99% out is still 100% in!

Winners never cheat and cheaters never win . . . until they do – seemingly a lot – especially in the younger junior divisions.

Coach and Tennis Parent Roy Coopersmith shared with me that “coaches and parents create the atmosphere many times that creates cheating in a junior.”   The lesser of two evils ( in the mind of the child ):

1. I lose and my parent freaks on me.
2. I cheat and win, my parent is happy I have won, and I don’t suffer.

The cheating then becomes a justifiable action.   And cheating does win but also creates losing feelings and feelings of a sort of desperation in the person who was cheated. It is hard to really describe the feeling until you really witness it.

I can vouch for that feeling of desperation.  In one of my son’s first tournament matches in the U10s, he was playing a boy who just couldn’t seem to see the ball or the lines.  Even the kid’s dad commented repeatedly during the match that his son was making some really bad calls.  I could tell my son was getting more and more frustrated as the match went on, throwing up his hands, repeatedly asking the kid, “Are you sure?”

The cheating continued throughout the match, sending my son into a complete mental tailspin.  Needless to say, he lost the match.

But, worse than losing a tennis match was the fact that my son lost his faith that day.  He let that cheating experience color his ability to walk onto the court with the expectation that all players were operating under the same set of rules.  From that point forward, for many tournaments and many matches, he was unable to give the kid on the other side of the net any benefit of the doubt.  One questionable call and my son labeled the kid a Cheater.

And no amount of parenting advice or coaching advice seemed to help.  Getting an official to watch the match didn’t help.  The only thing that helped was experience.  And maturity.  And developing the ability to LET THINGS GO.

There are a lot of theories about the best way to handle a cheater.  One coach suggested letting the first bad call go, chalking it up to a mistake.  But, if a second bad call occurred, then my son was to call the opponent’s next ball OUT, regardless of where it landed in the court, sending the message that two can play at that game.  That advice didn’t work.  My son just couldn’t do it . . . he couldn’t cheat.

Another coach also suggested letting the first bad call go but after the second bad call, summoning the opponent up to the net and asking if he was sure he wanted to play under the “new” rules where a ball hitting the line is called out, again sending the message that both players were going to follow the same rule book.  That advice didn’t work either.

Another suggestion was for my son to change his tactics so that he was keeping the ball away from the lines.  That was a great idea . . . in theory.  The only problem with it was that my son’s focus went entirely to avoiding lines, resulting in too many unforced errors in the net.

Yet another coach suggested getting an official to stand on the court and monitor the line calling in hopes that the offending party would behave.  More often than not, that advice came back to bite my son in the backside.  The bad calls would stop while the official stood there.  Once the official decided there was no cheating going on, he or she would leave the court, and the bad calls would start right back up again, leading to even more frustration for my son.

One of my favorite suggestions comes from tennis historian, Phil Secada, who told me, “When I played in juniors and knew I was up against someone who was willing to rook me <i.e. cheat> to win, I purposely called a shot in when I knew that the ball was out. It was usually on his serve. I then would ask him if he saw the ball differently? Sometimes, he would say that the ball was really out. I would then ask him if it was ok to play the point over? He would then say yes or no. Maybe the junior was never taught how to call shots; all he or she was taught was how to call shots by emotion?”

Why do some kids cheat?  Tennis Parent Phil Wright told me he has heard from a lot of coaches that it is the competitive spirit that is driving the bad calls.  The kid wants to win so badly that he “sees” the shot outcome he wants.  But it’s hard to avoid attributing it to plain old dishonesty and bad teaching.

It’s up to the parents and the coaches to teach their players how to call the ball.  This is another reason why tennis coaches should be with their students at least once every 3-6 months at just one tournament, just to see what is happening.  But the bottom line is that it is OUR responsibility as The Parent to teach honesty.  If it’s your child who is cheating, for goodness sake, pull him off the court!  Teach him a hard lesson that cheating will not be tolerated in your family.  Tell him that you will not stand for your family name to be tarnished.  Be his moral compass.

Over the years, my son has lost numerous points and games and even matches to kids who cheat.  He has finally learned to deal with it, stay mentally tough, and move on.  The kids who play tournaments on a regular basis KNOW who cheats and who plays fair.  By the U16s, most of them have learned how to win despite the cheating.

But, what happens when it’s your child who is wrongly accused of making a bad call?  That has recently happened to my son, too, in two especially close matches at the same tournament.  In the first match, my son was playing a friend of his in the semifinals of the backdraw.  It was the 3rd time they had played each other in a 2-month time period, and they were level at one win apiece.  The boys were playing a 10-point match tiebreaker after splitting sets, and my son had a match point.  He rushed the net, and his opponent hit a passing shot that was just long at the baseline, so my son called it out and started walking back to the center of the net to shake hands.  His friend questioned the call, but my son said, “Yeah, man, sorry, but the ball was out.”  I was sitting court-side and also saw the ball as out, but on-lookers are not allowed to comment so I kept my mouth shut and tried to keep my facial expression neutral.  The opponent shook his head, reluctantly shook my son’s hand, then walked off the court with his head down.  My son felt awful!  His first words to me were, “That ball WAS out, right Mom?”  I told him that I had seen it out, too, and that he played a good match and should feel good about the win.  Easy for me to say, harder for him to do.

Later that same day, he played the final of the backdraw.  The opponent continually questioned my son’s line calls (presumably, playing head-games with my son) and finally got an official to stand on the court.  Again on match point, the opponent hit a ball that my son called out when it missed wide.  His opponent went ballistic, accusing my son of cheating then looking to the official for confirmation.  The official confirmed things alright – he confirmed that the ball was out and that my son had won the match and the backdraw.

My son holds onto the fact that, in the top-level pro events, there are line judges and officials at every match.  But he has a long way to go before he’s playing at that level.  So, for now, he keeps working on staying focused during his matches, even if his opponent is “hooking” him.  He keeps working on developing other tactics to beat cheaters.  Most importantly, he keeps working on holding onto his own reputation as a worthy opponent.

Please share in the Comments box below your own experiences with cheating and how your child has dealt with it.  Sadly, cheating is a fact of junior tennis life.  Our job as Tennis Parents is to help our children learn how to overcome it while maintaining their own integrity out there.

The Tennis Triangle – Equilateral or Isosceles?

For years, I’ve been reading and hearing about the Tennis Triangle.  You know – Coach/Player/Parent.  Whenever I heard the term, I always pictured in my head an equilateral triangle, where all sides are of equal length, where all factors are of equal importance.

In the equilateral version, my son, his coach(es), and I contribute equally toward his ability to reach his tennis goals.  Each of us has specific duties and responsibilities, and if one of us fails, then the whole triangle collapses in on itself.  With young or new players, the equilateral formula is absolutely necessary, sort-of a checks-and-balances system if you will.  We each have to hold the others accountable for holding up their side.

As a developing player, my son’s duties include showing up for practices with a good attitude, working hard while he’s on the court, doing his homework and maintaining good grades, and getting enough sleep.  They also include making the hard choices – Homecoming or practice?  Thanksgiving with family or an important tournament?  High school party or getting a good night’s sleep?

His coaches’ duties include teaching him the technical and tactical parts of the game, keeping him motivated to continue playing by making practices productive and fun, guiding his tournament schedule, being accessible to answer his questions and stoke the fire, and observing his tournament matches every now and then.  They also include showing him the life lessons of tennis such as focus, determination, goal-setting, and fair play.

My duties (when I say “my” I’m including my husband in this – he’s an integral part of the triangle, too!) include driving my son to practices and tournaments, paying for lessons and drills, providing healthy food choices at home, and signing my son up for tournaments.  I also have to continue to be Mom and resist being Coach – after all, I’m already paying someone I trust to fill that role.  I have to love unconditionally, after a win and after a loss, all the time.

But, lately, I’ve started to question that equilateral image and have started to view things as a bit more skewed, kind-of an isosceles triangle instead, where two sides are equal but the third is longer and carries more weight, lending stability to the other two sides.

As my son is getting older, I’m realizing that my role and – coaches, please forgive me! – his coaches’ role are really secondary.  We’re the shorter sides of the triangle.  If one of us drops the ball, fails to perform our duties or responsibilities, the sky doesn’t fall.  The world doesn’t crash and burn.  The triangle doesn’t collapse in on itself.

However, that third side of the triangle – the longest one – my son – must not waiver.  If he does, then, KABOOM!  The whole structure is done for.  And nothing I do, and nothing his coaches do, can rebuild it without complete and total commitment from him.  For he is the support now.  He is the stabilizing factor.  It’s no longer anyone’s job but his to stay motivated, to work hard, and to hold himself accountable.  Of course, his coaches and I are still there when he needs us, but I have a feeling that my son’s leg of the triangle is going to continue to grow longer while mine and the coaches’ continue to shrink.  That’s the natural order of things.

Choosing A Coach, Part 3

And, now, the final installment (at least, for now!) . . .

Today’s post includes advice directly from the horse’s . . . er, coach’s . . . mouth.  I am lucky to have access to some brilliant tennis minds who are willing to share their expertise.  My best advice to you other tennis parents?  Take advantage of this free advice!  🙂

1. Look for a coach who is willing to lead by example – good energy; punctual; in shape; looking to improve him/herself on a daily basis; maybe has an “academic” interest in tennis.

2. Coaches who are “fresh off the tour” are probably best suited for players who can actually play tennis (age 14/15+). They might not have the patience to deal with the monotonous exercise of teaching a player the fundamentals.

3. Look for coaches who associate tennis with positive experiences (tennis is more than just about tennis…it’s about a way of life).

4. If anybody says that they have a “secret” method or a quick way to get results/rankings…avoid them like the plague. Hard work is the only short-cut. Anybody who sells you a different story or “patented” method is full of poo.

5. Determine whether you’re looking for an instructor or a “developer”. An instructor tends to teach the same lesson over and over (Forehand, Backhand, Volleys and Serves). A developer focuses each workout on a particular aspect of the player’s game…regardless of immediate past results or future events. A developer follows a specific road-map for each student…he doesn’t “wing” it or set the teaching on autopilot.

6. Be wary of coaches who maintain too much control. Some pros are afraid that they will lose a meal ticket so they try to hold on to a player by disparaging other pros or confusing you with technical talk. Before the kids learn the basics, it’s good to stick with one pro (or a couple of pros that teach exactly the same thing). However, after the player’s strokes have gelled, it’s OK to get input from different pros – at that point, the various coaches will be providing similar information but with a different viewpoint.  Nevertheless, if the pros try to change the player’s game too much, everyone should have a “come to Jesus” talk about the player’s future and his/her game-style. Most “secure” pros have no problem with this.

7. Don’t learn to fly from someone who’s learned piloting from a book. For every level, you want a pro who’s been at that level. S/he is more likely to know the intricacies of what’s going on in the player’s head or on court.

A big thank you to coach Ini Ghirdimic for sharing his knowledge and expertise!  If you haven’t already, be sure to visit his website for some more fabulous insights.

Coach and former NCAA Doubles #2, Julius Robberts, has some additional advice to share:  “I do believe it takes a village of coaches to produce a great tennis player. As coaches we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, when looking for a coach you need to make sure that your coach is willing to teach within his/her knowledge base. In addition, your coach should be willing to collaborate with other coaches regarding their players’ development. This becomes particularly useful in a tennis academy setting where your child has access to numerous coaches and their expertise. Coaches who communicate or collaborate will most likely have more long term success with their players’ development.”  Julius’ advice seems to be right in line with #6 above.

Of course, when all is said and done, sometimes the stars have to align in order to find the perfect coaching situation for your child.  If you look at Richard Williams (father/coach of Venus and Serena) or Tony Nadal (uncle/coach of Rafael Nadal), they probably wouldn’t pass muster using the guidelines set forth in these three Choosing A Coach articles, but you can hardly argue with the fact that they’ve been successful coaches at the highest levels of the sport.

What I’m hoping is that you’ll use these articles as suggestions for how to go about choosing your child’s tennis coach and that you’ll find someone who is the right fit for you and your family.

Please use the Comments box below to share your own experiences in searching for a coach.  And please “share” the blog with your tennis-parent friends.  We can all learn from each other here!

Choosing A Coach, Part 2

Now that I’ve shared my family’s coaching experiences with you, let’s get back to the basics here – what’s the best way to choose a coach for YOUR child?

I was going to create a fancy flowchart (and may still do that when I hone my graphics skills a little more) to illustrate the different paths available.  Instead, I’m going to pose a few questions for you to ponder . . .

  1. What type of tennis experience do you and your child want? Do you want your child to learn the basics so he can have another social skill?  Do you want your child to be proficient enough to be able to play on a neighborhood team?  Is high school, college, or even professional tennis on your child’s mind?
  2. What is your own level of tennis expertise?  Are you a former player who can supplement your child’s formal instruction?  Are you completely new to tennis and relying on the coach to educate you along with your child?
  3. What is your tennis budget?  Is a private academy coach a financial option or do you need to consider public park programs instead?  Can you afford private lessons in addition to group drills?  How many per week?  If your child wants to play tournaments, have you considered the axillary costs of travel, food, childcare for other children, etc.?
  4. What type of coaching personality best suits your family’s needs?  Does your child need someone to praise him constantly or can he handle constructive criticism?  Can your child handle being pushed by the coach?  What type of learner is your child – auditory, visual, other?  Do you need a coach who communicates well with you or are you content to stay in the background?

Once you’ve done a little personal soul searching and answered the questions above, then it’s time to start the legwork.  Depending on where you live, you may have tons of options for coaches or maybe just one or two.  Either way, I’ve heard from several top-level coaches that it’s crucial for parents to do due diligence – ask the questions I listed in Part 1 of this series, ask if your child can sample the program before you commit long-term, talk to the other parents and ask for their honest assessment of the coach and program.

From tennis historian and teacher Phil Secada:  “Teaching tennis has nothing to do with playing tennis.  Teaching tennis has to do with a person’s ability to communicate the game in a way that the student will understand. This can be done via verbal, visual, or by example.  Teaching tennis has to do with a person’s ability to communicate to and assess his/her student’s skills, ability to learn, ability to translate from one’s brain the motor skills needed to hit a tennis ball.  Teaching tennis requires the flexibility needed to demonstrate the varieties of strokes, strategies, conditioning, court and weather conditions.  A tennis player who is unable to communicate in the above way will never be a good tennis teacher.  A good tennis teacher should have an already-made plan to take a student from the basic beginners level, all the way to the professional level.  He/she should spend a few moments each and every day developing his/her plan for the students he/she is teaching/coaching!”

And just because someone is a former college or professional player doesn’t necessarily mean he or she can TEACH tennis to someone else.  As USTA/Florida Section 2004 Junior Competitive Coach of the Year and tournament director Don Petrine says, “Playing tennis and teaching tennis require mutually exclusive mindsets. A player (emphasis added) must be self centered and absorbed. A teacher (emphasis added) must be the opposite, able to project and identify with what their student is experiencing. A great player must go from being completely selfish to unselfish if they want to teach effectively. Not always an easy transition.”

Part 3 of this series is coming tomorrow with more great information from top tennis professionals.  Be sure to check it out!

Choosing A Coach, Part 1

Our family, like most of yours I’m guessing, kind of fell into our first tennis coach’s lap.  In our suburban oasis, we have a neighborhood pool and tennis courts.  One summer shortly after we moved in, a neighbor organized a little swim/tennis camp for the elementary school kids.  I signed up my daughters so they could have some fun with their friends and get some exercise while learning some basic tennis skills.  The coach, Billy, was a great guy, fantastic with the kids, so one of my daughters decided she wanted to continue taking lessons with him once school was back in session.

A few years later when my son expressed an interest in learning how to play tennis – around age 6 – of course I called Billy.  My son loved his 30 minutes each week on the court with Billy.  They hit some balls, played a few games, and laughed . . . a lot!  My son showed some early aptitude for the game – his hand-eye coordination was developing nicely due to Mighty Mites soccer and youth teeball/baseball – and he kept on taking those half-hour lessons with Billy, eventually learning how to serve, how to keep score, and how to play a real tennis match.

Fast forward three years.  My son’s best friend, whose mom and dad happen to be former top college tennis players, asked my son if he wanted to go to UGA tennis camp with him for 5 days.  They would live in the dorm, play tons of tennis, and get to order pizza and Chinese food at night.  It was a no-brainer!

Something changed during that 5 day stint at UGA.  My son came home with a new-found passion.  He was no longer content to have one 30-minute tennis lesson a week.  He now wanted to play in tournaments.  He wanted to compete.  He wanted to win!

So, it was time to make a huge decision.  Do we keep doing the Billy thing or do I start looking for a true coach (not just a tennis teacher), someone who can develop my son’s tennis skills and help him become the player he dreamed of becoming?

Living in the city with the largest tennis league in the country has its advantages when you’re looking for a training venue for your kid – there are LOTS of people to ask because there are LOTS of kids playing tennis!  We landed at a local tennis academy that had some top-notch coaches and some top-notch junior players.  I didn’t ask many questions before committing my son to 3 drill sessions plus one private lesson each week.  The place looked great, the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves and looked to be pretty good players, and the location was convenient – that’s all I needed to know.  For the next five years, my son continued training there, weathering some coaching changes along the way.  He was becoming a technically-sound player, playing lots of tournaments, and enjoying the journey most of the time.

There were some conflicts along the way, though.  As we became more ingrained into the junior tennis world, and as I talked to other parents at tournaments, I started feeling like something was missing for my son.  Sure, he was developing at a steady pace, but I had a nagging feeling that it was time for a new set of eyes.  Before making a change, though, I wanted to give his coach a chance to provide the things I felt my son needed.  I asked for more guidance for my son.  He didn’t get it.  I asked the coach to come to more tournament matches to help my son figure out why he wasn’t able to close them out.  He didn’t come.  Finally, things came to a head, forcing my son to see things for what they were, and forcing him to come to the realization that he needed to move to a different coach with different training partners in order to continue to grow.  So, I picked up the phone and started making calls.

For the past five months, my son has been training at a new academy.  Coincidentally, it’s the same academy where his old friend who invited him to UGA camp trains.  And, coincidentally, it’s where several of his other school mates train.  And, coincidentally (or not?), my son is all of a sudden beating boys that he had lost to in the 10s, 12s, and 14s.

I feel lucky that my son now has such great coaches at his side.  But, I also feel like it has a lot to do with the fact that I knew what to look for this time.  I knew which questions to ask before signing on the dotted line.  And, my son, after all these years of training and playing, knew how to be a better judge, too.

QUESTIONS TO ASK:

  • What is your training in terms of tennis coaching?  Are you certified by USPTA?  Do you take advantage of their continuing education opportunities?
  • Have you ever coached a player who aspired to reach the level my child aspires to reach?
  • Will you create a plan for my child that includes a step-by-step road map charting his tennis stroke development, milestones with due dates, and a tournament schedule?
  • Will you provide me with regular updates of my child’s progress along the road map?  How often?
  • Who is responsible for holding my child accountable for his off-court training?  If it’s the coach, what consequences will you impose if my child fails to comply?
  • Are you supportive of your players joining their school tennis teams?
  • Will my child have access to players at his level, more advanced than him, and more beginner than him so that he has a variety of practice partners?
  • Who is responsible for choosing which tournaments my child will play?
  • How many tournament matches will you attend and watch each year?
  • How are your drills structured?  Is there a group warm-up and cool-down period so players are fit and ready?  Is there a fitness component?  Is there a mental toughness component?  Is there a match-play component?
  • Do you have experts available to your players who can provide nutrition, fitness, and mental toughness guidance?  Is there an extra charge for those services?
  • What is your philosophy on rankings?  Is it more important for my child to develop proper technique and tactics or to win matches?  How does that change as he gets older?
  • Will you be available to answer my questions or concerns, either in person or by phone or email?  How do you prefer I contact you?

What questions did YOU ask (or wish you had asked) when choosing a coach for your child?  Please share them in the Comments box below!