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.