Monday, May 23, 2011

Player Development Systems

I ended my last post with a comment that the changing tennis landscape has implications for the USTA's Player Development Program.  Any system that's purpose is to produce world-class tennis players is a system that takes time.  Ten years at a minimum.  The kids get into the system at a young age and by the age of 18-28 one or two or more of them dominate the international tennis scene.  That's the goal anyway.

So you're in charge of such a system, nationwide.  What do you do?  Well Patrick McEnroe is that person in the US and he has hired Jose Higueras as his head coach.  Together they map out the training of young tennis players.   Both men agree that young American players are hurt by not playing enough on clay.  With an eye toward the success of Spanish and French players, and of Federer and Djokovic, all of whom played predominantly on clay as kids, McEnroe and Higueras are making the top US juniors train more on clay. They have installed clay courts at their regional training centers and at the National Tennis Center in New York.  Training on clay has worked for the current generation of stars, so we'll have to train our next generation of players on clay if we want them to be stars.

That's the argument.

Notice any problem with that line of reasoning?  Ever heard of a general fighting the last war?

If the landscape does not change over the next ten or twenty years, then starting our young players off on clay is a good call.  But what if it does change?  What if the game speeds up again for some reason?  Increased skill or different technique or another type of string.  What if the courts or balls of ten or twenty years from now are much faster or much softer or much harder or something that doesn't suit players who grew up playing on clay?

Any long term plans are subject to this type of risk.  Ask any business person or government planner.  The best laid plans of mice and men...

The longer the plan, the longer the process, the greater risk that the plan will not work out as you hoped.

So what's a national tennis federation to do?  Ah, another post!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

As California Goes

As California tennis goes, so goes American tennis.  Simplification?  Sure.  But California is our most populous state and a state with a long and rich tennis history.  It's reasonable to expect great American tennis players to come from California.  They have in the past.

California tennis is played on hard courts.  Players generally hit the ball fairly flat and take the ball on the rise.  They hug the baseline and play a forcing style of play.  That's what Tom Stow taught in Northern California and I think Robert Landsdorp favors that style in Southern California, too.  I don't think that's an unfair or misleading characterization of California tennis.

So how does that style of play work at the top levels of tennis in 2011?  I think not well.

Two primary changes in the tennis environment have worked against the California style.  The first is the strings.  The new co-polyester strings allow for much greater spin generation.  This allows players to hit with higher ball speeds and get the ball over the net and into the court.  The second change is to the court surfaces.  The hard courts are far slower than in the past and even Wimbledon's grass courts favor baseline players.

Playing up near the baseline, taking the ball on the rise, and attacking behind those sorts of groundstrokes is very difficult now.  Players who grew up on clay, playing well behind the baseline, have time to get to the ball and rip shots with their co-poly strings.  The neutral balls from these types of players even give the California-style player a lot of trouble.  A ball hit fairly high over the net with a lot of speed and spin is extremely difficult to hit on the rise, with authority, and adequate margin of safety to keep errors low enough to win.

Unless California tennis changes to reflect the new conditions under which top-level tennis is played, I don't think we can expect many great players to come from California.  That dramatically reduces the chance of there being any great American players in the near future.

If the conditions on tour change maybe the California-style will re-emerge as dominant.  If not, the players and coaches in California will have to change or be selected against by the very competitive tennis environment.

UPDATE:  This is awesome.  As soon as you write something it can become obsolete.  I turned on the French Open a few minutes ago to watch Ferrer and Nieminen play.  Brad Gilbert says that he's seeing more and more hard court tennis being played on clay this year.  The balls on tour are quicker than the last few years and the clay courts are playing much quicker.  So players, like Djokovic and Ferrer, are moving up onto the baseline much more consistently.  Gilbert says that he's seeing a lot more "one two" tennis, meaning serve and forehands ending points.

I saw one point where Nieminen hit a second serve and Ferrer ripped a return from inside the baseline.  Nieminen got the ball back, but weekly and Ferrer unloaded on another forehand from inside the court.  This time Nieminen barely got the ball back and Ferrer finished him off with a high forehand winner from about the service line.  One, two, three.  Receiving.  On the clay of Roland Garros.

Can the return of the dominant Californian be far behind?

The landscape can change quickly.  What does that mean for the USTA Player Development system?  The subject of another post...

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Helpful Nudge

OK, I've been pretty harsh on the value of coaches and coaching lately on this blog.  It's only fair that I toss up an example of where coaching helped.  In this example, I think nearly all the credit should go to the player.  I've given this sort of advice to countless players without any effect.  Same message.  Same messenger.  Different recipient.  I say the recipient matters more than the messenger and the message.  In any case, some coaching did help.

Below is an image of a player at a critical moment in his service motion.  He is just about to lose contact with the ground.

You can see that at his final push off the ground the force vector from his foot through his mass center angles toward the back fence.  Not good.

I took a video (from which the drawing was made) and showed him his serve.  I told him to let his weight flow forward more as he was pushing against the ground.  Here is a similar picture of his very next serve:
With one video and one sentence of instruction, this player improved his service motion dramatically.

Let's insert the before and after videos.  Before:
And here is the better (after) video:

Look at how much better his weight flows into his serve on the second video.   Look at both his hip motion as he pushes off and where his left foot lands relative to where it started (the baseline is a nice reference).

As I said, the lion's share of the credit goes to the student.  He is a great athlete who possesses more body awareness than most people.  But I have to admit that this little bit of coaching helped improve his service motion.

Total elapsed time of the lesson?  Between one and two minutes.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Style or Substance

Do you want to look like a good tennis player or do you want to be a good tennis player?

Too many players, parents, and coaches think looking like a good tennis player will cause a person to be a good player.  Not so.  It's possible to have strokes that look like the strokes good players use, but to be a poor tennis player.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"I want to win state this year."

A young fellow I know recently said "I want to win state this year." He meant this as an individual, not as a team. Easier said than done.  Many states allow lots of kids to say they "won state" each year by having multiple singes and doubles flights.  Fair enough.  I'm not really talking about the three or four doubles "state champs" here, but this post applies with diminishing relevance to any kid who hopes to "win state".

My question for those kids who want to win state is, "Do you want to do what it takes to win state?"

It's easy to say you want to do something, but putting in the work necessary to give yourself a chance to achieve that goal much tougher.  Practicing and training can be tedious at times.  Maybe you'd prefer to spend Saturday nights with your girlfriend instead of practicing.  Who can blame you?  But don't come crying to me when you fail to win state if you don't do everything you can to prepare in the months and years leading up to the tournament.  Talk is cheap.

I italicized "give yourself a chance" in the paragraph above because that's really all you can do.  You cannot do anything that guarantees you will win state.  Very rarely will one person become so much better than all the other kids in a state that they can realistically expect to win state, especially "this year".  It takes many years to distance yourself from the pack.  Most years two or three or four or five kids have a legitimate chance to be the state tennis singles champion.

If you're one of those kids with a legit shot to win state, keep the tournament in perspective.  The tournament only happens once each year, but if we run a thought experiment and play the tournament a hundred different times I think you'll realize that the person who wins one year and those who lose one year may not be the same over all one hundred trials.   The best person entering the tournament may win 60 of those trials, for example, with the second player winning 20 times, the third winning 10, and the fourth and fifth each winning 5 times.  Those numbers are pulled out of thin air, obviously.  The point is that if you win or if you lose this year, keep it in perspective.

If we ran the tournament again the next day, it's likely the results would have been different.

I'm reminded of my own experience as a high school tennis player.  I, too, wanted to win state.  My junior year I almost did, but lost in the finals to a better player.  That better player and I had been frequent practice partners over the previous few years.  I knew I could beat him because I had in the past, as recently as the regionals the week before the tournament.  But I also knew he could beat me because he had beaten me more times than I had beaten him, including the team regionals right before the individual regionals.  Tennis can be that way, can't it.

Anyway, my senior year I was the heavy favorite going into the season.  I was runner-up the previous year and had been the top player in my section my age or younger for four or five years by then.  But as sometimes happens, a very good player moved into our state the fall of my senior year.  In my state we played high school tennis in the spring, so I had a year to practice with this kid.  Or not.  My choice.

The downside to practicing with a competitor is that by practicing with someone you help them get better.  That's tennis.  In this case, the kid was a sophomore and wasn't as good as I was.  That meant that he was at a different place on his learning curve than I was.  My curve was not as steep as his was, which meant that he was going to be getting better faster than I was throughout the year.  Trouble.

But I never thought of it in those terms.  Just like my friend who beat me the year before and my teammate who won the two state titles the two years before that, I was more than happy to practice with younger players.  I wanted to practice with the best players available.  He was available and he was damn good.  The second best junior in my area.  So we practiced together often, probably weekly as I recall.

Luckily I was able to beat him every time we played during that spring season, including in the state championship match.  Timing is everything.  I got him when he was young. He went on to become much better than I did, I think, winning the title a couple of times and playing tennis at Harvard.  I played at a somewhat lesser university (what isn't, huh?).  One of the younger kids that he beat, I think maybe even the next year, went on to achieve a top 20 world ranking.  Again, timing.  That kid was only in 8th grade at the time!!

So you can see how the tennis generations in my state all worked together, though we were fiercely competitive, to get as good as we could.  Not all of my practice partners won state, obviously.  This can't work out for everyone.  Only one guy wins each year.  But I don't think the guys who didn't win regretted practicing with me.  Sure they helped me get better, but they got better, too.

That's the nature of competition.

So if you "want to win state", get off your ass, find the best people you can to compete against, and get after it.  I guarantee the person who wins will have done just that.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Distal Emphasis

In the post below (click) I talk about a coach who told his promising young student to just "hit with more spin" rather than telling the player how to hit with more spin.  This is an example of a coach who emphasizes the distal over the proximal.  The distal aim is to hit a shot with topspin.  A proximal emphasis would focus on the grip necessary to hit topspin, for instance, or on how to achieve more vertical racquet head speed.

It won't always work to only emphasize the distal aim, but if the student achieves the distal aim without the proximal cues, then what the heck is the point of the proximal cues?  I think, but can't go and find them now, that there are studies showing that the less a person explicitly knows about how they perform some skill the less likely the person is to lose that skill (forget how to do it) under pressure.

As I said above, it won't always work to simply say "hit with more spin" or some similar cue.  In those cases a coach will have to figure out a way to help the student "hit with more spin".  But to first focus on the distal aim is the way to go.  Humans are goal oriented and I think that the ultimate goal should be the primary focus of attention, with the proximal bridges crossed when necessary.

Why build a bridge if your student can already fly?

"Hit with more spin."

Is a coach who simply says "Hit with more spin" to a skilled young player failing to instill proper mechanics?

A very good local junior suggested that recently when he said he was glad he found his new coach who is much more technique oriented.  The irony is that the kid is already sixteen years old and has very good technique.  That former coach who "failed" to teach the kid technique got the kid to hit very good topspin groundstrokes, so good that I long ago tabbed him "The Assassin" for his ability to rack up 6-0, 6-0 victories over lesser players.  I used him as an example of a kid who seemed to love to hit shots.  He didn't care if he was playing a pusher or a hack or a good player.  He just seemed to relish the chance to unleash those topspin groundstrokes on ball after ball after ball.  It didn't matter how many of those balls came back.  Each one gave him the chance to unload again.  Well, unload may be a bit strong for a kid who was always the skinniest kid in the field.  By a lot.  But he unloaded himself into the ball with all he had.

Now the kid is still winning, but he's doing it by pushing.  He no longer unloads into his groundstrokes.  In practice he goes big, but since he's taller and stronger now, his hitting window is much smaller so he is prone to making errors, especially since he now hits his big shots pretty flat.  

To make matters worse, since this young man now enthralled with his new technique-oriented coach, his emphasis naturally on technique.  Each mistake he makes, and he makes a bunch in practice, he analyzes some minor element of his take back or something.  So instead of learning how to play with the wonderful strokes he already has, he's fixated on minor, largely irrelevant elements of his strokes.

What a shame that his old coach left town and he hooked up with the new guy.  Bad timing.  I hope it turns out well.

Nash Equilibrium?

OK, so I'm out of my depth, by a lot, just by writing that title.  I saw "A Beautiful Mind" but that doesn't make me an expert on Nash equilibrium or game theory.  Somebody who really knows that stuff can call me out on my posing.  But...

In my last post on stacking of tennis lineups (here), I said once we dump the "strength order" rule, I prefer having coaches specify lineups to the alternative I proposed earlier of random draws for match ups (here).  I think that both rules would result in the same outcome, the random match ups.

Let's say we make a rule that each coach writes down his line up on a line up card and the coaches exchange line up cards before the matches begin, just like baseball coaches exchange line ups with each other and the umpire at home plate before a baseball game begins.  No changes are allowed once the lineups are exchanged.  What order do you place your players?

If the opposing team has placed its players in a predictable order in previous matches, you would place your players in positions that give you the best chance to win.  That's obvious.  But would it make sense for any coach to play a predictable line up in previous matches?  Nope.  So what line up is not predictable?  Only a random one.  Any non-random method of setting the line up opens up the possibility of an opponent figuring out your method and selecting match ups that favor the opponent, not you.

Now it is possible to set traps and so forth, deception being a tried and true way to gain an edge.  A team could use one line up in all its easy matches and then pull the switcheroo for a later match against a big rival.  That could work.  Once.

So the "submitting line ups simultaneously without changes" rule leads to the random pairing of matches.  That's fine with me.

What other rules for revealing line ups might lead to different strategies?

Visiting team reveals position number one first.  Home team submits a match for number one and then reveals number two position.  The visitors submit their number two player and reveal number three, etc.  That might be fun.   I haven't experimented with that one.

A friend and I just tried a rule where one team submits their order of players and the other team gets to match.  But to make it more fair, the first team is allowed some number of switches.  We used three singles and four doubles and allowed one singles and one doubles switch.  That was a hoot.  For NCAA format of three doubles and six singles, a rule with one doubles switch (team or player?) and two singles switches might be fun to try.  This rule really puts the coach, and players if the coach wants their input, to work.  This one could be darn exciting.

Any way, those are my latest thoughts on this.  We need to get a ground swell of coaches and players to get rid of the conflict-inducing "strength order" rule we now have.  That conflict-inducing aspect of the current rule probably needs a post of its own.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Stack Stack Stack

I've written about team tennis lineups before on this blog (see here), but I can't resist ranting again.

As we head into the girls high school championship weekend in Colorado and the NCAA Division III men's and women's draws are being made, this issue of placing players in order of strength naturally arises.  In my previous post (linked above) I think I made the case for random draws of players.  That would solve the bs about coaches stacking and about who plays above whom on each team. There would still be battles to get into the lineup, but there would be no more "How come I'm playing behind Suzie" types of gripes.  Suzie and Molly and Amy would all go in a hat, to be drawn out at random.

I'm not only about reducing conflict, though.  Tennis is fundamentally about conflict so I say let's keep some of that.  I prefer to let coaches arrange their lineups, who plays singles, who plays doubles, with whom and in what order, however they want to.  The coach has an ethical obligation to arrange his players in the manner that gives his team the best chance to win, both in the current match and with an eye toward future matches.  The problem is that currently a rule prohibits this.  Now coaches have an ethical obligation to place their players in the order of strength.  Bad rule.

The "order of strength" can vary a lot.  Perhaps a player is good in practice matches but performs poorly in competition with other teams.  Who is stronger, the player who wins in practice or the player who wins against outside competition?  Perhaps Suzie shows up to the match with a bad attitude, warms up poorly, and appears to be going through the motions.  Is she still the team's number 2 player?  Is the coach doing his duty to put the team in the best position to win if he plays Suzie at number 2 that day?  Is he cheating if he drops her to #3 or #4?  By most rules, he is deemed to be stacking if he moves her down and most rules prohibit any two-spot moves between any two matches.  Bummer for Suzie and her team.

I say remove the rule that creates suspicion and doubt among coaches about the ethics and motivations of each other.  Let's join every other team sport that I know of and let coaches decide who plays and who plays where.  Isn't that a fundamental part of coaching?  Let's embrace that in team tennis.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Proximal Distal Emphasis and the UnAcademy

My friend Ken Hammond and I have been discussing the work of Egon Brunswik for years.  Egon Brunswik was a professor of psychology at Berkeley in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.  Ken knew him back then and has applied Brunswik's ideas to the field of human judgment and decision making.

I bring this up on a "mostly tennis related" blog because a significant failure of tennis coaching is an emphasis on the proximal at the expense of the distal.  So what the heck does that mean?  It means that we teach the means independent of the ends too often.  We teach players what they can see and feel, like the grip, the swing, the flight of the ball, etc, rather than what they cannot see and feel, the ultimate (distal) goal -- winning points and winning matches.

I hope that the Quick Start emphasis on rallying and especially on playing the game of tennis as early as possible will remedy this.  Kids who "take lessons" on how to grip a racquet, how to position their bodies, and how to swing a racquet are focused on the proximal.  Oddly enough, we coaches have a habit of distracting students' attention and get them to focus on the instructor instead of on their own senses of sight, sound, and feel.  We do that by talking way too much ("racquet back",  "watch the ball", "swing", "finish high", etc).  Luckily some kids ignore the coach and just try to hit the ball, but way more kids really try to listen to the coach.  Their attention is therefore not on the feedback their hands and eyes and bodies are providing them.  They are focused too much on the coach.

So that sort of interference from coaches is bad, but what's worse is that I now am really seeing what other people have been saying for many years.  American kids can hit the ball, but they cannot play the game.  What does that mean?  It means they are mastering the proximal skills OK (they hit the ball well enough), but they don't know how to play points and win matches.  The playing points and winning matches are the distal goals that are so often ignored or given short shrift in lessons.

I am tempted to start the UnAcademy.  At the UnAcademy the kids get no proximal instruction and very little distal instruction beyond what the game gives them.  To the extent that the UnAcademy coaches provide feedback, it would be to override the confusing feedback the game itself can provide.  Frequently in tennis, players can play a good point, but lose it.  A coach can intervene and say, "That was a great point.  You just got beat by a good shot."  Or "You did everything right up until you dumped that volley in the net.  Keep it up.  You'll make that shot in the future."

Our UnAcademy coaches will also praise effort.  When we see kids hustling for a ball, sliding on hard courts, etc, we'll be enthusiastic in our praise.  It's tough to give maximum effort all the time.  It's much easier to coast.  So as coaches, we at the UnAcademy will do our best to praise and reward effort.  Players cannot control outcomes, but they can control their effort.

If while giving their all and playing lots of matches, players ask coaches what they can do to improve their games, including improving certain shots, we'll be more than happy to nudge them in the direction of better strategy, tactics, and mechanics.