Monthly Archives: September 2013

Genius or Crazy?

Mediocrity Quote

At my local Lululemon store, while shopping with my wife Jen, I saw this quote on their message board and took a picture of it.  I thought to myself…what a profound statement!

In my experiences people have a tendency to want to fit in and follow what the crowd is doing.  The masses are the definition of average and we have plenty of average to go around.  If you do what everyone else is doing you will get the same result as everyone else.

Those who are successful at the highest levels do something different.  It is that difference, whatever it may be, that causes them to stand out and become an outlier.  If you want to become the best it is scary to go against the grain and others will attempt to hold you back, call you crazy, and be negative, but it is the only way to truly get to the top of the bell curve.

Could you imagine if Dick Fosbury trained the high jump like every other athlete of his time?  We would have never figured out that going over the bar backwards was better than forwards.  Certainly people thought he was crazy but it was his difference that won him the gold medal 1968.

People like Dick Fosbury are either “genius” if they are successful or “crazy” if they fail.

Don’t be different just to be different, be different to be better!

The Story of the Restaurant

IMG_1885My wife and I love going to this restaurant in Pittsburgh called Hyde Park.  It is downtown right by PNC Park.  We call and make a reservation.  When we pull up the valet parks the car for us and we walk right in and are seated at our table.  The waiter or waitress always comes right over and makes sure we have everything we want at all times.  My wife always orders a salad, filet mignon and french fries.  I typically get the wedge salad and an enormous prime rib.  The food always comes out exactly as we ask it to be prepared.  When we leave the car is always waiting for us curb side and in the winter they even turn on the heated seats!  All-in-all we love going to Hyde Park because they provide us with everything we want in a very comfortable environment.

If you are looking for a great restaurant I am sure you’ll agree my experience at Hyde Park is spot on.  However, if you are looking for a good coach to truly progress a player then the last thing you want is someone who acts like a waiter or waitress and brings a player what they want.  Instead you need a coach who brings a player what they need.  I tell my players this all the time, “my job is not to make you comfortable and bring you what you want like a waiter in a fancy restaurant.  Instead, my job is to give you what you need to improve and continue improving.”

I like to think of a coach as a guide you hire to get you to the top of the mountain.  Why hire a Sherpa guide to help you climb Mt. Everest?  Plain and simple the Sherpa has been to the top and knows the path to get you there.  The same is true with a good coach.  They know what you need in order to get you better.  However when a coach knows how to get to the top of the mountain and they are willing to prioritize a players needs over their wants, you have a great coach!

The Best-Kept Secret in Player Development

I believe there is a major component missing in the world of player development.  I have to admit I was totally in the dark about what I am going to share with you early in my career until I met Coach Chuck Kriese and he shared with me the concept of Momentum.  Momentum is maybe the best-kept secret in the world of coaching tennis and I want to introduce you to how it fits into developing a player so you are not in the dark either.


When I look at developing a player long-term there are 3 fundamental stages I want to get that player to go through.  First, the player has to build a solid technical foundation.  Players have to hit tons of balls so their strokes become as automatic as brushing their teeth.  Technique has to be learned to the point where it will hold up under the intense pressure of competition.  In an ideal world this happens early in a player’s development.  This is the exact reason why you often see the players with the best technique and who have practiced the most winning in the 10’s and 12’s tournament age groups.

The second stage of development is learning and utilizing a system of shot selection.  What that means is a player has a strategic place to hit the ball during competition.  There are many systems that work very well for this but regardless of the system utilized what really matters is that it is practiced so much that it becomes automatic.  The game starts to become too fast and time to think about where to hit the ball is non-existent.  Shot selection must become reflexive and practiced to the point where it will hold up under pressure just like stroke production.  In the 14’s and 16’s age groups the players who succeed are those who have practiced to the point where both strokes and shot selection does not break down under intense pressure.

Once these two stages of development are completed this is where most players hit a plateau.  Players often begin to see a lack of growth and burnout sets in.  This is probably a major contributing factor to the big drop off in players from the 16’s to the 18’s.  Coach Vesa Ponkka shared his thoughts on burnout and I think they fit in very well right here.  Mr. Ponkka thinks kids burnout on tennis not because they hit too many balls, train too much, or play too many tournaments.  Instead, he thinks they burnout because they stop growing and learning.  I would have to say I agree.  I know in my life anytime I stopped growing, improving, and learning I felt the grind myself.  So what is the final stage of development?  The answer is momentum.

When technique and shot selection are automatic there is no need to think about how to hit the ball or where to hit the ball during a match.  In fact, thinking about them only clutters a player’s mind.  So what should a player be thinking about?  Without a doubt they should be thinking about momentum.  In the simplest of terms momentum is knowing how to attempt to get things going your way, keep them going your way, and reverse things when they are going your opponent’s way.  Momentum is all about recognizing the flow of the match and knowing when to strategically apply different types of pressure.  Basketball coaches are excellent at attempting to control momentum.  They know when to put on the fast-break offense, when to speed things up, when to play zone defense, and when to slow things down.

As tennis coaches we have a problem because unlike basketball coaches we cannot call the plays for our players during a match.  Instead, we must teach them about momentum, how to recognize shifts, and then teach them what to do so they can in essence coach themselves.  This is the final stage of player development and in the 18’s, college, and beyond this is what wins matches and sets top players apart.

Doubles Breakthroughs Before Singles Breakthroughs

With two of the players on my team winning the state doubles title I thought it would be a perfect time to write about the importance of doubles in the career of a singles player.

Certainly doubles will help players with the technical aspects of development like transitioning to the net, volleys, and returns.  However, that is not what this post is going to be about.  You see if you have watched enough players develop there is a pattern that plays out quite often.  Players have a tendency to have a breakthrough in doubles right before they breakthrough in singles.  I have seen it happen with males, females, players on my team and those on opposing teams.  I’d like to spend the rest of the post digging a little deeper into why the doubles breakthrough springboards into a singles breakthrough.

First, the hardest part about beating the top singles players at any level is by far getting on the court with them.  The best players (especially in junior tennis) train together, hang out together and just have this presence about them that allows them to defeat an opponent (at least mentally) before the match even begins.  Ever fear playing the number one seed or a player your perceive to be much better than you?  If so you know the lesser player’s mentality associated with those kinds of situations.

Doubles gives players a chance to step on the court with better players and if you spend enough time on the court with one of these better players you begin to realize that you actually can hit with them, you can return their serve, and their level of play is not that far out of reach.  The 1990 U.S. Open when Pete Sampras defeated Ivan Lendl comes to mind.  How could a 19 year-old Sampras perform so well to pull off a win going up against a legend of the game?  Well the answer is easy, Sampras and Lendl regularly practiced together so when Pete got on the court he knew he could have competitive points.  It still took incredible clutch play to pull off the upset that Sampras did in the pressure but the practice on the court with Lendl certainly helped.  This same effect of getting comfortable on the court with better players happens in doubles and can even become magnified if you and your partner pull off a win over the top players.

Second, being on the singles court is a lonely place.  It is just you out there and dealing with the pressure can be extremely difficult.  Doubles allows the burden of pressure to be shared between two players.  Over time doubles players start to become comfortable dealing with the pressure and that can transfer over into their singles play.  If you care and if you dare pressure will always be there.  There is no better way to learn how to have clutch play in pressure situations than to actually be in those situations, doubles provides practice at that.

Finally, there is no better way to learn how to win than to actually win.  Holding a few doubles trophies, having a big victory over high ranked singles players, and doing so often builds confidence.  That confidence starts out small but it builds very quickly and can be a tremendous factor in spring boarding a singles career.

Time Between Points vs. Playing Points

Here is a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal titled How Much Tennis Is Played During Matches?  In a 3-hour match at the ATP level players spend 31 minutes & 30 seconds or 17.5% of the time physically engaged in a point.

It is no wonder why a player’s thoughts can be their own worst enemy.  Regardless of the level of competition, routines between points and during changeovers are absolutely critical.  When you watch the U.S. Open appreciate how players do the same thing each time between points and realize they are going through a mental routine each and every time.  The best players think the same handful of thoughts hundreds of times over and over again during a match.  That is in direct contrast to players who think hundreds of different thoughts just a few times each throughout a match.  If you are interested in learning more about routines check out my friend Frank Giampaolo’s Tennis Parent Bible.

Tennis Parent Bible

How to Handle Cheating?

Questionable line calls are a part of tennis.  I truly believe the majority of players regardless of age do their best to make honest calls.  Certainly players make mistakes and either miss a call (in or out) but they do not do it intentionally.  So what do you do when you run into a player who makes “creative line calls?”

Fox Chapel Tennis ComplexThe very first thing I tell players is that when they know for certain their opponent is cheating them it means they are literally minutes away from winning the match.  When a player turns to cheating what it really says is that in their mind they believe they can no longer beat their opponent straight up so they must revert to cheating.  Cheating or “creative line calls” are a tell tale sign that a player is about to crack in a match.  As long as the player on the receiving end of the cheating realizes that it is a sign of an opponent beginning to crack and keeps their emotions in check it can actually turn into a positive.

Perhaps the most important thing I tell a player is that no matter how many times they get cheated or think they got cheated NEVER intentionally cheat an opponent to try and even up the score.  For junior players you have to understand that telling a child it is ok to cheat, regardless of the circumstances, is giving permission to do something dishonorable.  Character development is so important for youth and at all times regardless we must always teach and take the high road.  My friend Coach Kriese sums it up best by saying, “never dishonor the game or bring shame to your family name.”

Those two pieces of information are real diamonds of wisdom to share with players in dealing with “creative line calls.”  If you are interest in a whole different way about calling lines take a look at the Fair Play Line Call System my friend, Coach Dave Fish, at Harvard wrote about.