A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet. ~ Truman Capote
Technique Can be Surface Level
Many times we as coaches are on court with players who just don’t get it. They have beautiful strokes, they can hit the ball hard and with lots of topspin. But, they just don’t understand how to win a point. Players can be so happy with their technique that they invest almost no energy into thinking about shot selection. Those same players will often try a very low percentage shot at the worst time in a point or match.
This week, having dealt with the overall discipline and decision making of young athletes, we can drill down a bit more into their on court decisions in regard to every moment in a tennis match. Developing a great learning environment and also the personal discipline of each player can be a very important part of facilitating player’s on court decision making and the discipline to hit the right shot, or even to know the range of good options from a particular part of the court, with a particular incoming ball. The default is that most players seem to lack awareness of shot selection until they reach a certain level of experience, knowledge and discipline.
Unaware of What’s Below the Surface
I recently encountered this lack of awareness towards shot selection with a junior player in my program. They seemed to respond to every missed shot with higher levels of frustration and disappointment, instead of slowing down, taking a look at whether that shot was the best decision in the moment. It’s so easy for young players to blame their technique, or lack thereof, for their missed shot. Sometimes we as coaches agree with the player, that if they had only practiced that shot more often, then they would have made that one. I totally agree that repetition and some level of blocked practice of a closed skill is important part of training a player, but at what expense? Can this repetitive stroke work actually hinder the player? Do we sacrifice teaching a player’s critical thinking and decision making skills? Finding a nearly ideal balance between time spent with the technical part of striking a ball and shot selection skills can be a challenging, especially when most players are only on court a limited number of hours a week.
Motivation is a Key Ingredient to Curiosity
The solution starts with the goals and aspirations of the player, combined with how much of a time commitment they actually make to learning to play tennis at the level of their stated desire. Then, coach and player develop a program that achieves a good balance for acquiring the skill necessary to achieve success. How the player defines success, and the influence a coach has on guiding them into a mindset that works for the player is also an important part of the players future. Helping players develop a blend of process, performance and outcome goals, helps them to realize more success and learn from acheivement or failure. I lean more towards performance goals because they lie inside the control of the player. So, having a target first serve percentage, or a number of times to go to the net per game, or not being the first player to hit down the line in a rally, unless the situation really warranted it, these things can be measured. In terms of creating a culture of success, players can also set goals for how much time they spend training certain shots, movements, mental skills, etc. You can control how much time you commit each week to acquiring and perfecting your skills, you can control you intensity and focus levels on the court, you can control you attitude to be more positive than negative.
Digging into a Conversation
Going back to my player who seemed a little shocked when I asked them about whether they believed they were making good shot selection decisions. I told them a story about buried treasure:
Coach: If someone buries treasure in the jungle or woods, what tools would you need to find and discover the treasure? The player answered that they might need a shovel, a compass, a map, maybe a miner’s axe sharp enough to break up hard soil, etc. Great, so you need more than just a flat driving forehand, right?
This player agreed, that they need more tools, than just that one shot.
Coach: ‘Would you need to recall and be aware of where you had already been in the woods where the treasure was not located in order to discover exactly where the treasure was buried?’
Player: ’Yes, of course.’
Coach: Ok, let’s relate this to a tennis match. What is the treasure?
Player: To win the match, she said.
Coach: Great, the ultimate treasure is to win the match. So what tools do you need to win the point, the game, set and then the match?
Player: Lots of different types of tools.
Coach: Exactly, you need different types of shots, but not just that, you need to discover when to use the right tool at the right time. How do you discover that?
Player (pausing): I guess you’d need to become aware of what shots work against your opponent and what shots do not work.
Coach: Correct, so would that look like you would be developing some sort of map towards winning points?
Player: Yes (smiling).
Coach: Are you now beginning to see that winning has to do with the ‘how to’ and ‘where to’ coming together? You see, how you hit the ball matters, but where and when you hit the ball matters more.
Player (eyes lighting up): I think I’m beginning to see that winning is bigger than just having good technique.
Coach: Ok, great – let’s keep building your technique in the context of developing a precise map to win points. Because as you know, winning more points can lead you to winning more games, sets, and then ultimately finding the treasure – winning the match!
Bill’s Note: You can see that Styrling really had to dig into that conversation, giving his player an opportunity to really think it through, while not allowing the player to opt out of the conversation. At the end, the player seems to have made her own discovery. At the beginning these conversations are a bit more difficult, but as players learn to use all of their thinking tools to discover a complete game, it gets easier and begins to flow.