by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
What enables some tennis players to play to their potential while most others fall short? Talent and motivation are necessary, but another fundamental and usually overlooked attribute is a player’s mindset when it comes to learning.
Modern research demonstrates the importance of approaching learning the right way—unfortunately, the majority of players make a critical mistake with their mindset on the court. Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading developmental psychologist, distinguishes between two primary beliefs children hold about their ability to learn: (1) a fixed, unchangeable belief about their intelligence and abilities and (2) a belief that they can incrementally learn almost anything with hard work, and eventually master what they are working on. This belief system is known as having a growth mindset. Children hold one belief system or the other. In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin, an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth and now a martial arts champion, eloquently explains the difference each mindset has on performance. Discussed below, these differences are often at the root of why players don’t reach their potential.
Players with a fixed belief system—those that have been influenced by their parents, teachers, and/or coaches to think this way, tend to use language like “I am good at this” or “I am bad at this.” They believe their success or failure is a result of an ingrained, unchangeable ability level. A player with a “growth” belief system thinks and learns differently—they tend to talk about their tennis with phrases such as “I have a strong forehand because I worked hard at it” or “I should have worked harder in that practice match.” Players with a “growth” mindset believe that hard work and perseverance are the keys to making improvements—the most challenging obstacles can be overcome incrementally—groundstrokes, volleys, serves, movement, strategies, fitness levels, and mental skills can be mastered over time.
Dweck’s research shows that children with a growth and hard-work mindset tend to rise to the occasion—these players will stay focused and positive during practice and are more likely to shine in the most important moments of matches. On the other hand, children with a fixed mindset have a tendency to break down and sometimes give up—their fragility frequently on display during matches. Players with a fixed mindset will view themselves and their game as black and white—thinking and saying that a particular stroke is “good” or “bad” or that they “suck,” depending on the day. Swearing is usually commonplace. On the contrary, players with a growth view are focused on mastering the task at hand and enjoying the process of improving.
The Art of Learning describes one of Dweck’s studies to illustrate the power of these two opposing approaches to learning. Researchers interviewed a group of children and noted whether each child had a fixed or growth mindset of intelligence. Each of the children were given a set of easy math problems, which they all solved with ease. The children were then given very tough problems that were too challenging for all of them. Children with a fixed mindset did not have confidence in themselves and readily voiced their concerns. Many of them told the researchers that they weren’t capable of solving these problems or simply weren’t smart enough. The children with a growth and hard-work mindset were excited to try their best regardless of the difficulty. Of course all of the children got the problems wrong, but the experience of the challenge impacted the children very differently. The researchers gave the children one more group of easy math problems, just as easy as the first time around. The children with the growth mindset finished them quickly and accurately, but many of the children with a fixed mindset struggled and made many errors. The hard math problems destroyed their self-belief.
None of these detriments to a fixed mindset, or benefits from a growth and hard-work approach, has anything to do with intelligence, talent, or ability level. Some of the most naturally gifted and smartest tennis players are the most vulnerable when challenged because they feel a need to live up to their perfectionistic beliefs. Talented players with a fixed mindset will sometimes get mad at themselves because they “should” be winning or “should” be at a certain level, often wanting to prove themselves to others. It doesn’t matter how talented they are, if they have a fixed approach to learning, they will be fragile under pressure. Players that approach tennis with a growth and hard-work mindset view their skill level mentally and physically as fluid and changeable—they love every opportunity to improve, view their training as a process, and do not define themselves by the outcome. These players love working to master new skills. When they fail, they reflect and think about how they could have done things differently, always looking for ways to improve. Failure causes them to increase their efforts. Players with a fixed mindset are susceptible to giving up easily in practices and matches, showing frequent frustration, feeling like the situation is out of their control, making excuses, and blaming—often linking failure to a lack of ability. Growth players are able to focus in the heat of battle instead of making excuses and feeling terrible about themselves. They fight for solutions and rise to the occasion.
What factors cause a player to end up with a fixed or growth mindset?
These mindsets, or approaches to learning, are learned behaviors. Players with a fixed mindset tend to have been told as they were growing up by their parents that they did well when they succeeded and weren’t good at something when they failed. A young boy perfectly memorizes and successfully delivers his lines during a school play and his parents tell him, “Amazing! You’re so smart and have an incredible memory.” But the next week the boy struggles on a spelling test and hears, “What’s your problem, can’t you spell? Those words weren’t even that difficult.” or “Your dad isn’t a great speller either—it’s probably not your thing.” This boy now believes that he has a good memory, but is bad at spelling. The real problem, though, is that he believes success and failure are linked to his ingrained ability. He will have a tendency to focus on short-term results instead of a long-term process of improving. Children with a growth and hard-work mindset were given different feedback. After doing well on a school writing assignment, a girl’s parent tells her, “Great job! You’re writing skills are improving! Keep up the hard work!” If she does poorly on an assignment, she might be told, “Study harder next time and you’ll do really well, and let me know if you need any help!” This young girl learns to associate success with hard work and develops a sense that she can accomplish anything with enough effort. She is focused on incrementally improving her abilities over the long-run—she starts to the learn the importance of having a long-term vision.
What can we do about it?
Parents, teachers, and coaches are the primary influence when it comes to which learning style a player develops. Regardless of the player’s current mindset, it is not too late to make a revolutionary change. It is crucial to understand that a player’s learning approach can evolve to a growth and hard-work mindset if parents and coaches commit to changing the way they give feedback during practices and after matches. There is strong research support that indicates that this mindset can be changed. With a healthier mindset, difficult practices and painful match losses will become the most valuable moments—players with a growth and hard-work mindset will learn the most from these moments and take these lessons with them the next day on the court. The hardest part, of course, is for players, parents, and coaches to maintain this perspective and keep their eyes on the long-term vision during the heat of battle.
Dweck, Carol (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Penguin Random House.
Waitzkin, Josh (2007). The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance. New York: Free Press.
by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
Many years of traveling with players to tournaments has shown me that many (if not most) parents don’t know the most effective way to talk to their child after a loss. The way parents respond and talk to their child after a tough loss often causes significant detriment to the child’s performance and mental fortitude in future matches. Many fellow coaches know this, since they’ve witnessed a large variety of parent-player relationships and have noted the differences in outcome, but parents are often unaware. It appears all too tempting for parents to analyze the tennis component of the match immediately afterward and offer their critique: “Why didn’t you hit more shots to their backhand?” “You can’t win by not going for your shots.” “All you had to do was ____________.” Fill in the blank as you please. Or even worse, “This is getting ridiculous! You can’t keep playing like that.” “Now you really need to do well in your next tournament.”
Talking to your child in this way will cause him or her to focus primarily on short-term results. The player will feel immense pressure from the parents (even if the child denies feeling pressure), and won’t be able to perform even close to their potential.
The most effective way for players to approach their tennis development is with a long-term vision. Obsessing over winning and short-term results inhibits their ability to work on what is necessary to improve and perform at their best. If the child wins, of course let him enjoy the moment. Focus on all the hard work he put in to reach the victory. But when he loses, let him feel the emotions. Gently tell that him it’s okay to feel sad or frustrated. Be empathetic and consider giving a hug. After a few minutes, or however long it takes for the initial and heightened painful emotions to begin to subside, ask what happened in the match. Do not talk about the tennis aspects during this time—the focus should be on the psychological. Did he lose concentration? Did he become frustrated or angry, causing a downward spiral and lots of errors? Was he distracted by his opponents behavior or poor line calls? Through this calm conversation, he can reflect on what happened psychologically and will be able to generate ideas of what can be worked on going forward. He now has an important short-term goal to focus on that is part of the long-term vision. The painful loss becomes an opportunity for growth.
When the time is right, after the child has had time to reflect on what happened psychologically, the coach will talk to the child about the tennis aspects. In almost all situations it’s better for the parents to leave the tennis part of the discussion to the coaches.
by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
What makes a great coach? What are more effective ways to develop a player’s game to its potential? How can we improve our ineffective way of coaching the mental aspect of the game?
Consider the 10 areas below:
1. Delivering the message is what matters
A great coach is not only defined by their knowledge of the game and understanding of what the player needs to do to get better, but by the coach’s ability to deliver the messages to the player. Message delivery is where we often fail. A strong understanding of the modern game and knowing what the player needs to do to reach their potential is a prerequisite; however, it is necessary to get the player to buy into your long-term vision for their game, instill and maintain excitement, and implement a plan of action to reach this vision during every practice and match. Ineffective message delivery is often a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed.
2. Passionate and motivated visionaries
A great coach will have similar traits to the best visionaries in the world. The passion, love, obsession with continually learning, and work ethic of visionaries such as Elon Musk (founder/CEO of Tesla and SpaceX) are necessary to achieve the highest tennis coaching results. Great coaches know that much of the most important work with a player happens while interacting with the player outside of the tennis court (e.g. at dinner, hotel). Great coaches frequently study and think about the game after they leave the court.
3. Coach-player relationship
The coaching relationship is critically important. Absolute trust, loyalty, and love is key. The player needs to know that the coach cares about them as a person and as a player. The player needs to feel comfortable sharing difficult thoughts and feelings, which is usually not the case. If the player does not truly trust the coach, he or she will keep valuable information to themselves that will negatively impact the coaching effectiveness and their tennis.
4. Poor mental games
Coaching the mental aspect of the game is severely neglected. It is common knowledge that the mental aspect is crucially important, but it plays a small or negligible role in most player’s training regimen. A prolifically effective method to improve a player’s mental game is non-existent in our current system.
5. Current mental training practices are generally not effective
Mental training in tennis is usually not effective. Mental training often focuses on trying to improve focus, concentration, and basic emotional control, but the core of mental weakness that comes out on the court is much deeper. Fear and insecurity are often the root, and are expressed as anger, anxiety, loss of focus, and poor decision making. Fear and insecurity are prolific in tennis players. Anger is a side effect of fear, as anger always comes from fear. Focusing mental training (if there is any mental training at all) on surface problems is akin to putting a Band-Aid on the problem; it is almost guaranteed to come off when stress in practice or a match is high. Using techniques to strengthen a player’s self-esteem, confidence as a person, fear of judgment from peers, parents, and coaches, helping them overcome other deep and usually unconscious fears, focusing on a long-term as opposed to short-term vision, and teaching them the logical link between thoughts and emotions (your emotions are controlled by how you think, and you have a choice as to what you think) improves mental performance. You have to practice thinking effectively just like you practice a forehand, backhand, or serve.
6. The long-term vision
Collaboratively creating a long-term vision for a player’s game gives clarity and measurable goals to both the coach and player. A long-term vision gives players more confidence to implement what is necessary in matches to reach their long-term vision and helps them to not obsess over short-term results. The vision should be aligned with the player’s maximized theoretical potential. Align the coaching and training plan with this vision. For example, instead of having a player with a weaker backhand build their game around protecting the backhand while looking to hit forehands (which will limit their ceiling), focus on making the backhand as good as physically possible. Inspire the player to fight to make their long-term vision a reality and constantly affirm your belief in them.
7. The right shape
The right shape: balls that are hit hard, with lots of spin, and drop rapidly into the court as they approach the baseline or sidelines. When players hit hard ground strokes, they often lower the trajectory of the ball and decrease spin. This severely increases risk and causes errors. Players can maintain the fast speed of the ball and lower trajectory by increasing racquet head speed and focusing on creating maximum ball rotation speed. Players and coaches often do not recognize how much untapped power the player can produce and still maintain high consistency. Extreme racquet head speed, high ball speed, a lower trajectory over the net, and maximum ball rotation is the answer.
The benefits of the right shape go well-beyond hitting a more effective ball. A commitment to hitting the right shape on every ball (even short, easy put-away shots) in practice and matches helps develop a mentality of not being tentative, as it’s impossible to hit the right shape while being tentative and slowing down racquet head speed. This has a direct positive impact of the mental game. The player simply has to keep hitting the right shape during pressure moments—slowing down racquet head speed is not an option. Footwork, balance, precision, and focus are dramatically improved as well, because they are necessary to consistently hit with the right shape.
8. A relentless mentality
Developing a relentless mentality is one of the most effective mental training tools. Being relentless means to not play loose shots in practice or matches, and a willingness to suffer and fight for every ball. Being relentless means to constantly make balls and not accept bad errors. It means to recover instantly from errors and poor shots, while immediately committing to being relentless on the next ball or point.
Being relentless improves footwork, balance, focus, and shot selection, as they have to be at a very high level to be relentless. Ask a player after they miss a shot in practice: “If you would have earned $1000 if you made that shot, would you have? What would you have done differently?” They would have tried harder mentality, moved better and faster, and been more precise. Training and reinforcing a relentless mentality quickly improves all aspects of a player’s game.
9. Keep it simple and aim for mastery
Most coaches try to improve too many areas of a player’s game relatively simultaneously. This often results in either mediocre, unnecessarily slow, or no significant improvement. Bombarding players with instructions, working on too many areas in a short time frame, or telling a player every once in a while to hit the ball a certain way or move a certain way will often only improve the area temporality. Obsessively focusing on one, maybe two, important areas at a time until solidified is more effective.
10. Humility and awareness
Humility, respect for the game, respect for opponents, and an understanding of the privilege players have to play tennis at a high level improves mental performance and tennis results. Developing sincere humility and respect for the game and opponents increases core self-esteem, which helps players control emotions while on court. Given their privilege compared to most people in the world, slamming racquets, abusing balls, and criticizing umpires and opponents is harmful. The research is clear that you cannot successfully release anger by breaking a racquet, yelling, etc.—it just deepens the core problem. Improving a player’s self-esteem, gaining insight into their privilege, developing humility, respect for the game and opponents, while exploring and alleviating fears further improves mental performance and tennis results.
Good balance is one of the most fundamental elements that separates mediocre from great players, as it’s important for reliable and consistent precise movement, fluid strokes, solid contact, accuracy, and power. Frequently a consequence of poor balance, hitting off the back foot is a common problem that prevents forward weight transfer, which robs the shot of depth, weight, and power. Both issues are usually related and can be permanently solved with a simple intervention.
I have heard numerous coaches over the years attempt to rectify these issues which intermittent commands during practice such as, “Don’t hit off your back foot”, or simply, “Stay balanced.” From experience and observation, this has minimal impact. It’s challenging to just “stay balanced” without a specific technique or plan to actually remain balanced. It’s often just as difficult to not hit off your back foot if the player doesn’t understand the underlying reasons why he or she is hitting off the back foot to begin with. The player will often forcibly try to improve his or her balance and/or not hit of the back foot temporarily, but once the coach moves on to something else, prior muscle memory takes over and the player usually reverts back to poor balance and hitting off the back foot. Check the blog The Power of Muscle Memory for more information on this area.
What is an easy way to improve both of these issues? Force the player to keep his or her feet completely planted right before, during, and after contact. If a player keeps both feet truly planted during contact, it’s impossible to hit off the back foot without falling. Try it out by hand-feeding balls and moving the player forwards, backwards, and side-to-side. Give no other instructions other than to keep the feet 100% planted. After hand-feeding, move to feeding with the racquet and then to live ball. You’ll notice that the player’s balance will improve quickly. The player will automatically, and often unconsciously, make small adjustments with his or her footwork to remain balanced while following the new rule to keep the feet 100% planted right before, during, and after contact.
Keeping the feet planted (especially after contact for more advanced players), works wonderfully to improve balance even if the player doesn’t have an issue with hitting off the back foot. Of course at the higher levels of the game, players often lift several inches off the ground after contact, especially when hitting hard forehands. Roger Federer’s feet certainly come off the ground on many of his forehand winners. But, Roger Federer has already developed impeccable balance. His feet, and the feet of other top players, come off the ground because the momentum from their swing speed and swing path lifts the body upwards, but they remain completely balanced.
If a player does not already possess professional-level balance, forcing him or her to keep the feet planted will accelerate the development of this process rapidly. Consider making this a primary focus until the player does it without instruction and until new muscle memory is solidified.
By: Jhonny Berrido from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Coach
The biggest problem I’ve encountered during my ten years of coaching experience has been the lack of basic communication with players. I’ve come to realize after all these years that if I want to be a better tennis coach, I have to be a good communicator. No matter your culture or country of origin, communication is key to any relationship. Nowadays, communication skills separate good and successful coaches from less successful ones.
When coaching, there usually is a discrepancy between what the coach intends to communicate and what the player hears, and vice versa. Being able to communicate effectively is crucial for the development of the player. When communication is consistently effective, the coach is free to focus on creating a plan that is suitable to the player’s needs. The most important aspect of clear communication between player and coach is to insure both are on the same page regarding the message and both are receiving benefit from it.
In 2014 I was responsible for a top ITF junior player whom I had the privilege to work and travel with. The goal was to get her the best junior ranking possible and start a professional career after that summer. During this time, I traveled with her to a Grade A in Italy and a Grade 1 in Belgium to warm-up for the French Open. Everything seemed to be going well, but after two weeks in Italy and Belgium without getting results, we started having difficulties with our relationship. I realized that we did not cement a base relationship with effective and open communication, and didn’t communicate well regarding preparation for matches and a solid game plan. I made assumptions I shouldn’t have—I didn’t discuss these areas with her because I did not want to create confusion. Once the tournaments began, and during the on court preparatory training sessions, we experienced issues and confrontations regarding his technical and tactical game. I realized that the issue we were having originated from not communicating ahead of time about a detailed plan before heading out to compete at that level. Unfortunately, we were already at these major events—it was too late for the player to process and absorb the plan well enough for her to perform successfully. Trust was lost. This experience inspired and motivated me to change the way I communicate with my players.
Here are some tips that have helped me along the way:
- Coaches should show their players that they are open to an exchange of thoughts and feelings and make sure players understand that it is not a competition to prove who is right and wrong. Understanding each other is key.
Coaches should be able to communicate effectively in situations such as:
- Explaining to players how to perform in practices and tournaments
- Speaking to parents
- Speaking to media, officials, and sponsors
Communication is ineffective when:
- Information is incorrect
- Lack of attention from the listener
- Misinterpretation of the message
Below are a few aspects I put into daily practice to improve communication with my players:
- Be honest. Being honest helps develop strong credibility with the player. Say what you believe in a fair and compassionate manner.
- Be honest to yourself and players about the knowledge you have and don’t have. Recognize your weaknesses, be able to share your ideas and beliefs with other coaches, and be open to new ideas and criticism.
- Be caring. Demonstrate to players that you care about them—not just their tennis, but as people. Spend time with them and give them help. Pay attention to their concerns, progress, or changes. Coaches need to understand their players in order to communicate most effectively.
- Be consistent. Communicate the same philosophy and terminology from one player to another. Always keep your word.
Every day I try to apply simple, easy, and natural communication.
By: Juan Nunez from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Adult and Developmental Program Director
The “footwork” fundamentals that a player must master for a chance to compete at the highest levels are: split-step, shuffling, crossover step, and planting. The player must also develop the ability to use these fundamentals at different speeds and directions. These “footwork” fundamentals have been used by all the great champions of any era. Bill Tilden used this way of moving back then, just as Roger Federer uses it today.
Split-Step: This action must happen as the ball impacts the opponent’s racquet. This movement allows you to get into a well-balanced and neutral position, engaging your whole body to react properly to the direction, spin, and speed of your opponent’s shot.
Shuffling: Moving with rhythm is a key to striking the ball with efficiency; shuffling will give you this rhythm. During a point, a player will shuffle approximately 75% of the time—the difference will be used with sprints and small adjustment steps. This combination is what makes the player’s movement appear effortless, as if gliding on the court.
Crossover Step: The crossover step movement will help you smoothly cover more court on the recovery after hitting a ball on the run, while keeping you well-balanced and facing the opponent. The step is also used to retreat back for a deep shot or to hit an overhead, attack a sitter, runaround the backhand to hit a forehand, or volley.
Planting: This step is probably the most important of all. No matter how fast you are running to the ball, when you commit to strike the ball, you must plant the outside leg (the leg of the side you are hitting from; right leg for right side; left leg for left side) in order to execute an effective shot. The planting step loads the body weight that will enable you to coil and begin the chain reaction of the stroke. Proper planting will improve timing, allow you to transfer the body weight toward impact, add pace, and control the stroke.
The myth of the little steps: Many believe that a tennis player must move around the court with small steps. By doing so, you will be off balance when covering longer distance. The movements will be choppy, and it will be very difficult to plant. Small steps are used to “adjust” the planting, especially if you are playing a ball on the run.