Sunday, July 22, 2012

WHY WE PLAY: THE CHALLENGE OF COMPETITIVE TENNIS


I recently had a player, “James”, who was going through a rough period. James was struggling in practice and in competition. He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself on-court, becoming over-stressed and making poor decisions while executing strokes and tactics.

It would have been easy to point the blame at his faltering ground-strokes and poor on-court execution, but I felt that spending time working on the details of his game would not have helped.  It seemed to me that the problem was mental and not technical. 

Sometimes players lose sight of the real reasons they love to play tennis and compete. Often I ask players “Why do you play tennis”?  The answers are mostly the same.  Players say they “Like to Win” and “It’s fun”. But if that was true we would all play against opponents that we could beat easily.  Obviously playing against opponents that can be beaten easily would not be satisfying at all, therefore “winning” is not what brings us back to competition. Sometimes even a loss can be extremely satisfying and rewarding.

If the reason we compete in tennis was for fun, why is it so stressful for most of us during matches? I don’t think I would describe facing a break point as “fun”.

I believe we are attracted to tennis by the challenge.  Humans do extraordinary things to challenge themselves. We climb mountains, swim the English Channel, run long distances and continually try to beat previous best times and distances in sporting events.  Our passion for challenges have produced amazing feats, and also gotten us killed. We seem to never tire of going beyond our limits.

Therefore I believe we play tennis to be challenged, the tougher the task the better the feeling.

Some players however, lose sight of the reason they play tennis.  The challenge becomes the enemy and something to be avoided and blocked out. This leads to a player reacting like James.  If things didn’t go well during competition James became angry and sulked.  Often after losing a long point he would look skyward for divine intervention.
My talk with James involved explaining to him that he needed to take ownership of what happened on-court.  He had been missing shots and failing to execute on-court because he couldn’t accept responsibility for what was happening. He continually blamed outside factors. Every time he lost a point he would think “see, mistakes are beyond my control”.

After our talk James began to take responsibility for his actions, and any time he made mistakes he had to get honest with himself and acknowledge that the fault and the solution were in his hands. He could either continue sulking or take immediate action to remedy the problem. He chose to take ownership and confront the challenges that came alone in his matches.

The transformation was immediate.  James began to play as if a heavy weight had been lifted off his shoulders.  He began to execute perfectly whatever he decided to do, whether it was a change of direction, decisive offense or staying in the point through gritty defense.  If James does make mistakes now, he acknowledges the problem calmly and honestly… and remedies the situation without the previous theatrics!

Players must understand that the reason we play tennis and enjoy it so much is because of the challenges we must face. Giving a player a better insight into the nature of competition could be the catalyst to a much improved mindset and improved results.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

3 WAYS TO BEAT A SUPERIOR OPPONENT

Beating superior opponents sets you apart from the other players

There is nothing more satisfying than beating an opponent who is, on paper at least, better than you.  Achieving a win against a superior opponent sets you apart as a genuine competitor.

Here are three ways to overcome a stronger opponent.

1.     Do Your Homework First
Playing someone who is better than you suggests that your opponent is perhaps technically, physically OR mentally stronger than you. They could even be technically, physically AND mentally stronger than you! Don’t panic. You need to isolate where their true strengths are.

Look at what they do best. Ask the following questions:

Speed: do they prefer the ball fast or slow?
Direction: do they prefer the ball wide or into the  body?
Height: do they prefer the ball high or low?
Position: Do they prefer to play at the net or at the baseline?

That’s the technical part finished. Next you must look at their mental make-up. Don’t always assume that they are confident people just because they win lots of matches, are experienced and are intimidating you by the way they are walking and talking. They may well be all those things but nobody until you has devised a systematic plan to beat them yet!

2.   Play With a Plan
Devise a plan based on understanding what type of ball your opponent prefers, and giving them the opposite.

If they are timing the fast ball perfectly and are sending it back with added power and accuracy, feed them slower balls to take them out of their preferred option.

If they are taking big swings at the high bouncing balls you give them, add under-spin to the rally to limit their potency.

If you are hitting wide in the court and your opponent replies by hitting offensive winners, start to target the middle of the baseline to take away the angles.

If your opponent is dominating the rally, coming forward on your short balls and finishing with a volley or an overhead, get to the net before them and stop them dictating the point in this way.

I will repeat again… Devise a plan based on understanding what type of ball your opponent prefers, and giving them the opposite

Sometimes the conditions will assist you. Conditions may make it easier to implement your ideal game plan therefore factor-in court conditions, climatic conditions and physical conditions.

I once played a match indoors.  One court was particularly close to a wall, so close that this court should not have been used during the tournament. During my match I kept serving wide towards the wall and winning the point each time. Fortunately my opponent didn’t seem to have practiced his slice serve enough to be able to use the same tactic!  


3.   Believe and Keep Believing
Once you have done a good job of scouting your opponent, and devised a clever strategy, you’ve got to go into the match with strong determination.

Here’s a great quote from Vince Lombardi, the late coach of the champion Green Bay Packers…

“Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or fitter man, but sooner or later, the man who wants to win the most, will win”.

Many things will happen to dent your spirits but you must continue to implement your strategy no matter what happens. Sometimes the strategy takes time to develop.  The majority of your tactics are based on:

·         Creating errors
·         Creating frustration
·         Developing a loss of confidence
·         Destroying your opponents composure

All these things take time to develop so be patient.  Your job is to maintain your self-belief throughout.

The more often you develop game plans in matches to help against stronger opponents the better you will become at creating the “up-set” win that sets you apart from the majority of players. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

FRENCH OPEN MEN'S SINGLES PREDICTIONS: 4TH ROUND

Men's Singles 4th Round Oredictions:


Tsonga bt Wawrinka, Del Potro bt Berdych, Ferrer bt Granollers, Gasquet bt Murray, Almegro bt Tipsarevic, Nadal bt Monaco

Saturday, June 2, 2012

FRENCH OPEN MEN;S SINGLES 3RD & 4TH ROUND PREDICTIONS

Men's Singles French Open predictions (third Round):
David Ferrer bt Mikhail Youzhny, Granollers bt Mathieu, Gasquet bt Haas, Murray bt Giraldo, Tipsarevic bt Benneteau, Almagro bt Mayer, Raonic bt Monaco, Nadal bt Schwank.

4th Round predictions:
Djokovic bt Seppi, Tsonga bt Wawrinka, Federer bt Goffin, Del Potro bt Berdych

Sunday, May 27, 2012

FRENCH OPEN PREDICTIONS: WHO WILL MAKE IT TO THE 3RD ROUND?

With the 2012 French Open about to start here are my predictions for the men up until the third Round:
Djokovic v Melzer, Davydenko v Verdasco, Simon v Wawrinka, Fognini v Tsonga, Federer v Mahut, Stephanek v Lopez, Del Potro v Ferrero, Anderson v Berdych, Ferrer v Haase, Granollers v Isner, Haas v Gasquet, Falla v Murray, Tipsarevic v Benneteau, Kolhschreiber v Almegro, Monaco v Raonic, Karlovic v Nadal.

A GUIDE TO BEING ON THE ROAD WITH PLAYERS


Traveling with players to different countries can be challenging and rewarding

As coaches we sometimes forget that the essence of our job is to help players win in competition.  We spend a lot of time on  the practice court but a large portion of our job should involve being with our players at tournaments and helping them translate work on the practice court into results at tournaments. It would be nice if that happened automatically but unfortunately it doesn’t always translate on the match court.

It’s difficult during practice however to simulate match-play conditions and to teach a player to create and implement a strategy during the heat of battle. 

I have always found that the tournament environment  actually enhances the learning  process because the player is much more receptive to advice.  The player is under pressure and will listen to key instructions on technique and strategy.  

Here is a check-list of suggestions for coaches traveling with players to tournaments.

1.  Management

·       Player management is vital to a successful trip.  Any player who causes problems during the tournament can affect the performances of the other members of the team.  If you’re with an individual he/she will still have to be monitored just as closely.

Treat each player fairly and don’t favour any player over another. The number of potential problems during a tournament are endless, but to avoid a possible disaster you must sit with the player and talk.

·       Always have travel and tournament documentation with you.  Sometimes a situation arises at the tournament where you need to consult the rules.  Every event has different rules and regulations and these can even change from year to year. Also have your accommodation and flight details ready when needed.

·       Collect information on the venue for the future. Take advantage of your trip to collect information for the future.  You may be return to the same venue in the future and knowing the best places to stay, practice, eat and have laundry done saves time and energy. 

·       Equipment to take with you.  This is mostly a personal choice but I always take a stretching mat, massage cylinder, yoga block and IPod.  This allows me to maintain a fitness/stretching routine everywhere I go.

Equipment like this doesn't take up much room and can become helpful while on the road

2. On-Site

·       Create a schedule and habits to keep your player(s) happy.  Try to eat, sleep and wake at the same time each day.  Players thrive when they are left to concentrate on playing.  By setting up a daily schedule the players settle into a routine and feel comfortable. At one time the players and I had a superstition that required us to eat at the same restaurant, sit in the same chair and eat the same item from the menu until we lost, when it became ok to make a change!

·       Tournament venues vary so much but one of the key times will be meal times.  Finding the right places to eat can sometimes be a challenge.  Make sure that when you find a suitable place to eat that the food is suitable for everyone and that it’s food that is suitable for players after a hard day of competition.

3. Coaching

·                Send your player into matches with a plan.  By constantly going into matches with a game plan a player becomes familiar with the many different strategies and styles of play, and also becomes comfortable with the act of implementing a game plan during competition.  Look at this task as a short term way to help your player in the up-coming match and a long-term investment in their future development.

I have often given players a small piece of paper with 1-3 keys points that will help them in their next match.  We will talk together the morning of the match on each point so that the player is clear what must be done.  During the match I encourage the player to pull the note out of their bag and review it when they start to get off-track.

·       Review all matches with your player after competition.  It would be pointless to send your player into matches with a strategy or something to work on technically if there was no review after the match. Prepare this talk carefully so that you stay on topic and don’t include topics in the discussion that were not part of the pre-match plan.

This is where the piece of paper from the pre-match talk becomes helpful, keeping the coach on topic and clarifying to the player the key points that may have been forgotten during the heat of battle.

·       Make notes on things that need work in practice back home. If you want to make practice sessions as relevant as possible there is no better way than to watch your player in competition.  You need to make key decisions on topics that need attention on the practice court.  These will be broad ideas regarding patterns, offensive and defensive abilities, technique and how well they performed mentally.

Make sure that your training systems implement this information directly into practice. Be relentless in the creation of “The Thread”, linking match-play information to topics to work on in practice.

Traveling with players or an individual can be challenging but by creating structure on and off-court you can avoid many of the problems that crop up, allowing the player(s) to focus on reaching their potential in their matches.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

FRENCH OPEN 2012: MENS SINGLES PROSPECTS

With the French Open just around the corner this year the men’s singles looks tough to pick.  Here is a summary of 10 players likely to feature at the business end of the tournament.

Djokovic goes into the French Open 2012 as favourite
Novak Djokovic: prospects 8 ½ /10
Winning is a habit and Djokovic has had a really messy lead-up to Roland Garros this year. He still has the strongest game amongst the men and the grit to win multiple victories against the top prospect listed here.

Djokovic is the hot favourite this year and has a mental advantage over the other top players.  No one goes into a match with Djokovic confident of victory, however any loss effects a players confidence no matter what the reasons for the loss. 

Federer is in form but can he get past Nadal
Roger Federer: prospects 7 ½ /10
Federer has done really well to keep up the pressure on Djokovic and Nadal.  The fire still burns inside and he knows how to win at Roland Garros. 

He’s had a great tournament in Madrid that would have done his confidence a lot of good leading up to the French Open 2012.

Federer will probably only struggle against Nadal, Djokovic or Isner but they will be significant challenges. With all his experience and talent I’m not sure why he has not devised an effective strategy for Nadal or Djokovic by now but the fact is he’s tactically really poor and seldom turns a match around if he’s losing. 

You can expect Federer to be around and challenging for the title but I don’t think he can win the title unless someone else has eliminated at least one of the big three, Nadal, Djokovic or Isner first.

Nadal has the pedigree
Rafael Nadal: prospects 8 ½ /10
“Mr.  Clay Court”, with perhaps the best record ever on clay.  How can he be over-looked after his 6th singles title at Roland Garros last year.

While he dominates Federer on clay, he also has had problems against Djokovic so therefore the draw will be important. He may need someone to eliminate Djokovic and avoid a confrontation with his most difficult foe.

Nadal is also a master at presenting himself as the underdog.  He will talk up an opponent and often take “injury”              breaks from his tournament schedule. I think Nadal enjoys the underdog tag and likes Djokovic to go into Roland Garros as the favorite.  What Nadal does struggle with however is a clear strategy that can beat Djokovic. 

Nadal will be extremely difficult to beat on the clay courts of Roland Garros.

A lack of maturity will hurt Murray at the business end
Andy Murray: prospects 6/10
I have been saying for quite some time that Andy Murray does not have the maturity to win a Grand Slam.  If he could discipline his response to pressure he would be my first pick because he has the ability. 

What gets in his way is his arrogance, blaming his equipment and support team for imagined problems during the crucial periods during a match. The more at stake the more it happens.

Lendl was a good choice as coach for Murray because Lendl had the strength of character to demand more discipline from Murray.  Unfortunately the signs are that he has not been able to help Murray mature.

Expect a good performance from Murray at the 2012 French Open but a disappointing loss at the business end of the tournament.

The biggest threat this year...
John Isner: prospects 7 ½ /10
John Isner is on the verge of big things.  His exploits in Davis Cup competition on clay against France were monumental.  He’s playing very smart and if he can execute his game plan he’s extremely difficult to beat.

Isner is following a strategy based on…
·       Getting a high number of 1st serves in play, making it near impossible for opponents to break serve
·       Attacking the return on every opportunity in the knowledge that if he can convert on some return chances he will break serve
·       Shortening the groundstroke rally by attacking anything high or short. Opponents don’t get a chance to establish any patterns from the baseline and Isner is able to compete on his terms.

The Davis Cup tie on clay against France who were playing at home showed that Isner can do some serious damage at Roland Garros. 

One more thing I like about Isner’s chances, he’s in a very good place mentally.  Isner will not self implode at the up-coming French Open, he is a humble guy who can keep each round in perspective  and go all the way this year.


Others:
David Ferrer has done great throughout the first half of this year. I don’t see Ferrer winning a Grand Slam because it’s tough to sustain that level of physicality for two weeks. However none of the top players will want to meet Ferrer early in the tournament when he is at his toughest. An out of form Jo Wilford Tsonga may be energized playing in Paris in front of his countrymen. He has the respect of his peers but is under-performing lately and it’s tough to suddenly find inspiration. Final verdict, he may have one big win in him but not two weeks of great results.  Tomas Berdych has the game to win but seems to slip up mentally.  I’m sure the other players wait for the “brain freeze” moment when he will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory!  Juan Martin Del Potro and Milos Raonic are the sharks in the draw, able to beat anyone with their big games and confident demeanors.  They are the type of players who create chaos in the draw by eliminating the big names and thus open up the draw for others to shine.