Category Archives: Coaching

2017 Summer Camp Dates Released

Camp dates for the summer of 2017 are June 19th – August 11th.  CLICK HERE to view the camp flyer for all the details.

2017 Tennis Camp Registration

Tennis camp has grown tremendously over the past 5 years and last year we reached near full capacity especially in the intermediate and advanced groups.  If you plan on attending please register your son or daughter early to avoid any conflicts and allow me to best plan for an excellent experience.

***New Carpool***

Also new his year is a carpool to make it easier to get around.  A few parents wanted to make it easier to coordinate rides with everyone.  If you are interested click the link below and add your information and/or reach out to contact someone near you.

http://tinyurl.com/Carpool10s


Ending The Early Specialization Debate

I was just talking to the parents of a fairly elite 10 year old swimmer in how to deal with the issue of early sport specialization. They were concerned their son is spending too much time in the pool but at the same time worried he will lose his edge if he does not swim enough.  I immediately saw the parallels to what tennis parents and coaches experience and it inspired me to write this post to help those of you out there going through the same issues.

In tennis it is without a doubt true that early sport specialization is linked to overuse injuries, prematurely peaking careers, and plateaus in player development.  It is fairly common to see the best tennis players at the age of 10 go on to later be plagued by injury, hit a roadblock in development, and burn out.  While at the same time it is also true that you must be a fairly decent player at younger ages and regularly play tournaments if you want a shot at doing something special.  If you understand tennis you know how important technique is and that players must hit a countless number of balls to lock in their strokes.  The end result is that we end up at the paradox of “how do I hit a lot of tennis balls and not specialize early on?”

Being both a tennis and physical preparation coach I have a unique perspective because I see both sides of the argument.  I am actually not against deciding on one main sport early on provided a long-term athletic development approach is taken from the beginning.  I believe the odds are good that you can specialize in making tennis your main sport at a young age, remain injury free, and continue to break through to new levels of physical and tournament performance.  The key to doing this is to understand the role strength and conditioning plays in tennis player development.

As I said before tennis is a sport that requires a lot of time spent hitting tennis balls.  If you spend a lot of time on the court you will get very good at tennis specific skills.  The goal of a tennis player is to then accumulate as much tennis-specific volume as possible on an annual and multi-year basis.  To clarify, by tennis-specific volume I mean hitting tennis balls or playing matches because being on the court is as specific as it gets.

This would lead one to conclude that specializing early and spending as much time on the court as possible is the way to go.  However, you must understand that in order to accumulate as much tennis-specific volume as possible a player’s body must have the fitness to support such a high volume of training.  This is where most people miss the boat.  They have juniors accumulating a ton of volume hitting balls and playing matches but their bodies cannot handle it.  The high levels of specific volume lead to better and better tennis but at the same time all the stress slowly but surely accumulates, wears down the body, and injury occurs and/or performance suffers.  This is why strength and conditioning or general physical preparation is so important.

The ultimate goal of strength and conditioning in tennis is to achieve a high enough level of fitness to support all the necessary specific training volume and recovery from it.  Sure strength and conditioning will make a player bigger, faster, stronger, and allow them to express their strokes at a higher level.  However, in a technical sport like tennis the best way to improve your skills is to hit tennis balls and lots of them.  The trap people fall into is that they think if they keep hitting more and more tennis balls they’ll continue to improve and they will but without a strong base of fitness to support that amount of specific volume, and the ability to recover from it, it is only a matter of time before injury or burnout occurs.  Achieving this level of fitness takes a long time and it is only achieved through a variety of movement patterns and training methods.

So to answer the paradoxical question of “how do I hit a ton of tennis balls without specializing in tennis” is to take a long-term athletic development approach from the very beginning.  Begin with the idea that tennis is going to be the main sport and hit a lot of tennis balls while at the same time working on all aspects of fitness (coordination, balance, strength, conditioning, etc.).  Over time you will gradually build up the fitness to support hitting more and more tennis balls and the ability to recover properly from doing so in order to stay injury and burnout free.

If you really want to do this right you have to educate yourselves or get with a coach who truly knows what they are doing because strength and conditioning looks very different at different ages and the process is unique to each child.  For example, strength and conditioning in general for an 8-year-old involves playing tag, crab walking, climbing, and free play to improve conditioning, agility, coordination and strength.  While strength and conditioning for a high school junior will involve running to develop the aerobic energy system, lifting weights to develop strength, or doing more of what comes to mind when you think of traditional fitness.  But making an 8 year old run hill sprints or hit the weight room isn’t going to get the job done.  In fact, inappropriate training will only increase the odds something bad will happen.

Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below and if you have any questions add them as well, I’ll be happy to answer them.

For those coaches and parents out there who are looking for more information the International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA) is launching a product this week called Long-Term Athletic Development.  It is a darn good resource to have if you are working with kids and thinking long-term in developing them.  It also happens to be on sale this week for $99.


15:1 Rule

The job of a coach is to get people to do the things they don’t want to do, in order to achieve the things they want to achieve” – Tom Laundry

I remember Coach Kriese saying something along the lines of, “when a kid tells themselves to do something it is as powerful as a coach telling them 15 times over.”  I never forgot that and it relates back to the power of self-motivation and deep practice.  The best coaching occurs when the student becomes inspired to take control and start teaching themselves.

I have often told players about this concept in what I refer to as the “15:1” rule.  The rule simply means what you tell yourself one time is as powerful as a coach telling you 15 times.  There is no scientific data to base it on it simply is a metaphor for how powerful engaging one’s mind really is.

I have had the ability to film players technique in slow motion for a few years now and it has been an invaluable tool.  Recently, I have found a way to combine it with the 15:1 rule, making it even more powerful.  By taking a few minutes to analyze the video and share it with the players online it has allowed them to take a more active role in their development.  It has allowed them to recall what was talked about in their lessons and then take charge to start coaching themselves to improvement.

Here is an example of video analysis:

 

 


How Repetition Develops Skill

Flamingo Park, Miam Beach

Flamingo Park, Miam Beach

It is said that repetition is “the mother of skill.”  What that means in the real world is that if you practice something a lot then you get good at it. Today in the blog I want to talk about how repetition impacts skill development in tennis. I guarantee it is not what you think…

The brain learns skills in astounding ways. I am constantly learning and seeking new information to be a better coach and recently I have been reading about the brain. There is a term often used to describe skill acquisition called “muscle memory.” The truth is your muscles are dumb and they have no memory. Skills like hitting a forehand or serving are motor programs stored in the brain. If they are practiced enough the brain and nervous system prioritizes them as being important and strives to become as efficient and effective at performing them for future tasks. It relates back to evolution where our brains allow us to adapt to our specific environment in order to survive.

If we have to repeat a motor program over and over again our brain recognizes that this skill must be important for survival and it aims to be able to execute the skill as efficient and effectively as possible. We have countless motor programs that have developed in our lives like walking, squatting or even keyboarding. These skills have all developed because the brain has tagged them as important because we are performing them so often.

In tennis skill development occurs the same way, through practice and the brain then prioritizing the skill. That is why it is critical to hit lots and lots of tennis balls. In fact, there is a direct correlation early on between how many tennis balls a player hits and their skill level.  It has nothing to do with an innate talent and more to do with the fact that some players may have just hit more tennis balls than their peers.

However, doing something like hitting a forehand is different than playing a piano because there is an element of randomness to tennis.  Learning to play a song on the piano is different than learning to hit a forehand. You see the keys on a piano are always in the exact same place when you play a song so you can truly make each and every repetition identical. This is not the case in tennis because there is an element of randomness where every ball has a different level of spin, pace, height, bounce, etc. There are so many variables it is impossible to truly have identical repetitions hitting a forehand. The truth is even if you could create identical ball bounces, spins, etc. you would not want to because playing a match is a random open skill.

The thought that enters my mind is, “How then do players learn to acquire a skill like hitting a forehand if there is no such thing as identical repetitions?” Well the answer is actually very interesting. Hitting something like 500 forehands is more like data collection for the brain than repetitions. It is more accurately viewed as hitting 500 forehand samples. What happens in the brain with those samples is very amazing. When you are sleeping your brain compiles all the information from those samples and begins building and refining a motor program. The next day if you hit 500 more forehands it does the same thing. And this process continues with the brain continuing to refine the forehand motor program from all the random samples striving for efficiency and effectiveness.


The Importance of Every Ball


IMG_2323

As the leaves turn colors and the temperatures get colder players begin scrambling to indoor courts in the Pittsburgh area.  When I train players outside everyone get spoiled because there is ample time, courts, balls, and opportunities.  That all changes when you go indoors during the school year when both time and space become limited.  Most people look at this as a negative but I choose to look at it a different way.  I believe training indoors when resources are limited teaches players the importance of hitting every ball with a purpose.

When a player truly knows the value of each and every ball they hit their mind becomes locked in.  And when they become that engaged a coach has both their mind and body.  As I always tell the players, “the real practice doesn’t happen out here, it actually happens inside your head.”

Thank you cold months for teaching us the value of hitting every single ball with a purpose…


Stop Chasing Points & Start Chasing Ratings

“The moment a player starts worrying about their ranking the is moment they stop improving” is a wise old tennis saying because it is true.  As soon as a young athlete begins focusing on what they are ranked instead of improving 1% each time they train or compete they lose focus of the long-term process.  They end up with a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset and development comes to a grinding halt.

Allow me to paint a picture about our current junior tennis landscape.  The points per round and ranking system in USTA junior tennis looks really good on paper, after all it is exactly what the ATP and WTA tours are doing.  The problem is children are smart and they know the most important thing is the points they earn and the ensuing ranking they get because it is ultimately what qualifies them for bigger tournaments.  And like I said before this all looks good in theory but the problem is the players are not chasing improvement instead they are chasing points because that is what they are rewarded for.  They start looking for ways to manipulate the system and a big disparity comes into play because some players simply have the means to travel and play lots of tournaments thus have more opportunity to earn points.  I hope the bigger picture is starting to become clear.  And I want to go on record as saying that I am not against rankings because they have their place and purpose but there is a much better way to measure just how good you are…

The best way to measure how good you are is with a rating.  To be specific a Universal Tennis Rating (UTR).  I have blogged in depth about the Universal Tennis Rating System before and its benefits.  The biggest benefit is that the only way to improve your UTR is to chase improvement and prove those gains in competitive match play.  If every player was focused on improving their own unique UTR they would have a growth mindset and look at every single time they take the court as a way to improve just 1%.  And as Coach John Wooden says, “a bunch of small improvements eventually add up to be a big improvement.”

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So players, parents and coaches out their stop chasing points and start focusing on improving your rating.  And If you do that you will certainly be on the right track to truly becoming the best you can be.


What You Can Learn From Charley Lau

Often times coaches promote their playing background as credentials to prove their worthiness.  It is as if being the #1 player in the world instantly qualifies them to be the #1 coach in the world.

"Charlie Lau" by From collection of User:JGHowes for Wikipedia - Detroit Tigers Official Profile, Photo and Data Book. Published by the Detroit Tigers without any copyright notice in 1957.. Via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Charlie_Lau.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Charlie_Lau.jpg

“Charlie Lau” by From collection of User:JGHowes for Wikipedia – Detroit Tigers Official Profile, Photo and Data Book. Published by the Detroit Tigers without any copyright notice in 1957.. Via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Charlie_Lau.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Charlie_Lau.jpg

I think playing a sport is a critical part of becoming a great coach.  However, in my sporting experiences the most naturally gifted athletes tend not make the best coaches.  Instead, it is those coaches that had to struggle, fail, learn and work extremely hard just to succeed in their sport who make the best coaches.  It is almost as if since they have made so many mistakes and failed so many times along the way those failures actually become assets.  You see when you have failed so many times and in so many different ways it makes it easy to spot the exact mistake an athlete is making.  It is the accumulation of failures that serves as education for a future hall of fame coach.

For example, take perhaps the greatest baseball hitting coach you never heard of, Charley Lau.  Charley had an average career in the major leagues and certainly did not set any records for hitting.  After his playing career was over he went on to become one of the greatest and most sought after hitting coaches of all time.  I guarantee Coach Lau would not have been so great had he not learned so much from so many of his failures.  In fact, it was all his failures and struggles that allowed him to see things about hitting in a way no one else could.


Coach Slezak On American Tennis Radio

I had the honor to be the featured guest on American Tennis Radio today.  My coaching friend and mentor Chuck Kriese hosts this weekly podcast on the UR10s Radio Network.

We spent the hour talking about coaching, high school tennis, and principles of good coaching. You can listen to the recording below.

 

New Sports Internet Radio with UR10s on BlogTalkRadio

Why Top Juniors Should Play High School Tennis

JV Tennis 2014High School Tennis gets a bad wrap in the world of junior tennis.  For top players it is looked at more of an activity as opposed to being a legitimate competitive sport.  It is often viewed as a waste of time for a variety of reasons.  For instance, the training is not rigorous, competition is weak, matches do not count towards rankings, and it is “a factor” but not “the factor” in getting recruited by a collegiate team.  Each school, coach, and situation is different so these generalizations are not always true however often times this is the viewpoint players and their parents have.

Whether you are a top player or not, there is much to be learned by taking the time to understanding what I am about to say.  By the end I hope you will see what high level players have to gain by competing in high school tennis.

Before I digress into the topic I want you to understand this is not going to be your typical sales pitch for high school tennis.  Certainly being a part of a team, socializing, competing while representing you school, etc. are all wonderful reasons to be a part of your tennis team.  But what I am about to tell you is much deeper and valuable in terms of developing a tennis champion.

IMG_1876I look at high school tennis, and for that matter all of junior tennis, as developmental.  Players should be learning and growing all the time.  They should learn from big wins, easy wins, bad losses, and tough losses.  The bottom line is they should be developing and growing constantly.  Everything should be approached with the mindset that it is as an opportunity for growth.  I believe we often lose sight of that and think this win or that loss is the end-all and be-all because we get so emotionally invested.  Keeping the big picture in mind and looking at everything as a developmental opportunity is a much more productive and healthy paradigm for the long haul.

The general rule of thumb for scheduling a player’s competitive year is The Rule of Thirds.  In a nutshell this means a third of the matches should be above a player’s current ability level, a third at their level, and a third below.  This allows players to assume all three roles (underdog, even, and the favorite) and associated balances of pressures in match play.

One of the BIGGEST mistakes made in the career of a junior player happens when they start winning and begin “playing up.”  The natural instinct is to keep moving them forward and playing them “up” in tournaments.  When they win it makes sense to want to quickly advance on to higher levels, and they should, but only a third of the time.  The mistake happens by forgetting to still play down a third of the time.  You see when a player “plays up” there is no real pressure because they are not expected to win, they get to assume the role of the underdog.  And always assuming the role of the lesser player is dangerous and detrimental to development.  Playing up provides the opportunity to grow but it does so without the burden of pressure.  Playing down below your level may not always be physically challenging but it most definitely is mentally challenging.  As the favorite player there is a tremendous burden because they should win and there is a big difference between “should win” and pulling off an “upset win.”

When playing down the athlete is placed in a “nothing to gain, everything to lose” situation.  They have the burden of pressure and must learn how to work through it in order to win.  In other words they must learn how to live up to expectations.  The idea that the player can gain nothing from this type of match is absolutely false because what they do gain is real lasting confidence.  When a player assumes the role of the favorite and wins, they cement lasting confidence and practice the routine of winning.  As the saying goes, “There is no better way to learn how to win than to actually win.”  These memories are critical to being able to hit the recall buttons in future tight match situations.  In essence, competing while playing the role of the favorite player practices how to win in pressure filled situations.  This is actually the little known secret to avoid choking in big time matches.

So where does high school tennis fit in for a high performing junior?  If the player is truly high performing, high school tennis is most likely in the bottom third of their competitive level and would be considered playing down.  Those high level players would enter each and every high school match knowing they are the favorite and their opponents are gunning for them with nothing to lose.  They know the local newspaper and everyone watching is expecting them to win each and every time they take the court.  They know the pressure of expectation lies completely on them.  That is a tremendous amount of pressure that you just don’t get from playing better players and assuming the underdog role all the time.  And being the favorite is a role top players must learn to fulfill to continue to develop as a player.

A high performing junior might go an entire season winning most matches 6-1, 6-2 but I guarantee there will be some moments where they are tested.  And in that handful of trying times throughout the season players learn how to win and get comfortable assuming the uncomfortable role of the favorite.  Nothing builds lasting confidence like coming through when expectations are high.  That lasting confidence will lead to big developmental gains and breakthroughs in future tight matches.  You see when that player is in a big match down the road they will have something to draw on mentally where they know, that they know, that they know, they can come through when the pressure is on.

Knowing that do you see how high school tennis can be a tremendous developmental tool for high performing junior players?

 


Loving Tennis or Hating to Lose, Which Comes First?

Most believe that people typically fall in love with the game of tennis and then become competitive at it.  In that exact order.  As if a player falls in love with the sound of the ball hitting the strings and out of that love develops into a fierce competitor on the court.

I want to pose the idea that more often than not the exact opposite of the above scenario occurs.  I believe the best tennis players develop because they are great competitors first and foremost.  They simply hate to lose at anything and it is their strong dislike for losing that initially fuels the necessary motivation to improve at tennis.  And then it is only over the course of time they fall in love with the complexity involved in the game of tennis itself.  It is because of this belief that the role of competition in developing a player is is of the utmost importance.  Hating to lose first is what fuels the motivation for improvement and eventual love for the game.

Young Coach Slezak

Young Coach Slezak

Let me tell you the story of how I first was introduced to tennis to support my point…

I was an active and athletic kid.  I played lots of sports (baseball, hockey, etc.).  I also absolutely hated to lose at anything.  I even remember playing video games and hating to lose at them.  My friends and younger brother were also very competitive and we challenged one another in everything.

My introduction to tennis was unique.  Like I said I played lots of sports but tennis was no where on my radar.  No one in my family or anyone I knew even played tennis.  Then Uncle Joe came into my life…

Around 8th grade my best friend Brian’s grandmother passed away.  It was a tough time for his family and his Uncle Joe had moved to Pittsburgh from Chicago for the summer.  Uncle Joe was an older gentlemen and a tennis player.  He loved to play tennis but he had no one to play with so he took Brian and I to the courts, stuck us both one one side of the net, and told us to keep the ball in so he could get some exercise.  He would playfully taunt us when he won or we messed up.  I have no idea if the taunting was just his personality or not but it was absolutely brilliant!  He literally got Brian and I to hate losing to him so much we kept wanting to play more.  We didn’t love playing tennis we just hated, and I mean hated, losing to Uncle Joe.  We would never pass up the opportunity just for the chance to play tennis and shut him up with a win.

Even Younger Coach Slezak

Even Younger Coach Slezak

My friend and I would walk to the tennis courts and practice with each other for hours and then challenge Uncle Joe in the evening.  We got pretty darn good with zero instruction.  It got to the point where he would have to challenge us one-on-one.  I literally hated to lose so badly that I would get up at 6:00am in the summer and play tennis with Uncle Joe before it got too hot just for the opportunity to beat him.

The interesting thing was that initially I had no interest in the game of tennis itself but over time, once I dug deeper into the game because I wanted to learn how to win, I absolutely fell in love with it!  I have never put down a tennis racket since that first summer and my drive to improve and win very much influences my coaching philosophy still to this day.

I think hating to lose really does come first for most people.  It is only in their tireless pursuit of avoiding losses they discover the wonderful complexity of the game of tennis and eventually then fall in love with it for a lifetime.

When I coach I look for those attributes of being a competitor first and a tennis player second.  I know I can teach anyone to play tennis but special things happen when a player is motivated internally by achievement needs and hating to lose.  As my friend and mentor Chuck Kriese says, “If you strongly dislike losing and really like winning then you will be pretty good.”