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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 Hard Truths (40)


Where Coaches and Parents Get It Wrong

Have you ever wondered what makes a good player great? If so, you are following in the footsteps of numerous people who have sought to bottle the answer and sell it to the masses via clever articles or neatly packaged tennis lessons. Often times, the answer is a combination of "talent" and "practice." While not entirely wrong, the concepts are not mutually exclusive. Research shows that talent supports practice and practice nurtures talent. 

Take for example the occlusion studies initiated by Janet Starkes, a former Canadian women's basketball team member. She wanted to know why elite athletes - despite possessing similar objective reaction times as "regular" people - possessed a much better skill-set in specific environments (e.g., hitting a baseball or returning a serve). As a result, Ms. Starkes devised an "occlusion" test. As part of the test, she collected hundreds of photographs of women volleyball players in action. She then made slides of these photographs where, in some instances, the ball was still in frame and others where the ball was out of the frame (being already struck). "In many photos, the orientation and movement of players' bodies were nearly identical regardless of whether the ball was in the frame, since little had changed in the instant after the ball exited the picture. Starkes then connected a scope to a slide projector and asked elite and novice volleyball players to look at the slides for a fraction of a second apiece and decide whether the ball was or was not in the frame. The glance was too quick for the viewers actually to see the ball, so the idea was to determine whether some of the athletes were seeing the entire court and the body language of players in a way that allowed them to figure out whether the ball was present. The results of the first occlusion tests astounded Starkes. Unlike in reaction-time tests, the difference between top volleyball players and novices was enormous. For the elite players, a fraction-of-a-second glance was all they needed to determine whether the ball was present. And the better the player, the more quickly she could extract pertinent information from each slide.

How does the foregoing relate to tennis? The occlusion test can explain why players like Djokovic, Federer or Nadal are more successful in returning high-level serves (or groundstrokes) than average country club players. Because in many instances the ball travels at speeds that exceed the brain's ability to compute the information gathered from the eyes, the best players in the world pick up cues from other sources - such as body language. In effect, the best tennis players (or baseball sluggers) don't see the ball that much better than the rest of the people - so "keeping your eye on the ball" advice is largely meaningless in the context of a 145mph serve - but they do see other things (e.g. toss, preparation, hips, foot positioning, etc.). Some of these concepts can certainly be taught but in order for them to be mastered, the player must learn how to read body language through hours and hours of first-hand observation. So when parents or coaches say "oh, an hour a day of high quality tennis is enough", that message is only partially right. The player may be able to learn decent strokes in one hour - focusing on the artistry of his/her own movement - but it might not be enough to develop the observation skills necessary to pick up on the subtle body cues of the opponent. As a result, it is important for the player to not only perform drills where the ball is fed by the coach (be it by hand or racket) but to also play a lot of "live ball" tennis - rallying and points. 


Time is free, but it's priceless

Time is free, but it's priceless. You can't own it, but you can use it. You can't keep it, but you can spend it. Once you've lost it you can never get it back. ― Harvey MacKay

We recently ran across this quote from Harvey MacKay and couldn't help but think about the application of this wisdom to tennis as well as life. One obstacle that is faced by tennis players in their path to success is poor time management skills. Simply put, most players are terrible about using the time they have available and, invariably, are forced to "cram for the exam" be it before the tournament, before the dual match or before college signing date. 

Failure is insidious. It marches on whether you see it or feel it. The only way to reverse course is, unfortunately, by also engaging in small positive actions which, on their own, are also unperceivable but, compounded, have the tendency to assist you on your path to success. For example, let's say that you're having problems getting your first serve in and that you have a big tournament coming up. You can either: (1) spend more time practicing the things that you would like to practice (e.g., forehands, drop-shots, overheads, between the legs, etc.) and only focusing on a handful of serves here and there; or (2) wait until the day before the tournament and then wear out your shoulder smacking a couple hundred servers. Which path would you choose?

What if there's a third option?! For example, let's say that a week before the event you hit 50 serves in practice. Is this enough? Will you see a major difference in your first serve percentage during the match? Next day? Doubtful. How about if you hit 50 serves today, then 60 tomorrow, then 70 the next day, and so on until the day prior to the event?! You would have ingrained the motion - that is, developing confidence - in a gradual fashion while at the same time (a) managing your body and keeping it injury free and (b) developing strength and stamina. Yet, players are often prone to want to "cram for the exam" - like eating a salad before they see the doctor while having devoured cheeseburgers every day the month before. 

It would be so much easier to learn from our mistakes if they were either painful or obvious... like a lab rat getting an instant shock whenever he touches the wrong lever. However, the mistakes that we make in the course of learning to play tennis are not always obvious. One less serve or sprint today is not going to ruin you as an athlete. So it's easy to not do it. But do it you must. Use the time that you have avaiable to do an extra push-up today, run an extra sprint (one more than the day before), hit 5 more serves today than yesterday, etc. Gradually, you will lay the foundation for success and develop life-long skills that will assist you beyond the tennis court. 


Practice Makes Perfect v. Wabi-Sabi

"Practice makes perfect" - who hasn't heard this experssion?! Or "how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Answer: practice, practice, practice." But does practice - even perfect and  practice - always lead to perfection....or success? Sometimes, the quest for perfection can become a fool's errand. Perfection, in reality, is quite unattainable. Even Roger Federer, with all of his Grand Slam wins and record, has been less than perfect. Even while going on month-long streaks of being undefeated he has lost points, has lost games and has lost sets. He has made numerous unforced errors, mishit balls into the stands, hit double faults and dumped easy sitters into the net. However, in doing so, he has remained - at least for that particular duration - fairly "perfect" in one important category: wins. 

What we can learn from this simple annecdote is that if you want to achieve great results, you have to discard pure perfection. As a player (and, perhaps, more importantly a parent or coach), you have to accept that fact that YOU WILL NEVER EVER BE PERFECT. You are not a perfect human being and you are never going to play a perfect match. Tennis is as much art as it is science and it's the opponent's job to make you play as imperfectly as possible. If you have the tendency to become obsessed with minuscule perfection - whether in practice or in a match - you miss stunting your development in the long-run. For example, have you noticed that player whose warm-ups seem to last 45 minutes or longer? If you're like us, there is always one or two in the proverbial bunch. They always want to hit "one more ball", "one more overhead" or they haven't quite gotten "the feel" of the ball just right and want to do another rally...then another rally...then another rally and so on 'til Kingdom come. These players think that if they somehow get things "just right" then things will magically fall into place for them. The problem with this type of mentality is that, rather than focusing on what's important (e.g. performing specific drills) the players get bogged down on generalities. With limited time at their disposal - and having spent 45 minutes to an hour on just "warming up" - how much more time or energy will they have to practice what's really important?! Not a whole lot. These players are guilty of trying to fight a perfect war. There is no such thing. If you engage in battle you have to accept some casualties..move on! You can't possibly protect every soldier and you can't possibly win every point. Move on!

Loosen up and then work on things that are likely to pay the most dividends. Sure, if there's a particular kink in your game be specific about it and address it but without getting obsessed with it to your detriment. Use the warm-up for its primary purpose: getting your body ready for action. In a match, do not let errors drag you down. If you become obsessed with your mistakes you risk allowing the match to spiral out of control. You're like a boxer who's focusing too much on her jab...while getting pummeled by the opponent. Jab doesn't work?! Great. Beat the opponent with your hook; or uppercut. In practice, if you focus too much on your "weakness" you risk ignoring other parts of the game which may come to cost you when it matters. 

For best results, seek excellence rather than perfection. Excellence leaves room for error...for humanity. And imperfection is beautiful. Think of all the great works of art that have been created through the ages. From paintings to sculpture and music, how many can you name that have been created by robots or machines? You can name a Da Vinci painting, a Michellangelo statue or a Mozart composition without much effort. All of these works of art are imperfect. And that's what makes them beautiful. It's like the leaf in the picture on the right: it's is grimy; it is old and yellow; it is sitting in mud; maybe the lighting isn't the best. You take every single one of these elements individually and none of them are very awe-inspiring. However, you put them all together and it creates a very appealing and eye-pleasing experience. You have to approach the game of tennis in the same way. Accept the fact that sometimes you have to sometimes kick and scrape for a ball. Accept the fact that you will make easy mistakes or the fact that the opponent will play better points than you will. Accept the fact that some of your shots may not be there when you need them. Accept these things but learn from them and you will become a better person and a better player. Discard the quest for perfection for the concept of wabi-sabi - briefly, the attitude that there's beauty in imperfection. Wabi-sabi is the tasty food that you get from a street vendor; it's the memorable vacation that you have when you forget your best poutfit at home and hunt for a replacement in a foreign country; it's the impromptu concert that is given in a park by an unknown performer; and, in tennis, it's the shank forehand winner on a ke point or having to dig deep and rely on your physical characteristics and wit rather than technique. Embrance imperfection as part of the process and the attidude becomes the hot ait balloon that pulls you up rather than the anchor weighing you down. Work on being excellent and balanced. Discard academic theory about how a shot needs to be hit and how a play needs to be executed and focus on the practical aspect of the sport; keep in mind that when you're practicing one thing you're not practicing something else...and it's the thing that you do not practice that will lead to your downfall. 


Choosing Your Child's Group Workouts

Let's be honest here, unless you're in the "top 1%" the amount of disposable income that you will have allocated to tennis will be limited. Thus, most families will choose group lessons over private lessons in order to save some money. Below are some tips for choosing the best group environment for your child and making the most out of the situation. If you're thinking about signing up your kid for one of these workouts, I would suggest utilizing a scale of 1 (bad) - 5 (great) for each category. Look for environments offering a combined score of 42 and above: 

1. Substance over form. Whether it's called a "group workout", a "clinic", an "academy" or some other catchy name, look beyond the title. What does the activity offer? Stroke production? Fitness? Match play? Intellectual stimulation? Etc. You wouldn't buy a piece of tofu that's labeled "steak" so why would you rely on the name alone?! There are a lot of "tennis academies" out there that are glorified sports-themed babysitting clubs. If you want your child to not be a clown, don't sign him up for a circus. 

2. Number of balls. How do you know if the group lesson is a circus or something that is oriented on development. A rule of thumb is to count the number of balls that are being hit. Note: for younger kids, shadow swings can count as balls being struck. If you see a lot of standing and goofing around, sitting down or nose-picking, the group is probably not very high quality. Look for every kid hitting at least 250-300 balls per hour (twice or three times more for kids U14 and older). Learning tennis is no different that learning how to read and write: repetition is key. Of course, nothing compares to an individual lesson (same as private tutoring) in terms of number of balls being struck but there are aspects of a group environment (e.g. competition) which can serve as a trade-off in making the ractice a positive learning experience. 

3. Energy. Related to #2 is the concept of "energy." Look for an environment that is high on energy (from the pros as well as the kids). If the coaches aren't very motivated then the players will pick up on the low energy and run amok. Look for pros and players who want to be there. With respect to players, evaluate whether they are in fact interested in playing tennis or whether they are there simply because the parents are making them go. Also, determine whether the players push each other in a positive manner or whether they are undermining each others' development. 

4. Discipline. Look for environments that have a zero-tolerance approach to training. This is related to point #3. Compare the group workouts to school. Would the child's behavior - be it being loud, showing up late, not trying, distracting his peers, cheating, whining, crying, smashing rackets, etc. - be tolerated at school? If not, then it shouldn't be tolerated at the workout either. Furthermore, these policies should be applied equally across the board, regardless of whether the player is good or bad and without consideration to parental influence. 

5. Parental involvement. Look for environments where parents care about their child's tennis but, at the same time, are confident enough in the pros' abilities that they do not feel the need to become helicopter parents. Helicopter parents tend to cause too many distractions...they try to influence the group's direction to maximize the benefit derived by their child. If you see too many parents hanging around the fences - or worse, being on the court - understand that the pro's influence may be diminished by that of the parents. In the worst case scenario, the most pushy parents will run the practices indirectly (which means - the pro is unable to look for your child's best interest). 

6. Mix. Here, you are looking for a workout that offers a variety of training tools: feeding; rallying; match-play; fitness; video-analysis; studying; etc. In order to develop as players, kids need to be exposed to all of these things. Feeding drills are intended to teach concepts artificially. Rallying drills are intended to implement those concepts in a live-ball format. Match-play is intended to implement the concepts in a more realistic setting. Furthermore, watching video analysis (watching yourself as well as watching pros) is helpful in giving the players a 3rd person viewpoint of their games so that they see how their game matches up to that of their heros. Fitness is, obviously, a huge component in a running sport such as tennis. 

7. Training aids. Is the practice limited to baset drills or are the players exposed to training aids such as backboards, ball machines, various surfaces, gadgets, etc.? A good practice will not just teach players how to hit the ball but will also teach players how to teach themselves. It's good for players to know how to set up the ball machine in order to practice the skills on their own. It's also good for players to be exposed to backboards or walls so they know what drills they can do to sharpen their strokes. Very few players have had the benefit of having a support team around them 24/7/365. Players must be taught how to become self-reliant and it's the coach's job (private or group coach) to teach them how to do this. 

8. Ethics. Determine whether the environment focuses on ethics. Is cheating or gamesmanship tolerated? Cheating is a learned behavior and some coaches (and, without a doubt, parents) live by the motto that "if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying." Besides being unethical, cheating is also bad for long-term development because kids who rely on cheating as a crutch to get them over the hump do not learn an invaluable lesson: tennis is hard work; there are no short cuts in the game (or in life). At some point, you will not be able to rely on cheating (being in an umpired match or in your professional life). Then what?! 

9. Progress. Does the practice offer an active and objective track for the player to progress from one level to another? Look for a system where the players who have started out "on the bottom court" have worked their way up to "the top court". Is the progress subjective (i.e., coach determines when and how the player deserves to move up) or objective (i.e., merit-based: wins; dedication; skill-based testing)? 

10. Pro's Knowledge. Last but not least, it's always good to have a pro "who's been there, done that." A pro who has gone through the development process him/herself - from juniors to college to pros - is more likely to understand what it takes at each stage. Look beyond the certifications (which are largely meaningless) and determine wheter the pro is good about communicating tennis concepts in a clear and concise manner. Furthermore, look for coaches who are passionate students of the game. Are they in shape? Do they still compete? Do they bring in outsiders to motivate the kids? Do they publish? Are they involved in organizing events? Are they interested in development or just earning a living? Etc. 

Do you know of a good group? Let us know in the comments below. 


How Many Transfers From a College Program?

When your son or daughter starts to consider college tennis and the different coaches/programs available, one of the telltale factors about a coach is the amount of transfers in the past 5-10 years. Before making an emotional decision, be sure to do your research on seeking how the roster has changed year to year. It is very easy to get caught up in an emotional decision based on a number of factors relating to the time of year you visited, the charming girls on the team, the best foot forward by a coach, the facilities, the location- so many factors can influence and cloud your judgement.

Most programs will have a transfer from time to time. This is normal because naturally random events happen where mutually both the coach and player are unhappy with the status quo. Your best bet is to analyze how the rosters have changed year to year. How many freshman have transferred in the past 5 years, how many sophomores? Were they unhappy and why? Talk to players- current, former, transfers. Do your research.

It is very hard to discern who is genuine about your own goals and interests. Everyone has an agenda, coaches need to produce results to keep their jobs and impress their Athletic Directors. Coaches will always put their best foot forward and hide the baggage in the closet. Most parents are misinformed and do not know what are the right questions to ask.

Why is this important information to potentially seek out? Simply it shares information about the integrity of the coach. From the coaches perspective, it is an imperfect science (frankly a lot of luck) in picking the right kids to fill the scholarships. Coaches will make big errors that they will need to live with for 4 years. For the most part, college coaches are people of extremely high character and will do their best by the kid. What you want to be careful with is a program that has high turnover and why is that?

Once a child reaches college, the balance of power has shifted strongly towards the coach. The coach has an enormous amount of power over the kid. If a coach wanted to, it would not take much to make a child feel unhappy about their current situation if things weren't working out. Now one could argue, "but yes, the coach needs to win, push the kid, and weed out the weak." Sure that is one way to look at it and it is an easy way to cover up poor recruiting choices and upgrade your squad.

The appropriate way to look at it is to understand the coach holds all the power. Is this the type of coach who will do his or her best by your child- through good and bad? The coach has a duty to coach (definition of a coach is to move forward) and to help the child turn into an adult. Is winning at all costs the most important thing? 99 percent of these NCAA players will be professional in something other than tennis- do you really want someone who is going to give up everytime he or she doesn't agree with? A coach of great integrity is one who is true to his word, character, and integrity- preparing this person not only for tennis, but the long road ahead in the real world. Think about it and please do your research. You will quickly start to sort through the fluff and see the light.