Monthly Archives: December 2013

#SaveCollegeTennis Campaign

ITA Logo

The Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) has mandated experimental rule changes for NCAA Division I College Tennis beginning January 1, 2014 though the Team Indoor Championships in February.

The current system in use was championed back in 1993 by Coach Paul Scarpa of Furman.  The “Scarpa Scoring System” is playing 3 doubles matches in an 8-game pro set format followed by 6 singles matches in a best of 3 set format.  All singles and doubles matches consist of regular scoring.  Make an important mental note right here that all games are played with regular scoring because it will be a pivotal point by the time you finish reading this.

The ITA is mandating the following format changes to Men’s Division I Tennis:

  • 3 doubles matches in 6-game pro set format with no-ad scoring* and tiebreak at 5-5.
  • 6 singles matches in a best of 3 set format with no-ad scoring* and tiebreak at 5-5.
  • No warm-up permitted prior to matches.

*No-Ad scoring means that at the “deuce” point of a game one sudden-death point is played to determine the outcome, eliminating the need to “win by two.”

The ITA is mandating the following format changes for Women’s Division I Tennis:

  • 3 doubles matches in a 6-game pro set format with regular scoring and tiebreak at 6-6.
  • 6 singles matches in a best of 3 set match format with regular scoring and tiebreak at 6-6.  However, if competitors split sets they will play a tiebreak in lieu of a 3rd set.
  • No warm-up permitted prior to matches.

Now that we go through the logistics I can really get to what this post is about, just stick with me here because this is going to get good…

Official College Players Against ITA Rule Changes

Official College Players Against ITA Rule Change Facebook Group

College tennis programs across the country have been cut and continue to be.  The ITA’s rational for the rule change is pretty simple, they want to increase the fan-based, generate excitement, garner support for programs, and they believe shortening the format is they key to doing so.  I love their vision and I believe the people at the ITA have the best of intentions.  However, I believe the ITA is going about accomplishing their mission all wrong and I am going to lay out some very strong supporting points and logical solutions momentarily.  Before I do everyone should know that I am not alone in my opinion.  In fact, players and coaches are outraged at these changes because the changes destroy the integrity of tennis itself.  These rule changes literally change the way the game is played (more on that in a moment).  If you want to find out more information and join the movement to stop these changes please do so by joining a Facebook Group entitled Official College Players Against the ITA Rule Change or simply use the #SaveCollegeTennis hash-tag in social media.

So now let me explain why these rule changes and thought process behind the rule changes is destroying the integrity of the greatest game on earth.

First let me be honest, tennis does not exactly have the reputation of being a popular, mainstream, tough-guy sport.  In my opinion it has been marketed poorly because the true essence of the game is lost in the tennis whites and country clubs of yesteryear.  Tennis is like walking into a gladiator arena where two people are going to fight, one remains victorious and the other perishes.  In that arena there is no time clock or judges, just two people fighting until one remains victorious.  Do I have your attention?  Good, because tennis is literally the same exact thing!  Two people (singles) or two teams of two people (doubles) take the court and fight it out until one is victorious.  It is eye-hand combat just like two men fighting it out in the Roman Colosseum.  The only difference is you do not destroy the other person with a sword or battle ax, instead you destroy them with a racket and a fuzzy yellow ball and thankfully no one dies at the end.

People love this kind of stuff and have for thousands of years!  Could you imagine the different response if we approached marketing tennis this way?  How about we get Russell Crowe to do some commercials to promote tennis?  Youth sure do play enough violent video games that work on the same premise…

Instead of changing the scoring system or format I think a different marketing strategy is where the ITA should focus their efforts.  Shortening the length of a match will do nothing because people are missing the simple message as to what tennis really is.  Good marketing is nothing more than placing a clear, consistent, and simple message with a product.  Someone says, “Starbucks” and you think “coffee.”  That is all good marketing is.  When someone says, “tennis” we need people to think “eye-hand combat where nobody dies, awesome!”

Second, the scoring system in tennis is strange.  What is with the Love-15-30-40-Deuce-Ad all about?  Well the truth is it is the scoring system that might be the most genius part of the game.  It really does present a paradox because the scoring system is so complex yet built around the simple idea of grouping points.

Watch FaceLet me continue by explaining a little about the history of the scoring system because it really simplifies everything.  I read this in Oscar Wegner’s book Play Better Tennis in 2 Hours.  The scoring system of tennis was born on a court with a broken clock.  The broken clock became the scoreboard.  One player was the hour hand and the other the minute hand.  When a player won a point their respective clock hand was moved to the 15-minute mark, win another to the 30-minute mark, and a third to the 40-minute mark.  If the score was tied with both players at the 40-minute mark it was called “deuce.”  Deuce is an old French word meaning “two” which signified that 2 more points were needed to win the game.  Win the deuce point and your clock hand was moved to the 45-minute mark signifying it was your advantage or “ad” to winning the game.  Lose the advantage point and back to the 40-minute deuce mark.  Win the advantage point and win the game.  Then both clock hands go back to the 0-minute or “love” mark and signifies the start of the next game.  Thinking of scoring tennis with the face of a clock sure does make it easier to explain to people doesn’t it?

What is even more fascinating is the idea of winning by two.  This is unique to tennis and is one of the sacred heirlooms to the sport.  You see tennis is unlike most other sports because you must win by 2.  The entire game is built around grouping points together.  Think about it, if you lose the first point of a game you must win 3 points in a row or 4 out of 5 to win the game.  Knowing all this look at the rule change to no-ad scoring and now you understand how it is fundamentally changing the way in which tennis is played!  These drastic changes to the scoring system is what has the players so upset.

On a side note, the whole tie-break system was only invented and added with the birth of televising tennis matches to prevent marathons.  Which is kind of amusing because I think the most famous and most televised tennis match in recent years was Isner and Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010 where the score was 70-68 in the 5th set.  Interesting how the match without the tiebreak at the end of the set was televised the most?

Again, marketing is all about being unique and become easily recognized.  Instead of trying to make tennis like every other sport where you can win by just one point we should be championing how tennis is unique and different from every other sport because of the sacred scoring system based on grouping points and winning by two.  Again it comes down to the idea of going into eye-hand combative battle with your opponent.  The founders of the game wanted tennis to be a game where you had to finish off your opponent just as a gladiator would have to do.

Finally, I do not understand why tennis is not more popular in America because it fits our society so well.  American’s pride themselves on individuality however the most popular sports in America are team sports.  Before I continue I do not want anyone to think I am against team sports because that is not my opinion at all.  Young athletes should be able to choose whatever sport they enjoy competing in and strive for excellence in it.  Team sports are absolutely wonderful and very American.  However, I think college tennis and tennis in general could do a better job of leveraging how the game of tennis itself aligns so well with American value of individuality.  In fact, college tennis could be the only sport that has individuality and team competition rolled into one event.

To wrap up this post I hope it sheds some light on this hot topic of the rule changes to Division I College Tennis.  I hope you now see how drastic the ITA mandated rule changes really are and how they do in fact fundamentally change the way the game is played.  I think a better solution would be to look at marketing tennis for it’s truly unique traits as opposed to trying to make it like every other sport.  “if you do what everyone else is doing, you will get the same results.  However, if you do the opposite of what everyone else is doing you will get unique results.”  I think we need to take the approach of championing the game for it’s roots because it is exactly what makes tennis different and the greatest game ever.

If you enjoyed this please help by using the share buttons and use the tag #SaveCollegeTennis.

Younger Next Year!

Book & note saying it was the best tennis lesson he had ever had!

Book & note saying it was the best tennis lesson he had ever had!

This post starts with a background story…  In November a gentlemen from Washington D.C. was coming to Pittsburgh to visit his family over the Thanksgiving holiday.  He was searching the internet for a place to play tennis while in town, found my website, and was intrigued so he setup a private lesson.  I was also intrigued because my main work is with youth but I very much enjoy training motivated adults.  Long story short, he loved his lesson and we talked for some time after.  A couple of days later I get this book in the mail, Younger Next Year, with a thank you note saying it was the best lesson he has ever had!

So I read the book and am blown away at how these two authors, Chris Crowley & Henry Lodge, M.D., simplify some very complex subjects into a really fun and easy to read book.  I thought it was so good I ordered 4 copies for Christmas presents!

So let me summarize the book and how you too can become Younger Next Year

Modern medicine has done great things for us and it is relatively safe to say we are going to live for quite some time.  The problem is the quality of life deteriorates as we get into the last third of our lives.  Most people think this is just the way it is but the truth is that it does not have to be this way.  Their is no reason someone in their 70’s or 80’s cannot experience the same quality of life as someone in their 50’s.  Your body just does not have to deteriorate if you send it the right messages.  This is the premise of the book and being a fitness expert I know how very true it is.  I have read some hard core science books on this stuff but this book states it all so elegantly.

People must understand humans evolved over the course of 100’s of millions of years.  We share much of the same parts that bacteria, reptiles and other mammals do.  However, perhaps the most difficult thing to comprehend is we were hunters and gathers for millions of years and evolved to be that way.  Exercise was a daily aspect of life necessary for survival.  Farming, the grocery store, cars, and all the modern comforts we take for granted every day are brand new in terms of evolution.  So our body was designed to hunt, gather, and eat food without refined sugars and carbohydrates.

In fact, our body’s are so smart when our ancient ancestors would go out and expend energy getting food it would send a cascade of messages for our body to grow and expend energy.  When our ancient ancestors were sedentary it meant there was no food and our body would send a completely different cascade of messages to decay and conserve energy.  Our entire body was built to function around listening to the messages sent by our daily activity levels.  You can either tell your body to “grow” or “decay” every single day of your life.  When I put it in that light I hope you are seeing how important daily movement and exercise is!

So here we are today, we live in a world with plenty of food and conveniences that discourage physical activity.  However, we live in a body that evolved to be physically active for survival.  Physical activity and food went hand-in-hand.  Today we have the food but no physical activity.  It is quite an interesting paradox.  Now you understand the obesity crisis in a nutshell, our body speaks the language of physical activity not calories.  When you are sedentary, regardless of how much food you eat, your body thinks it is starving because it never gets the cascade of messages from physical activity telling it to grow along with all that food.  There was no such thing as exercise for our ancient ancestors, they only spent energy when they had to for survival.

So what does it all come down to.  If you are sedentary you consistently send the message to your body to decay.  If you are physically active you consistently send the message to your body to grow.  Growth or decay messages are sent consistently over the course of a lifetime.  Guess who will have the low quality of life when they are in their 70’s?

I highly recommend Younger Next Year as a must read for anyone who wants to take charge of their health in 2014!  It is a game changer and has so much more information than I posted here on how to live a long and high quality life.

I am thankful for the gesture and gift of that kind man from D.C.  If you are a science nerd you may want to check out Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky.  This book goes deep into our stress response and what it meant for survival and what it means today when we are not being chased by a hungry lion trying to eat us.

Strength Training for Coordination

Strength training has been around for a while and most people think its all about pumping iron to get bigger muscles.  Makes sense for football players but not always so for tennis players.  In fact, tennis players mistakenly fail to strength train for two main reasons, either they think because tennis is so skill-specific lifting is a waste of time and/or they are afraid to get big and bulky.  The truth is strength training is extremely beneficial to sports like tennis with high coordination demands.  That means a tennis player can actually benefit more from strength training than a football player.  It also does not mean you’ll look like a body builder either.

Let me explain why and in the process you’ll learn a secret about how strength training really works to improve performance…

Your central nervous system (CNS), brain and spinal cord, controls your muscles.  Understand that your skeletal muscles are not very smart they simply do as they are told and turn on or contract when the CNS tells them to.  Your muscles are made up of tons of individual fibers called slow and fast twitch respectively.  The slow twitch are the endurance fibers and the fast twitch are the power fibers.  Now here is something not so well known.  What people do not understand is the CNS does not activate all the fibers in a muscle at once.  It is not all or none activation which is good or we wouldn’t be able to use fine motor skills to write with a pencil very effectively.  For example, when you walk the CNS only contracts 10% of the muscle fibers at once and your CNS cycles through different fibers to avoid fatigue.  When you jog your CNS contracts about 30% of the muscle fibers.  Do something like working up to lifting a maximum weight and you are using around 50% of your muscle fibers.  You see you brain is smart and never fully activates 100% of the muscle fibers because it could lead to some serious trouble liking running out of ATP but that is a little deep in science for this post.

While you were thinking through the above example you were probably imagining just activating one muscle but the truth is no movement activates just one muscle, it is coordinated symphony of contraction, stabilization, and relaxation of all the muscles in your body.  Just like hitting a forehand.  The coordination necessary is truly amazing if you take a moment to think about it!

So why would strength training benefit a skill-based sport like tennis so much, because it develops coordination.  Strength training is a workout for the CNS as much as it is for the muscles.  The CNS gets better at coordinating contractions, developing the neural network to muscle fibers, and becoming more and more efficient.  In fact, when someone first starts strength training they’ll see gains in performance very quickly.  Those initial gains are directly related to the CNS because it is able to more effectively and efficiently coordinate the muscular contractions necessary to meet the demands.

On a side note this is also related to why elderly people are more likely to fall and have balance issues. Think how a young person catches their toe and regains balance while an elderly person cannot.  Its not so much that the muscles are deteriorating, it is because the neural connections between the brain and the muscles are deteriorating due to lack of use.  So strength training is not just for athletes, it can benefit everyone!

So the bottom line is one of the biggest bangs for your buck in improving at tennis or any athletic endeavor is strength training.  It will improve coordination which leads to improved athletic performances.  It is the mind-body connection in every sense.

Learn How to Win

“Players learn to win only up to the level they cannot stand to lose down to.” – Chuck Kriese

That quote up above is something my good friend, mentor, and hall of fame coach, Chuck Kriese taught me and it has profound meaning that requires a whole entire blog post.

Players on my team after winning the WPIAL Doubles Gold

Players on my team after winning the WPIAL Doubles Gold Medal – 2013

Winning and losing is a part of the game of tennis.  When you walk out on the court it really is like stepping into the gladiators arena where you are going to do battle and one person will come out a winner and the other a loser.  The scoring system of tennis is amazingly complex because points must be grouped together and their is no clock to run out and do the dirty work in finishing off an opponent.


The feeling of winning a match and the pain of losing a match are tremendously important to the development of a player.  Winning should feel really good and losing should hurt.  These feelings are certainly there when a player truly makes a commitment, investing significant time and energy into their game.

So back to Coach Kriese’s quote…  You see when players cannot stand to lose they figure out a way to eventually win and it fuels their growth.  Players who cannot stand to lose will hit extra balls, study professional matches, get in better physical shape, and basically do whatever it takes to figure out a way to win.  At the same time players who can stand to lose will hit a glass ceiling in their development.  When a player loses and they are ok with losing they will stop getting better.  Let me explain why.  When a player is ok with losing they basically become satisfied with their level of play and quickly lose motivation to put in the extra work necessary to raise their level of play.  In essence, players only learn to win up to the level in which they are satisfied with their game.

The performance expectations players set for themselves play an enormous role in how good they become.  I am not saying everyone who plays tennis wants to be a USTA Gold Ball National Champion.  Some may just want to make the starting line-up of their high school team.  What I am saying is that players will only learn to win up to the level they cannot stand to lose down to.

Play More Practice Sets!

It is absolutely true that players need to focus early on in their development getting down the base fundamentals of stroke production.  That simply means players have to get to the point where they can serve, hit groundstrokes, and volley automatically.  The skill has to be so ingrained that even when they are choking and under tremendous stress they still can perform the skills.  That takes lots of repetition and repetition is the “mother of skill.”

Lessons and group clinics are a great way, especially under the guidance of a coach, to achieve those repetitions.  Tennis should be fun ,especially for youth, and a group environment with the right culture certainly can provide that.  However, lessons should not be the only means of practice.

Let me explain why…

IMG_0322I am going to assume that ultimately players are doing all this work so they can compete in matches, not just get exercise.  If competitive goals are in the picture then players must also practice in the manner in which they are expected to perform.  That means they have to get into the heat of the battle and play practice sets and compete so they are prepared for the big moments.  This is often part of the reason why players choke in tournament competition, they either don’t know what to do in the big moments of the match or they know what to do but have never practiced it before and are not truly prepared.

So think about the benefits of playing practice sets, players get to hit a ton of balls, but in the manner as close to a real competition as possible.  In other words they are practicing in the manner in which they are expected to perform.  They get to practice shot-selection, game plans, problem solving skills, and so much more.  This is where they apply what they learned in the lessons.  It is just like doing the word problem at the end of the math lesson in school…remember those?!

The more practice sets a player competes in the better prepared they will be for their next high school season or tournament.  Now don’t get me wrong the technical work and repetitions in lessons under the watchful eye of a coach are still very important but usually players spend an abundance of time focusing on technique and far too little if any time playing practice sets.

Practice sets prepare players for the heat of the battle and the more competitive the better.  Some of my best practices as a teenager came in the form of playing sets against my best friend or adults I hated losing to because my pride was on the line.  Which brings me to my final point about practice sets, the kids should care if they win or lose them.  Playing a practice set and not caring if you win or lose is like doing the word problem at the end of a math lesson and not caring if you get the answer correct.

The bottom line is continue drilling and doing technical work but incorporate playing more practice sets.