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.

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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.


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