From a spectator's view, tennis seems such a simple sport: Ball comes to you; hit it over the net. From the sidelines, it's easy to misunderstand—or question—what's happening on the court. Why didn't Johnny hit the ball in? How could Sarah miss that seemingly easy shot? Why couldn't Max move faster to get to that ball? My kid is far better than that other player, so why did she lose? It's really easy to coach for what has just happened. But, hindsight is what sports commentators get paid to do. Not coaches.
Contrary to what it seems, tennis is quite a complex sport. Technically, you have to learn a variety of shots, each with a number of nuances, such as spins. After that, you have to learn how to position shots (direction and distance), manage the pace, and control movement (the ball's, your opponent's, and your own) to allow yourself the best opportunity to win points. Then, there's strategy. Generally, what is your game plan to leverage your strengths and expose your opponent's weaknesses? Now, successfully do all of this with a complicated scoring system, in which you could lose the match even if you actually win more points!
Given the complexity of the sport, coaches cannot get lost in the Land of Hindsight. If you focus on the fundamentals needed to be successful, the noise created by hindsight is easy to filter out. It's the coach's role to build the biomechanics of all the strokes, teach tactics and match strategy, bolster mental conditioning, and inspire the kids to be the best players they can.
So what is the parents' role? I believe the parents have the hardest job. It's not easy to see your child make a mistake or lose a match he or she should have won, and not get caught up in the technical and tactical things. But, if a parent is busy talking tactics and shot errors, who's providing the emotional support for the player? Love and encouragement resonate a lot more than analysis of double faults or missed shots.
Everyone has an important role to play in the development of an aspiring player—player, coaches, and parents. Kel and I work hard to handle all of the duties that come with wearing the "coach" hat. When mom and dad wear the "supportive parent" hat, together we can provide all the support a player could need. Finally, when the player embraces his or her role—appreciate the coaching and parental support, work hard, and have fun—we have a winning formula.
You never stop learning in this sport. There is always something to correct, change, or improve (Roger Federer even has a coach, right?). I love this sport for all the challenges it brings, both on and off the court.
Thanks for reading.
Kel and I regularly attend junior tournaments to support our players and check on their progress in competitive matches. We enjoy seeing the kids in action, and talking with the parents, with whom we don't get much time during the week because we are on court with the kids. We get asked lots of questions, ranging from how many times a week should a child play, to what is the best racquet for a junior player, and why are we such big fans of the Red/Orange/Green/Yellow (ROGY) ball progression.
Since Kel and I started coaching (nearly 20 years ago!), the approach to teaching young tennis players has changed. The systematic use of the ROGY Balls, and the developmental steps represented by each color, allows coaches to build the fundamental skills needed to take a player to the highest level possible. Using smaller courts, softer balls, and racquets designed for the size and strength of young players, you can successfully introduce kids to the sport at a younger age, and continuously adapt the game as they grow, physically and skills-wise. In addition to appropriate equipment, the structure of training needs to be tailored for children. Long lines with kids waiting 2-3 minutes to hit one ball? It doesn't work. Practice needs to have a purpose and a fitting structure. We work to have the kids constantly moving and interacting with each other. We also strive to make it fun: playing games, rallying, and target practice for ground strokes and serves.
Why are we such big fans of the ROGY progression? Simply, it is the best way to develop tennis players. It allows kids to start tennis (successfully) at a younger age—an 6-year-old kid should not be hitting from the 72-foot baseline with a Yellow Ball! It also establishes milestones of development, ensuring the fundamental skills are learned before moving on. And while it may seem counter-intuitive (and is often unpopular for those know don't understand ROGY), it encourages a child to move through the stages more methodically, which allows skills to be acquired more rapidly. Hitting from the 72-foot baseline at a young age is NOT an accomplishment—it doesn't mean the child is more advanced! Using the right grips, with the best swing shape, and good biomechanics, on a smaller court, with a slower ball will allow your child to become a far more complete tennis player in the long term.
I can categorically say that the best players I have developed have purposely taken their time through every phase of the ROGY progression. Don't sprint ahead, as you'll only get overtaken in the end!
Thanks for reading, and thanks for your support.
For the first time in about a decade, I entered my first competitive tournament this month. I've regularly competed in leagues over this time, but participating in a knock-out tournament is a completely different experience.
When I was growing up, playing tournaments was always nerve-racking for me. I would battle nervousness and fought hard to trust in my game. Fast forward to this month's tournament, after roughly 30 years of playing and coaching experience, and I realized how much I have developed, not only with my technique, but most importantly with my mental approach. I lost to a young up-and-coming junior. He was good, for sure, but I never felt down in the match. I fought right to the end, believing with each point that I could turn the match around. It wasn't to be. Walking off the court was definitely emotional for me. But it wasn't the negative emotions I felt as a kid; rather than feeling down or mad that I didn't play my best, I was able to enjoy the experience and I felt very satisfied with my effort and performance.
Why did I do this, you may ask. My players feel these emotions every time they play in tournaments. For my 7-12 year olds, who regularly play in tournaments, I want to instill the lessons I've learnt from my playing experience to them. There is nothing more pleasing than watching young juniors whom I've been working with compete right to the end, even if they lose. It's those fighting qualities, that determination, that will carry them off the court, back onto the practice court, and into their next tournaments. Tennis is a physically-demanding sport, but it's the mental side of the game that will take you to the highest level.
With that in mind, we spent last week preparing our kids for a tournament this past weekend. Our focus was not so much on forehands and backhands, but rather the mental approach they have entering the tournament and the right attitude to carry them through the tournament. The best way for our juniors to achieve the goals they set for themselves is to believe and stay positive (and work their tails off!).
Our 11 players did extremely well in the tournament. They improved physically and mentally. Both Kel and I are so proud...or dare I say, emotional!
While we are making our way through, what I am told is, a cold and wet Arizona winter, it is a warm and sunny (at times, at least) in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. I grew up in Melbourne, where they hold the first grand slam tournament every year. I learnt so much watching the matches at Melbourne Park. I would watch the likes of Sampras, Agassi, Rafter, and Moya play, and then go back to my courts and try and emulate their strokes.
Now as a coach, I still watch lots of matches, and learn a ton. The only difference is that the tournaments are for children, and the learning is from both the good and the bad that I see from the junior players. This allows me to go back to the coaching court and work on these areas with our players.
The current area of focus for our players is being more aggressive! How do you be more aggressive? Is it just a matter of swinging the racquet faster? While increased pace can certainly be aggressive, it is not the only way. If power or velocity is the answer for a particular shot, our philosophy is that it starts with the feet. A more explosive first step to the ball gives a player more time. Planting the feet and loading through the legs allows greater force to be generated from the ground up. These are the fundamental ways a player can be more aggressive.
Another consistent takeaway from junior tournaments is serving. The service motion is rooted in a throwing motion. If your child aims to be a competitive player, I would highly recommend just throwing a ball...a lot. And any ball will do: tennis ball, baseball, American football. Okay, maybe not a rugby ball or Australian Rules football! This simple development step will do wonders to address the common weakness I see at tournaments.
I hope you enjoyed watching the great spectacle tennis provided over the last fortnight in Melbourne. It is always great entertainment, and great education. My family back in Melbourne attended several of the matches. I posted some of their photos below.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me.
We are pleased to announce the commencement of our Red Ball class. We held our first session on Saturday at 9:00 am, and it will be a regular part of our program going forward. The Red Ball class is a fantastic way to introduce young kids to the sport. The skills taught during this development stage are often overlooked, and it's a shame. Building a player's hand-eye coordination, developing spacial awareness, and working on reactions and timing are just some of the areas of focus for our Red Ballers. And be warned, our Red Ball class will look very unorthodox! There will be hula hoops, and balloons, and obstacles! This is entirely by design,..and entirely fun for the kids.
Over the winter break, Kel and I had the opportunity to work with many of the top ranked juniors in America during the USTA Winter Nationals Tournament hosted in Arizona in late December. After working with and watching many of these top players, I realized that while they certainly can hit with power, most had some fundamental issues--issues that should have been addressed when they were younger. As I transitioned back to the young players in our development program, I have become more excited and more dedicate to building fundamentally sound players from the start.
Kel and I continuously stress the importance of timing the split step for quick reactions. We also focus on teaching the kids to create space between themselves and the ball. This allows the correct swing path of the racquet. Many players get too close, which affects the swing shape, forces grip changes, and ruins the timing. There is no better time to instill these fundamentals than in Red Ball. Children aged 4-7, using properly-sized racquets, on a court that suits their size and speed, and with a ball that's bigger and softer and slower, is the perfect setting to learn tennis the right way. Red Ball is all about the fundamentals, the presence or absence of which become more and more obvious as the children progress.
Finally, we are so proud of all of our kids who played in the Grand Canyon State Winter Games tennis tournament this past weekend. We had 10 kids at the event at Scottsdale Ranch Park. We had boys and girls. from the 10s to the 14s. One of our players was the number 1 seed, while several of our Orange Ballers (and their parents!) were experiencing their first tournament. Of course everyone wants to take home the trophy, but just participating in tournament play is a vital part of development. Some players expect to go deep into the draw. Others are learning the environment or working on specific aspects of their game (including mental strength and attitude) in a match setting. It's all about development--building on those fundamentals learned in Red Ball.
As always, if you have any questions or feedback, please feel free to contact me.
Happy New Year! We hope you enjoyed your Winter Break as much as we did! With the kids off of school, it was a great opportunity for extra time on court. We ran Orange and Green Ball mini camps nearly every day during the break. The players worked hard, and we had a blast.
Kel has been working with our Orange Ballers, and has the players focusing on ball recognition, split-step timing, the preparation/set-up ("unit turn"), and racquet head speed. Kel has made it a part of his warm-up to have the players use a continental grip—which we consider to be the most important grip in tennis!
I have been working with our Green Ballers, and have been having the players start every class as if they were walking onto the court to begin a match. It's easy to call the players onto the court and just start basket-feeding, but it really doesn't prepare players for tournaments. I find the biggest struggle for young junior players is their focus at the start of matches. That's why it's critical to model for the player how to warm up and begin matches with intensity!
Both Kel and I take pride in the effort we make to develop our players' serves. In the past few weeks, we have seen some amazing improvements in the players' serves, in each stage of serve development. Kel has been working on wrist control and racquet positioning with the Orange Ballers, while I have been coaching the Green Ballers on developing power for the serve from the ground, up. The power comes from the legs, rather than forcing the serve from the arm, which can lead to serious shoulder injuries.
If you couldn’t already tell from watching us on court, it's been an absolute pleasure for me to be working with Kel again. He is a great coach, with great ideas on how develop our players. IJP Tennis is creating an awesome environment, not only for the players, but also for me, by forming a healthy coaching environment, working with someone I trust.
On behalf of everyone at IJP Tennis, I wish you all the best in 2017.
This weekend, I had the opportunity to coach at the USTA Southwest Green Ball development camp held at Arizona State University. It was a fantastic venue for the aspiring tennis players to see where their tennis paths could lead to.
The Green phase is for players aged 10-12, played on a full-size court using low compression "Green Dot" balls. New Green Ballers are faced with the challenge of covering more court space and generating more racquet head speed to hit the ball farther. With the bigger court, ball recognition is an important development area during this phase. Recognizing the path, speed, and spin of the ball off of your opponent's racquet early will allow the player to make the appropriate adjustments to the shot. For example, recognizing a short ball early will allow the player to move up quickly, meet the ball, and make a more aggressive shot.
The theme of our Green Ball camp was "Doubles Dominance." We worked on serves, volleys, movement patterns whilst positioned at the net, and recognizing a short ball to attack. Doubles is often overlooked in programs these days. It's not seen as glamorous or as important as singles. Doubles, however, reinfornces all of the foundations of a good player. You must be able to hit targets on your serve, and make precise returns to set up your partner or to keep the ball away from the opposing net player. Doubles is ideal for developing volley skills and net play, which are essential for finishing points (even in singles, where points cannot all be decided from the baseline).
It's very important to not let players rush through the Orange Ball phase just to get to Green Ball. The risk of rushing is (bad) technique changes, which is most evident in changes in grip. If the ball is bouncing too high or the net feels too high or far away, kids will "cheat" their grips and technique (swing shape) will suffer. Once a player is ready to move up from Orange to Green, I often have them do both Orange and Green Ball lessons, making sure I can control the environment in the Green Ball, so players don't feel out of their depth.
It's a pleasure being a part of the USTA Southwest's development programs. There is a lot talented and motivated kids, and the programs are led by amazing coaches: Tracy Lawson and Nicole Fintell.
Playing in the appropriate colored phase is so important, so please make sure your player is on the right path. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.
I have been working within a junior pathway program for the past 17 years. Starting in Melbourne at Dingley Tennis Club with Pee-Wee tennis, using a foam ball on a 36-foot court, to this past weekend working with some of the best Orange Ball kids in the USTA Southwest at the Early Development Camp.
I like working with junior players at all levels. As I say to parents, I am less concerned with the current ability or level of a player, and more with focus, desire, and work ethic. I must admit, however, I do have a real passion for developing kids on the Orange Ball. It is an important time for skill development, and I've had such great success with this age group in Chicago, and this momentum has carried over to our program here in Arizona.
The Orange Ball phase is for players generally aged 7 to 10. It's played on a 60-foot court using the orange low-compression ball. The skills developed during this phase, for me, are the most critical. As the court is notably larger than the 36-foot Red Ball court, players encounter new challenges, such as more complex footwork patterns, developing racquet head speed from a longer baseline, and generating spin to control serves and groundstrokes. Also, juniors need to start understanding match tactics, as Orange Ball play, when done well, starts to closely resemble "adult tennis."
I have found that the Orange Ball phase is generally overlooked in this country, and this bamboozles me! After four years, I still cannot figure out why there is such push back. For those who miss out on Orange Ball, the proof always manifests later in their development. You only have to walk around a 10s or 12s tournament and focus on the players' technique. The difference between a player who developed through Orange Ball and a player who did not is quite obvious—at least to me. Orange Ball graduates move and play differently, and the most telling area—even for parents—is the serve. Why is this? Players need time (and proper insruction) to develop, and Orange Ball is a crucial part of the development!
Our Orange Ball program is doing fantastically well. We have roughly 8-10 kids developing through this phase. We have three players that are at the elite Orange Ball level (and eligble for the USTA camps I worked at over the weekend). We also have a couple of kids who recently graduated from Red Ball. I know that, in six months time, these kids will all be playing and looking amazing!
I'm so excited to have a strong foundation in this program. Both Kel and I take such satisfaction in building our players from the beginning. Our Orange Ball classes run on Monday and Wednesday from 4:00 to 5:30.
For a free 30-minute evaluation please feel free to contact me.
I hope everyone had a fantastic Thanksgiving break. We had a quiet week with many of our players having a well-earned break, spending time with family and friends. I think it's important for everyone to take a break and use the downtime to recharge and reflect. These rest times are not only good for your body to recover, but more so for your mind.
During the lessons we did have this past week, I spoke with some of the kids about where they were this time 12 months ago. Last year, one student had just been diagnosed with double stress fractures in her shins, and was just starting a 6-month stint of recovery and rehab. She wasn't able to run or do any exercise for months, and was was quite distraught about it. Now, 12 months on, she is absolutely tearing up the court with amazing tennis. What a transformation...what a year!
It's these times and these situations that we can all reflect on.
Something I have always wrestled with as a coach has been how to start lessons. Early in my career, I would have the kids do a quick couple of laps around the court and then a light stretch before starting to hit. Only when I stopped and questioned myself about what I was teaching my students during this time did I start to become more creative with how I begin my lessons.
My goal now is to make my players start thinking and moving as soon as they step foot on the court. They need to think and move with a purpose, from the word "go!" It's all about establishing good habits. They need to develop the routine they will use for tournaments during practice!
Below is a video of a student I worked with over the weekend. The drill was the first racquet skill exercise of the lesson. My goal during this exercise is to simulate movement and stroke patterns that will occur during every point. Students are challenged both physically and mentally during this exercise. Please DO attempt these exercises at home!
Please send me any questions or comments you have. Have a sensational week on the court.
Sunday was the last day of the season for the ATP tour. The match was between Andy Murray & Novak Djokovic, and decided the year-end world number 1. It was the first time in history that the final of the ATP World Tour Finals decided this. Murray played some of his best tennis of the year to take the victory and the number 1 ranking. It took Andy Murray 11 years as a professional tennis player to achieve this ranking. Many of his coaches and the people supporting him have been there from the start. This sport certainly takes commitment and patience.
I often speak with parents about their child's progress through this sport. I always make it a point to emphasize to parents (and my players) how long the journey is from Red Ball to, for example, the ATP finals. It's too easy to fixate on the present moment--how many serves did she hit in, whom is he hitting with today, when does she move to the Green Ball class? I always assess players with an eye on the beginning and the end: how/when/where did the child start tennis, and where is he or she headed on this journey. The ending, of course, is speculative, but it does shape the pathway. And it is the pathway that matters. The pathway is that long journey. There will be lots of bumps and turns along the way, with lulls and rapid accelerations. It's a long road, so you need to "pan out" to see the whole thing.
If there is one piece of advice I would give parents, it is: Be very choosy in selecting your coach (or coaches), and then trust your coach. Try out different coaches and programs, and find the right fit. Find a coach that is genuinely interested in your child's progression as a player and a sportsperson. This trust, to be sure, is not a blank check and does not mean turning a blind eye to short-term progress. But, if you believe in the coach, the program, and the vision, the consistent message, presence, and focus will help in achieving those longer-term goals and outcomes.
This weekend's ATP Finals showed how healthy tennis is, as a sport. IJP Tennis is also doing quite well. Week by week, our program is growing. We have new players streaming in, and new classes launching each week. I know this is the start, but we are off to a flying start!
I wish everyone a happy and safe Thanksgiving.
Matt's Point (get it? Match Point!) is Matt's blog covering all the goings-on at IJP Tennis.