Rituals, Superstitions, & Quirks – Oh My!

The photo above is from my 15 year old son’s room.  His shoes are lined up perfectly – perfectly spaced, perfectly aligned – what 15 year old boy does that???  And, yes, the rest of his room, as well as his racquet bag, is similarly arranged.  During tournaments, he eats the exact same thing for breakfast each day, the exact same thing for lunch, and the exact same thing for dinner.  His before-bed-during-a-tournament ritual is well-rehearsed and impeccably executed each night, too.  When I, jokingly, asked him about all this craziness he said, “Mom, I’m a tennis player,” as if that were all the explanation I needed.

According to noted sports psychologist and author, Allen Fox, superstitious behavior is extremely common in tennis as well as other sports. “I believe it comes from the fact that the athletes are very concerned with their performance and winning but can’t control these things. They are surrounded by stressful uncertainty. So they look for outside help. Superstitious behavior may give them some slight comfort in countering the uncertainties. It leads to the feeling that outside forces are working in their favor. This, in turn, can reduce their stress levels.”

Without these rituals and quirky behaviors, Fox says, the stress level could red-line very quickly or the unthinkable could happen – the player could choke.  The outcome of close matches is uncertain and these matches become stressful. Fox tells us that our normal emotional response to prolonged stress is to reduce the stress. This is the reason players tank, lose focus, become angry, or make excuses. It’s to reduce the stress and escape the dilemma of wanting to win but being uncertain of their ability to do so.  These urges have to be consciously countered, which the great players do. Watch the between-point and serving rituals of Maria Sharapova or the careful arranging of the water bottles by Rafa Nadal.  These habits become an ingrained part of the player’s game and a necessary piece of the puzzle in their ability to stay focused on the task at hand.  Many articles have been written and YouTube videos posted about these player quirks.  Maybe my son is onto something???

In sports circles, having these rituals is part of  developing Mental Toughness.  In my house, though, we refer to it as – and I mean this in the most loving way possible – crazy.  🙂

I would love to hear about some of your junior player’s rituals – please share them in the Comments box below.

A Matter of Fitness


If you don’t want to know the outcome of the Djokovic-Murray semifinal match, stop reading now!

I watched that match with great interest, especially as it moved into the 5th set.  Both players were looking a bit fatigued, and it was obvious that this match was going to come down to who was the most fit – both physically and mentally.  While Djokovic has traditionally been plagued with physical ailments which caused him to either retire matches or lose them outright, Murray has been plagued with fatigue of the mental sort but has always been a beast physically.  Today was different.  Murray seemed to lose his legs early in the final set, struggling to stay in points long enough to do damage to his opponent.  Somehow, he found a last burst of energy to come back from a 2-5 deficit, but, eventually, Djokovic had a little more in the tank and was able to close out the match 7-5 in the 5th.

Why is this important to note?  Because our junior players are no longer being pushed to their physical limits in tournament play.  Many tournaments, even those at the highest national level, have gone to playing a 10-point tiebreaker in lieu of a 3rd set and to playing short sets in the case of weather delays.  When our American kids are across the net from their European or South American or Asian counterparts, are they going to be able to withstand the physical – and mental – pressure of playing for three full sets?

And, it’s not just the length of the match that is in question – it’s also the style of play our kids are being taught.  As Greek coach Chris Karageorgiades told me,  “The game in Europe is more physical because their philosophy is different. In the US it has traditionally been about developing players with big weapons (namely serve and forehand). This is changing in order for players to better prepare for what has become a more physical game which is played from the back of the court.  Whether this is a good or bad decision for the future of American tennis remains to be seen.”   If you watched any of the Djokovic-Murray match, you saw some incredible points that involved 20+ shots moving the ball side-to-side and front-to-back.  To stay in that type of point – over and over again for an entire match – takes incredible leg strength, stamina, and fitness.  I’m concerned that our American juniors are not being adequately prepared for this type of protracted battle.

Two-time Australian Open Champion and current junior coach Johan Kriek shared with me the following:  “May I say, that growing up in S[outh] A[frica] on a farm with no TV, no X-box, no video games was a huge plus in my future physical make-up…today’s kids are digital…they need to be pushed, and push I do …the good ones will excel, the wimps will bail!”  Johan puts his players through fitness training every day:  the older kids working out in the gym, the younger ones working with resistance bands.  His biggest worry is that mediocrity is being accepted as normal, which he views as a societal ill that he just doesn’t tolerate with his players.

I know there’s been a lot of talk on the part of USTA about having the junior players train and compete more on clay, taking a page out of the Spanish book.  But, I’ve also heard that our American green clay is very different from the red dirt and that it doesn’t provide for the same type of movement and long points as the red stuff.  If that’s the case, are we wasting our time?  What can we do better?

Johan goes on to say that “Murray and Djokovic are fit, but that does not mean that the mind fatigues as well, and that has equal input in the body not functioning, the two are hugely connected. If you believe you can win ,the mind will push the body beyond human capacities, we see that in tennis and people that had to use enormous courage to survive near death etc, it is not the body that controls the mind, it is the mind that controls the body.  That is what separates the good players from the awesome players, not the strokes, they are all great! But the ‘head’.”

This is not only about being competitive on the professional level because, let’s face it, most of our kids aren’t on that path.  It’s also about positioning our kids to be competitive when it comes to playing college tennis.  They are up against foreign players again and again for scholarships and spots on college teams.  If they don’t have the physical and/or mental fitness skills to fight through long points and matches, how are they going to convince college coaches to give them one of a very few coveted spots on the team?

High School Tennis

For the past two weeks, my son has been going to his high school tennis team tryouts after school and drills.  Given the individual nature of his sport, the idea of trying out for a team is a relatively new concept for my son.  And, the idea of playing matches without worrying about ranking points is completely foreign to him.  Thankfully, his coach gave him a handout spelling out the do’s and don’ts when trying out for a school team.  My favorite tip is:

  • Act like a champion, dress like a tennis player.  Be physically and mentally prepared.  Take care of all details in preparation that are under your control.  Intangibles are frequently the difference between winning and losing.

One of the reasons my son wanted to return to traditional school this year, instead of continuing with homeschooling, was to play on the school’s varsity tennis team.  He knew a few of the guys on last year’s team and knew he would fit in and have a great time competing with them.

We live in a very tennis-heavy suburb of Atlanta with loads of talented junior players.  Competition at the high school level can be tough.  As a freshman, I wasn’t so sure my son would make the varsity team this year, so I tried to help him stay focused on presenting himself to the coach (who also coaches football) and other team members as a kid who really wanted to be part of the team and who would work hard to ensure a successful season.

The first day of tryouts, my son was told to play another freshman from his academy in two short sets, beginning at 3-all.  My son won.  The next day, he had to play a talented senior, and, again, won.  Yesterday was the final day of tryouts.  On the way to the courts, I reminded him, in that loving but unnecessary way that we mothers have (!), to be respectful to the coach and other players and to say “thank you, Coach” at the end of the session.  Apparently, my son did a good job because he found out at the end of yesterday’s tryouts that he, along with 4 other boys from his academy, made the team!

So, now, I get to learn about the world of high school tennis from the Booster Club perspective.  The coach told the team that there would be a kick-off dinner meeting and that the parents should bring their checkbooks.  Cha-ching!  Oh, and GO RAIDERS!

The Alternate List Redux

I wrote in an earlier post about life on the tournament alternate list.  Now, let’s talk about a different kind of alternate . . . the on-site alternate.

When you’re on the alternate list for a tournament, you have the option of showing up to the tournament site on the first morning of play and asking to step in if anyone in the draw doesn’t show up for his/her match.  Each tournament has slightly different rules for how they work the on-site alternate thing, but, basically, if you show up, and one of the main draw competitors doesn’t, then you get to play.

Typically, on-site alternates are put into the draw in the order they appear on the alternate list.  So, getting to the site before the other alternates doesn’t help your cause – just like everything else related to USTA tourneys, it’s all based on rankings.

We’ve tried the on-site alternate route a couple of times.  The first time was at a Bullfrog (Designated) tournament about 30 minutes from our house when my son was in the 12Us.  My son wound up getting to play in the tournament when one of the seeded players failed to show up for his first-round match.  It was a great experience for him, even though he lost his first match in both the main draw and the backdraw – he got to be on the court with players who were ahead of him, developmentally, and see what it was going to take to reach the next level.

The second time was also at a Bullfrog, this time a little further away from home in Macon.  At the coach’s urging, my husband got up early and drove the 90 or so miles so my son could try to get into the draw.  He didn’t get in, but it made for some good father-son bonding time on the highway!

The third time was for a big national tournament, the Easter Bowl.  Since we were going to be in LA anyway for a family event, and since it was over his spring break, my son asked if he could sign up for the tourney just for the heck of it.  He was put on the alternate list, so we again decided to try the on-site alternate route.   We warmed up early that morning then showed up to the main site where we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  After a couple of hours – this tournament did a staggered start, so we had to wait until the very last match was called – the tournament official told my son he did not get into the draw and thanked us for coming.  We hung around a while and watched some great tennis in a beautiful setting.  Then, since we weren’t scheduled to fly home for a few days, we decided to hang out in the California Desert, soak up the sun, play a little golf (son, not me!), and relax.  Not a bad way to spend Spring Break!

The latest time was this past weekend, again for a national tournament that was being held locally.  My son was pretty far down the alternate list, but since many of the guys ahead of him were from out of state, we decided to try the on-site thing one more time.  Thunderstorms wreaked havoc with Day One of the tourney – we basically spent the entire day in front of the computer waiting for updates from the tourney director, only to find out at 6:30pm that all matches were canceled for the day.  Day Two started out pretty much the same way.  We arrived at the courts as directed, only to be told that it was too wet to play and to report to a different site 2 hours later at which point Day Two was also canceled.  Day Three – today – was a school day, and, luckily, play wasn’t scheduled to begin until 12:30pm (the time my son finishes his modified school day).  However, Day Three also brought the rain and a final tournament cancellation.

Was the weekend a complete waste of time, waiting for the weather to clear so the kids could play?  In my opinion, no.  My son got to hang out with the other players at the site, and he got to hit on the not-quite-dry-enough-to-play courts with some of the boys in the draw.  But, I’m guessing if you ask the family that drove 12 hours from Michigan or the family that traveled from Maine, you might get a completely different answer!

What Can We Learn From the Pros?

Going back to my last post on active viewing, I wanted to expand and talk a bit about what we – and our kids – can learn from watching the pros in action.

I have been spending a lot (understatement!) of time watching the Aussie Open this week.  I’ve seen some good stuff and some not-so-good stuff, all of which has taught me lessons that I can share with my son.

Did you see Marcos Baghdatis play Stan Wawrinka?  Did you see Marcos have a meltdown then start destroying his racquets on the changeover?  I’m okay with a player venting frustration – tennis is a very frustrating game, after all.  However, the fact that Marcos was only fined $800 (or $750 depending on which source you believe) for annihilating four perfectly good racquets is inexcusable to me.  What lesson does that teach our rising junior players?  That it’s okay to abuse expensive equipment?  That your anger and frustration warrant throwing money down the drain?  Interesting to read some of the comments by junior players on Facebook:

  • haha he got an $800 fine for it… thats just pocket change to them so it was completely worth it lol
  • Only $800?! That’s how much all four of those rackets cost…
  • yeah seriously…. Serena’s blowup at the uso was $2000 haha
  •  It’s completely pointless, what would REALLY get to them is a code violation. Junior refs seem to love to give those out.

While I was secretly entertained <shhhh!> by Baghdatis’ antics, I would NEVER tolerate that kind of blatant disregard for property from my son.  That said, my son has been known to smash a racquet on the ground in disgust.  However, our rule is:  you break it, you buy it.  He has had to dip into his savings account more than once to replace cracked frames – not something he enjoys doing!

And what about Andy Roddick’s match versus Lleyton Hewitt?  These two seasoned veterans (can you call a 29 year old and a 30 year old veterans?)  have been playing each other for years.  Roddick worked extremely hard in the short off-season to prepare for 2012, only to have his run at the AO cut short with a hamstring re-injury in the 2nd set.  How disappointing for Andy and for his fans!  But, Andy stuck it out through that 2nd set and the 3rd, finally retiring the match after losing the 3rd set 6-4.  He showed immense respect for his opponent while playing injured.  He didn’t milk the injury.  He didn’t hobble around the court or start whining about how badly his leg hurt.  He continued to compete.  He ran hard.  He served hard.  He played until he couldn’t play any more.  Say what you will about Roddick, but I was very impressed by his competitive spirit out there and would hope that my son would compete just as hard in that situation.

This morning, I heard American Vania King sing a capella after winning her match against 15 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova – Vania has a beautiful voice!  And, she’s not the only accomplished musician currently on the pro tour.  The Bryan Brothers have released a CD of their music, and former French pro, Yannick Noah, is a rock star in Europe.  It just goes to show that it is possible to be a top tennis professional and develop other skills and talents, too.  Life for these players isn’t only about tennis – they have found a way to round out their lives by pursuing other passions while still achieving the highest levels in their chosen sport.  It’s a great life lesson for our kids to learn – it doesn’t have to be all tennis all the time!

What lessons have you picked up from watching the pros at this year’s first Major event?  Please share them in the Comments box below.

Active Viewing

With the Australian Open now in full swing, this is a great opportunity to do some active tennis viewing with your child.  What do I mean by that?  I mean, watching “tennis with a purpose” as our friends at CATennis.com call it.

For those of you in the States, the Aussie Open is a great tournament to try this since the matches are airing early in the morning or at night when your child is most likely home.  Maybe you can watch during breakfast time or for a little while after dinner before getting started on homework?

Here are a few things to watch for and discuss with your child – or, better yet, have your child jot down some things he/she sees and then discuss them with the coach!

1.  What type of attitude are the players displaying on the court?  Are they reacting emotionally after each point or “playing possum” and keeping their opponents guessing?  How do they treat the lines-people, chair umpires, and ball kids?  Which type(s) of behavior seems to lead to winning the match?

2.  What footwork patterns are the players using?  How can those patterns translate to your child’s game?

3.  What are the commentators saying at different points in the matches?  For example, when the server is down 30-40, what do the commentators suggest the server do to get back in the game?  How can your child learn from those suggestions?

4.  How do the players use all areas of the court to work the points?  Do you see geometric patterns emerging?  How does this relate to what your child is learning in his/her school math class?

5.  Where is the returner standing when receiving serve?  Is he/she inside the baseline or well behind it?  Is the positioning different on the first and second serve?

6.  What adjustments do the players make when they’re behind in the score?

7.  How does the player adjust to difficult conditions, i.e. wind, bugs, shadows, etc.?  How can you child learn from the pros to be more adaptable when the conditions aren’t ideal?

8.  How do the players handle injuries, either their own or those of their opponent?  Do they dramatize the injury, turning it into what one commentator terms a “Spa Day” on the court?  Or, do they put the injury aside and continue to compete as if the injury didn’t exist?

9.  How does the player who’s leading in the score close out games and sets?  How does he/she close out the match?

10.  How do the players act during the post-match interviews?  Are they cocky or modest?  Do they treat the interviewers respectfully?  What do they say about their opponents and their upcoming opponents?

By using critical thinking skills while watching some exciting tennis, your child is on a path toward becoming a real student of the game which should help on his path toward reaching his tennis goals.  It may be the best free advice he ever gets!

Q&A with Coach Lisa Dodson

This next Q&A is with Lisa Dodson.  Lisa currently lives and teaches in Northern California.  She is a certified USPTA Pro 1 and PTR coach with over 30 years of teaching experience.  She was also a ranked player on the WTA tour.  As you will read below, Lisa is a passionate coach who has much to offer in the way of player development.  Enjoy!

ParentingAcesWhat was your junior tennis experience like? Did you go straight from junior to the pros or did you play college tennis?

Lisa Dodson:  My junior tennis experience was pretty unusual in today’s terms of developing players. I was the youngest in a tennis playing family so I don’t really remember the first time I held a racket but I do know that it was heavy and wooden! I played primarily at the club we belonged to in Chappaqua, NY and really had little formal instruction as we know it today. Being the local “tomboy” I played every sport with all of the boys in our neighborhood so tennis was just one of the things I participated in but I loved it.  I played only one tournament in 12 & under and I didn’t like it. I had no idea what I was
getting into, what the people were like and the competition level. My most vivid recollection is of the mothers on the sideline (in the ’60’s Moms went to matches as Dads were at work). To a 12 year old they seemed “mean” and the tension was heavy.  I had a close match which I lost against Stephanie Matthews. Clearly the experience was powerful enough for me to remember her name! I did get revenge later in my tennis life!

After winning high school Sectional tournaments for several years and practicing with a “tournament” group I decided to try a few Eastern 18 & under events. This time I had a lot more experience but substantially less than my opponents. Much to everyone’s surprise I played through to the semis of The Empire State Tournament on Long Island, NY handily beating ranked girls who were “better” than I was. Mary Carillo quickly put me in my place in the semis but my eyes were now open. The best thing was that I had no idea how good I was, I just played tennis and had a great time. I wasn’t groomed to be a great player so just loved the process, felt little pressure and started getting lots of recognition.

I was accepted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and sports did help my entrance there. I was recruited for Volleyball (I played on the Eastern US Team in high school) but ended up becoming a “walk-on” for Tennis and Basketball ( I went to Olympic trials for basketball in high school, too). So, my freshman year was pretty crazy: fall tennis, winter basketball, spring tennis with some practice schedules overlapping with both practices on the same day. Oh yeah, I had school too.

Tennis took over as “the” sport at this point so Sophomore year was all tennis and school. I was in the top 6 for UNC and excelled in doubles. My entrance into the pros didn’t come until 3 years after graduation. That’s another story.

Revenge came during my college years against my first and only 12 & under opponent.  As it turns out, Stephanie played for arch nemesis Duke and we were matched up more than once. One thing that I started to learn: tennis is a small world. Everything comes around. Tennis shapes one’s life and behavior. Be a fierce competitor but always fair, honest and forgiving.

PAWhat is your current role in the tennis world?

LD:  Currently I’m specializing in teaching the serve, the most difficult, misunderstood and under practiced stroke in the game. I’m attempting to reach all players and pros possible to help make the serve a dominant force in the women’s and junior’s game in particular. I was a serve and volleyer which is non-existent in these days for a variety of reasons. One reason is that women just don’t spend the time on learning the techniques properly. They need to learn to throw (ball/football). Throwing better will quickly give them more efficiency and power on the service and overhead motions.  Throwing a football for 15 minutes a day will do tons more than hitting the same old
serve daily with no new elements for success.  I have become the “inventor” of the teaching tool The Total Serve and I have been traveling for the past year attempting to spread the word. Women’s and junior tennis have become so one dimensional. Yes, they all need great groundstrokes but what if someone had a SERVE to set them apart by creating “cheap points”, lesser returns and hopefully the ability to serve and volley on occasion. Sam Stosur got smart. How about that serve? She gets cheap points and dismantles the best return in the game (Serena Williams). Stosur and Williams are the only 2 in the women’s game that has a serve that can damage. Certainly others are capable.  Before skipping directly to the top players in the world we need to give girls at beginning stages a good “throwing” foundation. Without that their serves will just fall into the masses of inefficient and attackable serves in the women’s game.  I’m on a mission to get pros to understand how easy it really can be to form great serve technique at all levels. More time needs to be spent on the various components of the serve and it needs to be broken down and addressed not put to the side and neglected.  Unfortunately this falls on a lot of deaf ears. Pros just don’t expect much of a women’s serve which is a major part of the problem.

PAWhat made you invent The Total Serve? What benefits have you seen from the product?

LD:  Like a lot of pros I taught with a tube sock with 3 balls in it to help people “feel” the serve. It helped so many people because players only do what they do. They don’t really “feel” anything they just go through the motions automatically. Unfortunately most of us do it automatically incorrectly. We’re looking for efficiency.  Tennis is a kinesthetic sport so our best learning tools and “AhHa” moments come from FEELING, copying and reproducing a stroke. Pros, including myself, all use the show and tell method. Everyone learns differently but FEELING is by far the most powerful tool that we can give our students.  One day a lifelong 3.5 woman student (with a really funky service motion) used the sock and started seeing immediate results. She said “you should do something with this and make a product”. I took it seriously and set about making a prototype in my garage out of all sorts of balls, stockings, cords, handles and weights. This was really fun! To make a very long story short I did focus groups, found a manufacturer and did the hundreds of other things needed to create a viable product.  What I knew for sure was this: If a sock and some balls can create fast and positive change on the serve then a well thought out and tested product with all components was really needed!  Lots of pros and players don’t get it (this really makes me wonder about the pro). It’s a simple tool that reinforces the correct GRIP to form great throwing technique and enable players to incorporate all movements of the service motion. The main reasons for developing this tool?
1. Grip is essential but players “cheat” and pros let it slip. Women and children in particular can’t get the ball to go forward because their body doesn’t understand what it is supposed to be doing. Using The Total Serve initially as a tool to get the shoulder, arm and wrist to unconsciously understand HOW to act in combination with other body movements (tossing arm, legs, etc)
2. Take the ball out of the equation. Making change takes time and progress can be slow. Changes happen by taking components of a stroke, breaking them down and repeating. Take the ball out of the equation and you have no negative feedback. The biggest deterrent to someone trying to make serve changes are bad results: the ball goes into the ground, the net and into the side fence as the grip is corrected. These results are GREAT! They are on the right track but since the feedback is negative the person quits. I see it every day.
3. Practice time: The Total Serve allows practice anywhere, anytime. The biggest deterrent to improving the serve in the general tennis pool of recreational, league and tournament players is practice time. Everyone loves to get out and hit groundstrokes but they don’t make time for the serve. Even when it is practiced the player is typically just reinforcing flawed technique. Using The Total Serve corrects, develops and reinforces great technique that can be practiced as much as desired.
4. Pros: it’s so simple to teach with. Your students will love you. It’s new, fun, easy and gets results. Send all of your students home with one in their bag and have them practice what you have taught them. You’ll see results. By the way, you can make money on it too.

In the last year The Total Serve has demonstrated to me an thousands of others that fast and easy progress can be made on the serve. I have had so many AhHa! moments! The consistent incredulous response is “that’s what it’s supposed to feel like? Yes, that’s what it’s supposed to feel like so do it again and if you’re really good I’ll let you actually hit a ball.

PAIf you could tell tennis parents one thing what would it be?

LD:  Encourage your kids to play other sports. Cross training in team sports is fantastic for physical, emotional and mental development. Playing big court or field sports (soccer, basketball, baseball) develops the brain to “see the whole picture” of what’s going on at all times and develop the geometry skills needed for tennis. When transitioning to a smaller tennis court a kid has already developed some major mental skills. Throwing, running, jumping and fast feet are developed in varying sports. Let them learn to work together with a team and have that fun and excitement as a way to get better results on the tennis court. Don’t pigeon hole them or they are likely to be unhappy and unfulfilled
youngsters which carries over into the rest of their lives. Worried that they may love another sport more than tennis? It’s about them not you. Let them choose otherwise it’s a no win for both child and parent.

Again, a big thank you to Lisa!  If you have any additional questions for her, please put them in the Comments box below – I will be happy to forward them.