Improving the Feedback Loop

Improving the Feedback Loop

One of the many reasons I was drawn to college tennis coaching was because of the incredible feedback loop it provides between the coach and player. As college coaches, we get to witness a very high percentage of our players’ matches throughout the year. Not just that, but we get to sit on the court with them and monitor their self-talk, emotional state of mind while getting a better understanding of their decision making. This is incredibly valuable information to any coach as it informs us how we should coach and what we need to be working on in practice the very next day!

coach mullins

When I grew up, I had one, 1-hour lesson per week with my coach and maybe he would see me play a couple of matches per year. I know that this has improved a lot through the years but I don’t believe it is still close enough to where it needs to be in the junior tennis world. Many players are not very adept at objectively self- analyzing their own matches at a young age, and part of this is because they haven’t seen themselves play often enough.

I can’t tell you how many times one of my players comes off after a match and gives me their version of what occurred. Early in their college career, their interpretation of what transpired during the match is often way off. If I had not just witnessed it, I would have no choice but to believe their version of events and then get to work on what they told me in our next session together.

As coaches, we want to ensure that our practices are deliberate and relevant. I can’t tell you how great I feel after most individual sessions with my players. I think we had gotten lots of productive work done and that we had fixed whatever maladies in her game she was experiencing at that time. Then we go to play a match and it looks nothing like the practice session we had two days prior! Now there are obviously a lot of reasons for that but if I had not seen the match first hand, then I may have continued on with my line of thinking as to what was the best way to develop this player’s game.

I guess we could tell by results and outcomes, but as coaches we tend to be more process orientated and if the player is very young then we are not going to get wrapped up in the score line. We are far more interested in whether or not what we are doing in our training sessions is translating on match day, and if they are staying true to the process. But how do we know if we cannot be there to witness their matches firsthand?

I know it is extremely expensive and unrealistic to have coaches going to every tournament with players. What I am proposing though is that more emphasis be placed upon coaches getting consistent feedback through the use of video footage to help better develop their players. Despite the improvements in technology and reduction in costs associated with capturing live play, I still rarely see matches being taped when I go recruiting.

There are very few junior coaches in attendance at these tournaments, so we are relying on a young player’s version of events or the biased opinions of a parent. As an industry, shouldn’t we be pushing harder to make this more of standard? Would it not be better if one lesson was on the court working on different aspects of the player’s game and the next lesson sitting together for an hour and watching the video from a match? Or better yet, a combination of the two? Wouldn’t this make the session far more deliberate?

I would estimate that one hour of watching video of a match with your student is more valuable than several private lessons on the court. I understand that most parents want to see their kid out on the tennis court working hard on their game with the coach and hitting as many balls as possible, but we have to reeducate them on what is the most productive use of their child’s time and their hard earned money.

Our system here at the University of Oklahoma is to take the video from matches, break down the relevant parts into clips with notes written at the top of each clip, and put it on our players google drive accounts ($1.99 per month). It is time consuming but incredibly valuable for the players and the coaches. Our players can log on at any hour of any day and visually learn about their game. Remember, over 60% of people are visual leaners. As a coach if you don’t have a camera, I highly recommend you purchase one; it will pay for itself a thousand times over.

Maybe you can lend it to your players from time to time when they are playing out of town. If this is not possible, maybe you can have the parent use their phone or I-pad to record crucial moments of a match, serving for a set, a third set tiebreak etc. Ideally you want to see what your players are doing at the most crucial stages of a match.

Ultimately, we have to improve the feedback loop if we are to help our players learn more efficiently and effectively. As we all know, practice and performance can often look like two completely different animals. We want to aid in the process of bringing those worlds closer together so that our players are practicing like they compete and vice versa.

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How Tennis Parents Undermine their Child’s Progress

Ray Brown

Ray Brown

Student N in April 18 has an RPI of 410 and was making very good progress monthly. She will clearly get to RPI 70 before graduation next year.

Before the USTA Level 4 in May she gets into a conflict with her parents that was important. However, instead of postponing the discussion until after the Level 4, they wake her up on the Friday night before the tournament at 1am to yell at her. By match time on Saturday N was exhausted.

However, N was resilient and won her first round quickly. Her parents arrive in time for the second round and while they were watching her father said that her opponent was “taking it to her’. However, N won 6-1, 6-0. I have no idea what the father was seeing, but it was not reality. More seriously it reflected a very negative attitude toward N’s performance.

Sunday, N has been pressured by her father, during private conversations, to rush the net for which had no training yet. N played her own game and was up a break quickly, as was her usual style. Then she began rushing the net, engaging in self incrimination and slapping herself, which she had never done before. This is a common way a child will communicate to their parent that they are being an obedient child. She degrades quickly and loses a match, in which from the start, she was completely in control.

Next match is against C (C becomes an important baseline for N later in the story). Once again she takes the early lead but reverts back to pleasing her father. She loses the first set but by determination she wins the second. By tie-breaker time she is spent from the parental stress and lack of sleep and loses the set. However, she demonstrated that she was at least even with C when she was under duress from all of her parents demands and recriminations.

After the tennis tournament, the father decides to interfere with her training, yet again, and takes her out of tennis for 8 weeks while C continues on with her training. N is put to running track (800 meters to be exact, which was nearly useless for tennis). C understandably advances while N is sitting on the sidelines at track meets.

N loses two and a half months of the most important summer of her senior year. Note that the summer before a tennis player’s senior year is equivalent to a football players fall semester of their senior year.

N restarts near August 1 and is badly out of tennis shape. But she is resilient and gets back to good shape in 3 weeks.

Enter an outside coach who knows nothing about technology or N’s history. He convinces the parents to change N’s racquet. Then convinces them to let him be her coach in spite of the fact that she was making rapid, unprecedented progress in her present program. She moves to the new coach and then loses two more months and her RPI on 10/24 drops to 509. Now she has lost 4.5 months on bad parental decisions and has also lost ground in the race for good college scholarships.

Had her parents never interfered, she would likely have been a 4-star by April given her rate of improvement before the parents began to meddle with her programs. Now, she will be lucky to reach a three-star in time for college commitment offers to be extended.

During this same time, C stayed the course and made it to three-star with an RPI of 253.

N was a promising player who would have surely made it to a ranked D1 college (only 75 are ranked in D1). As a three-star, her prospects are grim to none for a ranked D1 college. Parental interference took N from being a top prospect to being an also-ran in 4.5 months.

This is a textbook example of how parents can undermine their children’s progress in tennis with the best of intentions; because of their abject lack of knowledge about tennis.

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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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