Planning: Use the Biggest Tools First

“Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.”  Gen. George S. Patton

Use Big Planning Tools, Reduce Learning Curve

When we plan, we are giving 100% effort, without a plan, we are sure to miss something. When building something large, many times the landscape needs to change.  In the example of a large building on a plot of land, huge amounts of soil need to be moved, compressed, dug out and very large tools are used for that, backhoes, graders,  dumptrucks and cement mixers etc.  Don’t order a cement mixer until you know where the cement is going to go.
Luckily for a tennis coach the big job of preparing to build something large can begin with pencil and paper, a computer or some kind of note taking app. When making the overall plan, use the cement mixer, put down some strong groundwork from which you will not budge. When laying concrete, consider that you want to only add to it, and not subtract, because using a jackhammer creates a major distraction. Laying out the groundwork for a great season really starts with some planning. How well we plan, and have contingencies in mind. for known issues that may arise, will say a lot about maximizing the results and outcomes with a team. One example of this was a season in which I had only one player on the team who could serve over 100 MPH.  What was I going to do with all these not very strong servers?  We needed a plan.  I agree with Robert Lansdorp, who is in the middle of writing a book, when he says, “If you have to choose between making shots, placement and power, you can do without the power, but you better be fast.”  So, in that season, I planned two things, that my players would dramatically improve their speed on court, and also that we would learn to spin our serves in many different ways, while placing them extremely well to set up position on the court. I knew absolutely that I was not going to change any part of the plan to build speed, because we knew our players serves were going to be returned, and our players may have to dash quickly over to get to a hard hit well placed return. The plan worked, because during that season I saw more frustrated opponents wondering why they couldn’t hit a winner against our players because of their speed. Of course this plan is only part of the more grand scheme of an entire season. This type of planning occurred in my 6th season of coaching, so if you are new coach you can save yourself 6 years of learning curve.

It’s A Grind, Avoid Grinding Them Down

As a young coach, I did not account for what seems to be a relative grind for school team tennis players.  Coupled with their perception that 10 to 12 weeks is a long time (some team seasons are much longer), their academic schedule gets more intense as the season goes along, especially in the spring time, as testing becomes more important. Some states have very rigorous standardized testing. Throw in some some SAT and AP tests, and the ramping up of projects, then finals and you have the potential for having a very stressed out group.  This is part of the reason to have every practice need with a 15-20 minute game, so that players leave happy, and have a chance to laugh and enjoy their teammates, before sending them home for dinner and homework. As our seasons move along the amount of mental, emotional and physical energy the players will have is less, unless we plan very well. By training the players very hard to get them in great condition early in the season, they use up their energy, we allow them to rest some before big competitions, and they can use their stored up energy. If we don’t plan very well, then we will find ourselves in a situation with a team that does not have full capacity to compete when they need it most.

Back Up the Truck, Park It in the Right Spot

The first part of planning is knowing what kind of team you have. Are they a team full of beginners?  Are they a team full of players who already have fairly well developed tennis games? Will they make the post season, be in the middle of pack, or closer to the bottom of the standings?  Do they have a common technical flaw, or stature?  (My slow serving team had only one player over 5’8″). If I had backed up my truck to dump all my efforts into developing big serves, I would have had to clean up that mess later. Do you have a veteran team that is expecting to surge, or a young team that might have to take its lumps and learn the hard way?  What kinds of activities are needed with that type of team? How much recovery time is needed by your group after a tough stretch of the season?  How will the team react to a tough loss or a major win?  As coaches the better we know our teams, and can begin to anticipate our team’s likely reactions, then we can also be ready with solutions that fit the athletes. And yet not every thing is planned, but when we have a plan in mind, then we are better able to seize the moment.

Good Planning Allows Us to Seize the Day

I had a young team that lost a tough match, because they did not have enough experience in pulling through in tough circumstances. They didn’t even give a true 100% effort, partly because they felt the match outcome was already decided. We also had some negative forces on the team who created anxiety about the outcome among their peers. After the loss, players stayed, were playing socially and messing around.  They were playing great! I watched this for a while and wondered where this performance was an hour ago when the real competition was happening. I decided not to talk with the players about this immediately, but to get a few more minutes to truly soak in the experience.  After a while I called them together, as part of my plan was to help a young team learn to perform better, and to compete without so much worry about the outcome. “Gentlemen, are you having fun?”  “Yes”  “You guys are playing great!  Where was that during the match today?”  “We don’t know.” “Do you think you worried too much about the outcome and now the pressure is off so you feel free to play well?”  “Yes, that’s it”.  Moving forward that team which had been a bit of disappointment in terms of results, because they played below their ability, played a great match at the end of the season and beat a team much higher in the standings. Those moments lead to the that team making annual leaps in the standings until we won a second championship. I find that team tennis is fairly predictable and there are not a lot of upsets, because the better player and teams almost always win.  The ball doesn’t bounce funny, officials calls don’t have a catastrophic effect on the game, and there are an average of 487 hits in two sets, so any lucky shots seem to even out. So when one tennis team upsets another it really is a special moment. So, in my plan I had known that my young team would face adversity, and while I did not know when it would hit, I knew I had to be ready, but also not to overreact to it. In a couple years that team that was 5th place among nine teams would win the second championship in a 44 year span of no championships at that school, with a core of players who had to face some adversity and learn from it as part of the plan.

Periodized Planning And It’s Limits

When we plan, it’s wise to have a detailed periodized plan.  We will get into that in more detail in future weeks, but below I will list some resources to help you in your planning. The limiting factor for many teams in using periodized schedules is that they require 4-6 weeks for completion, so using a modified format is best to see any results for many high schools.  Some schools have such involved and committed players, that using a fully periodized schedule is possible and advisable.

Pre-Season

Use the Preparation Phase if you have a motivated group that will work their aerobic base before the season, work on certain strokes with you or with their private coach, and maybe change to a new strategy that suits their physique and skills better.  (4-6 weeks prior to the season, and overlapping the beginning the season back one or maybe two weeks)

Early Season

Use the Pre-Competition Phase early in the season.  One thing I do is I test my players aerobic base by asking them to run for 12 straight minutes, if they can do that, then they can participate in the pre-competition phase, if not, then they will complete 12 minute runs while the others train anaerobically.  This phase is about building explosive speed, using strokes in a simulated play situation, building a new tactic to fit each player’s strength, and finding each players weakness and helping them to play that shot as defensively as possible.

Mid Season

The Competition Phase can be 5-10 days and the longer it is the more rest the players should get in the next phase. In the competition phase, don’t give the players any new information, tail off the conditioning, play points and practice matches, and be ready to compete with a fresh and competent team.  The message is, “You are as ready as you are going to be, and it would be unwise for you to be unsettled before these upcoming competitions, so let the fur fly.”  Their game is their game, let them play.

Post Competition

The Active Rest Phase should come immediately after a section of matches that are most important on your schedule. Let the kids goof off for a day. Play nothing but large group games, have a grunting contest, practice hitting as hard as you can, those kinds of things. Its awesome when this lands on a Friday, as then the players can have 3 days of fun.

Repeat

Sometimes the active rest day can only be one day, and then it’s time to return to Pre-Competition in preparation for the second half or the post season.  This phase is 1-3 days, any longer and the team will go on vacation.

In conclusion, think about your team, and plan for these phases of training. Seize on opportunities that arise to build your team up according the principles you want to teach them.  Plan each day of practice to have an ideal balance of activities for the phase of training you are in.  We will get into that more in future weeks.

For more on Periodized Training Specific to many High School Teams:
The Art of Coaching High School Tennis 

For other team coaches, and those with highly committed players:
Complete Conditioning for Tennis

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