Category Archives: Tennis

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.

 

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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.”


Developing Weapons on the Tennis Court

As my good friend and mentor Coach Chuck Kriese says tennis is a “High Beta Sport.”  I have blogged before that tennis is really an eye-hand combative sport.  It is like two gladiators walking into the arena and only one gets to leave victorious.  Tennis is a civilized form of eye-hand combat and there is no time clock, which means you must finish your opponent off.  We really are asking our players to be sophisticated gladiators or polite boxers.  It is not often people think of tennis this way but it is exactly what happens out there when two players take the court for a match.

Kitchen KnivesLet me provide an analogy for you.  Going into the gladiator arena would you rather have two 3-foot swords or one 5-foot sword and one 1-foot sword?  Even though both total up to 6 feet I know I would much rather have the 5-foot sword combination. Think of all the advantages and how much easier it would be to hurt your opponent with the longer sword.

Here is how the analogy relates to tennis players.  If your forehand and backhand are equally good that is wonderful.  However, imagine if your forehand or your serve are significantly better than all your other strokes.  In that case you have a big weapon that can be used to hurt your opponent with often.

I am not saying you should neglect developing the weaker parts of your game, because if your backhand is weak you need to make it stronger.  What I am saying is that if you have developed a weapon like a big serve or forehand use it and develop your game plan around using it often.  Many times players focus all their efforts on improving their weaknesses but never continuing to improve upon their strengths and that is a mistake.

And if you happen to come up against an opponent with a big weapon you had better make sure you do everything you can to avoiding getting hurt by it.


New Balance High School Tennis Championships

There is a groundbreaking annual tournament that will be launching this summer!  I say it is groundbreaking because it finally puts High School Tennis at the forefront of the Junior Tennis World…

New Balance is sponsoring the first annual National High School Tennis Championships.  It is going to be a top-notch singles event and anyone is eligible to enter as long as they competed on their school’s varsity tennis team.

The tournament will be held in Boston, MA July 21-25 at Harvard University.  During that week 64 Boys & 64 Girls will compete in a compass draw to determine the best High School Tennis Player in the country.  The winners will be receiving a wild card into the ITF International Hard Court Tennis Championships at the JTCC in College Park, MD.  New Balance is subsidizing the costs and providing some pretty amazing amenities to the player selected to play.  You can enter online at TennisLink and the tournament ID# is 450042714.

Players will be selected based on their Universal Tennis Ranking (UTR).  If you have no idea what UTR is I suggested reading a post I wrote some time ago about the difference between Rating vs. Rankings.  And because they are using UTR as the means of selection it will have no impact on player eligibility in Pennsylvania High School Tennis, I know because I am on the committee and asked…

Finally, take an hour out of your day and listen to my friend Lisa Stone interview Bruce Shilling from New Balance and Bill Mountford from USTA who are spearheading the ground breaking High School Tennis Championship.

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The Power of Consistency

I have been writing posts with valuable information about how to develop tennis players this week.  I want to round it out by talking about the power of consistency.

The first thing that comes to most people’s mind when I say consistency is keeping the ball in play.  Be clear that is not what I am talking about here.  What I mean by “consistency” is the consistency in coaching and the messages the player is receiving over a long period of time.

Algebra 101Imagine yourself in a high school algebra class.  On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday you have Mr. Smith as your teacher and on Tuesdays and Thursdays you have Mrs. Jones.  Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones are both award winning teachers but they never talk to one another, never plan anything together, and have different proven methods and progressions for teaching algebra.  As a student you get confused very quickly because there is no consistency from day to day.  In fact, you never end up learning algebra from either one of the world-class teachers because you never get to practice the same concepts consistently over the course of time.

All too often the same exact thing happens in the world of developing tennis players.  There are many great and proven coaches.  All good coaches have, over time, developed their own teaching methods and progressions.  I personally do not agree with many things other coaches do and I am sure many do not agree with me either.  The truth is neither is probably right or wrong.  The only time it becomes wrong is when a player is trying to learn from both coaches at the same time.  The messages are not consistent and it is a disaster and real shame for the player’s development.

This inconsistency often happens within junior tennis programs as well.  If all of the coaches are not on the same page with what they are teaching, the methods, progression, and terminology it is inconsistent and works against maximizing player development.  Even though everything is housed in one location the message is still inconsistent.  This is exactly why schools have curriculums and invest heavily in educating their staff.  The secret is not one magic curriculum or algebra teacher.  Instead, the secret is consistency and progression in the messages being sent over the course of weeks, months, and years.

I have been to visit some of the greatest tennis programs in the country, such as the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC).  In my time spent there the thing that sets JTCC apart from so many other programs is consistency.  All of the coaches are on the same page and are working towards the same goal.  Much like a school, the JTCC heavily invests in educating their own coaches.  The messages the players receive on a daily basis are consistent and that is the real secret to the work they do.

JTCC's Outdoor Courts

JTCC’s Outdoor Courts

To prove my point about how important consistency is look at some of the best tennis players in the world.  Think about players like Andre Agassi, Martina Hingis, Serena Williams.  They were all coached by their parents for most of their lives.  Their parents were not world-class tennis coaches or players but their parents were consistent.  Some of them consistently crazy but none the less consistent.  Even Rafael Nadal was coached and still is consistently by his Uncle Tony who taught him to use his left hand, even though he was right handed!

So please if you are reading this blog post understand the importance of consistency in working with a coach.  Not everything will always go smoothly when developing a tennis player.  There will be times of struggle and there will also be triumph.  The good and bad times are what make a relationship strong.  Even though at times finding a new coach when things are hard may seem like the right thing to do be wise in sticking with a coach consistently.

The power of consistency is invaluable over the long-term climb up the mountain of player development.


The Secret 80% of People Do Not Know

I am going to let you in on a little secret.  It may be the most actionable piece of information you ever hear for developing a champion athlete.  And if you really use the secret you’ll be doing things different than 80% of the people in youth sports.

The secret is to think in terms of Long-Term Development.  You see I would venture to say that 80% of people think about things in the short-term.  They think about doing well in the tournament next week or cramming in lessons and training right before the varsity tennis season starts.  They want results “right now” and are constantly looking for the short-term fix.  This is the reason you see junior players bounce from program to program and pro to pro.  When something is not working “right now” they think the answer is to make a short-term change.  This is the mentality of about 80% of people out there.

Long-Term Development

Now contrast that with a mindset of Long-Term Development.  This mindset is nothing more than planning from the very beginning for the long haul and mindfully aligning everything in an effort to reach that goal far off on the horizon.  It is characterized by a growth mindset, slow and steady progress, making little improvements each day, and not getting caught up in short-term successes and setbacks.

Planning for the long-term is not easy because it takes a great deal of wisdom and foresight.  In the world of tennis this would be taking a 7-year-old and developing him or her to become the best they can be at 20+ years of age.  Along the way taking no shortcuts and committing to believe and trust in the plan.  In my experiences those who have had the most success were also those who committed to the idea of long-term development from the very beginning.

If you think about it, regardless of the sport, you are really only competing against 20% of everyone involved.  Right off the bat, about 80% of the people are only focused on the short-term and that means in the long-term they really have no chance to do something special.  If you have the mindset of long-term development, you are only competing against the other 20% of people who are thinking the same way as you.

Having the mindset of long-term development will give you the edge when it matters most in an athletes career.


Mountain of Player Development

I just recently sat down with two parents and a young man to discuss moving into the world of tournament tennis.  In that conversation I compared climbing a mountain to developing a tennis player and I am going to share the same analogy with you.

Player Development Mountain

At first climbing a mountain is easy,  the slope is not very great and you can cover a lot of ground quickly.  The same is true in tennis,  when you first begin your journey the concept is simple, play a lot of tennis.  The more balls you hit, lesson you take, clinics do, and matches you play the better you become.  There is a direct relationship between the time invested and rate improvement.  Tennis is a repetition sport and you cannot skip past putting in the time no matter how good the instruction.  Quantity is important but I should make a point to say in moderation.  If a 7-year-old is playing 80 hours of tennis a week that is not good for their long-term development.

As a climber makes his way further up the mountain it becomes more and more difficult to make progress.  The same is true for tennis players.  Eventually there comes a point where hitting more and more tennis balls has a rate of diminishing returns.  This is a big sticking point in a player’s development.  At this point in time the level of instruction a player is getting is of paramount importance.  In order to continue to climb and improve mental and emotional skills must be developed.

Mental skills are concepts like shot-selection, routines between points, and momentum management.  Emotional skills revolve around understanding match-ups, balancing respect for an opponent, and overcoming the pecking order.  Players at this level must work both incredibly hard and smart.  Working hard alone is not enough to continue climbing the mountain of improvement.  At this stage progress is slow and as Coach Chuck Kriese says,  “The work a player does here pays off 6 months or a year from now.”

If a player makes it this far up the mountain they are better than 80% of the people in the world who play tennis and continued improvement is just as difficult as getting past an overhanging ledge right before you reach the summit of the mountain.

When someone climbs Mt.Everest they hire a guide because the guide has been to the summit and know the best path to get there.  The same is true for a tennis player in the last leg of his or her development, they need a guide.  Getting past that overhang is incredibly difficult and it takes good coaching, mentoring, and role-models who know the way.  Certainly a player could go out and make it on their own with no guidance just as someone could summit Everest without a guide.  However, having a knowledgeable mentor at this difficult to navigate pass saves a tremendous amount of time and costly mistakes.

Let me know what you think about this analogy in the comments below and if you are looking for a place to get in the repetitions early in your journey or develop mental and emotional skills to continue your progress consider my Summer Tennis Camp.  If you are at the overhang send me an email and I’ll put you in touch with a world-class mentor.


720 Degree Coaching – Radio Interview

I was the featured guest on Bill Patton’s 720 Degree Internet Tennis Radio Show.  Bill Patton is a coaching friend from the West Coast and it was an honor to talk about how I got involved with the game, coaching philosophies, and share information about my tennis training camps.

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Tennis is Real-Life Flappy Birds

Tennis is arguably the most difficult sport of all to become very good at.  At the higher levels of the game it takes tremendous athleticism, technical proficiency, mental capacity, and emotional toughness.  Who in the world would want to pursue something that is so difficult?

I was recently talking with a kid about this iPhone game called Flappy Birds.  It is notorious for being extremely difficult.  It also is known for being one of the most downloaded apps ever and one of the most addictive.

Flappy Birds Screen Shot

After I played the game I found myself very intrigued and deep in thought.  You see this game is different than most because it is so difficult.  Kids will give up or get bored in 15 minutes or less with easier games but not Flappy Birds.  It is the level of difficulty that makes it fun.

You see the real fun is not being successful.  Things that are easy to achieve success with get boring quickly.  The real fun is in pursuit of achieving success with something that is difficult.  I know in my life the things that have been the most fun and fulfilling have been the things that have been the most difficult.

Tennis is the real-life version of Flappy Birds.  It is the pursuit of excellence on the tennis court that makes it so much fun.  In the process it also teaches tremendously valuable life-long lessons.

Think about registering your child for Summer Tennis Camp and I think you will find that once they pick up a racket it will be hard for them to put it down.