Sunday, December 30, 2012

YOUR BEST COACH IS MYELIN



No matter how good a coach or player you think you are, you would be nothing without the help of a substance called myelin. The better you are as a coach at creating myelin in your players, the better their results will be. The more myelin your players have, the better they perform. It's as simple as that!

Think what could happen if you understood how to train to create myelin and were able to even increase the production of myelin each and every practice session. Do I have your interest yet?

Let’s start by explaining what myelin is first. 

Myelin is a substance inside your body that coats itself around the neurological pathways and assist with any activity that you do often. Instead of having to re-learn a tennis fore-hand every-time you went out to play, the body creates myelin to help you “remember” the process. It creates a neurological "super highway".

Someone who plays tennis only on week-ends will have less myelin around the “tennis neurological pathways” than a player on the ATP or WTA Tours. The myelin build-up of an ATP or WTA professional tennis player will be considerably more than that of a weekend player because they play and practice every day for hours.

For years medical people have noticed this excessive myelin build-up in people who specialized and excelled in their particular field of endeavor. Tennis players, violinists, racing car drivers, scientists, barbers, anybody who performed an activity intensely over a long period of time produced excessive myelin build-up.

 It was thought that myelin was present in these exceptional people simply because they performed their tasks more often. Our earlier belief was that the mere repetition of an activity created myelin, but we didn’t know why the body needed to produce myelin nor what purpose myelin actually served.

Knowing the reason why we produce myelin and the purpose it serves has only just been discovered. Our new understanding of myelin has profound implications on how, as coaches we should teach tennis and how we should conduct our on-court practice sessions each day.

Why We Create Myelin

We all know that if you hit thousands of back-hands during practice your back-hand will get better. If you practice your back-hand for one full hour on Monday it will feel much better on Tuesday. That feeling has been termed “gaining confidence” and is sometimes called “grooving” the stroke, but that is being too simplistic.

In pre-historic times the human body created myelin so that we are able to perform very important activities when we were faced with danger. It was about survival.  

Myelin helps make an activity more efficient. Done enough times, climbing that tree to avoid being eaten by a predator will become very efficient, and thankfully so! It’s linked to us surviving as a species.

What Creates Myelin in a Player

Remember how well you played after a few continuous weeks of tournaments? Waking each day and playing to the best of your ability against high caliber opposition? You started to feel really good about hitting those clutch passing shots and serving yourself out of trouble on break points. 

You were creating myelin during those important matches. This leads to the most important ingredient when attempting to create myelin… STRESS!

The more stress we are repeatedly under, the faster myelin is produced and in greater quantities. This is important and worth repeating: DOING AN ACTIVITY FREQUENTLY AND UNDER STRESS CREATES MYELIN FASTER AND IN GREATER QUANTITIES.

How to Train Myelin

Players will thrive on the additional pressure and become much better instinctively in matches

To help develop myelin faster all you need to add to your practice is tennis related stress and pressure.  This can take the form of:

  • Time pressure
Create time limits that add pressure to drill

  • Target pressure
Set-up target drills and demand accuracy through rewards and penalties

  • Skill complexity pressure
Put a variety of strokes together in the drill that demand more of your player

  • Complex patterns
Develop complex hitting patterns that duplicate real points and match situations

  • Peer pressure
By training in groups and demanding more of each player you are automatically creating peer pressure. Nobody likes to be the weak link in the drill.

  • Over-loading
This can be achieved by having players perform “cold” without a warm-up as is the case in the “Nominated Player Drill”.  Start complex, skill complex drills that have consequences early in the practise rather than later when players have "found their feet".

  • Penalties
  Always create consequences for sub-standard  performance

Understanding myelin and the purpose it serves helps us to re-jig practice sessions so that they become more meaningful and productive. Players will very quickly develop a natural instinct in all facets of the game necessary for competition.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

THE TASK V'S EGO MOTIVATED PLAYER


IT'S IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND NOT ONLY WHAT MOTIVATES A PLAYER, BUT ALSO WHAT DE-MOTIVATES THEM 

Learning what motivates each player to train hard and compete strongly in competition is critically important to a coach. Understanding what dominates a player’s mindset allows us to “push the right buttons” when needed.

Players in competition operate under numerous stressful situations, conditions and mindsets. All these various situations, conditions and mindsets create special mental challenges that test them throughout the competition and can affect their confidence and ability to perform at their best. These mental challenges can be categorized under two broad headings, Task and Ego related.

I like to categorize players into either Task or Ego motivated players, meaning the motivation that rules their response to training, competition and problems will be dealt with from a Task or Ego perspective.

Task motivated player’s are the type of players who thrive on working hard towards a goal.  They see a clear link between working hard off-court and being rewarded with improved results on-court. Coaches enjoy working with players who are Task motivated because they have a great work ethic and respond well to instructions.

THE TASK MOTIVATED PLAYER BELIEVES THAT WORKING HARD WILL ACHIEVE IMPROVED RESULTS IN COMPETITION

The Task motivated player sounds like the ideal player to work with but there are also dangers. Simply working hard does not insure that anything gets better. Player’s who are too Task motivated train hard but sometimes don’t train smart.  In tight matches they also believe it is their right to win because of the effort they have put into their training off-court. They can under-achieve during competitions.

Ego motivated players are a lot tougher for coaches to understand than Task motivated player’s because they sometimes seem aloof and unwilling to follow instructions. Ego motivated player’s can also be moody and become disinterested after losses because their personal success indicators are linked to only one factor – winning.  As we all know, success often doesn’t come without taking one step backwards before we are able to take two steps forward.

Early on the Ego motivated player is labeled more “talented” or “gifted” because they rely on flashy strokes, increased variety and a winning mindset. They find a way to win and achieve good results early as juniors. This winning mindset can also get in the way of working on improvements during practise and these players can often go through periods of depression when opponents they used to beat, begin to beat them.

EVERY PLAYER RESPONDS DIFFERENTLY TO YOUR COACHING

A player’s Task v’s Ego tendencies are set before they come to us for training. We do however need to work with the player to eliminate dangerous tendencies that may cause problems later.  Therefore knowing whether your player is Task or Ego motivated will help you deal with these players both on the practice court and during competition.

You are probably now wondering which is the best mindset, Task or Ego? It’s the key question that needs to be answered before I outline ways to improve the two different mindsets. The answer is…

   PLAYERS REQUIRE ENORMOUS LEVELS OF TASK MOTIVATION AND ENORMOUS LEVELS OF EGO MOTIVATION TO REACH THE TOP.

Players need large doses of Task and Ego mindsets. Look at the top players today and you will see that a strong desire to work hard, coupled with a strong desire to achieve results creates a top player.

Training Task and Ego

It depends on whether you train players individually or in a group but within a group environment the Ego motivated players can be “tricked” into commiting to task related activities such as fitness and drilling. The group will maintain a high workload and pull the Ego motivated players along with them.


To create a more competitive mindset in the Task motivated player start to incorporate scoring, competition and points in everything you do (this will keep the Ego motivated player happy also).  Get them excited about results by talking about rankings, reputation and rewards.

Anything that helps you understand each player better will make your job easier and certainly help the player become more balanced in their approach to competition.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

CAN YOU PLAY YOUR BEST TENNIS AT 3AM?


Several years ago I was on a practice court with Tamarine Tanasugarn. She was part of a team that had traveled with me overseas to compete. It was 7am and everyone was taking time to adjust to the unfamiliar conditions. Everyone except Tamarine that is! This was our first practice session after the long flight. Tamarine was striking the ball as cleanly as ever.  Her timing was perfect from the first ball until the last.

What created her ability to adapt so well to the conditions and thrive? Later Paradorn Srichaphan, who reached a career high of #9 ATP had the same adaptability. I began to ask myself what this quality was and more importantly whether I could actually teach it to my students on-court.

I began to formulate what I called “The 3am Theory”, the ability to play your best tennis at anytime, anywhere, on any surface, any, any… even at 3am in the morning.  

Imagine you were woken from a sound sleep at 3am and asked to play a tie-break against a tough opponent. How well would you play and what would be the factors that hurt your performance? My belief is that those factors that hurt your performance are the exact same factors that cause you problems when competing in tournaments.

How do we uncover the key factors that hurt our game in competition? How do we constantly expose the player to these factors in practice so that they can be improved on? Certainly not by practicing in a predictable manner, incorporating repetitive hitting and drills unrelated to match-play. Certainly not without including stress and correct decision making in your drills.


By committing players early in the practice session to dealing with targets, directions, stress, technical discipline and correct decision making you will uncover many things. After training the 3am Theory for many years I can see now that 3am determines the ability of players in competition and separates good players from very good players.

Here are some notes on training the 3am Theory.

Rules When Training 3am

  • Eliminate long warm-ups

You see these players at tournaments all the time.  They are the players who are on the practice courts constantly, trying to perfect their strokes and develop confidence before the first round starts. The problem with this philosophy is that competitive tennis is exactly the opposite. Competition is never about predictability and feeling comfortable.  It’s about stress, unpredictability and being taken out of your comfort zone. So why prepare that way?

I like to have my player’s warm-up physically before hitting but as soon as they are warm we begin simulated points. This forces the 3am mindset.

  • Eliminate “closed” skill repetition drills

Closed skill repetition drills are drills such as hitting cross-court forehands for 30 minutes. Closed skill drills are predictable and are mostly void of pressure. Players love these drills because they can feel comfortable and “groove” their strokes without the stress that comes with competition and unpredictability.

Eliminate them from pre-tournament practice sessions because they do not prepare a player for competition.  Worse still is that drills of this nature feed the insecure players in your group and make them even more insecure and needing “confidence” to perform.


  • Implement “open” skill & skill complexity drills

Start making your players adapt quickly to conditions by adopting Combination Drills and the Nominated Player Drill. Start points soon after stepping on-court through the use of the First Ball Cross-court Drill (these drills are explained here).

Soon you will begin to watch your players go into complicated patterns minutes after starting the practice session.  This is a sure sign that the 3am mindset is developing.

  • Force players to adapt through targets and peer pressure

As you incorporate complex patterns and drills to their practice early, look for ways to complicate it even more by adding other factors such as scoring, and peer pressure. Play points in groups so that the players are forced to play offensively sometimes against weaker players and sometimes defensively against superior players. Just try to keep it related to the competitive environment you want them to thrive in.

Open Skilled and Skill Complexity Drills to Help Train 3am

  • Combination Drills

I instruct my players where to hit the first 3 strokes of the rally, the serve, the return and the first ground-stroke. If a ball is hit to the wrong target the player must change. Keep changing the combinations so that all the options are practiced. Once the 3 targets have been achieved both players can play the point out.

This drill incorporates peer pressure, executing the three key strokes in a rally, technical and mental discipline.

The serve has 4 options
1.    Wide to the Deuce court
2.    Down the middle to the Deuce court
3.    Down the middle to the Add court
4.    Wide to the Add court

The return has 8 options
                       
1.    Return (#1) cross-court
2.    Return (#1) down the line
3.    Return (#2) Cross-court
4.    Return (#2) down the line
5.    Return (#3) cross-court
6.    Return (#3) down the line
7.    Return (#4) cross-court
8.    Return (#4) down the line

First Ground-stroke

1.    Change direction by hitting cross-court
2.    Change direction by hitting down the line
(there are 8 variations for the “First Ground-stroke”)

  • Nominated Player Drill

Two players play a tie-break while reserve player sits out, you can also have a reserve player sitting out at both baselines.  At the coaches discretion he can nominate the reserve player to play a particular point. The reserve player is obviously playing points “cold” which is the purpose of the drill. The toughest skill to develop with the 3am Theory is the ability to play “cold”, without sufficient preparation.

Bring the reserve player in for points when it will help them to overcome a problem with their game.  Examples include:

·         Serving under pressure
·         Hitting quality second serves
·         Returning serve on a big point
·         Rally under pressure against a good baseliner
·         Playing proactively

  • First Ball Cross-Court

This drill can be employed when you want to take the serve and return out of the rally.  One player starts the point by hitting cross-court, the other player must also hit cross-court, then allow the point to be played out.

It’s never easy to simulate the various qualities present in match-play. Try training the 3am Theory both as a means to change a players mindset and to prepare for up-coming events



Saturday, September 29, 2012

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF GRIPS?


A few decades ago coaches made a big deal about the grips a player used.  The first step in any lesson would usually revolve around learning the correct grip.  Back then the grip was god.

The function of the grip for beginners and intermediate level players is primarily to provide strength and security between the hand and racquet. For advanced players the primary job of the grip is to allow the racquet-head to perform its purpose. This article deals with eliminating the contamination that can occur when a faulty grip doesn’t allow the racquet-head to perform its desired task.

If a certain forehand grip doesn’t allow the racquet-head to hit a high bouncing ball cleanly, that player has a weakness that can be exploited by their opponent. He/she must find a new grip position or find a technique that helps them adapt to high balls on the fore-hand better.

Often tactics that help you beat an opponent are based on  an opponents inferior grips that fail to adapt to speeds and heights. Extreme western grips have difficulty with low balls. Continental grips have trouble hitting high balls cleanly.

If the racquet-head can’t pass through the contact zone for an appropriate length, contamination will occur. The contact zone can be affected either by the racquet-head angle being incorrect or the contact zone being too short. This contamination can be caused by poor technique, balance or a faulty grip position.

If the overall goal is to eliminate contamination of the racquet-head caused by a faulty grip, the best method I have found is to use the non-racquet hand or opposite hand to change grips. If you are a right-handed player then consider using the left-hand to prepare the correct grip.

Use the finger-tips for greater sensitivity


Between strokes the opposite-hand dominates the racquet-hand

Here’s how to use the opposite hand…

  • Between strokes and during stroke preparation, the player’s awareness is fixed on the opposite-hand (not the racquet-hand).

  • Allow the racquet-hand to relax. Dominate with the opposite-hand!

  • Prepare the racquet-head with the opposite-hand, using it to take the racquet back (backswing) and set the correct angle of the racquet-face.

As you do this, allow the racquet-hand to change grips and into its natural position. If the ball is high, allow the opposite hand to rise to the height of the contact point, while allowing the racquet hand to change position. At every height the opposite hand will assist the racquet hand to find its natural grip position.

    Holding the racquet shaft is also acceptable as long as grips are
    changed and angles are set

  • Once the stroke is finished, re-establish the opposite-hand back up on the throat of the racquet.

By creating accurate grips and following these opposite-hand steps you will be able to positively affect the quality of the contact, probably the most important fundamental in tennis.  Any time you improve contact quality you also:

  • improve a players feel and control of the ball
  • Create more penetration at the other end
  • Become much more efficient with your stroke production

It is therefore well worth eliminating the source of the poor contact by “cleaning up” the grips through the use of the opposite-hand.

Monday, September 10, 2012

UNDER-SPIN FUNDAMENTALS



Junior tennis often follows the trends that dominate the professional game. Today very few juniors have an understanding of when to use under-spin, nor do they have solid technique to allow them to use under-spin in a match. However the ability to use under-spin as a tool in points is beginning to make a come-back. 

For too many years players have relied almost totally on topspin to attack and defend in points.  Recently the top male players in our game have started to use under-spin more.

In the 2012 US Open there were several instances whereby players who were struggling to match their opponents in the baseline exchanges were forced to change the pattern of the points and attack the net. Roddick, Federer and Murray all used under-spin to force a new pattern on their opponents.

As tennis gets more and more diverse in its skill complexities, players today must have an understanding of when to use under-spin and how to execute under-spin.  Here is an outline on the key points I emphasize when teaching under-spin.


     1        THE LOCK

I teach players to lock their wrist whenever they want to hit under-spin.  Whether it’s the volley, approach shot, or a one-handed under-spin groundstroke, I insist on a locked wrist.

The "Lock" involves creating a 90 degree
angle between the racquet shaft and the forearm
The advantage of a locked wrist is that it creates a solid surface (racquet-face) for the ball to rebound off.  There is no need to swing or add wrist to the contact because the locked wrist allows the player to use the natural momentum of the on-coming ball and rebound the ball.

Create an open racquet-face by rolling the knuckles (Backhand) and palm (forehand)
Insisting on a locked wrist also forces the player to work harder on their position.  If you don’t get close enough to the ball you can’t stay locked in the wrist.  You will need to extend the wrist to reach the ball.

2     LATE CONTACT POINT

One of the biggest mistakes you can make with under-spin is to hit the ball early and in front.  Even worst is to “punch” the ball in front.  I know that these phrases are used often to describe the volley mechanics but they will destroy your under-spin and they are incorrect.  Early contact will “open” the racquet-face and diminish control of the flight of the ball. An early contact point is for top-spin not under-spin.

Contacting the ball on the side helps
maintain an open racquet-face
through the contact zone

Under-spin requires the contact point to be a little later.  A deeper contact point, roughly parallel to the body, will allow the racquet-face to stay “open” through the ball. This late contact effects the amount of under-spin on the ball and the amount of under-spin controls the depth and bounce at the other side of the net.

To achieve a late contact point on a short ball in front, the player must learn to use a side-ways cross-over step.  I like to work this cross-over step into fitness workouts so that the skill can be perfected and the player becomes more confident in moving this way

3.    THE ELBOW

Because the wrist is locked the energy to the ball comes from the rebound effect and by extending the elbow through contact.

Keep the elbow relaxed so that it can
extend through the contact zone
The player must anticipate where the ball will be contacted and prepare a locked wrist and a slightly relaxed elbow.  Once the ball is being contacted, the wrist remains locked and the elbow extends through the contact to help provide penetration on the bounce at the other side.
  
4.    VOLLEY

Apart from the technique of hitting a good volley, which has already been outlined, I highlight two other objectives to a player:

                                                  i.    The Volley is a placement shot and not a put-away shot

Accurate placement will always be better than attempting to bludgeon the ball. Very often the volley is the finish shot but the mindset should be one of placement.

                                                ii.    Be conscious of the height of the ball in relation to the height of the net band

By being aware of the net band a player will know how much they can and can’t do on a particular ball.  A ball struck below the height of the white band puts the player in neutral or even defense, while any ball contacted above the white band of the net will be a much easier ball. It’s important to know clearly what role you are in on each situation.

5.    APPROACH SHOT

The player hitting the approach must slow the
arm and rely mostly on his/her forward momentum
These are my key points for the approach shot:
                                                  i.    The ball is struck primarily by using the forward movement of the body running forward and the player continuing their run towards the net, Don’t over-do the racquet work!
                                                ii.    Keep the arm slow for under-spin. A fast arm is for topspin
                                               iii.    Your objectives are to keep yourself safe at net by keeping the opponents feet deep in the court and/or keep the opponents contact point low

6.    ONE-HANDED BACKHAND

Many of the points remain the same but additional points are:
                                          i.    Maintain a disciplined finish at the completion of your stroke. The finish should end with the knuckles of your racquet hand in front of your face.  Finishing out to the side of your body shows that you are using too much shoulder in your swing.  Dominate with the elbow.


Create a finish check-point high and in front

                                        ii.    Establish a contact foot that draws power up from the ground. Many players who use a two handed backhand lack strength in their arms. Enlist the ground forces to supply power to the single handed backhand.


The power, balance and timing for the
one-handed under-spin backhand comes
from the players connection to the ground