In Hebrew, there is a saying that translates to: "god gives nuts to people without teeth.”
Most teaching professionals have encountered this type of player—extremely talented, but agonizingly lazy. As a coach, I always promote good practice habits, discipline, hard work, etc. But how does a coach handle a lazy kid who hates the boring repetition drills, plays very loose in practice, yet as soon as the points start, they light up the court and beat everyone with ease. It is frustrating as a coach to work with such a player, practice sessions are often wasted because of a lack of willingness by the student to push themselves to the limit. Often, the player will play without any heart if things don't go well early in the match. There will be the occasional tank and the level of play drastically fluctuates during matches.
When they are in the right frame of mind, it is clear that they are superior to other kids, but that solid frame of mind doesn't come too often. One of the biggest challenges as a coach is to turn these gifted, untamed students into real players who win matches and fulfill their potential.
The first thing you need when coaching such prodigies is patience. It's important to give those kids time to come around. They are generally artistic and inspirational, and sometimes it will take a few years for players to mature and make the leap from a talented hack to a serious player who plays with a purpose and a sense of urgency each time they step onto the court.
The gifted players I'm referring to don't need too much repetitive, tedious feeding drills or to play two hours of cross-court to each corner. Hitting the ball cleanly comes easy to them. They get bored when doing drills and basically count the minutes until the points start, so they can show everyone their talent. They need the constant stimulation of competing and trying new, different and original ways to hit the ball, often driving their coach crazy with their shot selection.
The key as a coach is to let them experiment and encourage them to explore new things. It is wrong to tame them or force them to play the conventional way.
Another key is to construct live ball drills that have an element of competition. The idea is to make them play with intensity and keep them engaged in the exercise, so they thrive in a competitive environment.
One of my first students was Dudi Sela. He was incredibly talented from a very young age. At the age of nine, he had every shot in the book, had the guts to serve and volley on big points at the age of 10, and was extremely aggressive, playing fearlessly against bigger, older opponents. He had a lot of losses between the ages of 10-12, but even during those losses, he played magnificently for parts of matches, often making his opponent look like a beginner.
However, Dudi’s mental stamina was not good at all, and many matches resulted in him leading a set and a break, and then losing the second set and tanking in the third set. He would come out of those matches frustrated and discouraged, but what I saw was that when he was playing his "A" game before the mental and physical fatigue set in, he was playing at an incredible level.
I told him, "One day you will be able put together two sets of your ‘A’ game in a tournament and when that happens, you will be the player you want to be."
Many people wrote him off and were sure that he was not going to amount to anything because of his lack of effort in practice. But my rationale was that if and when he matured, he will realize just how good he can actually be. Interestingly enough, Dudi Sela turned out to be a seasoned pro player known for his fighting spirit, heart and shot-making ability, making many memorable comebacks and beating many higher ranked players. He is still on the pro tour at the age of 34 and has spent almost 10 years in the top 100, having led Israel to the semifinals of the Davis Cup in that time span.
Sela, like in many cases with players of such talent, matured mentally only in his late teens. The early years shaped him into the player that he is now. He didn't burn himself on the practice court like so many others, and there is a freshness that comes from that pure love of the game.
Another player that comes to mind who comes from this mold is New York City’s own Aleks Kovacevic. He came to me at the ripe age of eight, and I loved his game from the first time I saw him play. He had a sweet one-hander, a smooth forehand and was like a mini-Roger Federer.
Much like Sela, Kovacevic was an artist on the court and was amazing when inspired, but also had many lackluster practices in which he was merely going through the motions, leaving me to wonder many times after practice if I was wasting my time with this kid. However, after my experience with Sela, I kept believing in Kovacevic, and despite some tough years in his late teens, he turned out to be a top collegiate player, clinching many matches for his school. Aleks is also known for his fighting spirit and playing well under pressure, as evidenced by him reaching the semifinals of the NCAA individual tournament. He is now on his way to turning pro.
This type of talent comes along very rarely, but when it does, the coach's job is mainly to let the player’s talent shine and not do too much taming. If you try to force those kids to play a certain way that doesn't suit them, you will lose them. The trick is to find a way to make them work hard without them thinking that they worked hard. For this type of player, it is important to feel comfortable and happy on the court.
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.