After more than a decade studying in Spain, I believe there are some important lessons that parents, coaches and players can learn from the Spanish approach that can be applied here in New York and across the U.S.
Defense and offense
In Spain, there is a healthy balance between defense and offense, and players are taught both to defend and attack within a tactical framework. Many of the fundamental exercises from Spain that have now become famous around the world emphasize the in-and-out movement typical of the Spanish-balanced approach, stressing both defensive and offensive play.
Players in Spain learn what Jose Higueras often repeats, that tennis is a “Game of give and take.” What that means is that there are times in a point to give ground (defend), and there are times in a point to take ground (attack). It is anathema to the Spanish approach to constantly take ground and attack every shot. That is foolish and too risky from the Spanish perspective. Rather, players are taught a balanced approach, emphasizing tactical decision-making, percentage play and court positioning.
Technique is important, but it’s not everything
In Spain, coaches have a healthy view of technique. Rather than obsess about every technical detail and force players into arbitrary and artificial forms, Spanish coaches teach important technical skills, but have broad parameters of acceptance and are not rigid about how strokes should look.
Sometimes, coaches in the U.S. are enframed by a myopic view of how their players should look technically, and they cannot escape their technical lenses. Many countless hours can be lost by mindlessly perfecting form or polishing a shot that doesn’t need to be polished. Many coaches waste a lot of development time trying to achieve perfection when a simple “good” will suffice, or trying to achieve beauty when efficiency and accuracy is enough.
For Spanish coaches, good technique is not some elusive paragon that players aspire to, but rather simply, “What you can do with the ball.” As Toni Nadal has asserted many times, “Good technique means that a player can do what they want with the ball consistently.”
Fitness must be an obsession
In Spain, tennis culture is obsessed with stamina, running, injury prevention and athletic conditioning. In fact, most world-class coaches there would admit that the fitness trainer is actually as important or perhaps more important than the coach himself.
Spanish players and coaches are obsessed with achieving ultra-levels of physical fitness, and particularly, endurance. It’s a point of great pride and a major priority in their training protocol. The Spanish know that a tired player makes poor decisions and will ultimately show weakness mentally. In this way, fitness training is seen as the lynchpin to good strategic and mental ability.
Here in the U.S., and New York in particular, players often do not have time for a lot of fitness and usually skip it. Parents focus on getting in more court time and cut out athletic and injury prevention training. It’s a risky approach and one reason why we see epidemic levels of overuse and chronic injuries among our serious tournament players.
It’s simple … if you play lots of hours on the court without off-court physical training, you will have a very high risk of getting hurt.
In Spain, players are taught discipline and the value of hard work from a very young age. In my book, Secrets of Spanish Tennis, there is a chapter on suffering. The value of suffering is an important component of the Spanish approach. Players are encouraged to push themselves to the limits physically and mentally, and to even enjoy suffering if possible.
For many of our kids in New York, they don’t have a good grasp of the sacrifice, discipline and suffering required to make it as a top junior player. Sometimes, our players are coddled or lazy and play at clubs that don’t push them to the limits or stress hard work. Instilling these values are key to developing a champion tennis player.
Tennis is a game of errors
This is maybe the most important tactical lesson from Spain that I teach my players. A game of tennis is not usually won by winners; it’s lost by errors. Players must therefore learn to be consistent. Consistency and reducing errors is an absolute obsession in Spain. The path towards better consistency requires great discipline and movement skills, and great physical stamina. A tired player makes mistakes. A lazy player makes mistakes. A player who does not run and move well makes mistakes. From a Spanish point of view, mistakes are unacceptable.
Power is not the only way to attack
In Spain, there is an understanding that power is great, but it’s important to disturb your opponent with angles, soft shots, different spins, different heights, etc., rather than just trying to blow your opponent off the court with power. This philosophy is partly due to the players growing up and competing mostly on slower red clay, which encourages experimenting with other ways to hurt your opponent than just attacking with power.
For example, the Spanish know that a good heavy spin ball up high to a player’s backhand can be just as debilitating as a flat power shot. They know that angles make your opponent run more than straight deep shots. They know that a soft drop shot can be more demoralizing than a hard volley winner.
The net can be a dangerous place
In Spain, players are taught to approach the net with caution. In the U.S., players are taught to approach the net with abandon. We have an unhealthy obsession with going to the net. Spain has a healthier, more complete, understanding of net dynamics.
Spanish coaches will allow approaches to the net, but they must be justified and responsible, and the player must have a clear and strong advantage. Spanish coaches would never say to go to net only to “put on pressure.” Especially on slow courts, like red clay, they know that going to the net can be risky and dangerous. If a player chooses to go to the net, they have to understand the dynamics at play, the tactical risks, and must approach behind a very strong and damaging shot. Too often, in the U.S., players are taught to approach the net mindlessly behind every short ball they encounter. In Spain, the goal is to selectively go to the net when the odds are highly in the player’s favor only. Net attacks are about smart decision-making, not just mindless net rushing.
These lessons are just some of the wisdom I have picked up on my travels to Spain. Ever since my first study trip there, my mind has been opened and my previous assumptions challenged. As one of the leading development countries for the last 25 years or so, Spain implemented many novel and revolutionary approaches to training and adopted a smart philosophy that has propelled their players to the top of the world rankings on the professional tours. Those same principles can be used right here in New York to help our developmental players!
Chris Lewit, a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player, coaches in the New York City area and also runs a high-performance boarding summer camp in Southern Vermont. He specializes in training aspiring junior tournament players using progressive Spanish and European training methods. His best-selling book, Secrets of Spanish Tennis, has helped coaches and players worldwide learn how to train the Spanish way. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail ChrisLewit@gmail.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.