Monthly Archives: March 2013

Acute Knee Injuries

There are all kinds of acute injuries the knee can sustain while playing tennis like ligament and meniscus tears.  These types of injuries typically occur due to shearing rotational forces placed on the joint during deceleration.  In my humble opinion,I believe acute knee injuries are closely connected to the lack of reactive trunk stability.  So if you are interested in trying to prevent these injuries squats and leg presses will not get the job done.  Get the job done by spending time reactively training the trunk.

Take a look at the video below to see what I mean along with some really simple band exercises designed to get the trunk on board and prevent these types of injuries.

3 Conflicts of Mankind


Famous authors regularly use 3 different conflicts mankind can face in their works.  Those conflicts are Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Self.  A tennis player can go through these same 3 conflicts in a tennis match, with very different results.

Man vs. Man is the only conflict that a player should be in during a match.  A competitor needs to keep the focus on their opponent and nothing else.  Keeping the conflict as Man vs. Man keeps the mindset right for a peak performance and win or lose it leaves no room for excuses that ultimately hold back growth.  The only excuse for a loss is “today my opponent played better than me and now I need to learn from that experience and get better.”

The battle of Man vs. Nature in the context of a tennis match is when a player focuses on things like the wind, sun, court surface, strings, etc.  As soon as a player shifts the battle of the tennis match away from Man vs. Man to Man vs. Naturethe match is just about over and an implosion is impending.  This conflict also limits what a player can learn from the match to better their games.

The battle of Man vs. Self is when a player focuses on internal struggles with things like their technique, confidence, or injury.  Again as soon as a player shifts the focus of conflict away from Man vs. Man to Man vs. Self the match is just about over.  The time to have conflicts with self is on the practice court, pushing yourself to improve.  Practice and training days are about yourself and matches are about your opponent.

Credit to Friend and Mentor, Coach Chuck Kriese, for sharing this one with me…

What Players Can Learn From Hollywood?

Check out the video above and find out how tennis players can utilize a script and dress rehearsals leading up to a live performance or competition.

I guarantee these are steps that MOST junior players are missing in their training because they are overly focused on their strokes and technique.

If you like it you’ll probably like this as well…The Tennis Parent’s Bible.

STOP Sport Specific Training?!

The concept behind sport-specific training seems to make perfect sense…If I want my son or daughter to be really good at tennis they should mimic movements similar to the sport for enhanced performance.  The truth is if you know a little about long-term athletic development and how the body of a young athlete functions it makes perfect sense how BAD sport-specific training really is for your child’s tennis career.

There are two main points for my argument…

First, children who are really good at tennis have to put in the time with repetition after repetition after repetition to become unconsciously-competent at their skills so they will not break down under pressure.  Think about how often the muscles, connective tissues, and joints get used in sport specific movements in the tennis training alone.  They get used so often children actually can develop muscle imbalances and asymmetries.  Now think about sport-specific training where a coach slaps some bands onto a racket and repeats the movement some more with an increased load.  Training like this is basically asking for an OVERUSE INJURY.  Instead, training should be designed to  develop overall strength on both sides of the joints and maintain symmetry and balance in the body.  Not only does this greatly minimize the chances of overuse injury but it also improves overall systemic strength, joint stability and coordination.

Second, children are still in the process of developing their athletic ability.  They are still learning how to coordinate athletic movements and muscles.  Their overall athletic ability, things like agility, power, and speed, are still developing and the best way to develop them is with a variety of training methods.  When you pigeon hole training to movements specifically found in the sport of tennis you are going to stifle their overall long-term athletic development.  The result is having young tennis athletes who are really good at tennis specific footwork patterns but cannot even coordinate a skill like skipping.  This is going to hurt their development in the long-term because when they have to make improvisations during points and just make outright athletic moves they will not be able to because their overall athletic skill has been limited to a few tennis specific movements patterns in their training.  This lack of overall athletic skill development also leave them susceptible to acute injuries like sprained ankles and ACL tears when they do try to make sudden athletic moves that their nervous system just cannot coordinate and handle.

If you want to improve your child’s tennis game with off court training shy away from sport-specific training and get them into an appropriate developmental program with a good coach who aims for balance to prevent injury and enhancing the development of athletic skills.  It might not be as flashy as all the sport-specific training but sticking with it will produce the best results long-term and reduce the risk of injury.  You cannot cook a great steak in the microwave, it takes time to slowly simmer on the grill.  The same is true for your child’s athletic development.

Open-Stance Backhand

IMG_0320The tempo of points in tennis has become so fast even at the junior, high school, and other competitive levels the open stance two-handed backhand is an essential tool for a player to have in their toolbox.  Often when I watch players the shot I see them having the most difficulty with is the backhand and I do not think it is because their backhand is weaker than their forehand.  Instead, I see players struggle with the backhand because they simply cannot hit it where they know they should be.  When a player is in a neutral or even defensive position they have to hit the backhand crosscourt and ideally across their opponent’s shoulders.  Hitting the ball across an opponent’s body keeps them from being able to hit a high percentage shot into the open forehand side of the court.  The problem is you cannot stand with the hips perpendicular to the net and strike the ball effectively cross court when it comes with significant pace and spin.  It is much easier to hit the ball crosscourt with the hips open or parallel to the net.  It takes 2 steps to move and hit an open stance backhand and 3 steps to hit one with the hips perpendicular to the net.  Remember that the tempo of the points becomes faster as athletes advance in both age and skill so you can imagine how taking that one extra step can take away from very precious time.

Most coaches teach youth open stance forehands from the very beginning and if you look long-term most competitive players never have a problem hitting forehands crosscourt from neutral or defensive court positions. It only takes two steps to get to the ball when players use an open stance and with the hips open and parallel to the net it makes it mechanically easier to hit crosscourt.  However, from a young age many coaches teach players to stand perpendicular to the net for all of their backhands.  I believe that if we teach youth to be able to hit backhands with an open stance from a young age they will develop into more all around players in the long-term development.

IMG_0325Please do not take this blog post that I am against teaching backhands or forehands in a stance perpendicular to the net.  There certainly is a place and time for it as in the pictures above where Nadal is hitting down the line from an offensive court position.  What I am advocating for is that the more skills an athlete is exposed early in their development to the more tools they will have in their arsenal long-term, which really is what is important.  The demands of the game at higher levels require athletes to hit in the open stance on both sides of the court and teaching that skill from a young age is giving children the skills they will need for success down the road.

4 Stages of Skill Development

Plain and simple all players go through 4 stages of skill development in tennis.  I thank Chuck Kriese for sharing this concept with me.  It is applicable to so many things…

4 Stages of Skill Development:

  1. Unconsciously-Incompetent
  2. Consciously-Incompetent
  3. Consciously-Competent
  4. Unconsciously-Competent

Ultimately we want to get out players to the unconsciously-competent stage but you cannot skip any of the other stages along the way so let me explain exactly how you reach the final stage.

When a player is brand new to tennis they have absolutely no idea how to stroke the ball along with no conscious thought about how to correct their technique and improve.  In essence, a true beginner is unconsciously-incompetent with their skill set.

Then a player is shown what to do correctly in a lesson, clinic or by a friend, parent, or coach.  All of a sudden they have knowledge about what they are doing correct and incorrect.  They now possess the knowledge of what to do but still cannot yet perform the skill effectively.  The player is now consciously-incompetent.

Then by deliberately practicing the skill over and over again with conscious effort they continue to improve.  The player reaches a point where as long as they are thinking about the specific steps of the skill they can perform it competently.  This player has reached the consciously-competent stage.

Finally, with repetition, repetition, repetition eventually the player is able to perform the skill at an unconscious level.  In other words they can perform the skill without having to actively think about it.  The athlete has reached the unconsciously-competent level.  The player truly owns the skill and it is embedded in their subconscious mind.  This is the critical level players must reach to compete at higher levels of the game.  When a player truly is unconsciously-competent their strokes will not break down in pressure situations and they can focus on strategic aspects of the game, which is exactly where a player’s attention should be in a match.

So the recipe for making a skill unconsciously-competent is simple, excellent instruction, conscious effort of the athlete while practicing the skill, and tons of repetition to cement the skill into the subconscious mind.

Evolution of Stroke Mechanics

Some adults who played tennis in their youth have a harder time relating to and comprehending how high level tennis is taught and played today.  The evolution of tennis rackets and now string advancements have fueled changes in the game and are still doing so.  Understanding this evolution explains the reasons why tennis instruction varies widely from coach to coach and why tennis has become some much more athletically demanding today than it ever was.  I credit Coach Chuck Kriese and Oscar Wegner for educating me on this evolution.

In the “good old days” tennis was played with smaller wooden rackets.  Players were taught to stand sideways to the ball and have very long linear strokes.  The game revolved almost completely around precision and accuracy.  The game was more of an art form with much less emphasis on power.  Then the new and powerful high-tech rackets were introduced to the game and over time have changed everything.  At first the rackets had little to no effect on the game because everyone who coached tennis still taught with the same methodology as was used with the smaller wooden rackets.  People were using high-tech rackets with the same stroke mechanics as those used with wooden rackets.

IMG_1896In the 1990’s we had the first generation of players who grew up exclusively using high-tech rackets and they were experimenting, discovering, and developing their own styles.  The game revolved more around power and this is how techniques like the open stance and circular swing paths with tremendous racket head speed were born.  Players who generated the most force used gross motor movements with their legs-trunk-shoulders for power and the fine motor skills in the hands for spin and control.  The open stances used also made recovering with a crossover step much more efficient than the traditional shuffle steps that were taught prior.  These changes in technique, driven by high-tech racket technology, have led to the tempo of the points becoming faster and faster.  The new demand for power and speed is the exact reason why tennis has become more and more athletically demanding.  Stronger more athletic players can hit the ball harder.  Quicker and more agile players recover and move to incoming balls faster.  Tennis went from a game of art and precision to a game of power, agility, and overall athletic ability.

Currently we have a mixture of conflicted coaching styles.  Some coaches still teach the traditional style of the past focused on linear strokes with precision, some coaches teach a hybrid of parts from the old and parts from the new, and yet other coaches who throughly understand the game teach in the new fashion along with understanding the critical importance on overall athletic development as a necessary part of the game.

Knowing how tennis stroke mechanics have slowly evolved over the past 40 years is critical to understanding what it takes to excel into high levels of the game currently.  It also gives insight into the future which I believe will focus even more on combining gross motor power with spin for control and overall long-term athletic development of the player.

Ratings vs. Rankings

There is a grassroots movement that is in the very beginning stages of changing the way tennis players in the United States find competitions and develop.  I heard of the universal rating system ( from Mr. Dave Fish – Harvard Men’s Head Tennis Coach.  When we talked, he explained to me how different a ranking and a rating are, and the benefits of utilizing a rating system.  It would not be an exaggeration to say I was absolutely blown away by the positive impacts this would have for long-term player development, parents, coaches, tournament directors and beyond.

Let me begin by explaining the difference between a ranking and a rating because they sound very similar, but are actually very different.  A “Ranking” is an ordered list, and in tennis the typical 1,2,3…100+ system is used.  Players achieve a ranking by playing tournaments in which they earn ranking points that are totaled and those with the most points have the highest ranking.  The better you do in a tournament the more points you earn and the more points you earn the better your ranking.  This is the system the USTA junior and adult tennis currently uses and is how players get seeded in tournaments and qualify for district, sectional and national tournaments.  Players work their way up the rankings to qualify for bigger and more competitive tournaments with more ranking points at stake.  The junior USTA rankings are also categorized by two-year age ranges and gender.  For example in junior tennis there are categories based on age and gender like the Girls 12’s or Boys 18’s.

A “Rating” in tennis puts players in a particular category or level based on a competitive skill set without regard to birthdate or gender.  In the universal tennis rating system there are 16 levels with players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal holding a level 16 rating down to the very beginners at level 1.  Players move up the rating system by competing against and beating players who have higher ratings than they currently hold.  It is imperative to note that in a rating system like this, gender and age are not taken into consideration as it is currently done by the ranking system in USTA junior tennis.   You could have a 12 year old boy, 16 year old girl, and 35 year old man all at level 7 because their competitive skill set is the same.  The rating has everything to do with a player’s competitive ability and nothing else.

Now lets to take a step away from rankings versus ratings and look at how a tennis player’s competitive skill set develops long-term.  Players get better competing against one another.  Yes, lessons and clinics and practice all help but ultimately a player has to utilize practiced skills in what they will actually do when playing tennis which is compete in matches.  The specific kind of competition a player gets is incredibly important.  Currently a player can enter a Boys 14’s tournament with few ranking points, play against another player who has lots of ranking points, and lose 6-0, 6-0 in 20 minutes.  Matches like this happen all the time and the lower ranked player gets nothing out of it and neither does the higher ranked player.  The lower ranked player is now either out of the tournament or in the back draw finally getting to compete against player’s closer to his level and the higher rank player may have to go on a few more rounds until the matches become competitive to their skill level.  In this scenario players compete but it does not really maximize their development.  The secret to maximizing and accelerating a player’s development lies in a concept called the “competitive threshold.”  The competitive threshold simply means the match is competitive and it tests both players’ skill sets along with creating an environment with the correct amount of pressure to elicit peak performance.  To put it simple the more matches a player can engage in at the competitive threshold the faster development occurs.  This same concept happens in schools all the time, if a child is advanced in math teachers put him in an accelerated environment to keep him or her engaged and growing.  It would make no sense to keep a child in a math group with his peers just because he is the same age when he has demonstrated mastery of the content already because growth would cease.  We also would not keep a child who struggles with math in with their peers when her or she could not keep up because growth would cease as well.  Instead, good schools attempt to keep the child nearest their learning threshold in all subjects instead of prescribing a one lesson fits all approach.  This is the same concept as the competitive threshold in tennis, keep a child developing by continuously competing on the edge of where they currently stand.

The truth is in the statistics in regards to the competitive threshold in tennis.  Statistics show that 70% of ATP Grand Slam matches, 55% of WTA Grand Slam matches, and 70% of ITA Collegiate Tournaments reach the competitive threshold.  At the same time 45% of National level junior events, 35% of Sectional junior level events, and 27% of district level junior event reach the competitive threshold.  If we want our junior players to get better faster we need them playing at the competitive threshold more often and that can only happen if we focus less on age and gender and more on leveled play based on a universal rating scale.  The rational is simple, youth players develop at different rates due to a myriad of factors and limiting them to age and gender groups is like keeping an accelerated math student at the basic math level where they will never realize their full potential.

I am not advocating for the elimination of rankings either and I want to make that clear.  I think they are very beneficial up to say the top 50 or top 100 but past that it starts to get a little foggy in my opinion.  Is the 587th player in the Boy’s 16’s really better than the 588th player or would it be a coin toss as to who would win on any given day?  To me it seems like they are more at the same level than one actually being quantifiably better than the other.  There are some significant benefits to utilizing a rating system in terms of player development and by the time you are done reading about some of them whether you are a player, parent or coach I strongly believe you will wonder like me why we are not doing this already?!

The first benefit of the universal rating scale is that it gives players a clear measuring stick for how good they are in reference to everyone in the world.  With the universal rating scale a 14 year old boy can see how far he is away from Roger Federer ‘s level, he can see the level a college player at their dream university competes at, he can see what the competitive level is at his local high school.  He has a clear measuring stick now to gauge how hard he has to work to get to where he wants to go.  There is no more guessing how good everyone else is because now it is known.  You could compare the 14 year old boy’s district USTA ranking to Roger Federer’s ranking but it means nothing because you are comparing apples to oranges but when you put all the player’s in the world on the same scale you now can compare apples to apples.  This ability to gauge how good a player needs to become is absolutely critical to long-term development because it allows players to set clear quantifiable goals.  Additionally it shows even the best kids at their local club or USTA district or section where they stand against players in the age groups above them and even against the international players whom they will be competing against for college scholarship money in the future.

The second benefit of the universal rating scale is that it allows players to easily find the competition they need to continuously reach the competitive threshold.  Because age and gender are not taken into consideration in the universal rating system it allows players to find others at or above their competitive threshold easily and without traveling great geographic distances.  If a 16 year old girl is at a level 6 she can easily find players to compete against right in her own back yard.  She may find a 32-year old man who belongs to the club in which she trains, a 19 year old college girl home for the summer and a 12 year old boy all in her local area that she could compete with often and both parties playing the match would benefit because it would be at the competitive threshold of each player.  It does not just stop there because now clubs, high school coaches, and tournament directors could begin holding local leveled tournaments in which the competitive threshold would be met for all the players who entered.  Even the elite players who hold national rankings and travel great distances to play big name competitive events could find leveled tournaments right in their back yard.  They might find themselves playing in a tournament with college players and teaching pros of both genders but the beauty of it is that it is at everyone’s competitive threshold so everyone benefits.  No more getting on a plane to fly all the way across the country only to lose 6-0, 6-1 in the first round to a player of a much higher level.  Now players and parents can travel knowing the tournament they are entering is going to be competitive and beneficial.  Players and parents can even see exactly when it would be time to bump their 14 year old son or daughter up to the 16’s age group to keep them in their competitive threshold and challenged for continued growth instead of guessing when to make that decision.

The third benefit of the universal rating scale is the factor of motivation.  Currently there are some junior players who look to enter weaker tournaments with weaker competition because they can do better in the tournament which means they will get more ranking points versus playing in a tournament with tougher competition and perhaps not doing so well and ending up with less ranking points.  Players end up chasing the points instead of chasing the better competition, which is what ultimately raises their level of play.  The universal rating system actually encourages players to chase the competition because it is the only way they can raise their rating level.  Now instead of looking for the weakest tournament where they can win the most points players look for the strongest leveled tournament in hopes of improving their rating by beating better competition.

The fourth benefit of the universal rating system is its use by college coaches to evaluate players and for players to get the attention of a college or university who is not paying attention to them.  Imagine training hard and being able to strike a great ball only to find out that because you do not have the budget to be in the national spotlight it is difficult to get a college coach to look your way.  Now imagine contacting the coach at Notre Dame and showing him you are 17 years old and achieved a level 13 on the universal rating scale.  You just never had the money to travel to the USTA national events and instead worked on your game playing and defeating college players on the local futures circuit all summer long.  That coach is going to be getting in touch with you ASAP!  A player could also understand why Notre Dame would not be interested in recruiting them when the recruit competes at a level 10 and the average level of player on the university’s team is 12.7.  It gives everyone a way to compare everything from a baseline and put it into perspective.  I am not saying the rating system is the end all and be all because certainly other factors and intangibles come into play when recruiting players and selecting a college.  It does however give youth a clear goal to strive for.  For example, if a child’s dream is to play at Notre Dame they can look when they are 13 years old just how good they have to get to compete for the Fighting Irish instead of wondering.

There are many more benefits to using a universal rating system versus a ranking system.  Again I am not saying a ranking system is not beneficial.  What I am saying is that when you are looking at developing a junior player the key is to give them a clear picture and tangible goal of just how good they need to become.  The universal rating system allows players to continuously compete at or just above the competitive threshold whether it be playing a male, female, older, younger, or peer they key to development is as many matches a possible in that competitive threshold range.

You can actually get a free trail for the universal tennis rating system and see for yourself how it actually works.  Currently all matches from the ATP, WTA, ITA, National, and Sectional Junior Tournaments get entered into the database.  Universal Tennis is currently looking to expand into USTA District events as well as high school competition.  You can see for yourself just how good the top men, women, and collegiate players really are.  To access this free trial simply go to click on the “Join Now” button on the left side and when you go to checkout simply type in the discount code “TRIAL” and you will receive one month’s free access to the system.

Like I said at the beginning of the post this is a cutting edge grassroots movement so please share with your friends, get people talking about how they can use it to benefit the development of juniors and even the level of adult play in their own clubs, and ultimately the sport of tennis in American overall will benefit.

What Can Football Teach You About Tennis?

Being from Pittsburgh it is impossible to escape the Steelers and in fact we can learn a great deal from what plays Coach Tomlin calls and when he calls them in order to gain momentum for his team or stop the other team from getting back into the game.

So to really simplify things lets look at the two options a coach has in football, they can either pass or run.  Passing is a risky play but has greater rewards.  Running is a safer play but has less rewards.  So what does Coach Tomlin call when his team is behind in the score?  He calls a pass play in order to try and make a big play and change the momentum of the game.  What does Coach Tomlin call when his team is ahead in the score?  He calls a run play to be safe and keep any big plays from happening and giving momentum to the other team.

Smart tennis players can apply this same concept to their own games.  When they are behind in a game say 0-30 they should try to attack and take bigger risks because they must try and switch the momentum back on their side.  At the same time when they are ahead say 30-0 they should have a safer shot selection and try to keep their opponent from making big shots to switch the momentum in the game.  This is a very simplified version of the concepts I teach my high-performance and varsity high school players because they have to learn how to coach themselves and make the right decisions in a match.  By the time I get to talk to them at a change over during a high school match its already too late.

Tennis is very different from football and most team sports because there is a head coach who calls the plays.  The coach tells the quarterback when to throw and when to pass and all they have to do is execute.  Tennis is unique because players must not only be the athlete performing the task but also the coach calling the plays.  In my opinion this combination of athletic ability and thought is what makes tennis the greatest game in the world.

Magic Age of 14ish

JTCC's Outdoor Courts

JTCC’s Outdoor Courts – College Park, MD

Francis Tiafoe is the #1 ranked 14 year old tennis in the USA.  I have personally watched Francis hit and train at the Junior Tennis Champions Center and let me tell you the kid is amazing but he certainly puts in the long hard work and is in a training environment that is second to none.  But this article is not about him, it is about a philosophy I have about the long-term development of a tennis player and how critical the age of about fourteen becomes in a player’s development.

Prior to a player being around fourteen years old it is a player’s task to master technique.  Players must develop the ABC fundamentals of how to hit a tennis ball.  It takes years and countless repetition to develop correct technique because no one is born knowing how to hit a tennis ball, believe it or not it is an acquired skill.  The skills a player develops prior to the age of fourteen are the same skills that will carry them into competition through tournaments, high school, college, and maybe beyond.  When you think of it that way it becomes obvious how critical those years prior to the fourteenth birthday really are.

When a player turns fourteen ideally they would have, for the most part, a very strong foundation of how to hit a tennis ball.  This is where coaching and continued development shifts away from teaching how to hit the tennis ball and more towards how to actually play tennis and become a competitor.  This is why the age of fourteen is so critical because now you have a player, going through stages of human growth and development, who is entering high school, playing more tournaments, and focused on competition.  Coaching players at this stage of development is about teaching how to “play the ball” not just hit the ball.  The focus of coaching should be on strategy, game plans, routines between points and change overs, and all of the other parts of the game that do not have to do with the physical mechanics of actually striking the ball.  It is like when a player gets to about the age of fourteen they are finally ready to learn the real game of tennis instead of just the skills needed to play the game at a high level.  Fourteen is the general age I have seen in my coaching experience but it can vary slightly because all players are individuals and develop both earlier and later.

So if you are planning for the long-term development of your player focus on spending the early years mastering technique and getting the quality of their ABC fundamentals and general athletic movement skills as high as possible.  Then closer to the age of 14 shift more towards the tactical and competitive aspects of the sport.  In the long term what you will develop is a player who has mastered ball striking skills early and then learned how to utilize those skills to become a great tactical competitor when the demands of competition are highest.