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The Best Training Environments for Tennis Players

Aug 29, 2008
Jim Courier once said on Academy Training - "The ideas for improvement came naturally to me while I was a junior battling my peers at Bollettieri's Academy and the US Junior Davis Cup Team. That intense competitive environment spurred me to look for avenues to raise the level of my game."

Coaching in groups has many advantages. Primarily students learn from each other and push each other to greater heights and there are many examples where training in groups and squads has produced stunning results.

Bollettieri's Academy - In the 1980's Bollettieri's Academy had future stars Agassi, Courier, Krickstein and Wheadon battling each other on a daily basis. Equally in the 1990's Sharapova, Golovin and Jankovic were pushing each other to the limit as juniors and translated that into success on the senior tour. This bringing together of the best players to practice together created an ultra competitive environment and ultimately success.

Spanish Training Model - The Spanish model of training has achieved mythical status. What is in the water in Spain? The system is producing a stream of top professionals and shows no signs of stopping as Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco become the latest young players to make their mark. The mix of gruelling training, clay courts and regular tournament play attracted international players such as Marat Safin, Svetlana Kutnezova (both Russia) and Andy Murray (Britain) to develop their games in Spain.

To create performance environments in squads, players must have challenging practice partners and suitable drills and activities to keep them tested. Equally the players of the squad must have the same attitude and commitment.

To ensure the homogeneity of your squads enforce a criteria (based on both tennis skill and personal qualities) which players must qualify.

Aspects of the criteria may include minimum standards for: Competing in club, state and national tournaments; Sense of commitment to the team or squad; level of fitness; and dedication to schooling and education.

Training in squads should be regarded as "sparring" with players working together and acknowledging each other's efforts. Impose a "work for every ball" attitude, ensuring the players train at match intensity. Friendly match practice should form a core component of training and a sense of camaraderie between members is ideal, creating a "Davis Cup" type atmosphere which can also lead to inspirational performance.

The coach must recognize that all players in the group are individuals. Within each lesson or drill different players may have different objectives and the coach must attempt to spend one on one time with each member of the squad. General hitting sessions should be avoided; each session or drill should have a clear objective - working at different aspects of the player's development.

Individual Training - "Has any one player come out of Bollettieri's a more complete player than when he or she went in? I can't think of one." Tony Trabert, US tennis legend of the 1950's.

The output of professional players from academy and squad environments, such as Bollettieri's, supports the group methodology. However there have been several critics of the system. Many of these academy trained players lack the nuances of the game - heavy spin (both slice and topspin), approach shots, serve and volley, drop shots and variation of depth and pace. These players, such as Sharapova and Vaidisova, are all about attack with flat, powerful ground strokes.

These same players often seem anxious under pressure and when faced with a player who can play with variation, especially on a slower court. This anxiety is most likely caused by a lack of viable options if Plan A begins to unravel. The recent retirement of Henin and Hingis; and Amelie Mauresmo's struggles have sadly sapped the women's tour of players who can play with variety.

Andre Agassi's career perhaps demonstrates that Academy training will eventually limit a player's development. After leaving Bollettieri's, Agassi was immediately recognised as one of the best ball strikers on the professional circuit. However, it wasn't for many years that he realised his potential. Early in his career he would blast his opponent off the court with his ground strokes, or if this method failed he would lose (often accused of tanking.) Under the guidance of Brad Gilbert he learned to understand the subtleties of the game and became the ultimate competitor, finding a way to win under any circumstances later in his career. Perhaps this is why he famously said: "I hated it at Bollettieri's Academy. The only way out was to succeed." Andre Agassi (1998)

Martina Hingis blames the modern Academy coaching systems for the flaws in many of the top female players: "A lot of these young girls, they don't even know what the game is about. They have never seen a drop shot, a slice and all the mixture I have." Martina Hingis (2006)

Certainly if you consider that Demetieva has a weak serve, Ivanovic has struggled under pressure, Sharapova doesn't handle "junk", and several top players can't transition or volley Hingis has plenty of evidence to support her criticism of the coaching methods.

Hingis herself was coached from a very young age by her mother, who taught her all aspects of the game. Her all round prowess on the tennis court is a contrast to many of the modern players, and while she may have struggled against her opponents power, she certainly has a crowd pleasing game and the all round skill to return to the top 10 after two years in retirement.

Individual training can certainly compensate for any flaws in the academy or squad training. Individual lessons should address the technical weakness's that are likely to limit the player's ability to progress to a higher level. While academy training seems to produce players that are all very similar, individual training can target specific strengths and weakness, moulding unique players with their own style.

Performance Environment - Assessing the relative strengths and weakness of Academy vs Individual Training environment it is apparent both methods are important to player development. While some argue that one is superior to the other, both develop skills that the other does not.

The individually trained players may miss the competitive environment of the best players training together; while The Academy based player may miss the individual attention needed to develop an all round game and strategy.

The two environments should complement each other, not clash. The private coach of a talented individual should look for an appropriate squad for their player; while the squad coach should suggest some private lessons for fast improving young player.

In both squad and individual training, creating a performance environment where hard work is complimented by fun and enjoyment is the coaches primary goal.

Some ideas for creating a performance environment include: Create more pressure in training than in matches (overload); use longer sessions; shorter breaks, 2 on 1 drills; use the player's favourite drills and they will be more likely to give 100%; stick to a limited number of drills and use variations of them. Simulate match play whenever possible. Live ball drills most effectively develops a player competitive play.

Understand that quality is more important than quantity. Mindless and repetitive hitting with no objective may improve your ability to hit a tennis ball, it will not improve match play! Train every aspect of the game - Tactical, Technical, Physical and Mental; Playing Phases - Defending, Rallying, Creating and Attacking; Ball control - Speed, Spin, Depth, Direction and Height; Game situations - Baseline, Approaching, Passing, Serving and Returning.

Essentially the performance training environment is crucial because if you're not performing well in practice then it is not going to magically turn around in a match
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