One of the first things I tell parents who bring their kids to my program is: “Please don’t talk to me about winning and rankings.” When they talk to me about getting their kid to the top 20, or to make their varsity team, I just shake my head in frustration.
Kids have different levels of talent, athletic abilities and mental stamina, and each kid has their own rate of development. Some kids develop fast at an early age and then hit a wall. Some develop slowly and gradually, and their natural talent comes out later.
Setting goals based on results is a mistake, it is healthier and more productive to look at your own development as a long-term thing without getting too caught up with rankings. The assumption is that if you work the right way, you will improve, and with improvement, results will come. But, you cannot be down for too long after losses because it’s basically meaningless (in the big picture), especially in the younger age groups (10s, 12s and 14s). The reason I’m calling results in those days meaningless is that in the majority of the cases, the type of tennis that wins matches in those age groups is what I call “opposite tennis.”
It is virtually impossible for a young kid to play “adult tennis” at the tender age of 10 or 11. Therefore, most matches in those age groups tend to be “pushing festivals” with long points in which both players hit high moon balls to the middle of the court without approaching the net or taking balls on the rise, or playing aggressively. It simply doesn’t pay off to play “the right way” at that age, and since nobody likes losing, kids revert to endless points, standing well behind the baseline! In those age groups, the consistent players usually win without needing a weapon or having to step into the court and hitting winners.
The danger of too much success in the early ages is that winning can be addictive. I’ve seen kids that had major results at 10-12 playing a 12 and Under style. Once they got the taste of victory in a certain style, it is hard for them to make the transition to a more mature game which means taking a few more risks, coming to the net, playing closer to the baseline, etc. Implementing these strategies in real match situations might mean losing a few matches here and there because of the experimental period that is needed until you learn to use it effectively.
Having said all that and with all due respect to stroke development, as a coach and an ex-player myself, I cannot and should not forget that this is a competitive sport where the end goal is to win matches and achieve improving results. Knowing how to win matches is a huge part of the game and this ability should be honed at a young age. As we all know tennis is a mental sport, in essence, having technically sound strokes doesn’t mean much if the child does not know how to construct a point, close out a match and not choke under pressure.
The flip side of it is that you can overcome less than perfect strokes with smart playing and a strong mental game.
So how does a coach solve this paradox? I suggest the “fusion” approach for practice and the “survival mode approach” for tournaments.
In practice sessions, I focus on perfecting the technique, playing the “right way,” stepping into the ball, taking it on the rise, working on the net game and on footwork technique for at least half of the session (sometimes more).
To get the kids to attack and play more freestyle tennis, I often make the court smaller so they can take the ball on the rise and still make it with a high percentage. I create scenarios and make the kids do the things that they will do when they grow up and almost never do during tournaments, such as coming in, hitting overheads, swing volleys, serving and volleying, and playing inside the court. These drills need to be repetition drills with the coach feeding the same situation repeatedly until it is in the DNA of the player to hit the shot correctly.
The second part of any session is always point playing, and during that part of the session, I design games that reward the kids for hitting winners or coming in. Playing situation-specific games forces the kids to use their brains. It’s not enough to simply win the points. I ask them to avoid the middle of the court, force them to serve and volley, make them play games inside the baseline, quick volley games, approach shots games—all the things that never happen in a 12 & Under tournament.
When the kids play points and sets during practice, I take my “Technician’s Hat” off and put on my “Tactician Hat.” I speak less (or not at all) about technique and focus on how to play the point—where to hit, when to sneak in to the net, positioning on the court, and all kind of little tricks that every player should know such as mixing up your game and finding out your opponent’s weakness, while figuring out the best way to beat a particular opponent.
In those monitored practices, I can steer the kids into the right direction and actually make them play the right way at a young age, however the story is different when they compete in official tournaments. When they play tournaments I instruct the kids to go into “survival mode,” meaning—do what you are comfortable with and what helps you win. In a real match, the tennis is going to be a bit more conservative since it’s now all about getting the ball in play, staying in the points, making first serves, fighting, playing smart and staying positive!
The mentality is: In practice, we work on our game development. In a match, we work on winning, and even if it means playing scruffy tennis at times, you need to practice winning. Ultimately, there is nothing more rewarding than winning matches. The confidence factor is huge in tennis, and winning is a good habit to have to say the least.
I encourage playing “to win” and being competitive, but if it means hitting half swings and pushing moon balls to the middle of the court, it is not constructive at all and will not hold in the higher levels. After a match, I would tell the kid: “Good job winning, but you cannot be too proud of the way you played.” The other extreme is that some kids go the other way and play overly aggressive, going for winners too soon and not building up the point. This is not constructive or realistic tennis. To those kids, I would say: “Don’t beat yourself up, you want to be aggressive, but consistency and smart play will trump aggressive erratic play any day.”
The challenge as a coach is to find the proper balance between the student hitting the ball the right way and playing points instinctively without having to worry about technique. The hope is that after hitting thousands of balls the right way in practice and playing the right way in practice matches, it will transition naturally in a real match situation. Practicing as you perform, and performing as you practice is easier said than done.
You don’t want kids who hit like robots and cannot play points well or kids who are “point animals” with homemade flawed strokes.
To achieve the combination and produce a complete player, there has to be a shifting emphasis from focus on technique at the early ages (8-12) to playing points and how to hit shots correctly. A coach should know that after a certain age (12-13), it is almost impossible to make major technical changes, so the time to work on a child’s technique is very early on.
After the age of 12-13, the students should practice more live ball drills and match play, but still keep working on their technique. It’s basically a never ending story. Everyone has a next level to get to … even Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer need to continuously hone their game to remain at the top.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.