Learn How to Win
I always hear the word ‘development’ in regards to the junior tennis player. Most of the time, the word is associated with improvements in stroke production, tactics, and physical gains. While these are critical components of development, I think a major piece of the developmental process is learning how to win. Simply, this means learning how to become a great competitor and consistently giving oneself the best opportunity to win. Just as strokes and the body need development, the brain needs development too. Becoming a great competitor is a learned skill. While some tennis players may be inherently more competitive or possess personality traits that are helpful in the heat of competition, it still takes time to “learn how to win.” There are so many variables and situations that are unique to every match, and it takes experience to know how best to deal with them.
The goal of this article is not to claim I have the blueprint for how best to develop young tennis players who aspire to play at the collegiate and professional levels. I simply want to share my thoughts based on personal experiences on how players can learn to be a winner while developing a well-rounded game.
Competitive Practice is Key
A competitive practice environment is extremely important. The transition from practices to match court is always easier when the practice court has a healthy, competitive spirit. I have always tried to push myself into having match-like footwork during practice so I rarely had to think about my footwork during a match. I didn’t have to focus as hard on having better footwork during the heat of competition because good footwork was already a habit. Matches are always going to be more stressful than practice, so it’s important to have fundamentals such as footwork be second nature. By doing so, I can focus my attention on more strategic thinking during a match.
While drilling is a must for stroke development and consistency, I always advocate for more point play in practice. Competitive practice points teach valuable qualities such as anticipation and how to best construct points at a given level. You’re given immediate feedback on what shot selections consistently work and the ones that are not successful. One of the biggest keys of winning points is learning who you are as a tennis player and what you are capable of at your current skill level. If you overplay or underplay your current skill level, you are obviously not giving yourself the best chance to win.
Play Sets, Not Just Points
I’m also a big believer in playing a good amount of practice sets each week. I think playing sets two to three days a week is ideal. Competitive sets are so important because the feedback from winning and losing points holds more weight. I believe a little bit of pressure is needed to learn how to best execute a new shot or tactic. Competition improves focus, which always speeds up the learning curve on successfully implementing new shots and strategies.
I do, however, want to make it clear that the goals of every practice set should not be the same. I think trying to figure out a way to win the set is important, but this has to be a secondary goal when the primary focus is on developing new weapons and patterns. Winning every practice set without ever challenging yourself to improve the status quo can easily stunt growth and development. I have always been super competitive during practice sets, so my primary goals needed to be very precise to keep me focused on the bigger picture.
Embrace the Friendly Rivals
Now comes the question of where to find opponents for practice sets? One of my biggest pet peeves about junior tennis is the top local juniors rarely practice with each other. I’ve heard everything from players not wanting to show secrets to being too scared to lose to a rival player. Playing the best competition in practice is only going to help you feel more prepared for tournament matches. Although losing practice sets to a neighboring rival can be disappointing, you learn what you need to improve and what shots need more practice. In addition, losing is a great motivator to push you through tough practices and fitness sessions.
Because of this, I strongly encourage juniors to practice with their top peers in the area, even if they train at different academies or clubs. Find a way to swallow your pride and conquer the logistical challenges. Playing points and sets with a teaching pro or coach is fine, at times. But, unless the junior and pro are at similar playing levels, the points will not be nearly as realistic.
More Tournament Matches
Tournament play is crucial to the development of tennis IQ, or the smarts that help one navigate the difficult and unique challenges that each match presents. The difference between winning and losing a tennis match typically comes down to which player can better handle adversity and make adjustments faster. Superior talent and strokes can definitely win matches, but the best players are also the best competitors who can win matches in almost every environment. The only real way to experience all the different ways adversity can strike is by gaining tournament match experience. I love when a player is able to use situations from past matches and then successfully apply the knowledge gained in a future match. So many top young players would benefit from improving their situational tennis IQ because every point or game is most certainly not played the same way.
As a junior, I tried to average about two tournaments a month. I enjoyed playing a substantial amount of tournaments because it kept my motivation level high in practice. I typically always had a tournament on the horizon where I wanted to perform well. However, tournaments mainly helped my development as a tennis player by improving my ability to win matches while not playing my best tennis. No player can expect to play great consistently.
It’s Not a Game of Perfect
If we take a ten-match sample and look at the law of averages, you can probably only expect to play great once or twice. In the majority of the ten matches, your play will fall in the category of “average,” and there will be a few matches where you will play below average or even poorly. A good test is when you can find a way to steal matches against quality competition while playing below average. Almost anyone can be successful when they are playing great. Only the better competitors can win with their best shot being off.
The nice thing about the sport of tennis is that you never have to play against the field. You’re playing against a single opposition, and the main goal is always just to be better than your opponent. Perfection is never achieved, and playing great should be viewed as a bonus. Out compete the opponent on the other side of the net and good things tend to happen. My extensive tournament experience as a junior gave me tons of inner confidence. I knew that I was more prepared than my opponents to win a tough and possibly even ugly match.
Although I’m advocating for a substantial amount of tournament match play, I do believe a player needs to set aside at least 2-3 training blocks each year where there are no scheduled tournaments for 3-4 weeks. Training blocks are the perfect time to make changes to strokes, add in new shots, and make notable fitness gains. Having a smart balance of tournaments and training creates a nice environment where a player can learn how to win while still developing their game.
Should Tennis Players Play Up an Age Group?
One topic I briefly want to touch on is how to determine when to play up an age group. My family’s belief was always play up only after you had proven to be dominant in your current age group. Typically, this meant that I only moved up an age group after I had already won a certain level tournament. Too often I saw players playing up before they had really won any big tournament in their current age group. I think some players did it because they thought they needed to develop a bigger game, but I think most did it because they were scared to lose to anyone their own age.
Learning how to win as a favorite is just as important as learning how to play as an underdog. Navigating pressure and expectations is a crucial part of growth and development. In addition, it is always rewarding to win a tournament and hold up that trophy. The winning feeling is hard to replicate.
This generation of junior tennis players seems to have a coach around for every on-court practice session. Kids are always being told what to do and are never having to figure out things on their own. I compare this with copying down the steps to a math problem but not really understanding how to solve it. When the numbers change, the problem can no longer be solved.
The entire point of this post is learning how to become a better competitor. How can this happen if a player is not forced at times to become his own problem solver? The last time I checked, on-court coaching is not allowed in most levels of tennis. Even in college tennis, where on-court coaching is allowed, coaches cannot be with all six players at the same time. At times, players will have to make strategic adjustments and independently deal with adversity such as bad line calls and hostile cheering.
Another reason for less supervision is the idea that junior players need to take more ownership in their tennis games. Quality coaching is obviously important for any player’s development. However, I don’t believe parents and coaches need to schedule every practice and fitness session as the player gets older. Having a player invest more of his/her time to plan for his/her success is a good idea. Mature players are not afraid to accept a larger responsibility of their tennis success. Problem solving is a major component in becoming a mature tennis player.
Bringing it all Together
The development of each junior tennis player should certainly be personalized to fit the needs of the individual. No two situations are the same, and what works for one player may not produce the same results for another. However, I strongly believe in emphasizing the development of every player’s inner competitor and tennis IQ. The ability to navigate through adversity and play smart, situational tennis is a big part of achieving sustained success. You have to be able to find a way to win matches when you are not playing your best. Striking the ball well is not always controllable, but how you compete when playing below average is within your control. Juniors who play more sets in practice, play a sufficient tournament schedule, and accept more personal responsibility over their success are on the right path to learning how to win.