Monthly Archives: March 2013

PaddlePlayer.com Video Series

I recently just finished up a video series available on PaddlePlayer.com.  The series of videos is aimed at teaching paddle players how to take better care of their joint mobility and avoid those nagging low back, knee, and shoulder issues.  However they work for any and everyone.  You can watch them all right here.


Be a Failure to Become a Winner

I tell the athletes I coach all the time that it is perfectly ok to fail.  In fact, I go as far to tell them that they have to fail if they truly want to get better.  Failing is an enormous part of growth.  Successful people in sports, business, and elsewhere often have stories of big failures or a series of failures before they finally break through. Too often in Junior Tennis we are focused so much on the product of winning that we can sometimes lose sight of how valuable a loss can be.

In training I tell players all the time to take risks.  Hit shots a little harder or a little closer to the line instead of worrying so much about never missing and being perfect all the time.  It is a whole lot better to test the limits of your skills and make mistakes in training than in an actual match.  When a player constantly pushes themselves to the point of failure they test the limits of their current skills, at the same time improve by pushing themselves past the edge of their abilities and then bringing themselves back.

IMG_0338Losing in matches may be the biggest catalyst to improvement a player can experience.  Too often players actually hold back in competition as a means to protect themselves.  They actually do not give it 100% rationalizing that if they lose without really giving it their all it somehow will protect their self-esteem and confidence.  Players have to come to terms with the fact that they are going to lose and that is not a bad thing.  Certainly, it hurts when you lose a match when you give it your all.  It hurts anytime in life when you give it your all at something and fail.  However, it is what you do with the failure that becomes the catalyst for change.  Players who blow off losses never learn the valuable lessons by looking at the loss.  Players who use the loss as a means to improve always get better.  Players who figure out the reasons why they lost whether it be fitness, shot selection, or stroke production now know exactly what to laser focus on in their training.  If they frame the loss as a valuable insight into where they are weak, practice that weakness relentlessly, and use the whole process as motivation to get better, they get better fast!

Junior tennis is developmental, not professional.  At the professional ranks of the ATP and WTA tour winning and losing matter a lot and it should but you have to remember these professionals have spent their entire life developing their games.  Even then professional players still learn from their losses.  Your junior player is not a professional, they are in the developmental process, and losing is a part of that process.

I tell players all the time they have to be willing to give it their all in their training and risk it all in competition.  Failure is a part of the process, it hurts to fail yes, but in the end it is one of the biggest catalyst to improvement in the game.

Even if you child has no aspirations of playing on the professional tour losses are an important part of the improvement process.  Even more important think about the life lesson  your child can learn from this.  They learn that failure is a part of growth.  Now fast forward in life to when your child has a new idea, fails a few times with it, uses those failures to improve, and then breaks through and develops the next iphone, hybrid car, cures cancer, or something even greater.  Being a failure is definitely a part of the process to becoming successful.


To Serve a Bigger Purpose

I am going to be completely honest in this post, very early in my tennis coaching career I was focused on things that simply were not very important in the bigger scheme of things.  As I have grown older and wiser I have been fortunate to have learned the real value in coaching.  The real value lies in using tennis to serve others, developing the person first and the tennis player second.

What I mean by using tennis to serve others is simple.  In my humble but biased opinion tennis is the greatest sport in the world.  The life lessons and character that a child can learn and develop by pursuing tennis is truly priceless.  Here is a link to a previous blog about the Life Lessons Tennis Teaches.  I feel very fortunate to have learned through my experiences lessons such as developing a strong work ethic, dreaming big and goal setting, and I pass these and so many more on to young athletes.  Instead of focusing on self-serving aspects like how I can benefit from coaching tennis, I focus simply on how I can use tennis to better each player as a person first and tennis player second.  I find that in the process I am much more fulfilled and many of these young athletes happen to turn into champions of life and pretty good tennis players as well.  It has been amazing for my coaching because it gives me such a wonderful sense of purpose and fulfillment.

This way of thinking about my coaching has allowed me over time to develop some very powerful mentoring relationships with young athletes.  I have a system or curriculum I use to develop tennis players.  I teach things in a progression and have a methodology that I follow.  However, what I have found is that it is not the system or specifics about technique that makes instruction great.  Instead, what makes instruction great is the relationship between athlete and coach.  When athletes truly respect their coach and learn deeply from them this is what makes instruction great.  It takes time to earn trust and respect, as it should, but I have found that when a coach cares about the person first and tennis second it makes it much easier to develop a player to their fullest potential.  It is only when you have that relationship built on trust and respect that the real magic with the tennis starts to happen.  They say, “No one cares what you know, until they know you care.”  I think that quote sums up what I whole heartedly believe in as one of the foundational pillars in my coaching.


The Bridge

Watch the video above and take special notice to the bridge on the violins.  The bridge is the little piece of wood that raises the strings from the resonating chamber.  It also transfers the vibrating energy of the string to the resonating chamber.

Now that you understand a little about the anatomy of a violin imagine that the violin is in the hands of the greatest musician alive.  The musician has all the knowledge, skill and talent to create beautiful music.  The violin’s resonating chamber has the capability to produce beautiful sounds.  But what if the bridge is missing?  Without that simple little bridge all the knowledge and skill in the world will not allow the chamber to resonate beautiful music.  The bridge is the key that links the knowledge of the musician to the inner capability of the instrument.

This is what “true” coaching is really all about, finding a bridge between the coach and the player.  A coach can have all the knowledge in the world and the athlete a tremendous amount of talent but nothing happens unless the two can establish a connection or bridge.  The coach needs a way to allow what he is teaching to resonate with the athlete.  The athlete also needs the bridge to be able to provide subtle feedback to the coach.  This is the secret that truly great coaches know.  It is not the knowledge they have or the talent the athlete already possess, it is the bridge that allows it all to happen.  So what exactly is the bridge in coaching?  The answer is it is different for everyone and it is the great coach who actively searches for that unique bridge with each athlete, whatever that may be.

To conclude here is my good friend and mentor Chuck Kriese explaining the bridge.

The Bridge from Kids Play For Good on Vimeo.


Med Ball Rotational Throws

I can attempt to “coach up” a young athlete on the correct forehand technique with all kinds of words but I have found it is much easier to get them to feel coordinated movements than to try and explain it to them.  I always say “you cannot see yourself hitting, you can only feel yourself hitting.”  I recently gave an athlete homework to do rotational medicine ball throws against a cinder block wall and I thought what I explained to him would make a great blog post.

Rotational sports like tennis and baseball are all about creating power.  This power ideally is created from the ground up meaning it is generated in the lower half of the body and then transferred through a stable core into the upper body where it is directed out into the arms.  This is what happens when you swing a tennis racket or baseball bat.

For youth the very first step is that they must experiment with coordinating this ground up power movement pattern.  I could explain it all I want but it is so much more effective just to allow them to feel it.  Young athletes often do not know what it feels like to fire their muscles in the sequence needed to efficiently create the movement pattern, it just takes some time and practice.  You see the brain does not work in isolated muscles it works in whole movement patterns.  An athlete can work on leg, core and upper body strength in isolated exercises but all that new found strength does not transfer over into an explosive rotational movement unless that pattern is already coordinated.  Once they can coordinate the pattern it becomes very easy to get real world transfer into a rotational sport like tennis or baseball.

I use all kinds of foam balls and light medicine ball rotational throwing movements to let young athletes feel the movement pattern.  I use foam balls with young children and a lighter med ball with others because too much load will stress their systems, creating a compensated dysfunctional movement pattern.  Most of all I want a functional pattern because this is the foundation that everything will be built upon.  For that reason, I am more concerned with the movement pattern becoming coordinated than how much weight they are throwing.  Once they hit the right training age and own the movement pattern I’ll load them up to develop more power.

An added benefit to med ball throws compared to other rotational exercises is that there is a release at the end which leads to a young athlete being able to decelerate after the release.  This is incredibly important to injury prevention.  There are other exercises that can help in creating rotational power but without the release athletes do not learn how to decelerate their flailing limbs.  Just think you can hit a tennis ball really hard and the harder you hit it the better you need to be at decelerating all that momentum or you are bound for an injury.

Finally, this is fun to do and a great stress reliever.  Give a young athlete a med ball and tell them to throw it in a rotational pattern as hard as they can off the wall.  They get coordinated without even knowing it because the body loves efficiency and with enough practice finds that most efficient ground up coordinated movement pattern.  All the athlete needs to know is that slamming a ball as hard as they can off the wall is pretty fun because you cannot do it at home.


Avoid Burnout…

Every time I get a chance to learn from a world-class tennis coach like Vesa Ponkka from the Junior Tennis Champions Center I jump at the opportunity.  Burnout can happen in the career of a tennis player and really to anyone in anything.  Think about it, adults burnout in their careers all the time just like kids burnout in sports.

Vesa has a theory about burning out.  He believes that people burnout when they stop learning new things.  As long as they never stop learning they are engaged in their work no matter how many hours or years they have been doing it.  I would say that I personally agree with that idea.  I have never burned out in my coaching because I have an improvement mindset.  I do not just go through the motions.  I am constantly seeking to learn more from other people, reading books, and inventing new things on my own.  I have been coaching tennis for 10+ years and not once have I truly felt like I was burnt out from doing it.  I attribute that to always learning new things.  It keeps me excited to train players and put in the long hours doing so.

I think it is critical to impart that mindset into players from a very young age.  Children in the sport of tennis need to have an inquisitive mind about the game.  They should be focused less on winning and losing and more about improving each time they step on the court.  Vesa says, “Children should know they have lots of time, but no time to waste.”  I think that is a profoundly wise statement.  Coaches should be imparting that message to their kids, presenting new information and ways to think about the game.  I know that after all the years of playing and coaching I am still learning new things, there is defiantly no shortage of things to teach and learn.  The game is so complex from the unique scoring system, stroke development, fitness, aspects of competition and the mental/emotional skills.

Avoiding burnout is easy, all you have to do is focus on improvement and constantly seeking to learn new things.  It is when you stop learning new things that you start burning out.


My Take on 10 & Under Tennis

IMG_026010 & Under Tennis has been a “hot button” topic to say the least in the world of tennis coaches.  It has become so sensitive because the United States Tennis Association (USTA) mandated that ALL tournaments for children ages 10 and under must be played on smaller courts and with low compression balls.  It has upset established and accomplished coaches across the country because they have students under the age of 10 who can and already do train and compete with regular balls on a full size court and they feel it is a step backwards for their players’ development.  At the same time we have established and accomplished coaches who think this is the best thing ever for transitioning kids into the sport of tennis and competitive junior tournaments.  Most people take one side or the other but in my opinion the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

There are two main reasons why I am posting my opinion on this topic.  First, I want to share with parents my viewpoints because as consumers they need to know where I stand so they too can make informed decisions.  If nothing else I hope it conveys how I genuinely care for the best interest of any child who I have the opportunity to coach.  As the saying goes, “No one cares what you know, until they know you care.”   Second, I am putting this up for other coaches as well if it helps them in their quest for finding out what is best for the children they are working with.  Now on to my opinions about 10 & Under Tennis…

IMG_1904First, we all have to remember that a child is not a little adult.  Children are developing every single day, physically, mentally, and emotionally.  They are very different from competitive high school players, collegiate and professional athletes. What works for older children and adults at their stage of development does not necessarily work for children.  It is a child’s long-term development that coaches should be most concerned with over any short-term gains.  Short-term gains are great do not get me wrong but I believe a coach should never lose sight of the long-term objectives.  I look at it as though I am always developing long-term tennis players, athletes and people.  That being said from a strictly physical development sense I do not agree with the mandate forcing children who wish to play competitively to utilize low compression balls and smaller courts.  At the same time I also am not against using smaller rackets, courts and low compression balls for training and competition either.  The truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Let me explain in a simple but meaningful phrase, Development is Age Related, Not Age Determined.  Think about it like this, the typical baby walks at about 12 months of age, some walk earlier and some later.  My point is you would not hold a baby back from walking just because they are not 12 months old, nor would you force a baby to walk who is not ready just because they are 13 months old.  The average is 12 months but it is not something that is set in stone.  Development is age related, not age determined.  I would say the same is true for the development of tennis players.  The key is being able to distinguish between a child’s “calendar age” compared to their “training age.”  Some kids have more experiences with tennis or just progress faster than others for what ever reason and have a higher training age compared to peers with the same calendar age.  I should note that kids can have a higher training age for reasons you may not even think of like they played tennis for fun with their parents and now want to play the full game or they sat and watched their brother or sister take lessons for years before they even picked up a racket.  This means some children are ready for a full size court and regular balls before the age of 10 so why hold them back?  Other kids may not be ready so why push them forward?  Again the focus is on long-term development so there is no need to try and rush anything.  If long-term development is the focus from the beginning I think champions can develop both with and without ever using the 10 and under equipment and competitive format.

Second, I think the 10 & Under Tennis initiative can actually be a great asset for the game and let me explain why.  I personally believe it takes 3 different kinds of coaches in a player’s development to fully blossom.  This is not a concept specific to tennis in fact I think it has a wide variety of applications.  First, a child must have a coach who teaches them to Have Fun and Fall in Love with the Game.  After a child falls in love with the game they are intrinsically motivated to continue dig in deeper and then move on to the second coach who Teaches the ABC Fundamentals Flawlessly and TIrelessly.  If they are ready but fail to move on from just having fun their development will stifle.  I should note that moving on to the second coach is not for everyone.  Learning the nitty gritty fundamentals of tennis or anything is not always fun but it is that intrinsic motivation that keeps them going.  Once the fundamentals are mastered over a long period of time the individual must move on to the elusive third coach to see their fullest potential.  The third coach is The Motivator who gets a child to believe deep inside themselves and push beyond their perceived limits and maximizes their potential.  These are the world-famous famous coaches like John Wooden in basketball or Chuck Kriese in tennis.  If you think about it these 3 different coaches are true for development in sports, music, and even in academics.  Think about the little child who had the fun home piano teacher, then moves up to the more serious and strict teacher, and finally off to a performing arts school where they become inspired to compose their own works of art.

I also believe this process in not necessarily always 3 different people or coaches.  Experienced coaches can play different roles to different children at different times in their development.  I know for one I do just that.  What I try to accomplish with players of different calendar and training ages is different, but you have to take the time to get to know your students to be able to do that.  I also should mention that I categorize players by their training age not their chronological age.  Chronological age is a good ballpark figure because development is age related but the training age is really what is most important in deciding what type of coach I need to be for that player.

I believe the 10 & under initiative really fits well as a tool the first coach can utilize to get children to fall in love with the game.  It is not the tools themselves that will make kids fall in love, I believe that has more to do with the culture and environment the coach creates.  The smaller equipment is certainly not necessary to have fun, there are several ways to do that as people have been falling in love with the game for ages.  But if it can be utilized as a tool for immediate success which leads to a child feeling more confident in their abilities, which leads to the perception of them having fun then the benefits are obvious.  In fact, I believe that the more kids we get having fun with tennis the more will be internally motivated to stick with it and move up to the second coach and work tirelessly on their fundamentals.  Those who master the fundamentals because they possess the necessary internal motivation laid in the foundation of fun will then move on to the elusive third coach who puts on the finishing touches.

IMG_0319

10 & Under Courts at Tennis Center in College Park

Finally, I think that playing tennis before the age of 10, whether with smaller equipment on a size-reduced court or regular balls on a full size court is great for young children regardless of whether they stick with it or not.  Young children specifically under the age of 10 become more and more coordinated with every single physical experience in their life.  When kids play tennis they learn to run, jump, accelerate, decelerate, track, strike, and tons of other athletic skills that are applicable to anything.  Young children who have success with developing athletic skills are more likely to perceive sports and exercise as fun and hopefully that will set the foundation for children to live a healthy and active lifestyles.

In summary, I do not agree with mandating that all kids with the calendar age of 10 years and under play with and compete with smaller rackets, courts, and low compression balls.  I say that because development of a tennis player is age related, not age determined.  Some children are 8 years old but have a higher training age than their peers and they should not be held back.  At the same time kids under the age of 10 who are just seeing if they like tennis I would not hesitate to utilize the smaller rackets, courts, and low compression balls because my goal as a coach is for them to have fun, have perceived success, and fall in love with the sport which lays the foundation for their long-term development.


So Much More Than Winning & Losing

I just finished watching the movie the Karate Kid and I was reminiscing because it was one of my favorite movies, along with Ghostbusters, as a kid.  Watching it now as an adult I realized how deep a lot of the lessons in the movie really are.

The older I get the more I look for significance in the things I do.  I have evolved a ton as a coach over the years, with the help of some good mentors.  In all the work I have done training athletes the most memorable moments have come not from the wins or losses but from the times when I have been able to positively impact someone’s life through my coaching.

Tennis has taken me to places like the JTCC.

Tennis has taken me to places like the JTCC.

Tennis has been good to me and not in terms of match wins, but in what it has taught me about life.  Along with doing my best to deliver top notch training and instruction I also try to be like Mr. Miyagi and impart value in the lifelong lessons that come with learning the game of tennis.  These lessons include things like developing a work ethic, dreaming and pursuing dreams, learning from setbacks and success, developing perseverance, diving into opportunities, teamwork, cooperation and so much more.

Many of these same lessons are taught in other more popular team sports but I think these lessons are very different in tennis because of the mainly individual nature of the game.  This is a major part of the reason why I personally believe tennis is such an amazing sport because an individual competes for themselves, plays the game as an expression of themselves, and must have incredible intrinsic motivation and drive to reach the highest levels of the game.

If you are a parent reading this realize that regardless of your son or daughter’s successes on the tennis court there is no better game, in my opinion, to teach them so many of the valuable lessons they will be able to utilize to be successful in life.  If you are a player and reading this, realize that there is so much more to your training than hitting the ball, doing some fitness, and playing matches.  There are lessons tennis is teaching you every single day that you will not fully be able to understand until later in life.


Outcome vs. Form-Based Coaching

Coaching youth tennis or any sport for that matter is such a complicated process.  Honestly, I only feel like I am only getting very good in my coaching after doing it for a long time, making tons of mistakes, and making a conscious effort to continually improve my craft.  This is what makes good coaches so hard to find because most are not simply willing to put in the work required to be excellent.

Today, I want to talk about the difference between Outcome and Form-Based Coaching in regards to skill development in tennis.  If you understand the difference between the two and how children develop skills it becomes very clear which to use and when during the development of your player.


American Tennis Radio Show

On November 14, 2012 I had a wonderful opportunity to talk college tennis recruiting with world famous coach, mentor and friend Chuck Kriese and the Head Coach at Notre Dame, Bobby Bayliss.

Popular Sports Internet Radio with UR10s on BlogTalkRadio