Coaching & Development, Data & Innovation, Human Performance, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Aug 21, 2019
How the sport enables its athletes and coaches to get ahead of the game… and one tennis legend to avoid emulating.

Anyone for tennis? No sport blends mental and physical challenges quite like tennis, where matches can regularly exceed three or even four hours during an 11-month season.

By John Portch

Throw in the incessant global travel and players are fighting jetlag as well as mental and physical fatigue as much as their opponents.

There has always been something for the high performance community to take from the sport and here we bring you ten of the Leaders Performance Institute’s hottest takes from the world of tennis from recent years.

1. Pressure is a privilege

“We talk about it and you just have to say that pressure is a privilege,” said former world number one Ivan Lendl. “You play the game to achieve goals, that comes with pressure, and once you’re close to the goal you’re going to feel pressure – learn to embrace it.” It says something of the mentality of an eight-time grand slam winner, who lost his first four grand slam finals before tasting success at the fifth attempt – a record he shares with Andy Murray, whom he coached between 2012 and 2014. “That’s a requirement for working hard and being successful: pressure. If you’re not successful and you lose in the first or second round there is no pressure. The pressure comes later on and you’re doing something right and getting close to your goals, so enjoy it and go out and have a good experience and you also have to rely on your training.” It was a point he stressed to Murray, who won the US Open, Olympic singles gold and Wimbledon under the guidance of Lendl. “With Andy he has had experience in it as well,” he added. “He has had the finals of Wimbledon in 2012, then the Olympic gold, and then the pressure was a little bit less, at least I think it was quite a bit less in 2013.”

2. Perseverance and resilience can be developed

As tennis coach and Great Britain Fed Cup Captain Anne Keothavong explained: “Perseverance and resilience are huge. Those qualities for me are more important than the talent of the player because, frankly, in tennis, most players are dealing with losses every week and unless you’re winning tournaments you’re losing somewhere, whether it’s in the first round, quarter-finals or semi-finals; so you need to be pretty thick-skinned and develop a way to pick yourself up.” The British former professional Keothavong works occasionally with players affiliated to Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association [LTA]. She continues: “Some losses will hurt more than others, that’s natural, but again it’s being able to see the bigger picture especially from a younger age. That’s not only the player, that’s also the people around them, including parents, who are often the driving force behind younger players. If you think of how many hundreds and thousands and millions of kids who are, I guess, working on a dream of winning Wimbledon one day, only a fraction of those kids will go on to compete at the highest level. The life of a tennis player can be very lonely as well, particularly at the start where you’re not playing the big tournaments and it’s a huge grind. Like I said earlier, you’re travelling quite often to remote places where you’ve got probably a handful of people watching you; you’ve got to be made of pretty tough stuff to suck it up and put yourself out there every week.”

3. Athletes benefit from a holistic approach to performance

The belief in a holistic approach to player development underpins the approach of the United States Tennis Association [USTA]. It was a topic Larry Lauer, a mental skills specialist at the USTA, spoke about at length with the Leaders Performance Institute. He said: “If you take a holistic approach you’re talking about life; life skills and character. Every player can enjoy a great experience through tennis whether or not they’re winning or reach their performance outcome goals. Everybody can become a better person from the experience and set themselves up for life. That might be a pro tennis career or it might not be; but because of this journey they’re prepared to move on with the rest of their life and be successful. I don’t think we can use an attrition model here and merely push them to performance and results and then get rid of them if they miss those goals. We want to develop the full person and they may end up getting that in different ways. If a person doesn’t go pro, you may have just developed the best coach or physical trainer. We know what these young people are capable of and we want them to be successful and be able to give back to the game that’s given to them.”

4. Take steps to protect coaches from burnout

It is not only players who are susceptible to burnout: coaches can very suddenly fall prey to their hectic schedules and the pressure of their roles. Tennis Canada have considered the problem and taken steps to care for their coaches’ welfare, as Jocelyn Robichaud, Head of Elite Coach Development at Tennis Canada, said: “With our young coaches, the first thing we tell them is a that it’s always a fine line between seizing all the opportunities you have and also understanding yourself or your working hours. The more hours you’re on court, the more money you’ll make, but at a certain point your health is at risk. That is something in Canada we have to be careful of because most of the coaches are being paid by the hour. The trend that I’m seeing is that there is more than one tennis coach involved, which wasn’t the case in the past. So now we might have two tennis coaches with one player instead of being in a one-on-one situation as it was a year or two ago; and this provides the coach the opportunities to take a little bit of a step back on the travelling; so instead of working – a top player may travel 40 weeks a year – then they can split the travelling between those two coaches and I find it’s a big step forward for the wellbeing of the coaches. It changes the working environment; you need to have good communication but you obviously need to be comfortable with the other coach that you’re working with to make sure you’re on the same page and with the same objectives.”

5. Be more methodical in identifying coaches in the first place

The USTA have tried to be more methodical in their approach to identifying suitable coaches. “We’re being methodical inasmuch as we can control it and done a lot of research on mentorship,” said Paul Lubbers, Director of Coach Education and Sports Science. He continued: “We’ve engaged some really good researchers who have done some profound work in the idea of mentee and mentor-type relationships. We’ve established a coaching mentorship programme and we’re in our second year of a formalised programme where we’re actually evaluating it. The other thing we’ve established is a coaching fellowship programme. Every summer we bring in six recent university graduates who want to make a career in high performance coaching and we provide them with a 12-week experience on our team. We’re trying to be methodical about building and identifying a base, certainly on the side of having women in coaching.”

6. Self-reflection is essential in coach education

Of the national governing bodies establishing coach education programmes, the LTA offers one of the more sophisticated. And self-reflection is an important component. “One of the units we present is how to manage an interdisciplinary team. We provide scenarios where the coach has to communicate with different people, set priorities for the player and make sure all of the information is linked up,” said Simon Jones, the former Head of Performance Coach Education at the LTA. “For example, if a player is injured, the medical team will need to know that the tennis coach has changed the player’s racket; the nutritionist will need to know that the player is playing in India in a couple of weeks’ time; the strength & conditioning coach will need to know which exercises the physio is giving etc. The coach has to take responsibility for and case manage the whole process so that all of the information is shared and priorities are set. However, if a coach takes too many risks and/or upsets the player, he is at risk of losing his job! There are many strands to being a coach on tour and coaches at the top level become very adept at working with players: building relationships, but at the same time, ensuring they make an impact on their game.”

7. Create a community of coaches

The LTA wants to establish itself as a constant in the professional lives of British coaches by offering a sense of community and providing career opportunities. “Tennis coaching is fairly unique because I think it’s just about the only sport in the world where the player employs the coach,” explained Simon Timson, the LTA’s Performance Director. “So one of the key things that we’re trying to do, at pro tour level of the game, is to create a community of British pro tour coaches where they feel supported by the LTA; and the first place that they want to come back to when they’ve finished working with a particular player is the LTA to see what development and opportunities we can offer them knowing that we’re always there for them as a source of support and professional development.”

8. Data can change the game

Tennis Australia is one of the prime exponents of data usage and National Coach, Nicole Pratt, told the Leaders Performance Institute that data, when used astutely, has proven to be game changer. “I use analytics daily,” she explained. “I use it to prepare a player for their match. I look for strengths and weaknesses within the opponent and then set up a plan of play for my player. Now we have SAP analytics in the WTA, it’s real-time, so when they play in a show court you’re able to see those stats real-time and I do use that. After the match I review my player’s stats with my player. If they win, you’re doing it again for the following opponent. I spend 50 per cent of my time with my player on-court, and then 50 per cent of my time looking at vision or crunching the numbers.”

9. Athlete education around recovery is essential

Get ‘em early has been the mantra of the USTA when it comes to athlete recovery. “If you take something like nutrition, we hammer home what a good, solid nutrition plan is, with our nutritionist speaking to all our campers,” said Director of Performance Brent Salazar of a typical training camp for adolescent players. “We’ll also explain how much sleep they need – usually 9-10 hours with the younger age groups – when they stay in our dorms. It’s about making sure they really understand those basics. Ultimately, we’re trying to build habits at a younger age. When they come off the court, do they go to their room or just go for lunch? Or do they go for specific exercises that they’ve been working on, whether that’s stretching, foam rolling, soft tissue work?”

10. Don’t be like John McEnroe

Don’t be like John McEnroe. That was the advice of Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. It was a book we explored at the Leaders Performance Institute and Dweck argued that McEnroe possessed a ‘fixed mindset’ as a player. Firstly, what is a fixed mindset? “Dweck says that as well as holding a belief that talent is a natural endowment, people with fixed mindsets are beset by a constant need to prove themselves. ‘If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well then you’d better prove you have a healthy dose of them.’ They permit themselves no scope for development because they perceive ability to be God-given.” And so to McEnroe: “According to Dweck, former tennis player John McEnroe, a seven-time grand slam winner, possessed a fixed mindset. She suggests that his talent was so great that he held that number one ranking for four years, but: ‘He did not love to learn. He did not thrive on challenges; when the going got rough, he often folded. As a result, by his own admission, he did not fulfil his potential.’”

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