Playing, teaching, and coaching are all different.  While there are certainly some common things between them, many of the best coaches were not exceptionally high-ranked as players themselves.  On the other hand, many well-known players have also gone on to become successful as teachers and coaches.

       There appear to be some teachers and coaches who like to see how “tough” their kids are by doing whatever they can to make things difficult for the kids.  Used correctly, discipline is a valuable tool, but if a teacher or coach goes beyond that into abuse of the players, then of course, that's bad.  I have also encountered teachers (coaches) who did their best to present the material so that the students (players) would be able to learn it and perhaps enjoy the subject as well.  About a year or two ago, I heard a lecture from Wayne Bryan, who emphasized the importance of making things fun for the players.  Amen to that!

      I was very fortunate to go to a small college that had a no-cut program and also a junior-varsity team that played against other J-V teams in the conference.  It was lucky for me, because if there had not been a junior-varsity program, and our coach had made a cut before the spring season began, he would surely have eliminated me in my first year, along with several other players who were better than I was. 

      Time passed, I kept working on my game, and in my junior year, a "miracle" happened:   Our former #1 player transferred to another school, which meant that everybody who remained was going to move up.  My skill level had also gotten better, and at that point I was able to start at the #6 position.  We had the strongest junior-varsity [and varsity] team in the conference.  

      The message for you?  If you keep at it and continue working on your tennis six days a week, at some point your skill level will go up, and you will defeat players who used to beat you.  Hard work pays off, and there doesn't seem to be any other way to improve.   As a coach, you really don't know which kids are going to work hard to improve and which ones will sit back and do nothing.  This is the basic strength of a no-cut program that has ladder competition every week.  It is essentially a "free market."

      Tennis is an athletic sport that contains a number of complex motor skills.  Unfortunately, the instructor can actually make the learning of these skills more difficult than really ought to be the case.  For example, if the teacher constantly tells a beginner to remember to step towards the net just so, then footwork becomes a big part of the student's thinking, when in fact, the newcomer would probably be better off focusing on what the ball is doing and what the racket hand ought to be doing, because for a beginner, IMHO, that is usually plenty to be thinking about.      Carrying this a little further, if the instructor gives a dozen new concepts to the student in one lesson, what that is likely to do, even though it appears to be helpful as far as providing a valuable lesson, is to overload the player's "RAM" capacity, and as you might expect, it leads to problems. The old expression Keep it Simple applies especially well to tennis teaching.

     I recall my late teens and early 20's, when we would require ourselves (and our students) to stand still after our forehand contact and hold the finish, with the racket arm fully extended, racket face nicely perpendicular to the ground, while we slowly counted to five, or until the ball bounced on the other side of the court.  Here in America, that was supposedly the path to balance, according to the tennis gospel of the 70's.  The fact that we never did anything quite like that in a match was irrelevant.  

     Another myth was that while the top professional players in the world would swing all the way across the body and bend their elbows after they would hit a forehand, that was a special "advanced" technique that only they could use, since they were talented and apparently we were not.  Kind of amazing that so many of us actually bought into this tripe, but we were all in the same boat in those days, players and coaches.

     Here is an example of Father (or Mother) knowing best.  Many years ago, I worked with a young fellow who had already taken a number of lessons from another teaching pro in the same area.  I was told that the young guy's former instructor insisted that he play tournaments.  Exactly how much instruction he had been given before being required to play tournaments, I really don't know.  However, I did find out that the boy had drawn a much stronger opponent and was crushed love and love in the first round of a tournament.  

     As you can imagine, Mama wasn't happy about that.  So when they came to me, I was told the story, and that the child was absolutely not to be required to play competitively. In order to keep my customer, I worked with the boy on his skills, made no requirement as my predecessor had. Our lessons lasted for a little over a year.  His skill level improved.  How long he stayed with it, I really don't know.

      Years go by, and I find out that some very strong professional players were also not required to play, or even kept out of tournaments for a long time.  The most famous example in the USA, as you might guess, is the Williams sisters. Their father, Richard, kept them away from tournaments for a couple of years or so while they worked on their skills in Florida.  

     A number other examples come from the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow.  According to The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, the children there are not allowed to play tournaments for the first three years that they are in the program!  The kids also spend a certain amount of time learning the strokes and footwork without hitting the ball.  It's called imitatsiya.
     I wonder how we American tennis teachers would do using this concept.  Mr. Coyle wrote that Spartak has produced a lot more top-50 WTA players than we have.  And so, if you just want to learn the best technique and don't want to play tournaments right away, I say, "Sounds good to me!"

     Having said that, as far as becoming a strong player goes, there is no "free lunch."  If it was a simple and easy matter, making it into the top 100 or 200 on the professional computer lists, then almost everybody could do it, sort of like driving a car.
     Unfortunately, things don't work that way.  We cannot become a grandmaster in chess or a concert pianist in a matter of a few months.  Tennis is no different.  The player has to be willing to do some "work" on the game 6 days a week for a few years [with appropriate breaks] otherwise improvement will be limited.  Again, if you truly like the game and you enjoy running around and hitting the ball, then it shouldn't feel like "work."  
     Tennis has a number of different skills for you to master, often with different levels of expertise with each skill.
It's not mandatory that you practice the same thing every day; you can vary the emphasis of your practice sessions. On the other hand, if you're learning something new, or making a big change that requires a lot of repetition, then you could do the same thing for a couple of weeks or so, until the new skill is thoroughly learned.

     Bill Tilden once wrote that “It takes five years to make a tennis player, and ten years to make a champion.”  And by champion, I believe he meant someone who could win a national, international, or professional tournament, not some local club championship or junior tournament.  The “ten years” part of Tilden’s rule is certainly not gospel, because there are players who have become very successful players in considerably less time than that.  As you can imagine, during a time period of five or ten years, a person can through a lot of "ups and downs."  And when Jeff Greenwald talks about "being patient with the process" in his book The Best Tennis of Your Life, pay attention, because it seems to me that everybody has their good and bad times.

       As a coach/teacher, my first job is to help the player move up to the next skill level.  If the player is a young person, then I have a second, probably more important, responsibility.  That obligation is to teach the player about things like sportsmanship, integrity, ethics, and so on.  There are coaches who teach players how to win and nothing else.  There are also coaches who care nothing about winning at all, only that everybody has a “positive experience.” 
      These are both extremes.  Making an effort to win is important, but so is making an effort to play by the rules.  We now have the expression called the “double-goal” coach.  Double-goal coaches want to win, just like anybody else, but they realize that they must also teach lessons about things like etiquette, fair play, and sportsmanship.  If double-goal coaching is interesting to you, please visit 
      For example, the section called "The Code" in the USTA’s book Rules of Tennis (and also Friend At Court) called talks about the kinds of things important to a double-goal coach.  Not only that, but "The Code" gets into a number of details that frequently come up in tennis matches that lack officials.  I hope you will take a few minutes to read it or download yourself a copy to read later on:

      Before every lesson, I like to write out a lesson plan.  Teaching “off the seat of my pants” does not appeal to me, although once in a great while I am forced to do just that.  I also do not want to try and maximize profits by teaching as many people as I can possibly fit into an eight to ten-hour day.  I believe that teaching professionals who attempt to fill up their entire day with lessons will not only burn themselves out, but some of their students will eventually feel disappointed.
      It takes time to make lasting improvements to a player’s game.  If you are expecting your teacher/coach to fix your entire game in two or three lessons, when he/she has never seen you play a match, then you are being unrealistic.  I believe that it's better to think of improvement in years, rather than days or weeks.
      Improvement is a two-way street.  By that I mean that both the player and the coach have a responsibility.  The coach has to try and figure out what needs to be done to help the player, and the player also has to make the effort to ask questions, understand what is going on, and be willing to work.  Tennis used to be a player’s sport, but some people have been able to change this and allow coaches almost everywhere.  When you’re out there in a match, the responsibility for playing well (and behaving well) rests with you, the player.  If you win, then you, the player, get the credit.  If you lose, then you are 100% responsible for that.  A difficult thing in tennis is that you can play the best match of your life, performing at a level you feel is truly outstanding, and still lose the match.

       Another concept that comes up is the idea of criticism.  Any coach who is worth his/her salt is going to be able to pick out things that the player needs to work on.  When the teacher gives you criticism of some kind, it is not an insult.  All it means, if you’re listening, is that here is a place where you can make a change in your game that will make it more difficult for other players to beat you, and indeed may result in your winning more matches than you used to. So don’t take criticism personally, because your coach is trying to help you become a stronger tennis player.

      I do not believe that being better in tennis makes you a better person than the player you beat (or if you lost, the other way around).  All it means is that on day x, one player performed better than the other player, usually making fewer errors.  That’s it.  Of course, sportsmanship (good or bad) is something that players will often remember, even if they forget about the result of a match.     

      There is an expression that goes “You can’t win them all.” 
      I’d like to add to that and say:  “If you have a good attitude and you're willing to work, then you won’t lose them all, either, because you will eventually come across people you can beat.  And sometimes, the people you beat will be those who used to beat you.  However, due to time and dedicated effort, your skill level is now much higher, and they can no longer compete with you."  This also happens. 
     Finally, I wish you all the best in your tennis future, and that you enjoy learning more about the game and improving your skill level  :-)


Copyright © 2015 Charles Coleman

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