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 Champions? Part II — 18 Comments

  1. Great article! I wholeheartedly agree. Coach Mullins, you your heart is in the right place. I am a tennis coach and a parent as well. I certainly understand where you’re coming from! We need to grow the game…

  2. Kudos! I especially appreciate your humility to admit past weaknesses, sidestepping that strong ego that tennis players need, but can be their downfall. I prefer the theory of numbers that you allude to – let’s get crazy numbers of kids playing, and we’ll have more cream of the crop. More money given to those formative coaches and programs that draw more kids into the sport. Play on!

  3. What a well written, thought out article. Much to give all of us a chance to evaluate our thoughts and beliefs. Thank you David.

  4. Thank you for putting this articles up you are very much on the money great insite
    More coaches need to read this and come off their high horse. Most of the best players in tennis today were developed by private coaches with a heart and understanding the indevidual abilities of their students, the federations only come into their life when the student is better. With al due respect to Boris he did not make Jokovic. He helped him to put it together. Thank you for sharing keep up the good work.

  5. Great article. I have found the hardest coach to employ is the developmental coach. I applaud them for working with this level of players. Such a challenging role and so important for the growth of this sport.

  6. David,
    Kudos for crafting such an informative article. I am in complete agreement that there is not one magic pill or one magic highway that leads to the professional tour or college tennis, and that includes the private sector, federations, or Mom and Dad. My point is, it takes a village to produce a high caliber tennis player. The village may include a host of coaches, specialists, mentors and even a federation along the way. It’s only natural for those involved to take some (hopefully not all) of the credit, however; I don’t believe a coach, an academy or a federation can take sole responsibility for developing a player on the tour, but I think they all play a critical role in the process.

    • Hi George,

      Yes, it is a difficult path for sure, and there is definitely some luck involved getting the right “village” around these athletes at the right time! Hopefully those that are involved in the process are not looking for or expecting any credit in return for their services, but I know that is quite naïve of me! Thanks for the feedback and point of view, I really appreciate it.



      • Hi Dave,

        Thanks for these two really great blog posts. I am an avid reader of your blog and am very impressed with your insights.

        Now, a few thoughts from the trenches 🙂

        My wife and I are parents of a high performance, extremely ambitious 11 year old athlete who started playing tennis when she was 6 and after two sessions announced to us she will be winning Wimbledon one day. After we laughed, we realised that she really was serious and had found her calling. 5 years later she is ever more dedicated, hungry, and passionate and has achieved quite a lot for her age (this last year alone she won around 17 tournaments in Spain and the UK in the 12s and 14s).

        When we got swept into this incredibly bizarre and fabulous life choice of our daughter, we had absolutely no clue what was going on or how to best support her. When she was 8, we moved from the UK to Spain so she could go to a quite well-known academy, but after a few months we came to realise that her pathway was going to be different, and we learned a lot about brain types and customised developmental plans by reading and self educating.

        I think one of the most important things we have learned is that its rarely down to one coach or one academy. It truly does take an entourage, with supportive coaches and sparring partners but (I believe) most importantly, EDUCATED tennis parents.

        Being in Spain is very helpful from the standpoint of access to decent and regular competition and fantastic training conditions which made it a better option for us than the UK, but it’s important to note that there is no magic to the Spanish coaching system at all (much to some people’s surprise).

        We are extremely fortunate to have a great “village” around our daughter, it really and truly is a team effort and it took a number of years and a LOT of experimentation to get the mix right…and on top of that the mix does need tweaking time and again. For us, understanding her personality, brain type, and physique has enabled us to really customise the training to strengthen her in the right ways, and what we have found is by finding the weaknesses, be they mental, tactical or emotional, and then shoring up those weaknesses has been the biggest challenge, and biggest mission!

        No coach, mentor, federation or academy will ever care for a child as much as a parent, and this is why we sought to educate ourselves as much as possible. Basically, mom and dad are here to stay 🙂

        I wholeheartedly agree with the different pathways comment you made, the Williams sisters, as a famous example, pretty much dropped out of junior competition entirely and on the flip side of the coin, Muguruza won the Campeonato de España in the 12s, but then was something around 650 on Tennis Europe…

        As one of Isabel’s coaches often says “If it was all predictable, you could just fill in the draw sheet”!

        It is a fun journey, that’s for sure!

        Keep these great posts coming.

        • Hello Jordan,
          Thanks so much for sharing your story. It sounds like you are on quite a journey and have learned a great deal as you go through this process. I really appreciate it when parents truly work to educate themselves on how they can best support their children in whatever endeavours they decide to pursue. I think a lot of time we think we know, but we don’t really. We are just reacting and guessing, because somebody told us or we saw something about it on the TV. I include myself in that category! I have no doubt you will continue to learn and adapt in the years ahead. Thank you for letting us know that the “Spanish” system contains no magic fairy dust! Again, many people believe the Spanish do have some special system without really experiencing it, researching it or trying to understand the other factors as to why the Spanish have a lot of top players. The very best of luck and thank you for reading Jordan.

  7. I loved the first article. The second is equally insightful. I agree wholeheartedly.

    For the game we love and the kids we help, may this be read by coaches who really care about developing excellence at whatever level in their players.It is a gift to be able to contribute to the development of such youngsters.

  8. Great article. I can sign everything written.

    I am now coaching a group of 9 years old kids. They are at level they need to improve their technique but at the same time they need to have fun at every practice. And that is the biggest challenge for me, how to keep them motivated and engaged every practice lesson. At their age the practice can not be just about fun, but also about “technique practicing”. To find balance between these two aspects is pretty tough, but I am trying 🙂

    Once more thanks for your article.

    • Hi Simon, yes, it is such a tough balance that never really ends – when to nurture and when to push – no different in parenting. All we can do is keep trying to improve ourselves, learn from our errors and continue to remember why we do it. The more you do it, the more you will learn how to navigate what is required. The same issues/types of kids/types of parents etc will continually pop up and you will figure out what works and doesn’t work in each scenario. Keep up the great work, and thanks for caring.

    • At some point – coaching kids can bea easier, than training already succesfull sportsmans. They already have had famous names (even brands sometimes), pride, high self-esteem, etc.

      But the main thing is, if the person is motivated, sees the prospect and has a great desire – he at any age will listen to the coach!