It's long been known that Tennis can be a very technical and intricate sport with lots of fine details that can alter the result of a match. It also requires an abundance of skills to achieve and succeed at any given level. Like most sports people, players want to learn so that they can improve their performance, or simply because they want to be better so they have more fulfilment and enjoyment. Whatever the reason, players are often focusing on the things that go right in their sessions and are often told they must improve at every session. This isn't wrong, because ultimately when things go right, it builds more confidence and a higher skill level. However, it's important for players to train in situations where they are uncomfortable and where things are going wrong. In our opinion, that is where most of the learning comes from. At most levels, players are going to find themselves in situations where there are problems and where there are things going wrong. That isn't just problem solving, it's also situations where things can be out of their control. We will get to that shortly.
To the average (non) tennis player, tennis is maybe not seen as demanding as other sports such as rugby or football. It can be seen to be an upper class, precious sport where players are looked after. Tennis is often encapsulated in a posh tradition and players play in a comfy environment where fans have to be quiet to 'protect' the concentration of the players and be respectful.
In reality, at both the junior and senior level, tennis is a cut throat, aggressive and painful sport to play. At the amateur and semi pro level, players have to call their opponents line calls. That in itself is incredibly challenging to deal with as it opens up so many doors to cheating. Tennis requires players to travel around the world and compete with little sleep. It can cost them a lot of money with no return. They may have to deal with opposition coaches who are coaching their opponent during a match. They have to deal with mental and emotional pressure all on their own. Their bodies require all 3 energy systems (Power, Aerobic, Anaerobic) to be at a maximum capacity in order to fully reach their potential. This isn't including the hundreds of situations a player must perform in, and show a completely different skill to the previous shot they've only just hit. Because of the nature of the sport, and because there are so many things that can arise in both pre match and in-match, it means that there any so many things that can potentially go wrong, wether thats due to natural causes or unnatural causes. Therefore training for things to go wrong, can actually help a player in their long term development.
Tennis is so meticulous that it means one small thing can go wrong and all of a sudden a match can completely turn on its head. That can be seen at any level. Remember when Tsitsipas was often going to the toilet during his match against Murray? That slight change in momentum completely disrupted Andy. Things going wrong like this happens much less in team sports like football, but of course, it can still happen, and you have your team to fall back on. Tennis, however, you are on your own, and being able to be 'mentally armour plated' is really important. From our experience, here is a small list of things we have seen that can completely disrupt a player and cause them to either become more stressed, or lose a point or match.
- Family member (who is watching) moving from one seat to another
- Breaking a string
- Opponent making a perceived bad line call
- Wearing the wrong shoes
- Receiving a negative message on social media before the match
- New balls
- The sun coming out
- Spectators being too loud
- String tension not quite right
Can you add to the list? You could argue that a lot of these things are trivial. There are surely plenty more things that can be added to the list. It's easy to say that these players should do better, but it's important to remember that this is very common, so there is no point in shying away from it. Even the top players in the world have their struggles, they're just better and quicker at dealing with it. So what can players do to help them with these issues and distractions? This is where training on the practice court comes into play.
In order for players to understand, acknowledge and accept these small things that can potentially arise in a match, one has to practice dealing with them. This is why making things go wrong in training can actually make things go right. Some of the best athletes in the world have trained this way. It's quite well known that when Tiger Woods was practising his putting, his father, Earl, would distract him on purpose. Earl would do whatever it took to get into young Tiger’s head. He would jingle change while he stood over putts, he would hurl swear words at him through his line of sight and even shout and scream as he went into his backswing. Tiger's response was, “I’d get angry sometimes. But I knew it was for the betterment of me. That’s what learning is all about, right?” Champion mindset right there. Earl's ruthless training tactics are likely responsible for much of Woods’ legendary competitive aura, and by distracting and making things go wrong for Tiger, ultimately made him into the greatest and toughest golfer of all time.
There are similar stories for one, Rafael Nadal. Nadal and his uncle were playing with good, sound balls, Toni would unexpectedly produce a bad one, a bare one that bounced erratically, or a soggy, lifeless one that hardly bounced at all. If his nephew complained, Toni would say, “The balls might be third rate but you’re fourth rate!” The blows to morale and the relentlessly harsh discipline to which he submitted Rafa all had a grand strategic purpose: teaching him to endure.” Sessions were often characterised by pressure and extreme stress. In order to increase this, Toni Nadal was always a few steps behind Rafa to put additional pressure on him with the feeling that someone was watching him. “Toni was tough on me right from the start. He would shout at me, pressure me and use bad language." In the past we have heard coaches say that it is not their job to make the player, it is their job to break the player.
Both are good examples of how 'making things go wrong' can shape a players character and attitude. So, why, does tennis training today, often do the complete opposite of this? Parents can often protect their child from any potential difficulties and stresses. Many players struggle themselves to deal with adversity in their training as it makes them feel unconfident and negative. But when done right, making things go wrong can have more of a positive effect that making everything go right all the time. Let's be honest, tennis is a brutal sport and only a few make it to the top. So surely training in environments that are brutal is important for players to develop their resistance to it.
So can you include sessions into your schedule where you purposefully make things go wrong? At the beginning it might be worth having a conversation with the player so that they understand what is happening and why. There has to be trust in the coach/player relationship, otherwise players will become too disheartened, lose faith in their coach and not understand what is happening, especially if most sessions revolve around 'getting better' every-time. Here are some ideas for making your player/child more resistant to adversity.
- Giving them a totally different racket to play with half way through a session
- Distraction techniques when serving or mid point
- Changing the score round (If they were winning)
- Applying even more pressure in high pressure situations
- Playing in difficult conditions
- Do alter ego techniques as coach
- Purposefully making them late to a match
- Refuse water breaks when they ask for them
This is just a few ideas, and if you get creative enough, we're sure there are plenty more that can be implemented. As we said before, it's important that there is trust when sessions like this take place, and if done right, can actually be fun. Tiger would be stressed at his father when he used to be distract him, but by the end, Tiger would laugh. Ultimately it's up to the player to decide how they are going to deal with the things that go wrong, and they have to understand that dealing with those things is going to help their 'mental armour plating'.
We hope you have enjoyed this read. Depending on the player, these techniques can be eased in gradually, or, straight away. We will leave you with this quote that further shows the importance of making things go wrong. "Many boys play well when things go their way, but when things go wrong, an uncontrollable emotion ruins their game, and it is at that moment where they have to be tougher than ever". - Toni Nadal