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CAtennis is a passionate discussion for serious tennis players, parents and coaches looking for something different. No talk about technique, no talk about useless theory, no gimmicks; just practical advice from first-hand experience on how to improve your tennis. Kick back, drink the content, bounce ideas, and pitch articles (or friend us on Facebook).

Unless otherwise noted, all articles are authored by the founders of CAtennis.  Enjoy!


Entries in Coaching (4)


Fantasy Play: "Look! I'm John McEnroe!!!"

The story of Stefan Holm in David Epstein's book The Sports Gene is instructive for all parents of young tennis players. The story outlines how Stefan Holm, a now retired Swedish high-jumper and Olympic gold-medal winner, grew up obssessed with the sport after watching Patrick Sjöberg demonstrate his skills on television. After seeing Patrick set the world record, Stefan would run around his house and backyard jumping over obstacles screaming "look! I'm Patrick Sjoberg!" This type of passion wasn't drilled into Stefan's head by an over-eager parent. For Stefan, enacting - together with friends - a fansatsy version of the Olympics was as fascinating as playing pretend cops-and-robbers or cowboys-and-Indians. Stefan's passion was not smothered by his dad - a former lower-level soccer player. Instead, the dad was simply eager to help Stefan pursue HIS goals from a father-son bonding standpoint. 

As child developmental professionals agree, fantasy play is a rich and rewarding activity that helps kids practice all kinds of new skills. By engaging in fantasy play (e.g., devising their own plots) children practice problem-solving. And problem-solving is a huge component in the game of tennis. When the child has dreamt up a match-play scenario and solved it, s/he is less likely to be anxious when facing a similar scenario in real-life. Accordingly, although there is a time for practice to be serious, a youngster starting in tennis should be encouraged to play-pretend. Let the child pretend that he's Federer, or Nadal, or Djokovic, or Serena, or Sharapova, or Murray. Applaud the child's efforts in using her imagination, supply the props, and let her drive the bus for once. If she wants to play a match where she is Serena and you are del Potro - do it! And make your best efforts to copy the strokes a maneurisms of your player. Be serious about fantasy play. She will associate the sport with fun and will be more eager to learn concepts in "serious" lessons - which she will use in play: pretend and actual matches. In the process, you may learn something about the child - such as which player she idolizes? This will give you insight as to training methods to be employed: if the player wants to be Serena, then maybe she should be coached to play as her. 


Keep Things Simple For Doubles Success

Not only is playing doubles fun but it is also a great way to ensure that your singles game will improve. However, the improvement will be limited if you and your partner keep exiting the draw sooner than you should. Because of the dimensions and characteristics of the game, doubles require a different approach than singles. It is not so much about beauty or protracted tactics but about aggressivess and subtle strategy. Think: percentages. 

Here are some tips to help you and your partner win more matches (remember: the more doubles matches you win, the better of a player - doubles AND singles - you will become): 

1. OUTSIDE/OUTSIDE; INSIDE/INSIDE ("OO-II"): This generally means that the net player should cover the spot that is hit by his partner. For example, if the partner hits the ball towards the outside of the court (e.g., into the doubles alley), the netman should cover the line. If the partner hits the ball into the center of the court, the netman should move to cover more of the middle. OO-II will reduce the possibility that the opponent will hit the ball "BY" you. In other words, by covering the line (outside) or center (inside), the opponent will be forced to hit a shot that crosses in front of the netman - giving him the opportunity to pick away some volleys. If the netman's partner hits the ball "outside" and the netman covers the middle (inside), the opponent has a clear target down the line where he could hit the passing shot. In the same vein, limit the number of times you cross on your partner's out-wide serve. If, on the deuce side, your partner slices the serve out wide and the netman crosses, the returner will be able to burn a down the line return without an obstacle in the way. If the netman holds his ground on the outwide serve, the returner will be forced to take that serve in the middle of the court - hard to do with a netman in the way who is ready to cherry-pick any timid replies. 

2. THUMP-HIGH; STICK-NET; DROP-LOW: Inexperienced players tend to overcomplicate the volleys. Sometimes, I see players trying to drop-volley balls on top of the net or hammer balls below the net. Then these players get frustrated when their shot selection doesn't pan out. The great doubles players keep things extremely simple. The pace of the game is too quick to experiment with elaborate plays. So, when faced with a volley, remember the following: A) Balls that are "on top" of the net (2 feet or more) should be hammered down - preferably at an angle. Try to drop volley these, and the gravity will make the ball bounce high thereby enabling the opponents to get to the ball. Take away this possibility and just thump the ball out of your opponents' reach; B) Stick deep volleys that are net level (net level - approx. 2 feet). Balls that are net-height are more difficult to be angled away or drop-volleyed. Therefore, stick them deep and look for the opportunity on the next shot. Treat these balls as set-up shots. C) Drop-volley balls that are below the net. If you're close to the net and the opponent's shot has dipped below the net, try to drop volley the ball. A good drop volley will cause the opponent to pop up a response which you and your partner should put away. If you're farther away from the net, stick these volleys deep and transition your way to the net, however, from close up, the angle over the net is far too steep to do anything but try to drop volley the shot. 

3. GIVE YOURSELF A LIMIT: Too many times, players tend to rally cross-court from the baseline without rhyme or reason. Doubles is about percentages. The first team to get to the net usually wins the point. Therefore, if you're a singles player who uses the same strategy (consistency) in doubles force yourself to become more aggressive; take some chances. Tell yourself (and your partner) that on the 3rd (or 4th, or 5th...) shot you're coming in "come hell or high water". This mentality will assist you in becoming a more proactive doubles player. If you KNOW that you have to be in on the 4th shot, your 1st, 2nd and 3rd shots will be more and more aggressive. In other words, instead of passively waiting for something to happen, you will start making things happen. In the beginning, you will struggle with this mentality...it's something new. You certainly wouldn't come in off some of these shots in singles. However, the psychological implications of doubles (quciker pace; your partner assisting you) as well as the court characteristics make it very attractive to come in even on balls that would be considered high-risk in singles. Once you become proficient at coming in off a variety of balls, covering the ground and making shoelace level pick-ups, your singles game will improve along with your doubles game.

4. KEEP THE NET-PERSON HONEST: Once a game (at least), you and your partner should decide to take a return down the line towards the net person. Before the game starts, talk to your partner and decide which one of you will - even if the opening isn't really there - take the return right towards the net-persons head. Sow the seeds of doubt by making the net person volley even if she's not looking to volley on that particular play. Keep her honest and send the message that you're not afraid to go down the line. By picking a target in advance, you will hit a much more solid return than you would had you tried to change direction after the net-person signals that she's moving. Chances are that a good down the line return will cause the net player to miss eliciting "I'm sorry" or "my bad" apologies. Do this enough times, and it's likely that the player will retreat to her shell not wanting to touch any more volleys out of fear of letting down her partner. This is exactly what you want: one player (preferably both) to completely disengage from the game. When your opponents are split by doubt and communication breaks down, your chances of success in doubles will improve dramatically.


Do You Hear The Words That Are Coming Out Of My Mouth?!

"But that's NOT what I said!!!" Have you ever had a discussion with your coach or your child's coach that has ended or included a statement along the lines of the above? Chances are that, if you've been around this game long enough, you have been exposed to these sentiments on more than one occasion. You see, communication is often an imperfect endeavor. What I think, is not necessarily what I put into words; what I put into words is not always what you hear; what you hear is not always what your brain translates. Therefore, it is imperative for both player and coach to choose their words wisely and use some critical thinking skills (along with patience) in order to synthesize and grasp the message. 

Here are some examples of actual discussions that we have had with players (high level) over the past week:

1. Does "play aggressive" mean that you have to "attack"? Does it mean to "hit winners"? 

2. Does "lift" mean the same thing as "top-spin"?

3. Does "open up the court with a cross-court" mean "play cross-court"?

4. Is "coming in" limited to "serve and volleying", "chip and charging" or through a "powerful ground-stroke"? Can one come in off a heavy topspin lob? A drop-shot?

5. Does "make adjustments" mean "change your game"? 

6. Does "patience" mean "push"?

7. Does "touch" mean "drop shots"?

8. Does "play your game" mean that you shouldn't take all factors into consideration and fine-tune it given the opponent's particular game-style?

9. Does "pound the returns down the middle" mean that you can't take some chances when the opportunity arises?

10. Does "never hit a drop shot from behind the baseline" mean that it's "always a bad play"?

The reality is that a lot of players are looking for firm rules in order to simplify their on-court existence. But tennis is an imperfect science. You not only have to deal with your personal issues but also the actors thrown your way by the conditions and your opponent. The "always" and "nevers" come with numerous exceptions. Accordingly, it is imperative for coaches to select the appropriate words and for the players to take some time in order to analyze the message before jumping to conclusions which could result in friction, distrust and, too many times, a parting of the relationship. 


Signs of What Not To Do

Kareem Abdul Jabar is known for perfecting the hook shot. This highly effective shot made him virtually unguardable when he was in the flow of the game. Over the years he has been asked many times why nobody has emulated the infamous hook shot. Never able to give a solid straight answer, he can't put his finger on exactly why this is so. Maybe the introduction of the 3-point line into the NBA, maybe the satisfaction of making a flashy jump shot, but he isn't quite sure. What he does know is nobody has taken the time to learn and perfect the skill of backing someone down to the basket, inch by inch, waiting for the right moment to unleash the deadly hook shot.

The Lakers hired him to be a coach for big man (center) Andrew Bynum. Outside of Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum is considered one of the best centers in the NBA. He was asked, "Why don't you teach Andrew the hook?" The reporter went on to say, "It would seem logical to copy one of the most effective shots in basketball history, time is on his side to learn this valuable skill, and it could potentially elevate his game to a whole new level. It makes perfect logical sense."

Kareem replied, "I don't know. I tried, but you can only push a person so far. I hear what you are saying, everything you are saying is right. For whatever reason, Andrew just didn't want to learn it and you can only push someone so far."

Sometimes there is no changing people. The best approach is to accept them for who they are, quit trying to change them, and appreciate them with the good and the bad. It's very easy for any outsider to say, "So and so should do this and that. It's so easy." Not so fast my friend.

Knowledge is not everything in relating to a player. If one of the best basketball players in the world is unwilling to change, imagine what the rest of us are capable of? Human beings are flawed in one way or another. The best coaches do not try to prove they are right (especially early when signing on with a player). The smart coaches patiently try to build trust, go with the players strengths, before messing with any technical issues. There is certainly an art to making your players feel good about themselves.

Once you have earned the trust (which could take months to years), anything is possible.

Here is an example of what not to do. Watch a world class junior, college, or professional player play 2-3 matches and start suggesting to change their technique with no prior relationship with them. "Change your grip, toss the ball here, angular momentum, apex on serve, crossover step, blah blah and blah blah and blaaaah." Especially if you have never played at the level they have played at- pressure, nerves, confidence, bad luck- all "real" contributing factors that affect performance.

Perfect technique is the holy grail. The quest that will never be reached. The wise coaches understand this is unattainable and instead focus on things they can grasp such as the ability to handle suffering, approach to training, the look on their face during matches, do they genuinely scrap for every crumb, etc. A great warrior with poor strategy willl usually beat a strategist with a poor head. People who have never played before think "two shots here, one shot there" or "why don't they just step into the ball and hit it?" The pressure to win is debilitating at times.