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.
by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
Consistent quality sleep is one of the most important aspects to playing tennis at the highest level. It is also one of the most ignored, especially among junior players. Lack of sleep causes reduced performance, poor emotional control, loss of motivation, decreased ability to concentrate, poor decision-making and shot-selection during matches, and a lowered ability to master new information and skills learned during practices. You will get tired more quickly during matches and your body takes longer to recover. Even injuries take longer to heal.
For most people, 7-9 hours of sleep is needed for good cognitive abilities, emotional well-being, and overall performance in daily life. Elite athletes require even more—at least an hour extra. Because of the long training days and how hard the body is pushed, high-level tennis players require a consistent 9-10 hours each night to perform at their best. Throughout the night, sleep goes through four cycles, or stages. These stages progress one by one (1 through 4) over the course of 90 to 100 minutes. After the body passes through each of the four stages, the cycle starts over again at stage 1. The goal is to complete as many full cycles as possible. The most important stage of the sleep cycle is the last one, which is why athletes need a lot of sleep to perform at their highest level during practice and matches—9-10 hours.
Follow these tips to improve your sleep hygiene (different practices and habits that help improve quality and length of sleep) and sleep environment to maximize on-court performance.
- Maintain a consistent sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day and night, even on weekends. Staying up too late and sleeping in on the weekends negatively impacts your sleep cycle for the rest of the week.
- Put away all electronics with a screen (smart phone, television, video games, tablets, computer, etc.) at least an hour before bed. The blue spectrum light from these devices severely disrupts ability to fall asleep and sleep quality.
- Turn your phone on silent and keep it out of arm’s length from your bed (even if you use your phone as an alarm clock).
- Avoid food and drink (especially caffeine and fatty foods) within two hours of sleeping. For some, a small snack before bed might help sleep. If so, make it healthy.
- Avoid stimulating activity within two hours of sleeping.
- Do not use your bed for anything besides sleep (homework, watching television, etc.) because your brain will learn to associate lying in bed with being awake.
- Take a warm shower before bed and brush your teeth well. The shower helps to relax the body and being clean has calming effects.
- When you wake up in the morning, get out of bed immediately and into the lights. Turn your lights on and open the blinds. Your brain is expecting and needs bright light to keep the sleep cycle stable. Get up to your first alarm and do not hit the snooze button. Washing your face right away is helpful.
- If you become tired during the day, take a nap if you have time. Make sure the nap is before 2:00 PM and is 30 minutes or less, otherwise it will negatively impact your sleep cycle.
- Keep the temperature cool. It’s usually much easier to fall asleep in a cooler environment.
- Keep the bedroom as dark as possible. Even tiny sources of light can impact ability to fall asleep. Your brain releases a hormone at night called melatonin that signals the body to begin falling asleep. Light sources, even if small, decrease the amount of melatonin released. Consider using an eye mask if necessary.
- Make the bedroom as quiet as possible. If helpful, especially if needed to drown out other noise in the household, use a white noise maker to generate constant and peaceful ambient sound. Consider using ear plugs if necessary.
- Your mattress, pillows, and covers should be high quality and as comfortable as possible. Pillow cases and covers should be cleaned frequently.
- Keep your bedroom as neat and organized as possible. Your brain associates clutter with stress and organization with relaxation. For example, clothes lying on the floor and a disorganized desk actually makes falling asleep more difficult.
- Keep your bedroom as clean as possible by vacuuming and dusting. Airborne particles negatively impact sleep.
- Make your bed in the morning. Your brain is more relaxed at night getting into a made bed.
by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
It’s love-all and the match is about to start. Practices over the previous week were productive, the player had a good warm-up, and the game-plan is clear—everything is seemingly in place to play at a high level throughout the entire match. Unfortunately, however, the match often doesn’t proceed as planned or desired. The player makes a few mistakes in short succession and the result ends up proving disastrous; he or she becomes frustrated, angry, and begins a downward spiral of negative emotions, poor shot-selection, and error after error. Before you know it, the match is over and confidence is now at an all-time low.
The first error or mistake usually doesn’t derail the player (unless he or she is particularly fragile), but often the next few errors or poor decisions cause a domino effect of mistake after mistake. At what point during the match is a player most susceptible to beginning a downward spiral? It depends on the player. For many, a downward spiral is most common after being up in the match by a considerable margin, maybe while attempting to close out a set or right after winning one. For other players, the downward spiral tends to happen after the opponent gains a slight lead (going down a break perhaps), during the big moments in the match, a streak of good play by the opponent, or even right near the beginning if the player doesn’t have a “perfect” start. The downward spiral is easy for onlookers to recognize, as it’s almost always comprised of negative displays of emotion, pressing or being tentative, poor decision-making, bad footwork, and tightness.
The downward spiral rarely happens to the best players in the world as they are able to quickly calm down, analyze the situation with clarity, and get right back on track. Susceptible players are too fragile, fearful, and perfectionistic to consistently play at a high level and win matches they are otherwise capable of winning. A couple of mistakes cause worry and fear, usually expressed as frustration and anger. When the player first becomes aware of the mistakes and feels the worry and/or anger, this is the critical moment—either go into the downward spiral or prevent it from happening all together. The goal is to prevent the spiral from happening right before it starts—as any coach or parent knows, when the downward spiral begins, it’s almost impossible to stop.
Preventing the downward spiral
Before discussing with players my method for preventing a downward spiral from happening, I like to tell a brief story originally told my Josh Waitzkin in The Art of Learning, with some adaptations to make it relevant to tennis.
One afternoon Josh was walking east along 33rd street in New York City. It’s important to look both ways before crossing the street, especially in Manhattan. Cars run red lights and many bicyclists ride the wrong way down one-way streets. Drivers are used to barely avoiding groups of pedestrians scattered all over the streets. Most New Yorkers seem untroubled by the continuous harshness of blaring horns, sirens, and speeding cars. Things usually flow just fine, but with a slim margin for error.
As he stood in the middle of the midtown rush, waiting for the light and lost in thought, he noticed an attractive young woman standing a few feet from him, wearing headphones and listening to music. He noticed her because he could hear the music coming from her headphones. Suddenly, she stepped off the sidewalk and right into the oncoming traffic. Josh imagined that she was confused by the chaotic one-way street, since he remembered that she first looked the wrong way down Broadway before crossing.
Right after she stepped onto the street, looking to her right, a bicycle flew toward her from the left. The bicyclist lurched away at the last moment, giving her a solid but harmless bump. This was the critical moment.. She could have walked away unharmed if she had just stepped back up on the sidewalk, but instead she turned and cursed at the bicyclist as he sped into the distance. There she stood, with her back to the oncoming traffic, screaming at the bicyclist who performed a miracle to avoid crashing into her. In the next moment, a taxicab then sped around the corner and struck the woman from behind. Josh continued on to his destination as the ambulance and police came, hoping that she would survive.
The woman’s first mistake was looking the wrong way and stepping in front of traffic. She was probably distracted by her music, and certainly was not present to the moment. Instead of reacting with clarity to the bicycle nudging her, she became angry and her judgment became cloudy. After a player makes an error or two, especially if they are fragile, it’s easy to worry and become frustrated that things aren’t going as well as they were just moments ago. Top tennis players are able to see the mistake, stepping into oncoming traffic, as a wake-up call. They do not overthink the situation, but instead calmly and quickly analyze the situation with clarity. They remain calm, as they know there is no reason to panic. Top players simply step back up on the sidewalk, learn from the mistakes, and keep playing with confidence, calmness, and a clear mind.
If a player is habitually susceptible to downward spirals during matches, it’s important to practice preventing them the same way one would practice a forehand, backhand, or serve—with attention and repetition. Understanding the previous story and metaphor is a great place to start, but it’s just the beginning. First and foremost, if a player maintains a long-term instead of a short-term vision—see #6 in on Improving Our Coaching To Help Players Reach Their Potential—a downward spiral is less likely. Next, commit to systematically practicing stopping downward spirals from happening. After each match, the coach and player should calmly discuss and analyze what happened—helping the player come closer to understanding, locating, and noticing the origin of the downward spiral. During practice or a practice match, the coach can point out to the player when a downward spiral looks to be starting. The player needs to be open to the dialogue. As soon as the player makes a few mistakes and feels the negative emotions coming, he or she can take some deep breaths. Nothing is more simple and powerful at bringing your attention back to the present moment than focusing on the breath.
Because on-court coaching is not permitted at tournaments, the player needs a way to practice preventing downward spirals from occurring while in matches. Before the match, have the player take an index card and write some brief bullet-point notes to review on changeovers. The index card can remind the player to maintain a “long-term vision,” to “notice the signs of a downward spiral,” “breathe,” and to simply “step back on the sidewalk.” After the match, the coach and player should analyze how well the player did with recognizing and stopping the downward spiral. With committed practice, players can get better and better at preventing downward spirals from starting, consistently play at a high level matches, and come closer to reaching their potential.
by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
It is no surprise that players want to win when they play tournaments, but an obsessive focus on winning often severely hinders the development of their game and ability to improve. Tennis requires the development of finely tuned skills in many areas: forehand, backhand, serve, and volley technique, footwork patterns and movement, concentration, confidence, emotional control, shot-selection, strategy, and tactics. These areas are supposed to be continually improved in practice and then, hopefully, implemented during matches. Unfortunately, this proves challenging for many players. Over the years I’ve frequently seen coaches and parents frustrated when their player (or child) doesn’t seem able or willing to implement during tournaments what is being worked on in practice. I want to give some advice on how to help a player make this necessary change.
When training to be an elite tennis player and maximize your potential, it’s important to realize the difference between being in a competition state versus a building stage. During a competition state, the focus is on trying your best to win the match—using any tools at your disposal to get the job done and come away with the victory. But sometimes its important to have a time period for just building and improving. When you’re in these building moments, the right mindset is crucial. These matches need to be used purely as opportunities to get better—improving strengths, eliminating weaknesses, altering technique, and focusing on “playing the right way”—the way that is aligned with the player’s and coach’s long-term vision for their game. The focus cannot always be on winning—because if so, it will be impossible to make the necessary improvements to maximize potential and reach the top. Professor Cheng Man-Ching (1902-1975), considered one of the greatest Tai Chi masters in history, refers to this willing to sacrifice winning for improvement and focusing on a long-term vision “investing in loss.”
Unfortunately, too few junior players, and even professionals, appear willing to invest in loss—they continually make the same mistakes repeatedly during matches by reverting back to old, ineffective habits. Top coaches rarely make the mistake of not understanding the importance of utilizing building stages during tournaments (although it does happen), but many parents are unaware. If parents do not help send the message to the player that winning is not important during a building stage, the coach will be fighting even more of an uphill battle. Needless to say, step one is for coaches AND parents to understand the difference between competition states and building stages, and why building stages are necessary for maximum improvement and results.
Why are some players often unwilling or unable to implement in matches what they have been working on in practice?
Before fixing the issue, its necessary to first understand why its so hard for players to submit to the learning process and invest in loss. If this is not crystal clear in your mind, it will be challenging to deliver an effective message to the player. Players often attach part of their self-esteem and self-worth to their tennis results. If they win, they feel good about themselves as a person, and feel bad when they lose.
Players feel external pressure from their fellow tennis peers, who will often make comments such as, “How could you lose to him?”, “Don’t worry, you’ll beat her easily?”, or “What is your ranking?” These comments are just the tip of the iceberg of the pressure players put on one another. External pressure frequently comes from parents as well (even when parents don’t believe they are a source of pressure) and internal pressure from the player’s own insecurities. Many players are so heavily focused on the judgment of others that their primary objective, usually unconscious, is to look good in the eyes of their peers, parents, and coaches. When players get into a match, they stop focusing on implementing what they have been working on in practice and become consumed with winning. They are afraid to stop old habits because those habits are comforting. If a player is concerned with winning during a building stage, the body tightens up and reverts back to the old way of playing. They don’t learn from their mistakes—practicing and playing matches is motivated mainly because they just want to win. They have a short-term versus long-term vision. Refer to point # 6 in Improving Our Coaching To Help Players Reach Their Potential for more information on having a long-term versus short-term vision.
How can you get players to invest in loss?
The goal is to help the player understand the purpose of investing in loss, how well it will work, and to understand and overcome the fears getting in the way. How can you do this effectively? First, it’s important to explain to them the difference between a competition state and a building stage. Make the distinction clear. Let them know that you, as their coach or parent, are not concerned with winning during a building stage. The player needs to truly believe that you don’t care if they win—that the sole purpose of the match is to work on their game. If the players is especially resistant, do not hesitate to tell them that they will probably lose while implementing what is necessary to get better. Explain to them the importance of having a long-term versus short-term vision. Consider asking them if they had the ability to look into the future and trade months and months worth of first-round losses for winning the sweetest and biggest tournament they could imagine (perhaps even a grand slam), would they take the deal? The answer will invariably be a resounding, “YES.”
After being clear with the player, and making sure the parents are on the same page, use your relationship with him or her to ease the fears preventing them from “playing the right way” during matches. Let them know that you are aware of what they might be thinking or fearing. Tell them you understand that they are feeling scared to look dumb, lose, and be judged by others, but that it’s the best and fastest way to get exponentially better and reach their goals. Talk to them about giving into the learning process and doing the right thing without reverting back to old habits. Help them realize that most people do not realize what it takes to be the best—and that you and the player are a team, working together to reach greatness. State confidently and frequently that it does not matter what others think and promise them it will be worth it in the long run. And again, make it clear with your entire heart that you are not concerned with the result of the match—you just want them to work on the right things. Let them know that it will be tough at first, but you will support them endlessly and that it will get easier each match. Tell them to not worry about looking bad on the path to greatness, as the results will come soon enough. As said by one of my favorite masters on effective learning, Josh Waitzkin, “Great ones are willing to get burned time and time again as they sharpen their swords in the fire.”
ProWorld Tennis Academy organized a week of mental training from Monday, September 30th.