I’d like to take the time to address the mindset of the player as they approach challenges. Challenges, better known as drills to most players and coaches, are beneficial towards the open-ended discovery of how players react and respond to play. It’s a time where coaches can observe a player in a more realistic situation to hit a target or zone of the court as well as give the player a chance to perform under certain parameters. When practicing challenges (drills) to improve as a player, there a three areas of discovery to best manage them. First, know that the initial moment will most often seem awkward. When you begin these on-court strategies there needs to be a mental and emotional commitment. It can certainly be frustrating sometimes when given a challenge that is beyond our comfort zone and pushes us to our athletic and psychological limits. Starting with a growth mindset, meaning to become stronger in mind, body, and emotions, will help you see more value in the journey towards performance than just the goal of winning points alone. For a player to execute a shot or sequence in a live match scenario, they mainly need to do most or all of the following:
1. Develop the technique of a skill
2. Gain a level of mastery in a closed challenge
3. Gain a level of mastery in a limited open challenge
4. Show confidence in a practice match situation
5. Display automaticity (automatic rhythm response) in a live point play situation
One of the most important challenges that I have players perform is called the “Depth Challenge”. It’s a challenge that promotes a sustained rally with an emphasis on keeping the ball deep in the backcourt and I usually begin a practice session with this one. I must give credit to Carl Maes, former coach of Kim Clijsters, for the inspiration with this challenge. I met Carl at the 2016 PTR International Symposium and we had a chance to talk about training players. He shared some great stories about Kim and his coaching experience with her. He reminded me that if consistency was King (making shots), then depth of shot was the Diamond. So, I came back home and created a challenge for my players, it’s made a world of difference and putting it first as a warm-up has launched my players to new levels of deliberate focus from beginning to building a point.
The Depth Challenge begins with me taking two yellow throw-down long lines, http://www.oncourtoffcourt.com, and placing them 6 feet inside the baseline. The challenge consist of 3 players per court, 2 players vs. 1 player. The 2 players are on the side with the throw-down lines and their goal is to keep the rally sustained and tally the total number of points scored by the single player in a 3 minute time frame. The single player scores 3 points for a ball landing between the yellow throw-down lines and the baseline, 1 point for a ball landing between the service line and the yellow throw-down lines. 0 points for anywhere else (service boxes or out of bounds). Each court has 3 players on our team of 12 players spanning 4 courts. Each court competes for the high score of the day. My greatest testimony of this challenge is that it has built incredible team spirit between all the players. The expectation of each player to focus and score a high number for their team increases each and every day. There are personal best scores tallied each week and posted on the team board. It’s a confidence builder for every player when they beat their personal best as well as strive to be the high score for the team. This challenge is certainly not limited to teams, I use it in a similar way with individual players and they keep a tally of their scores each week in their tennis journals as a way to reflect on their training and progress. The Depth Challenge is fun and engages the player’s focus to play each ball with a higher purpose than just “getting it back in the court”. It’s powerful, intentional, serious fun!
As a player beginning a new challenge, you may struggle at first. But that tension and struggle is what leads you to discover your skill level with a particular stroke or better court positioning to successfully execute on a more regular basis. This discovery of your skill level will guide to the second area which is stepping back and learning the skill in a more closed challenge. Practicing through deliberately repeating the skill, for example, spotting the part of the ball you’d like to strike, examining your ideal strike zone, or playing to a specific section or zone of the court. Many times we are not sure which skill to practice until we actually play a point in a drill that pushes the limits of our ability. After spending some time practicing the skill, revisiting a limited open challenge at this point will hopefully lead to more success in performance. As a player, once you reach a mastery level in the limited open challenge, then the third area is the challenge level must be increased to match the level of your improved skill. Players who engage better with drills and challenges from coaches are better equipped. Coaches who understand appropriate levels of challenge for mastery help players improve more quickly. Observing your player(s) as they perform these choreographed challenges, a drop in the level of performance as a result of disinterest may occur. Yes, boredom can set in fast with players once they have achieved a high level of success with the particular challenge given to them. This is where the rubber can meet the road with respect to being a good coach or a great coach. Bill and I have had many heartfelt discussions around this topic of being able to activate enough self-awareness as a coach to observe your player(s) well. It is quite difficult to be reflective and keep an athlete-centered perspective when training a player to experience their best play state. There can be a varied of reasons why we care, sometimes we care about our image as a coach and I totally get that. But what I believe is a higher priority and one held by many coaches worldwide is we care deeply about our players and their character development on and off the court. Another area of player development is the confidence factor. Challenges that reflect actual point play situations in practice are a perfect way to gain confidence. Confidence is that feeling or belief that one can rely on when the pressure escalates, and a well-designed challenge is a great opportunity to help a player learn to trust their instincts. As a coach, one of the ways I’ve seen players excel in this area of confidence is letting them know that I believe in them as their coach. Allistair McCaw is a champion coach in this area of promoting encouragement towards players on a daily basis. Visit him at: http://www.mccawmethod.com. I love Allistair’s attitude toward this important and simple approach of deliberately saying to a player, “I Believe In You!” What a powerful statement to inspire confidence in the hearts and minds of players, no matter what their age may be. Especially our young players to which no other sport in the world ask them to be their own referee, maintain the correct score, keep a stellar attitude, and stay focused under all kinds of pressure from their opponent, themselves, coaches, spectators, friends and family. The call to be great is a high one to say the least, from both a player and coach role. Communication is a two-way street made up of both speaking and listening. The greatest leaders are the ones who wait and listen first and then last to speak and give their perspective and direction. They practice the opportunity to allow others a spacious place to grow and mature, understanding that we all have the ability to play our best if given enough room to do so.