Learning to play tennis can be frustrating. Players deal with different grips, movement, positioning, the rules, how to keep score, and so on. It can be an uphill battle for a lot of beginner players as well as adults who have taken some time off and are getting excited about the sport again. The grips, racquets, and now with QuickStart, even the courts have changed, but the basic fundamentals of the game have not. I have found that keeping the game simple for all levels and types of players will help them achieve success as well as keep negative emotions at bay.
By teaching the “ABCs” we can concentrate on not only technique but also the emotional and mental sides of the game. The ABCs have been broken down into two different categories: mental and physical.
The mental side of the ABCs is Attitude, Belief and Competition, while the physical or technical side is Aggression, Balance and Control.
When teaching it’s important as a coach to figure out which one of these tags your player will gravitate toward. If you are dealing with someone who is very analytical, the technical side of the ABCs is a great starting point. But, if you are dealing with an emotional player, the mental side might be more effective. Either way, this method gives us clear-cut plans of attack when trying to help our players reach the next level. Let’s take a closer look at the ABCs.
A1 – Attitude
This is the foundation for all the other categories. If a player isn’t having fun or their attitude isn’t a positive one, they will approach this game with feelings of self-doubt, anger and frustration. Attitude is incredibly important, especially with younger players. Before the lesson even begins, it’s important to convey the message that for the next hour the court is going to be a place of fun. I make sure to start with a game or some kind of dynamic warm-up that gets the players in the frame of mind that tennis is exciting. I try to ensure that each player knows it’s not the result that matters but the effort. There is a reason this is a lifetime sport; it can take a lifetime to figure out. But in the meantime, let’s hit the ball and have FUN.
A2 – Aggression
Aggression is the word that I associate with racquet speed. If a player’s aggression is too high, that person is swinging at the ball too fast. And accordingly, if a player’s aggression is too low, he or she is swinging at the ball too softly. The swing aggression can mean different things for each player. For instance, if one of my pupils is looking at a short put-away shot and her aggression is too low, that shows me a lack of confidence toward that particular shot. Alternatively, some of my junior players might have too high of an aggression level or their swing speed might be too fast for a put-away shot and I can simply tell them to control their racquet speed.
I like to use scales when teaching, as I feel it can help both the student and the coach to be on the same page. I typically want a player’s aggression to remain around a 6-8 if the scale is based on 1 to 10; 1 being the lowest aggression level and 10 being the highest. The relationship between coach and player can be challenged by a difference of language and understanding. By providing a scale, we are able to see eye-to-eye on problems so together we can create the best solutions.
B1 – Belief
We all remember the shoes Melanie Oudin wore in her debut US Open in 2009. They bore the message, “Believe.” She had put in the work, the talent was clearly there. The only thing needed was belief. She needed to believe that she was as good as the other players. We can teach our players to have the most beautiful strokes, but if they ultimately don’t believe that they will make the shot of choice then we have only helped them half of the way. As the professional we need to create games and drills that will help with confidence. If you are hitting and playing a game with your players don’t give them any line calls or free points. Make them earn and work for it. They will respect you more as their pro, and that work ethic will help create a self-belief that might have been lacking.
B2 – Balance
Balance to me equals footwork. When we watch tennis on television we see some of the most talented athletes hitting the most amazing shots. But what the typical club player or developing junior player doesn’t understand is these shots were hit due to outstanding balance and footwork. With the introduction of QuickStart into the mainstream of tennis, it’s going to be crucial to equip each young player with the foundation of strong footwork and balance. I always insist that a player needs to be on balance before, during and after the shot. As coaches, we offer a unique perspective to examine where the balance is being lost and to develop drills and exercises to help in their area of need.
C1 – Competition
Winning and losing are only results. We must forget about the hoopla that comes with winning and losing and remind our players that improvement is the bigger goal. Yes, winning and losing are important concerns, but they are not the only reason why people play tennis. For a lot of players tennis is a great way to exercise, socialize and have a meaningful Sunday afternoon with the family. But for those players who are geared more toward competition, we need to encourage that pursuit.
I like to tell my tournament-level junior players and my adult players who are in leagues that competition lies in balance. We can be too competitive or not competitive at all. If a player is too competitive or what I call hyper-competitive, they will believe the match was won or lost on their racquet. They will tend to call lines in their favor and cheer only for the good shots they have made. On the contrary, if a player continually plays out balls or says “nice shot” to an opponent without ever giving themselves a pat on the back they are under-competitive. In each instance the scales are tipped. To be competing correctly we need to be both taking and giving. Taking means telling ourselves “nice shot” or saying “come on,” while giving means telling our opponent “nice shot” or clapping our hand on our strings for them. It’s important to tell our players that winning and losing will happen, but competing will carry them all through life.
C2 – Control
Whichever way you decide to teach technique to your players is up to you; you are the coach and that’s what makes our profession so exciting. But each of our players needs to be exhibiting some kind of racquet control. I focus on follow-through. You can hear me barking from courts away, “control the follow-through” or “control the ball, don’t let the ball control you.” I want my tournament-level players to control the point, or control the middle of the court. I emphasize technique for my QuickStart players, telling them to control the ball over the net with the proper follow-through or to control the racquet take-back by turning their shoulders.
There are so many ways to hit a tennis ball – from the classic strokes of the game’s best, Roger Federer, to arguably the man who might surpass him, Rafael Nadal, to the club player who hits every shot with the same grip or to the youngster on a QuickStart court trying to make sense of this game we have come to love.
So why are we trying to fight over what a tennis shot should look like? We should focus our attention on the player at hand. Technique is very important in our sport but it’s not the be-all and end-all. As we look back in time we can see the graceful forehand of Chrissy Evert transformed into the lethal forehands of today’s best players such as Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters. Styles, racquets, balls and now, even courts, have changed. But what will not change is what the game is all about and what it always will be about: improving ourselves to be the best we can be. Regardless of success and regardless of level, tennis is one of the few games that can challenge us for a lifetime. As coaches we should always try to instill this love in the players who learn from us.
Trying to teach the game the right way while still making the game fun and enjoyable is always going to be my No. 1 priority as a tennis professional. I have really been able to see a huge difference in how my players react on the tennis court while using the ABCs.
One of my visiting juniors has really gravitated to this. She is able to fix a problem analytically now, whereas before his emotions would cloud his judgment. I can look at him after a point and he will simply tell me the letter of what he could have improved on. It’s no longer a battle of ambiguity; I have shown him something that is tangible. By being able to address the problem quickly and effectively he and other players are able to regain their focus and channel their energy toward the goal at hand – becoming better tennis players.