The final matches of the Orange Ball Box league during the spring of 2017 were critical. After five consecutive months of weekly matches hosted and organized by Center Court Tennis Academy in Chatham, NJ, the point spread between the top performers was marginal. My son, Rafael, was the youngest competitor on a roster of twenty or so players…still six years old, but hard-charging, determined, with a balanced game to boot. He faced off to a formidable opponent — a patient grinder with equally matched strokes, yet older and a tad wiser. Earlier in the season, Rafa lost in straight sets. Headed into this final match (which would ultimately decide the top three) the pressure was on. Decompressed orange balls, while easier to hit within an optimal strike zone, are much tougher to put away. Factor in a foreshortened and narrower court, it’s much harder to hit outright winners. Believe what you want about such modified tennis parameters, but I firmly maintain (as do many authorities in the sport) that junior player development is augmented, not stunted, by the youth progression rubric. Despite taking the first set outright, Rafa succumbed to his opponent in the second. The tiebreaker was intense. As the saying goes, "may the better man win". In this battle for a top spot, Rafa lost. After shaking hands and maintaining sportsmanlike conduct, he made his way to the locker room where we often convene after matches. And then… tears. Enter Rafa’s Coach: Shihab Faiyaz.
Anyone who enjoys watching professional sports, especially tennis, understands the inherent value of the “right” coach. The greatest players in history often credit their successes and triumphs to their team, many doing so vocally in the euphoric moments after capturing a championship. Think Pete Sampras and Tim Gullikson; Andre Agassi and Brad Gilbert; Rafael Nadal and his “Uncle Toni” Nadal. Even top-flight college coaches deservedly get their day in the sun. David Fish of Harvard has overseen Crimson tennis for over 40 seasons and is now a public advocate of the Universal Tennis Rating ® system. But what about youth progression coaches? From hand feeding foam balls (to children who can barely tie their shoes) to fostering the transition from a 60’ to 78’ court, youth coaches are the foundation of tomorrow’s high school conference champions, USTA blue chips players, college recruits and professional circuit contenders. Employing the right coach does not end with simply deciding which individual best suits their son or daughter, on any given day. Coaches are not servants, not a means to an end. They systematically mold and raise our children with ideally the same values and work ethic that we as parents work so hard to inculcate ourselves.
Visibly, youth progression coaches spend much of their time instilling basic technique: the split step, the unit turn, the various grips. It’s not uncommon to hear parents gripe about a particular coach’s fixation on their child’s form. For the record, the purpose of good form is at least two-fold: (1) it is probably the best means to avoid injury and physical burnout. As a physician, I cannot stress this enough. Tennis, dissimilar to many other sports, requires repetitive motion. Even good biomechanics predisposes to overuse injury. Now, imagine the converse. You don’t see too many 10-year-olds with tennis elbow, but the percentage of those afflicted increases with age. Our bodies, simply put, are a series of interconnected gliding, hinge, saddle, and ball & socket joints that have a certain shelf life. (2) good form, once committed to muscle memory, becomes implicit. Implicit memory is essentially unconscious. Explicit memory is that which is actively recalled. Remember, tennis is a game. During match play, advanced players should be focused on tactics and strategy, not fretting about precarious groundstrokes. Good form — ingrained through deliberate practice — enables a player to carry out their intent. Whether it’s forcing errors of an opponent through sheer consistency (think: David Ferrer) or setting themselves up for winning volleys at the net (think: John McEnroe), sound technique should foster one’s mode of attack or defense, not be an impediment. In an interview with (French) Tennis Magazine, Toni Nadal emphasized that one must know and understand the game, looking beyond technique. But you’ve got to learn how to crawl before you walk. In tennis today, it’s the youth progression coaches around the world, be it on hard court or clay, that teach the basics of a modern, competitive game — a tedious, occasionally frustrating (often underpaid) labor of love.
Youth coaching is fundamentally different from advanced player instruction in another significant way. Older players, especially those who routinely compete, pose unique challenges upon coaches as students of the game. But in lies a key difference: they have chosen to play — it’s volitional. Younger children are naturally more fickle. What’s more, tennis is an individual sport that demands a requisite level of proficiency before it’s actually “fun”. From what ether are competitive tennis players borne? It’s not rocket science. Sprouting from the nest of a loving, supporting family, young players shall ideally become the pride and joy of a passionate youth progression coach. Great coaches must drive home a love for the game. There’s the time for seriousness, but likewise a time for giggles and laughs (my son usually spends a bit more time doing the latter). But again, how do the best coaches do this? In a variety of ways, of course. Rafa’s coach, Shihab, is the outgoing, gregarious type that can be heard three courts down working up a sweat running around with his kids. He manages to effectively disguise drills as games. And, for the record, that’s much easier said than done. Beyond just striking the ball, great coaches know how to covertly teach tracking skills, ball control, movement and footwork. Coaching, in other words, is a skill unto itself, mutually exclusive, mind you, from being an accomplished tennis player. Vic Braden, former American tennis pro and sports psychologist, understood this paradox: for a variety of reasons, sometimes professional athletes make the worst coaches.
Through the USTA’s 10 and Under (10U) initiative, kids are competing earlier and more often. Think Orange and Green ball tournaments are silly…just a way to pass time until your child is ready for “real” tennis with yellow balls? Think again. With more and more kids enrolled in youth progression programs, the competition has become stiff. Our training facility, Center Court Tennis Academy, has over a thousand players enrolled in Red, Orange and Green ball programs annually stratified by performance level. The Academy’s full-time program (one of kind in the Northeast) naturally benefits from the committed youth progression coaches that encourage youngsters to compete as soon as they are ready. And competing, as children realize soon enough, means winning...and losing. The best 10U coaches impress upon their students a healthy attitude towards match play. Jose Lara, one of the high-performance coaches at Center Court, often reiterates: “If you don’t want to lose, don’t play”. As parents, we all want to see our children succeed; this is only natural. But tennis, being the sport that it is, can be gratifying one minute and overwhelmingly humbling the next. Trust me, watching 10U competition can be just as gut-wrenching as playing Boys’ 18s (I’ve experienced both). While it is common to see parents obsess about their child’s win/loss record, a great youth coach not only focuses on the “process” of developing a great player but may even enhance the parent-child relationship through objectivity. The fact of the matter is, sometimes we do not know what is best for our child. As the saying goes, it does, in fact, take a village.
Tennis is a wonderful sport. Lessons learned through the game can and will serve your child well for life. Choose the right coach. Respect them. Realize their value. Give them time to work with your child devoid of fear you’ll fire them if your kid loses a tournament. Trust their instincts and experience.