Monthly Archives: August 2013

What are the REAL Reasons to Get Your Child Playing Tennis?

I am going to come right out and say it.  I believe there is a real disconnect in how tennis is marketed in the United States to youth and their parents and it is holding the growth of the game back.  In my opinion the overwhelming majority of parents do not sign their children up for tennis because they want them to win a tournament, establish some ranking, get a college scholarship, or turn professional.  This is especially true at first with young children.  Parents sign their kids up for tennis for a variety of reasons but the bottom line is they want them to become involved in something that makes them a better person.  Trying to sell a parent on the idea that taking tennis lessons will get them a college scholarship, a ranking, or win a tournament does not meet the core needs and desires of a parent for their child.

Put yourself in the role of a parent or think specifically about you son or daughter for a moment…  I want to talk to the parent in you directly…

What is it that you want most for your child?

How do you define success for your child?

What do you fear most for your child as they grow up?

What kinds of values do you want your child to carry into their adulthood?

These are some pretty serious questions.  I do not even have children (just yet) but I regularly think about those same questions very deeply.  When I talk to parents about issues I see through the surface and understand their real desires and fears.  Parents want their children to grow up to be successful, hard-working, value-oriented, and someone who makes a real contribution to making the world a better place.

This is getting into some pretty deep stuff but think about it for just one second…

Why do you really sign your child up for tennis or any sport for that matter?

Do you sign them up because you believe they will win a trophy, get a college scholarship, or turn pro?

Do you sign them up just for something to do?

Or do you really sign them up because deep down inside you believe sports can teach them lessons on some level to become a better person?

I believe for the majority of parents sign their children up because deep down inside they believe there are things that can be learned through the sport that can make their children better people.  Lessons like the value of a work ethic, persistence, dealing with failure and success, developing confidence, and so many more.  Sure if they win a championship, get a college scholarship or even play professionally one day that would be great but it is not at the core of their reasons why.

In my coaching I certainly want to make the players I work with better athletes and tennis players.  However, first and foremost I believe in developing the person first.  Tennis and fitness just becomes the means in which I can have a positive effect on the life of a young person.  Certainly athletes get better at tennis but whenever possible I always teach lessons that, regardless of how far they go in tennis, will always have a lasting impact in their lives.  If a college scholarship, tournament win, or playing at a high level is within their grasp certainly it can become a performance goal to strive for but in the process I never lose sight of making the player a better person first and foremost.

If you are a parent interested in placing your child in a sport to make them a better person and looking for a coach who understands that need then reach out to me, follow the blog, join the email list and check out our summer tennis camp experience.  Tennis is the greatest game in the world, a wonderful metaphor for living life, and a gift you can give your child for a lifetime.

Pyramid of Athletic Development

With fall high school sports season gearing up in Pittsburgh, PA it is perfect time to blog about a concept called the “Pyramid of Athletic Development.”  This concept is absolutely critical for athletes and parents to understand because it is the key to minimizing the chance of injury in the near and distant future along with optimizing athletic potential.

I was first introduced to this concept when reading a book entitled Movement by Gray Cook.  Plain and simple, Mr. Cook is a genius in the world of physical therapy.  The concept he presents in the book is simple, the foundation for any athlete should be their Fundamental Movement Patterns.  These patterns are things such squatting, pushing, pulling, stabilizing, balancing, and in general moving well.  Quality movement is paramount for the foundation of any athlete, regardless of their sport.  On top of that movement foundation General Fitness is laid.  General fitness are things like conditioning, strength, power, endurance, etc.  Finally, at the top of the pyramid are the Sport-Specific Skills an athlete needs to master.  In summary develop a solid movement foundation, layer fitness on top of that solid movement foundation, and finally layer on the necessary sport-specific skills.

Pyramid of Athletic Development


If you really take a good look at many young and old athletes you will notice that many of them do not move well.  You’ll also notice that most of what they are doing in practices has to do only with developing general fitness and sport-specific skills.  The result is you get a pyramid that ends up looking like the one below where general fitness and sport-specific skills are layered on top of poor fundamental movement patterns.

Inverted Pyramid of Athletic Development


Just looking at the visual of the pyramid and you can tell it is only a matter of time before it topples over.  This is exactly what happens to young athletes who layer fitness and sport-specific skills on top of dysfunctional movement,  eventually something gives and the athlete gets injured.  In fact, one of the things I remember vividly from Gray Cook’s book is to “never layer fitness on top of dysfunction.”  Even if the athlete is fortunate enough to not get injured, lacking a good quality base of movement causes them to leave something on the table in terms of performance.

Now if you think about the typical tennis athlete they spend tons of time working on the very demanding and necessary technical skill-set to play their sport.  This is perfectly fine if the fundamental movement patterns and some level of general fitness already exist.  However, is technical work really the best place an athlete could be spending their time if they are lacking a good quality movement foundation?  And we wonder why young tennis players develop so many injuries…

If you are wondering, “well this is great information but how in the world can I tell if an athlete’s fundamental movement patterns are dysfunctional or not?”  The answer to that question also lies in Gray’s book Movement in an assessment called the Functional Movement Screen (FMS).  The FMS is a qualitative assessment that looks at an athletes fundamental movement patterns, which by the way I have been utilizing for some time now.  If you are a coach and interested in learning more take a look at, buy the 400 page text book and start reading!

How Should Players Deal with Losses?

Now that our local tournament, the Fox Chapel Junior Open, is over I thought It would be a good time to discuss how a player should deal with losses.  First, it is important to have a little dose of reality and realize that in a tournament no matter how you slice it eventually there is only one player who does not suffer a loss.  In tennis you are going to lose a lot and it is important to develop the right attitude in dealing with losses.

The first step is in how you approach tournaments to begin with.  Certainly a player should prepare and enter the tournament looking to do their absolute best.  However, players at the junior level should focus on the process of improving over everything else.  The moment a player starts worrying about wins, losses, and their ranking above consistently improving is the exact moment they stop improving.  The approach absolutely has to be about the process versus the product.  With that in mind the tournament can be thought of as an assessment.  It is an opportunity to test out their skills.  Wins are passing the test and should be used to build confidence.  Losses on the other hand are a learning opportunity and should be used to discover where a player needs to focus their efforts to continue improving.  Blowing off a loss and not learning from it is a big mistake.  It is critical that once the emotion of the loss wears off a player revisits it, learns from it, and then takes that information back to the practice court.  It is a necessary step to feed into the cycle of improvement.

Cycle of Improvement

Cycle of Improvement – Coach Alex Slezak

A tournament can be looked at as an assessment.  In school an assessment or test is used to see where a student is lacking understanding so the teacher knows where to best focus their efforts.  The teacher then gives another assessment to see if their efforts paid off.  A trainer assesses a client’s fitness level, designs programming to elicit adaptation, and then reassess to see if the program worked.  I think you are getting my point here…

To wrap this all up, junior players should focus first and foremost on the process of improvement over the product of wins and losses.  Wins should build confidence and confirm their efforts in training are paying off.  Losses should be used to identify weaknesses and then training designed to improve in those areas.  Areas of improvement can vary from conditioning, technical stroke work, shot-selection, routines between points, and so much more.  One of the best ways to really dig into learning from a loss is by charting specific aspects of a match but that is for a whole other blog post.

Wasting Time Standing in Line?

Tennis is a game that requires tons of repetition.  Acquiring a motor skill requires practice, practice and more practice.  Allow me to get nerdy for a minute.  What happens is the brain sends electrical impulses through the nerves to your muscles.  There is no such thing as muscle memory, your muscles are dumb and only react when they receive an impulse from the brain.

When first learning a new skill the electrical impulse is weak when it reaches the involved muscles causing the motor pattern to be uncoordinated.  However, practicing the same thing over and over again causes the brain to send the same impulse repeatedly.  When a particular electrical signal gets sent enough times the body senses that this signal must be something important and it wraps the pathway of the impulse with an insulation called myelin.

Myelin is basically like insulation and it allows the signal to traveling from the brain to the muscles to do so faster and remain strong.  The more a person performs a skill the more myelin is wrapped and the more automatic the skill becomes.  The is especially true from young children who are in the optimal window of opportunity to learn new motor skills due to adaptability of the brain and nervous system.  We all have motor patterns that are myelinated.  Think about walking for example, when you were a toddler the walking impulse was sent so many times the patten became coordinated and automatic.  Learning the motor skill of how to hit a tennis ball is no different.

Now watch the video below and you will understand exactly why we try at times to not have the kids in tennis camp always just stand in line waiting.  Certainly there is a time to use waiting in line as a chance to recover from a difficult drill.  However, when the drill is designed for skill development shadow stroking provides way more repetitions which means more impulses being delivered.  I tell kids all the time they do not even need a tennis ball to practice.  They can go home and shadow stroke in the driveway or backyard until their heart is content.