The Pursuit of Excellence

Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. ~ John W. Gardner

The Pursuit of Excellence

Challenge the Top Level

Pursuing excellence is the ultimate conclusion to this work. In my entire life, one of the most critical pieces of advice I have ever received was stated very simply by Geoff Fong, Geometry Teacher, a mentor of mine when I was teaching public school, who said, “Teach to the top kids, keep them challenged. The next level of student’s will also be challenged. There is a pretty large group of students that won’t be challenged no matter what you do, but if you let the top students become bored, then they will lose interest quickly and then it’s all over for you.” This was counterintuitive in the time when ‘No Child Left Behind’ was coming into effect nationwide. Of course any good teacher is going to do everything they can to reach out and help the students who are not doing so well, but when they actively choose not to do well, or have a deeply disturbing track record of failing and almost no self belief, not all of them can be won immediately. Let’s now apply this to coaching.

Prepare the Challenge

It’s vital to prepare activities that keep top players engaged in every practice. On the other hand, we as coaches are not going to cater every moment of practice to our top players, but enough to keep them challenged most of the time. Helping our top players strive for a new level of excellence can have a team wide effect. When the #2 player sees the #1 player improving, they then realize they must do more if they ever want to take that position. When the #2 player takes that challenge, then it falls to the #3 player and so on, down the line. We want as many of our players as will buy in, to strive for excellence. This is perhaps the greatest life skill for our players.

Overlooking Aaron

Aaron was one of my all time favorite players for a few different reasons. He was one of the nicest young people I have ever met. When he was first on the team, he was so quiet, I overlooked him. When I finally discovered how smart he was on court, I wished I had spent more time developing him earlier. This is part of the challenge of coaching a very large team. We had 42 players and me. As is my custom, I spent of lot of the early practices focusing on the varsity team. Then once they got settled into a routine, then I began to work more with the junior varsity, and finally what we call ‘exhibition’ players because their matches fall outside the Varsity/JV structure. Aaron was a JV player in his sophomore year and had just picked up a racquet. I finally saw him play a full match late in the season. He was not at all flashy, and his strokes were a little stiff and mechanical, but he could place the ball were he wanted, and he had an uncanny ability to create shot combinations. I later found out that he was a point guard on a basketball team, so he knew about misdirection, and creating openings in a defense, while looking for weaknesses in an opponent.

Aaron Emerges

Aaron then came to summer time training and worked on his game a lot. As a junior he ascended to varsity in which was a pretty large jump up the ladder, and did a good job as a part of our #2 doubles team. Aaron started to show some great enthusiasm for the sport. That summer I was hosting two 18/under USTA Team Tennis Teams. The A team was a sort of ‘all-star’ team made up of #1 and #2 players from our league, and we did quite well in the summer. The other team was made up of everyone else. I challenged Aaron to play on the B team. I told him “You are going to get beat a lot, but I want you to do it so you can improve a lot this summer, never give up on anything.” So he played.

Aaron Hones His Skills

As far as his game, I noticed that Aaron was not shy about getting to the net, but his volley skills were not great. If he only had to play one volley he could win a lot of points, but if he had to volley twice then his win % went down considerably, more than most players. We focused on his approach shot. Aaron spent hours working on hitting an approach shot in a 9′ by 9′ box in the backhand corner, so that he could get an easy volley and have the opponent out of position. If you don’t coach tennis, then you might not know that it’s a pretty large target area, but very effective in high school play. Aaron improved dramatically in his ability to come to the net and knock off one volley for a winner.

Number Two Doubles to Number Two Singles!

That improvement meant that he would ascend to the #2 position behind only a player who had many years of USTA Tournament Play behind him. In an amazing surge, not only did Aaron play #2 but he went 15-1, and was voted first team all-league, because he also had wins at the #1 position. This kind of achievement is fairly rare in high school play. Aaron was also the main team captain, because he was such a great example of hard work, diplomacy, and he was a kind hearted individual. It didn’t hurt that he and I got along so well. Aaron was one of the most important factors on court, through his leadership and other intangibles for a championship season.

Zero Star Aaron Plays College Tennis

During that season, it occurred to me that Aaron was improving so fast, that even though a year ago I would have said he had little chance of playing college tennis, he had a real shot of player JUCO tennis at least.
He and I discussed this and I challenged him to consider it. We talked about what he needed in his game. Aaron’s groundstrokes were not going to be offensive weapons, because he never quite loosened up all the way, so it was imperative to make his net game better. So I challenged him with an approach shot target area that was 5′ by 5′, which is about one-fourth the size of the high school target. We also spent a lot of hours working on hitting two volleys, and making a great decision on the first volley whether to go for a winner, or set up the next volley. By the end of the season he was ready for college tennis. His approach shots were like laser guided missiles, and if someone did manage to make him volley twice, he could make them pay. His teammates saw his willingness to work on a strength and make it more excellent, and also to develop what was a relative weakness. What he did was contagious with the team. So, in the space of less than three years Aaron went from undiscovered sophomore to college tennis player. Of course he had some athletic talent to work with, but his work showed its clearly possible. Aaron was a zero star recruit.

Unlocking The More Difficult Players

It all sounds so easy, right? Aaron made it easy.

When we deal with more difficult players, who don’t cooperate in the same way, it’s important to break down barriers, and try to understand why a player is not pursuing excellence or cooperating in the process. We won’t win everyone, but we can try!
Sean Brawley of Inner Tennis fame, has a formula that I love. Performance = Potential – Interference. The natural starting point in developing more excellent performance is to reduce interference, and I am not going to explain it, because we know it when we see it. But then we can ask, why is their interference? Knowing that answer can be a huge key in creating the solution. Also, we can build up our players potential in a holistic way, by helping a player find an area of strength, building upon that. Conversely, finding a player’s area of weakness that can be addressed in a season can help improve their potential by a larger margin.

Coaches Pursuing Excellence Engender Players Who Do

Great coaches pursue excellence in their own coaching, reflecting on what they do have an influence on players. Asking themselves, parents and players, ‘How can this be better?’. I often ask my team captains, ‘How are you? How is the team feeling? Is everyone having fun? Are they feeling challenged enough? Is there something that needs to be different?’ Each team has its own personality and each captain has their own style, and that makes coaching different every season as we navigate helping players pursue excellence in a fairly wide variety of means.

The Conclusion Of This Entire Work

All of the above becomes so much more effortless when the real work of developing your own coaching philosophy is done. From there you can come from a place of authenticity. You will be empowered to use key principles in coaching, and applying who you are and why you do things to the situation in front of you. Along the way the rough edges get smoothed over. We as coaches learn to plan our way, and move in a definite direction, sometimes in the simplest old-fashioned ways. No, we don’t need an app for everything! Once we know the definite plan, then it can empower our will to say ‘no’ to the wrong things that distract from the plan. Having a mission and objectives takes this pursuit up a full notch in terms of focus.
From there, we have a basis by which to really listen, once we have established unbreakable parameters, we can operate within those. We also then make the big decisions first about our major objectives , the smaller ones will have to fit in somewhere. One of our largest objectives over the years can be to remold the team culture, and this does not often happen completely inside of one season. Of course, when doing all of the above, there will be some pushback from players and coaches. When the pushback is well informed, then it’s worth a listen, when it’s not, then it can be a teachable moment. Ultimately, within the parameters of the finite structure of what our coaching philosophy allows, it’s a best practice to be as athlete centered as possible. Of course that does not mean being subject to player’s whims. Looking at learning, adversity, challenges, and every other skill to be gained through the athletes eyes is the entire purpose behind this work. Join us in the pursuit of excellence in this way. We welcome you, and ask that you welcome others.

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