly.

Patience is requires to allow for the time lag between “knowing how to execute” and “being able to execute”. There is no cure for this time lag but the exact amount of time from “knowing” to “doing” can be reduced by separate training activities.

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Does Anyone Really Know How to Produce Champions? Part II

Does Anyone Really Know How to Produce Champions? Part II

coach mullins

Coach Mullins

As I mentioned in Part I of this blog, I strongly believe the coaches we need to be celebrating and rewarding are the ones that are finding ways to help children be passionate about our game. These are the coaches that are truly developing players and not just managing and smoothing out the edges of the already polished tennis player.

There appears to be some snobbery in our sport and the coaches coaching the “better” players seem to think they are somehow “better” coaches because they work with elite players. I know I have definitely been guilty of this at times earlier in my coaching career.

Some people claim coaching the top players is extremely challenging because they can be “difficult to work with” in a team setting or as individuals. I find this sentiment quite laughable. In my experience, the easiest players to coach are the top ones. Getting to work with extremely self-motivated, highly skillful, hardworking players is easy.

Yes, maybe they have some superior attitude and their rate of improvement is hard to measure. But the most difficult and rewarding thing about coaching is keeping people motivated when they are struggling, teaching new skills that appear complex and creating a culture of hard work, passion and love for the game. Personally, I am huge fan of the coach who nurtured a child’s passion for tennis, not the one who reaped the accolades for the almost-finished product.

I have been fortunate to coach at a number of different levels and I believe my skill set is best suited to the current demographic I am working with (NCAA Division I). I learned this very clearly when I started coaching my 6 year old son and his buddies. I realized I had very little idea of current best practices and how to ensure I was helping them with their technique while having a lot of fun! I gained a new appreciation of just how difficult it is to keep kids engaged and eager to come back for more.

When it comes to tennis, I can’t help but wonder if we are expecting our coaches to know too much in a lot of different areas and never really become experts in just a few. Tennis is such a vast game, with so many different shots, movement patterns, fitness considerations, injury prevention, mental and tactical situations to master. We don’t expect our teachers to be proficient at teaching every grade level.

During my playing career I was extremely lucky to be tutored by some outstanding coaches. I was fortunate to work with a technical coach who restructured my game when I was very young and held me to a high standard of technical ability. As I got older, I began to work with coaches who gave me a better understanding of the tactical aspects of the sport. It wasn’t until I got to college that I learned the physical nature of tennis and the type of toughness that was required to succeed at a higher level.

It appeared that over the course of my career the right coach came into my life at the right time to help me understand a new layer as to what the sport required. I don’t know that if I had stayed with the same coach all my life I would have been as well rounded a player. Some players stay with the same coach their whole life and have amazing careers.

Again, proving that there is no one path or magic pill for producing great tennis players. I know for myself that I did not make it on the professional tour because I did not have the required mental aptitude nor was I willing to sacrifice other areas of my life. I don’t blame anyone, have any regrets or think that if I had grown up playing on hard courts, or had more resources or a top 10 player from my home country to look up to or anything else that it would have been any different.

In conclusion, I believe we need to continue to improve education for not only coaches and players, but for parents too. We also need to understand that we live in global world and tennis is a very global sport. What is so bad about players leaving countries to go elsewhere to develop their passion? Is it truly the federation’s job to develop players? At the top level of tennis, it is more about individual names than the country they represent.

Players are playing for themselves 98% of the time and not for their country. Federations don’t have to be responsible for developing elite players past a certain point. Let the private sector take care of that and let players go wherever they want to go. The best always find a way; that is why they are the best.

This is not an opinion I would have held when I was playing or even 5 years ago. But as I gain a better understanding of globalization and relate this back to the world of tennis, I can see more clearly now that our focus appears to be in the wrong place at times.

Let’s set a solid foundation for our players, provide adequate training facilities and a logical tournament schedule and ranking system. Most importantly, let’s get our best coaches working with our young players and figure out how to make tennis as relevant as possible throughout the world.

Tennis federations everywhere have consistently failed at developing champions. No one truly knows what it takes, so let’s stop holding them accountable for such an unrealistic target. No one is responsible for creating champions other than the individuals themselves that want to achieve greatness.

Let’s reward those that get the most children passionate about tennis and turn the spotlight on these individuals on a much more consistent basis. We all have a responsibility to ensure the future of our game. Let’s stop pitting one development system against another. Let’s stop going into our silos and only associating with those coaches who are working with players of a similar level. Let’s stop telling kids to go “pro” when they should be going to college.

And let’s all put our knowledge and resources together to encourage future generations of tennis players. The more children we have playing tennis, the more we will have to celebrate.

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Does Anyone Really Know How to Produce a Champion? Part I

Does anyone really know how to produce a champion? Part I

coach mullins 3

Coach Mullins

Did Erik Spoelstra suddenly become a worse basketball coach when Lebron James left the Miami Heat? Was Bill Belichick a bad coach when he got fired from the Cleveland Browns, and will he have the same success after Tom Brady retires?

Would Phil Jackson have won 11 NBA titles if he was the coach at the Minnesota Timberwolves or was his timing just impeccable?  Is Boris Becker responsible for Novak Djokovic’s recent domination, or would John Smith be having the same impact on Novak’s game?

These are just a few examples of why I am a little dubious about how much impact a coach really has over elite athletes and who is truly responsible for athletic success at the highest levels. It obviously depends on the sport but in some sports I just don’t believe it matters as much as we seem to think.

Portuguese soccer, Spanish tennis, Hungarian shot putting…….I hear a lot about pathways to athletic excellence and have read countless books upon the topic. Every time a country produces a couple of champions in a sport, everyone loves to talk about the system this federation adopted and how we need to copy the exact same pathway in order to achieve the same results. Coaches get a lot of praise and are paid vast sums of money to write books and give presentations about their “system” of greatness. They get wooed by other federations and teams to sprinkle their magic dust and create the next batch of champions.

Then, when you put these same coaches in a different culture with a fresh staff, and a hundred other new factors, they don’t produce the same results. There are plenty of recent examples like David Blatt at the Cleveland Cavaliers and Louis Van Gal’s time at Manchester United. Did these coaches suddenly lose their coaching prowess? I don’t think so! It is just the nature of sports at the top levels.

So what does make a Champion? There are too many variables to keep track of when it comes to producing individual champions or championship winning teams; luck being one of them. I am absolutely not saying that the coach is irrelevant, but I do believe that at the highest levels in most sports it has very little to do with the coach and everything to do with the individual players.

There are always improvements that can be made to nurture and develop talented players. However, many unique nuisances or chain of events need to align for truly great athletes to succeed at a world class level. There are factors deep within societies, far beyond the scope and knowledge of anyone to truly comprehend and be able to mitigate when trying to produce champion athletes.

If you speak to the top 100 tennis players in the world, you will see that each one has a completely different story to tell. Some come from wealth while others have very limited means. Some had success as juniors, others have been slogging away well into their late twenties. Some like to lift heavy weights, others do Pilates.

The list is endless and you will rarely find two players who have experienced the same path. Ultimately, this type of achievement depends upon the individual’s talents and how passionate, desperate, and hungry they are to make it. There are plenty of talented players out there who have all the physical and technical attributes to win.

The question, though, is this: who truly has the one-in-a-million mindset and collection of necessary life lessons to do the hard, lonely work day in day out while relentlessly believing in what they can accomplish despite any setbacks?

Of course, there are things we can do as a nation/ federation/academy/coach to help with the process and these players are no doubt going to need guidance along the way, but at what ages does it really matter?

I am really impressed with the LTAD (Long Term Athletic Development) guidelines and I hope every country does better to adopt these general principles so that we have athletes playing a lot of sports in their early years.  Yet at the end of the day, trying to create the next Roger Federer is like trying to create the next Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet or Michael Jackson. It has to happen organically.

When it comes to tennis development, I believe the more people we have playing tennis, the more likely we are to produce great champions. While there may be exceptions to this rule, it is always a great place to start. Tennis is a difficult sport and kids are eager for instant proficiency and success these days. If enough children play, then the elite will rise to the top as they always do. Most importantly, if we have a lot of children playing and loving our sport, then our sport is in good hands for a long time to come.

The best and brightest usually find a way to succeed despite their limited resources, lack of opportunities to compete, or outdated equipment and facilities. Furthermore, I contend that these very challenges could potentially contribute to the breakthroughs these athletes make.

Let’s stop worrying so much about identifying the most talented individual player and figure out what we need to do to grow our sport for decades to come. Our energies as an industry would be best spent figuring out exactly how we are going to get more children playing the sport and keeping them involved for the rest of their lives.

My opinion is that we are, at times, rewarding and praising the wrong coaches and “development systems”. We need to find ways to reward and praise those heavily involved in the grassroots of tennis. Increase their access to adequate equipment, coaching education and filter more time and money to increase the efficiency of their jobs so they may affect twice as many children as they do. Personally, the coaches I most admire are the ones with a copious amount of passion for developing young athletes and getting them excited about what tennis has to offer.

Another reason why I love college tennis is because it keeps players in the game longer and involved in the sport. Tennis is a very global sport and at times I see coaches, federations, academies, or colleges make decisions in their own self-interest and not necessarily in the interest of their players and their sport.

To be continued. Part II of this blog will come out next week where I expand on some of these thoughts and talk more about the role of tennis federations in the development of players.

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Kevin Anderson, the 6’8” Nightmare

Picture of Todd Widom

Todd Widom

Many people have their opinions of how someone became so good on the ATP Tour and then there are those who played and saw the progression of how someone became such a great tennis player.

I am not sure if I was fortunate or unfortunate to have played Kevin Anderson five times on the ATP Tour. I was 0-5 against him and most of those matches I felt coming off the court that I played an excellent match, but unfortunately lost. You see, the margins in tennis are so slim at the professional level that one ball missed at a bad time will cost you the set.

I played Kevin between 2006 and 2009 in Champaign Illinois, Winnetka Illinois, Cincinnati Ohio, Louisville Kentucky, and Granby, Canada. Of the 12 sets that we played in those five matches, six of the sets went to either 7-6 or 7-5. In the Cincinnati Masters match, I already lost to Kevin twice so I knew what was coming at me. At under six feet tall, the shorter player usually has a disadvantage in tiebreakers due to serving, but I won the first set tiebreaker and then lost the second set 6-2. I looked up at the scoreboard and realized that Kevin had served 92% first serves that set.

Kevin Anderson - Kevin Anderson, the 6'8” Nightmare

I thought good luck breaking his serve.  In the third set, I had break point and had a high forehand to put away, I ripped it for a winner and it just hit the top of the net and did not go in.  Kevin played a couple of good return points in the third set tiebreaker and I went home unhappy again for the third time.

Later that year, I played Kevin in Louisville, Kentucky on a lightning fast indoor court.  I thought that this time I should try slicing returns to try and somehow get the point started on his serve. It was a good match.  Kevin went back to his hotel with a smile on his face. I lost 7-5 in the third set.  I played Kevin one more time, in Canada this time I lost 7-6, 7-5.

It is difficult playing someone serving 140 mph coming from a 6’8” frame. Watching 20 aces go by you in a match is tough. The basis of this article is about how Kevin evolved into one of the best tennis players on the planet. When I played Kevin, I felt like from the baseline I was dominating him groundstroke for groundstroke. His amazing serve kept him in the matches that we played against one another and it should be that way considering his size.

His groundstrokes were solid, but he was defensive from the baseline which is not normal for a guy his size. In amateur tennis, meaning junior and college tennis, you can win many matches playing good solid tennis. However, at the highest level of tennis, you have to apply pressure, hurt people with your weapons, and force the opponent into making errors due to the quality of your groundstrokes.

I always thought that if Kevin could take the ball earlier, play a bit closer to the baseline, and develop a great transition game coming towards the net, he could be an amazing player. This is what you saw at the 2017 U.S. Open. I have been seeing it for some years now, but it really came together at the biggest professional tennis tournament in the world.

Kevin was and obviously still is very professional about how he goes about his daily work. I saw this from when we were playing because he was very disciplined about his profession. Kevin is a great person and kudos to him for making the necessary adjustments and finding the right people to take his game all the way to the top of professional tennis.

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Why top ITF female juniors stay on the top?

Picture of Marcin Bieniek

Marcin Bieniek

Travelling around the world and being a coach on the ITF Junior Circuit is a great possibility to learn and increase tennis knowledge. Looking at own player’s development, results, and responses are all steps important in the process of athletic career so coaches who go to the tournaments have much bigger opportunities to help players achieve their dreams.

One of the crucial areas in my coaching is learning from others and by watching top players compete I can easily transform this knowledge into my coaching sessions to make it more effective and transfer the work into results.

There are some really significant differences between male’s game and female’s game even at the junior level. Boys are solid and stable so that is why it is not surprising that player ranked #250 is able to beat the guy who is constantly playing junior Grand Slam tournaments. All boys have great serves, good footwork and consistent baseline game so the final result depends on a given day performance.

Girls’ game is completely different. There are some critical areas that differ top 50 juniors from players who are only 40 or 100 places behind. Even the ranking position is pretty close between 2 players the reality is that top 50 females have skills that let them win 9 of 10 matches against rivals ranked 50-200 ITF.

If you want to improve your game and achieve better results you have to make sure that you are better every day than you were before. Only long-term vision with conscious daily work will guarantee that you walk the right way and even when you lose it doesn’t mean that you step back. Being able to watch players compete at various highest-grade ITF Junior tournaments in Morocco, Osaka, Cairo, Prague, Porto Alegre, Barranquilla and many more interesting places I was able to see the reasons why top ITF females stay on the top.

Most of the athletes included in this group are there because of their good results during the whole year. Of course there are few players who achieved great results only in 1 or 2 tournaments but these ones won’t stay there for a long time. So how can we get our player to become top 50 junior girl in the world? How to make her stay there for a long time? Here are the areas that you can learn from athletes who are already there:

Stable and solid performance

Do top 50 players play their best match of life every time they step on the court? Absolutely not. Do they have skills at much higher level than players ranked 50-100 ITF? Definitely not. The secret is in their ability to play at solid level for the whole course of the match. That is the difference. Top players play well for the long time without any significant ups and downs. They don’t play spectacular – they play solid but it is enough.

Players who are not in the top are able to get the lead 2:0 or 4:1 while playing against top female junior but they are not able to close the set or the match. They get the lead because of extraordinary performance that they can’t maintain for more time than that. If you want to get into top 50 you have to be able to find your level of play that you are able to maintain for more than few gems.

Opportunities don’t change anything

Great champions look for opportunities and try to give their best when facing crucial times in match. Top juniors do it too. When they face the break point they don’t slow down the racquet, won’t change the strategy or move few steps back behind the baseline. They are in the top because they have courage to trust their shots when it really counts.

Completely different story we can observe while watching players who are ranked outside the top. When facing a pressure moment they change strategy „from winning the point” to strategy „not losing the point”. Only brave athletes achieve great results so if you want to join this group you can’t doubt your abilities in crucial moments.

Fitness side is not a weakness

Looking at lower ranked players we can spot some weaknesses in physical preparation. Player A has lazy footwork. Player B needs some air after 20 shots rally. Player C can’t ace rivals because the speed of the serve is really slow. All these factors are related to poor fitness abilities. When you look at top 50 ITF juniors you won’t see these weaknesses. All players are well-prepared physically so that is why they don’t have down times during the whole match. If you take care of your base you can build a great game on it.

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