College Tennis Coach Reality Checks

Throughout my years of collegiate coaching, I listened to many bold statements from players, and I learned to become increasingly skeptical when I would hear these lines from recruits or players on my team.

I would try to decipher whether these players believed what they were telling me, or if they were just selling me a line to get what they felt they desired. Here are a few examples of statements that would be voiced to me on a semi-regular basis:

 “I want to play professional tennis”

“I love tennis”

“I am a really hard worker”

“I want to play higher in the lineup”

“I like to be criticized”

“I am really tough competitor

It was not just players who expressed these thoughts; parents and coaches voiced them too. I listened to a lot of talk while witnessing a great deal of inaction. Usually, the players who loved tennis worked extremely hard, embraced criticism, were tough competitors and played high in the line-up rarely spoke about possessing these traits – they just lived them. It was like the ones who openly voiced these statements were constantly trying to convince themselves, their parents, or me that they were something they were not.

I tried to remind myself that it is not solely the fault of the young athlete. Most of them have been bombarded with all sorts of confusing feedback and advice from coaches, parents, and social media throughout their junior careers. These players were once that big fish in a puddle, and innocently believed their own hype. They often lacked a level of self-awareness and knowledge of what actions they should be taking to back up their goals.

You should think critically about what it is you want to accomplish, and have a sense of when you are being overly influenced by your peers, coaches, parents and even social media. Ask yourself if what you are saying is truly what YOU desire.

Picture of Coach Mullins

Coach Mullins

College tennis coach reality check # 1

You don’t have to be the hardest worker, the most coachable player or the toughest competitor at your club, academy or team – AND THAT IS OKAY!. Those titles are not for everyone. Stop comparing yourself to others and focus on maximizing your own potential. College teams are hopefully made up of a group of hard workers and tough competitors, but not everyone can be “the” hardest worker or “the” toughest competitor.

I will work through a few more of these statements and give you some brief insights into what college coaches actually hope to see and hear from potential recruits.

“I want to play professional tennis” – This statement became a lot more prevalent from recruits in my final years of coaching. I am not exactly sure why this was the case. However, I have a few theories! I know for certain that some of these players had been told by their junior coach that they would only work with them if their goal was to play professional tennis! Maybe these coaches know they can extract more money from a pupil if they keep convincing the parents that their kid is special, and “has what it takes” to become a professional tennis player. Parents, understand that this kind of coach is also telling another 40 players that they also “have what it takes”.

I believe that if junior players hear this kind of talk from parents and coaches, they are likely to internalize such messages without understanding what is actually required to make a living as a pro tennis player. Unrealistic expectations rise and they erroneously convince themselves that college coaches need to hear about their professional aspirations in order to be interested in them as recruits. It has now become a throwaway line that means very little at all, especially when the actions are not there to back up such statements.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with aspiring to play professional tennis, I know I did. However, ask yourself if professional tennis is truly something YOU want or if it is just something you think you need to tell parents, other players or coaches to validate their investment in you and your tennis. If you don’t want to play professional tennis, then don’t state that. Instead, focus on maximizing your capabilities during the time you are willing to devote to your tennis. Being the best tennis player you can be doesn’t always have to involve some grandiose goal.

College tennis coach reality check # 2

College coaches are no longer falling for this line, but will play the game and entertain your interest in pro tennis. They know which players truly have pro potential and a mindset to match it. A coach will be far more interested in you if you set goals for college, are a process-oriented individual and are willing to work for your place in the line-up and in the college game, before setting your sights on something bigger.

Break down your goals into manageable chunks and prove yourself at each level before setting a new performance related goal. Understand the difference between goals and dreams. Dreams usually leave people in a fantasy land, wishing for the thing they want to happen overnight. Goals involve an action plan and a timeline.  

“I am a hard worker” – compared to who? The other kids at your local club? Your high school team? Your siblings? Usually we have a very small community in which to compare ourselves, so we believe we are working extremely hard because those around us are in awe that we might go for a 3-mile run at 6 am. Ultimately, we don’t want to compare ourselves to anyone, and we want to be honest with ourselves about our effort and output. We SHOULD also want those advising us to inform us when they believe we can be giving more.

My point is that if your goal is to be a top college player, or even a professional player, then you better be sacrificing a great deal. Your work ethic/sacrifice should match your goals. The bigger your goals, the more discomfort and sacrifice you need to be willing to experience. I have come across many players who had audacious goals but their physical and mental output, and the level of discomfort they were willing to endure, did not even come close to matching their ambitions.

College tennis coach reality check # 3

Stop talking about how hard you work, and focus instead on being very intentional with every aspect of your training. Take inventory of how much of the training you do is done in a deliberate manner. You may, in fact, just be going through the motions and checking off the hours logged. College coaches want players that can fully engage with the 15-20 hours per week that they get to work with them.

If you are on the court yelling or moaning about how badly you keep hitting your forehand, or appear distracted by the test you have 48 hours from now, then don’t expect them to be impressed because you did an extra set of sit-ups in the weight room one Wednesday afternoon. Let your consistent actions speak for how hard you are working. Most importantly, ALIGN your goals with your ACTIONS and be brutally honest with yourself when they are misaligned.

“I am a tough competitor” – remember that one time you came back from a 1-5 third set deficit to win the match 7-5 in the third set? It felt good, right? Unfortunately, that one performance does not mean you are a tough competitor! It is difficult to even define what a tough competitor looks like, especially when the # 1 player in the world, Andy Murray, looks like a whiney little baby on the court half the time.

However, competitiveness comes down to a player’s resilience in pressure situations, or times when they are feeling far from their best, either physically or mentally. Regardless of the situation, a tough competitor puts forth a consistent mental and physical effort despite the score-line or circumstances, and is always willing to push past what they perceived were their limitations in every match they play.

College tennis coach reality check # 4

College coaches love to see emotion and enthusiasm for competition, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with showing your passion on the court, pumping fists and all that jazz, but are you that way all the time, regardless of who you are playing? Coaches want to see and coach a player that is consistent with their approach to competition.

That looks differently for all of us, and sometimes certain circumstances will bring out more emotion than others. Stay true to who you are, increase your understanding of your thoughts during competition and be honest with yourself when you have given less than your best, or if you are making excuses during or after a loss.

Build your resilience every chance you get. We are hard wired to gravitate towards what is easy or convenient in life. If you want to achieve your potential, then look towards the more difficult path. When you feel terrible on the court, that is an opportunity to build resilience and not succumb to what is easy, which would be giving less than your best. Treat your resilience like a muscle, and when you get put in a tough situation understand that you can either train that muscle or let that muscle atrophy.

As a player, I was guilty of some of these false beliefs and statements. I did not know what it meant to work hard, be a tough competitor or let my actions speak for themselves. I learned this throughout my college years. Hopefully you can learn it sooner than I did, but it is never too late.

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Rafael Nadal Struggles with Self-confidence – So Will You!

Picture of Adam Blicher

Adam Blicher

The best tennis players of our sport look and act extremely self-confident, but we forget that it might be completely different under the surface. They are also experiencing uncertainty and doubt. Tennis is an odd sport. Some days, you feel like you can’t miss the ball even if you tried to, and other days you doubt if you can even hit the opponent’s half.

14-time Grand Slam Champion Rafael Nadal has been very outspoken earlier this year about his lack of self-confidence. He has not experienced the feeling of self-confidence despite the fact that he will go down in the history books as one of the best players the world has ever seen.

So if you sometimes get the thought that you are the only one struggling with confidence, remember that even the best players in the world struggle. The difference is in how you handle it. The professional players understand that it is possible to win several matches before the feeling of self-confidence will come back.

It is also important to remember that having high self-confidence doesn’t always lead to good performances.

There is a very fine line between having high self-confidence and having too big of an ego. If you are having too big of an ego, it often leads to not preparing well enough, or you might get a little bit too cocky in the way that you are going about your performance.

Therefore, we need to redefine our understanding of self-confidence. It is in the way you practice. It is in the way you prepare. It is your willingness to follow your gameplan no matter what thoughts and emotions you will experience during a match.

We need to remember that the act of self-confidence comes before the feeling. The feeling of self-confidence often arrives after a good performance. Not always, but often times. So the feeling of self-confidence is more like a bonus.

When Rafael Nadal talks about his lack of self-confidence, there is absolutely no doubt that he is talking about the feeling of self-confidence. Rafa knows that he can’t control the feeling, but everything that is in his own control in the preparation before matches will be taken care of with an extreme attention to detail.

The acts of self-confidence are all the things that you can control in your preparation before match. It is how you eat, how you sleep and the game plan that you will make together with your coach.

You do not need to have high self-confidence in order to have the opportunity to perform well. It helps, but it is not a necessity. Remember that the important thing is to act self-confidently. The act of self-confidence comes before the feeling.

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How to Make Players Eat Healthy

Picture of Marcin Bieniek

Marcin Bieniek

Times when real athletes could achieve great results without carefully prepared complex approach are definitely gone. With so high competition around the world it is impossible to skip some areas and get to the top of the tennis world. If players want to be the best they have to take care of quality practice sessions, proper amount of competitive matches, applying specific recovery techniques, adding mental practice to their routines, improving athletic abilities as also choosing the right products to eat and drink. Unfortunately the last area is often neglected by even the most aspiring juniors.

Knowledge about proper nutritional habits is getting broader and broader but we still need more time to make players aware of this important part of tennis development. Tennis coaches understand the role of energy systems and impact healthy products have on our bodies but players don’t. We can’t blame them because they are still young human beings who don’t have enough experiences and conscious thoughts to understand the differences but we should definitely never give up on our quest to change bad habits into effective ones.

If we want to make sure that young athletes choose water over Pepsi and rice over french fries we have to understand how to incorporate this difficult change. The worst mistake that coaches can do is to just forbid unhealthy products because it is not the way that will lead to long-term change. Applying this rule will make players eat healthy only when authorities are present but when they are gone we can be sure that athletes will take potato chips, coke, and other products that hurt them a lot. Like with any change in life we shouldn’t force players to do anything – we should try to motivate them. If the motivation comes from inside our job is done and player will consciously deliver good fuel for own body. So how to do this?

 1. Educate

The more information we provide to our students the more conscious they are about this subject. A lot of players eat unhealthy because they are not aware of negative effects of these products. They don’t get this knowledge at school so tennis court is a great place to get to know benefits of healthy eating for active people.

 2. Be a role model

There is not a more powerful teaching tool than your own actions. If you show examples every day by choosing the right meals you can achieve much more than delivering hundreds of facts from Wikipedia. Remember that players look up to you so you have to be sure that you walk your talk to be a successful tennis coach.

 3. Show examples

You can educate and follow healthy lifestyle but sometimes it won’t be enough for your players to make the change in own habits. That is why you should show examples of healthy eating from other successful people. Do your player have an idol in an athletic world? Then show examples how this idol eats and drinks. Little facts from the book of favorite person can have a big impact on player’s actions.

 4. Environment

Environment and people around you are really important in creating values and shaping proper behaviors. Athletes spend a lot of time at home so it is crucial that parents take care of healthy eating habits every day. If kids see their family members drinking coke and eating at McDonald’s few times a week they perceive these actions as right actions. Coach should talk to parents and make sure they understand how big impact they have on their kids’ development.

Now you know how to motivate players to start changing wrong eating habits and deliver nutrients that are so important while being an athlete. The next step is to learn which products can give us the most and why we should use them. Knowing the benefits of particular products will have a positive impact on decisions made by players. If they know that during the match they need high-glycemic carbohydrates to get quick boost of energy they won’t pick Snickers or Mars knowing that these high-fat products are slowly digestible and they don’t help athletes.

A lot of people (young and older too) think that healthy eating means boring eating. That is not true at all. There are hundreds of options that we can use but we have to remember that most of the unhealthy products contain high doses of sugar so we will definitely see the difference in sweetness.

If players want to play their best tennis every time they have to take care of their bodies. Healthy eating gives energy that is needed to maintain offensive style of play for more than 15 minutes. Proper nutrients make sure that you recover at the quickest pace possible. Right amounts of carbohydrates, proteins and fats will keep your body strong and injury-free. And additional benefit of picking valuable meals is your mood. The healthier you eat the more stable your insulin level is so you don’t have mood changes like people who are addicted to sugar consumption.

 My Top 20 list of products that all athletes have to eat to achieve own goals:

  1. Eggs
  2. Chicken
  3. Turkey
  4. Red meat
  5. Nuts
  6. Milk
  7. Cereals
  8. Banana
  9. Brown bread
  10. Rice
  11. Pasta
  12. Orange
  13. Dried fruits
  14. Rice waffles
  15. Tuna
  16. Salmon
  17. Olive oil
  18. Veggies
  19. Avocado
  20. Spinach

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How Stanislas Wawrinka Had a Panic Attack and Won the US Open

We tend to believe that if we can control our inner life – meaning our thoughts, feelings and emotions – then we have the opportunity to perform well.

We tend to believe that if we think positively, we will be able to deal with cheaters, if we are high in self-confidence, we can use our forehand aggressively as a weapon, and if we have the perfect tension level, we can stay close to the baseline and take away time from our opponent.

There is absolutely no doubt that when you are having positive thoughts and emotions, it is easier to perform well. But there are two reasons why you cannot depend on having the right emotions and thoughts while performing.

First of all, thoughts and feelings are not easily controllable.

Second, you will use a lot of energy simply trying to reshape the thoughts and feelings.

In the following paragraph, you will see how 3-time Grand Slam Winner Stanislas Wawrinka describes the time right before he went out on court for the US Open Final and beat the World No. 1 Novak Djokovic to secure his 3rd Grand Slam Title.

“A lot of people are asking me how I was able to take the court, nonchalantly, when five minutes prior to that I had a stress attack and I was trying to hold back tears. I tried, but I wasn’t able to.”

 “So, how did I do it? I’ll tell you. I hurt myself. I tried to extend rallies as much as possible — one more shot, and then another — to make the legs churn and not the head. I pushed myself until I ran out of breath.”

 “I’m telling you this with a smile today, but you can’t imagine to what extent those voices can sometimes be overwhelming.”

The lesson here is that sometimes we simply need to do what is important for us no matter our internal condition. Stan managed to follow his game plan and stay close to the baseline keeping Djokovic under extreme pressure with his groundstrokes. He focused on moving his feet as much as possible whenever he was under pressure, and he was able to execute successfully even though he had an immense amount of unpleasant thoughts and emotions inside of him.

In other words, even when we are doubting ourselves and are without confidence, following our game plan and our values will very often lead to positive emotions. But we should never just go for that forehand winner down the line to achieve that positive feeling. As long as you are acting in accordance with your plan and values, you are doing the right thing.

It is a huge myth that you can’t be nervous and perform well at the same time. Being nervous is not necessarily a problem in itself, but if you, as a consequence of nerves, act in a different way and do not follow your game plan or live out your values, then it becomes a problem.

The point here is that you want to accept the fact that you are nervous. But only to the extent to which you can still focus on executing your game plan and hitting the shots necessary to perform well.

As Stanislas Wawrinka demonstrated, you can be nervous but still do all of the right things maximizing your opportunity to perform well.

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How to Hit a Strong Two Handed Backhand

The article by David F. Berens. 

Picture of Dave BerensWhen I was growing up, the two-handed backhand became the shot of choice for almost every top professional on tour. They found they could generate more power, disguise the direction they were hitting the ball and hit more of a variety of driving or heavy spins. If you have a decent two-handed backhand but would like to add some pace and spin to make it a stronger backhand, there are a few simple ways to really improve your stroke.

1. Use your legs

It is common for most players to turn well on their two handed backhands, but too many players stand straight up and try to generate all of their power with their arms. You’re leaving a ton of extra power on the table if you don’t get your legs involved with your two-handed backhand. As you take your racket back, begin to bend your legs. You build up tremendous kinetic energy in your torso and legs that can then be thrust up and out into the shot.

2. Use a small “C” stroke

Though more common on the forehand side, this technique of drawing a letter “C” with the tip of your racket as you make your backswing can dramatically increase your power. Many times a two-handed backhand player will turn and drop the racket straight back and low.

This means that before you swing forward, your racket must come to a complete stop before then moving forward toward the ball. Any object at rest (in this example your racket) tends to want to stay at rest, so it’s hard to get your racket back up to high speed on the forward swing.

Next time, try to take your racket back with the tip slight above your hands, let it drop lower as you begin your forward swing and then up and out into the ball. In effect, your racket never has to stop moving and thus will be moving faster when it gets to the ball!

3. Swing with a strong Left hand

Assuming our player is right-handed, I would instruct them to pay more attention to what their left hand is doing. In many cases, I find that a players’ left hand is simply along for the ride and not really helping much. Try turning your left hand (or top hand) in a way that makes it feel as if you’re going to hit a forehand with that hand.

Then when you swing, really activate that hand – grip a little tighter and swing a little harder with your left hand adding power and movement to your swing. Don’t let the left hand be a slacker when it comes to your two-handed backhand. Think of it as a dominant force rather than passive passenger just along for the ride!

Hit correctly, two handed backhands can be devastatingly powerful! Many of the great players of all time have used their two-handers to blast winners past their opponents before they can even move toward the ball. If you’re just relying on your two-hander to get the ball back in play, consider turning it up a notch and adding some serious power by using your legs, making a small “C” shaped stroke and using your non-dominant in a more dominant way!

As I’m fond of telling my students, when it comes to great two-handed backhands, get out there, grip it and rip it! Using these techniques, you’ll see more winners blasting off your backhand side!

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