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: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
Most players have at least one technical or movement flaw that hinders performance: a hitch in the forehand, backhand, or serve, an ineffective swing path, incomplete unit turn, or poor setup with their feet before hitting the ball. These flaws are usually obvious, but sometimes they are subtle enough that they are rarely a focus during practice. The flaws might not be impacting the player’s performance too much at the moment, but as the player develops and becomes physically stronger, the opponents become stronger as well. As opponents get stronger, the speed and weight of shot increases dramatically—the game becomes much faster. At higher levels, players have to move much more quickly and efficiently, and the strokes need to be compact, simple, and clean. Flaws or inefficiencies in strokes and movement are quickly exposed at higher level of the game, putting an instant ceiling on the ability to improve and get better results.
Most coaches recognize the impact small or large flaws will have on future results, but many don’t realize how powerful muscle memory is and what is required to overcome it. The neuro and muscle physiology of muscle memory is intricate and complex, but the important takeaway is that although muscle memory becomes deeply ingrained, it can be permanently changed with focused, and most importantly, extended attention.
Let’s take a simple hitch or ineffectiveness in the forehand swing as an example. Many coaches will help the player shadow stroke a more effective swing, and then work to implement that swing while feeding balls to the player. After the player does this for a few minutes or over the course of the lesson, the coach moves on to something else, or at least temporarily focuses on another aspect of the player’s game, before returning to the swing path later on. This usually does not get the desired results, especially if the flaw is significant and/or been present for a long time. Such is the power of muscle memory.
The reason this method does not produce results comes down to the physiology of muscle memory. If a player learns a new pattern of muscle movement (e.g. a new swing, different movement, etc.), the pattern will be remembered many hours later. But, if the player focuses on another aspect of muscle movements (his or her backhand, movement, or another aspect of the forehand, for example) soon after working on the forehand swing, the brain and muscles will forget much of what was learned with the forehand.
There is only one effective way to bypass this problem and achieve permanent and relatively quick results. As mentioned earlier, changing muscle memory requires focused and extended attention. If a coach or player truly wants to make a significant change to a stroke or movement pattern, make this essentially the sole area of focus until the change is solidified. The entire practice should be spent shadow-stroking or gently hitting feeds with the altered stroke. The player should spend an hour or two each day outside of practice hitting this same shadow stroke. How long should the player continue only focusing on this one aspect? For as long as it takes. I recently worked on the forehand swing of a top ITF junior who plans to turn professional in the near future. We smoothed the forehand out by making it more compact and removing unnecessary movements in his arm during take- back and acceleration—we both knew that his old forehand swing would make handling fast shots extremely challenging at the professional level. For two straight months he did nothing during his 4 hours of daily on-court practice other than focusing on this swing path. Further, every evening during those two months he would do two straight additional hours (literally) of forehand shadow strokes with his new swing. After the two months, his old muscle memory was fully replaced by his new and improved stroke.
It may seem too challenging and unnecessary to focus exclusively on one aspect for such an extended time, but the impact of a flaw or ineffective stroke is too detrimental to performance at high levels to ignore, two months in nothing in the lifetime of tennis development, and the science of muscle memory requires it.
by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
If you have read earlier articles of mine, you’re probably aware that I’m fond of the chess and tai chi champion, Josh Waitzkin. I want to discuss and expand on an area he briefly touched in The Art of Learning.
When it comes to reaching high levels of tennis, there are clear differences between what it takes to be a decent player, what it takes to be good, what it takes to be great, and what it takes to be near and at the top. If your goal is to be mediocre, you don’t have to do too much more than other players with that same goal—practice a couple hours a day, do a decent amount of fitness, and put a lot of effort into your matches. Do this and you’ll probably become an okay player. But, if you want to maximize your potential and have chances to be at the top, you need a different mindset. Injuries, usually disguised as frustrating and disappointing moments, are often wonderful opportunities to get exponentially better and improve important areas of your game otherwise neglected.
Occasional injuries are inevitable when practicing at a high level and playing a full tournament schedule. Most people view injuries as setbacks. From my experience, most players who get injured, whether a sprained ankle, pulled muscle, torn ligament, or other injury, take time off and don’t do much of anything. If the legs weren’t affected, they might run to stay in shape, but that’s about it. Most of this time, however, seems to be used to watch television and play on the phone.
I have strong feelings that a different mindset is needed to get near or at the top of the game. To become the best, your mind must always be searching for ways to improve, even when injured. After an injury, get on the court the next day. Figure out how to use your current situation (with the injury) to enhance other parts of your game. If you’re unable to run or move well, work obsessively on your serve, hit thousands of volleys, or drill your forehand or backhand, whichever is weaker, standing in place until it gets better—search and experiment with ways to make that stroke better. If you injured something that prevents you from hitting certain shots, go on the court (if you can do so without exacerbating the injury) and work on another area that isn’t affected by the injury. Take these moments to improve parts of your game that you might otherwise neglect. Imagine coming back from injury with a 25% or more improvement in your serve, volley-game, forehand, backhand, agility, footwork, flexibility, or strength.
Of course there are times when your body needs rest to heal, or simply to recover from a rigorous tournament schedule. If that’s the case, make sure you rest, but use those moments to improve the mental or tactical aspects of your game. Seek out help with your mental game and/or watch YouTube videos of professional matches to study how they construct points. What other areas can you improve during this time to help you maximize game? You might be surprised how many you can think of.
Most importantly, make sure you come off an injury as a better player than when the injury happened, whether the injury lasts for a few days or multiple months. Injuries and periods of necessary rest are not setbacks—they are moments that separate the decent and good players from the great and world-class.
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.