Recap of the Boys 16’s and 18’s Super National Clay Courts Played Throughout Boca Raton and Delray Beach

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Todd Widom

I truly enjoyed my time going around to the best clubs in Boca Raton and Delray Beach watching some of my students compete in one of the most prestigious events that is played in my own backyard. It brought back memories of when I played the 18’s Clay Courts.

It was also nice catching up with many of the men that I competed with throughout my junior, college, and professional tennis career, as well as, catching up with the college coaches that were coaching college tennis when I was in college.

Most of these men who have stayed in the tennis business after their college or professional career became college coaches. I have noticed that not many have gone into junior development, but both jobs have their challenges.

What I would like to speak about is how your son or daughter is going to impress the college coaches so that they can attend one of these fine colleges and have a great four years as a student athlete.

First, the college coaches were coming from junior Wimbledon so that already shows you that your son or daughter is competing against the best juniors in the world for these spots on college tennis teams.

The reality of the situation is, and I am sorry to tell you, is that these coaches are not traveling to Europe to recruit American players. You may be thinking how can my child make it to one of these good universities and be a starter in the lineup, when they are competing with the best juniors in the world for these starting lineup spots.

Before I get into any discussion about hitting a tennis ball, let’s speak about movement and the physicality of what it takes to be successful, not only on a clay surface, but on any surface. I am seeing kids that do not have any understanding of how to move, court positioning, and use of their lower body to load and explode into a ground stroke.

At this tournament, sliding into a shot so you can recover is imperative. Your child’s understanding of the difference between offense, neutral, and defensive positions is crucial to what shot they are going to hit to break down their opponent across the net.

For example, if you are eight feet behind the baseline and you hit the ball like you do when you are three feet behind the baseline, the ball will land short and you will not get out of a defensive position. Most likely, you will be running at the fence because you defended poorly.

A sign of a high level player is one that can be put on defense and turn that defense into offense during the point. This is what you are seeing with the best tennis players in the world on television, especially with the men’s game. The women’s game has some first strike players like Jelena Ostapenko who know they struggle with mobility so they have to get that first big strike in to start the point.

Roger Federer, James Blake, Novak Djokovic, and Andre Agassi are some of the men that can or did take the ball so much earlier than any other players. If you think your son or daughter has this type of eye hand coordination and timing, they are a one in a million tennis player. We need more of these type players in the United States.

Is your son or daughter able to adapt their game to be able to play on the slow clay courts? I am seeing junior players not adapting their game styles and just banging a ball and running. They are also banging a ball at targets on the court that does not really do much.

At this level, placement of a shot on a proper target with moderate pace is far more valuable than ripping a ball that hits a foot past the service line. If you watch closely, what targets are the juniors hitting and how many quality shots does it take for one of the players to be dominating the middle of the court because they have a short ball.

I would like to touch on what I am seeing with the junior tennis players as it pertains to their strokes. I am seeing tight and hitchy type strokes that have trouble generating power.  It is unnatural. There is no feeling in the hands and wrists. The player should be able to swing and hit, but instead there are multiple complicated steps for hitting a groundstroke.

To generate power, the power comes from your core and lower body, and wrist acceleration. Instead, I am seeing unnatural strokes, and chances are that your son or daughter have taken all these super complex tennis lessons and cannot produce a solid, powerfully hit tennis ball.

Lastly, many kids have only one game plan and if that plan is not working that day, they will have an unhappy car ride back to their hotel room. Great tennis players have multiple game plans based on how they are playing that day, plus they have to take into consideration how their opponent is playing that day.

For example, in my quarterfinal match at the 18’s Clay Courts, I was playing a player who was ranked about 30 in the world in junior tennis. I started the match great and was hitting behind him a lot during the rallies because he had trouble moving on clay and was slipping and sliding all over the place.

The second set came around and he started getting his footing and started dominating some of the rallies. We split sets and it rained. In the third set, I decided to start taking the ball a bit earlier and start taking time away and come into the net more. I took his second serve and hit the return and came into the net which I had practiced many times.

I ended up winning the match and was fortunate enough to win the Super National Clay Courts Tournament a few days later, but the point to the story is that if you have a failing game plan, you must make adjustments to get through that day with a win.

Now understanding when to change game plans is a different story and that is taught by an experienced and knowledgeable coach so you are able to have a complete game to get through a long tournament. Best of luck to your son or daughter the next time they play Super National Clays Courts or any other clay court tournament.

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Responsible Athlete Develops Faster

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Marcin Bieniek

Tennis coaches have to teach own players a lot of things. We go through technical skills (backswing, grip), tactical skills (taking advantage of short balls, hitting with more spin while being under pressure), physical abilities (improving speed, developing dynamic balance) and mental abilities (dealing with obstacles, controlling emotions).

This category is called “Tennis skills” but we know that to make a great athlete we have to focus also on “Life skills”. We are talking about honesty, respect and responsibility to name a few.

Responsibility is the skill that I know has a big influence on player’s development. A lot of players don’t understand why this ability to “own” all actions is crucial and that is why coaches have to spend a lot of time on talking and teaching to shape this life value. As we all know parents are responsible for bringing kids up but if they don’t respect the same values as we do it is not an excuse to neglect this area in our coaching job.

Environment shapes personality. I can definitely agree with these words. People from poor neighborhoods are often more hard-working than rich families because of the simple factor: if they want to have something they have to work for it. Nothing is given for free.

A little bit different situation we can observe while coaching rich players. They have new clothes whenever they want. They travel in the most comfortable conditions. Players eat lunch and dinner in the restaurants. Why should they sweep the court on their own after the practice session? What is the reason to not complain at bad balls? Why do they have to be on time?

All these examples are related to responsibility. If players learn to be responsible for own actions they will improve at a much faster rate in tennis. Life skills are as important as tennis skills so if you focus just on one side you will never achieve your full potential. To get to know your best performance you have to develop body and mind simultaneously. Below you can find how being not responsible can destruct your game and ruin your whole career:

1. Coaches

Coach is responsible for every loss. Coach is responsible for lack of progress. It is time to change coach right? I don’t think so. What are you responsible for? Who is playing the match – you or your coach? Are you listening to your coach and implementing all tips that he is giving you?

You are responsible for your actions. Coach can help you or not but you are the one who has to deal with both ups and downs. If you always blame someone else for your failures you will end up with hundreds of coaches and lack of results.

2. Injuries

I have so bad luck. I am the only one who always get injuries. These are the quotes of players who are not responsible for own actions. They don’t see that improper eating habits, lack of fitness routine and poor quality of off-court workouts are reasons of many physical problems. They don’t own it.

It is much easier to say “I am unlucky” than “I am lazy during fitness session”. If you want to spend more time on court than in doctor’s office make sure that you are responsible for your actions. Good and bad.

3. Mistakes

I missed because he only hits moonballs. I made a mistake because the sun is shining right in my face. I hit the net because the court is slippery. This kind of mindset is focused on external factors. If you really want to become a successful tennis player you have to focus on yourself. You missed the ball off moonball because you got impatient.

The sun is shining right in your face so you should let the ball bounce and hit with less risk. The court is not slippery – you should work more on your balance skills. If you take this approach you will see that you are responsible for all your mistakes and you can work on your weaknesses to get better.

As you can see taking responsibility for own actions is a crucial factor to improve your game. You don’t have to do anything extraordinary to get better results on court. Start with doing breakfast on your own, getting to the courts 20 minutes before the session and don’t blame others for your failures. Step by step and soon you will see that life values can really save your tennis life.

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Stop the Madness 

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David Mullins

There is this kid I know who is a talented soccer player. He trains twice per week with his club, two hours at a time. On the weekend, he and his teammates get to the grounds an hour early to prepare for their league or cup match, and sometimes they may have up to four games over a two-day period.

All the players are very technically sound and understand how the game should be played. The team has three coaches and they trawl the sidelines during the games criticizing, correcting, reinforcing good plays, congratulating successful and unsuccessful attempts, but they all appear to be a little on edge throughout the duration of the match. Last week there was a scout from Manchester United watching his team and taking notes.

The kid recently got promoted to this group after some solid performances for the second team. He feels a lot of pressure to play even better to prove that he belongs on this team and is desperate to keep his spot. In the process, his game and confidence has suffered a bit as he adapts to the faster tempo, becomes more fearful of making errors, and plays to keep his position rather than playing to develop.

He was very upset after a recent training session as he felt like he made too many mistakes, and some of his basic skills were eluding him. The established players on the squad were getting frustrated with him and the coach did little to encourage his teammates to be more supportive as he makes this transition.

He appears to be losing some of the love he had for the game when he first started. In a few weeks, they will travel overseas to play against some of the top clubs in Europe.

The kid is actually my 11 year-old son!

My 11 year old, Liam, working on his game

Does anyone else think this is a bit crazy? Overzealous coaches, professional scouts, trips to central Europe, a deep focus on winning versus development, all for a group of 11 year olds who should be purely focused on their love for the game, and figuring out what they need to do to continue to improve.

I find myself very conflicted about whether he should continue in this system or not. I know it would break his heart not to have these opportunities but would that decision prevent him from being soured from the game he loves later in his teenage years?

On the one hand, I am thrilled that he is going through this mild adversity and is forced to work out how he will get his confidence back, improve his self-talk and learn to stay present rather than worrying about failure. There are a lot of lessons to be learned, but does it all have to be so serious at the age of 11?!

What has this all got to do with tennis, you ask?

Well, I am seeing the same things happening in tennis. I get emails from parents asking about their 10-year old kids, and how much they should be playing per week, to put themselves in position to get a top college scholarship one day. As a college coach, I got to see the “final product” of years of coaching, sacrifice and hard work. I got to see firsthand if what we are doing is working or not.

My conclusion is that all this investment of time and money, more professionalized development structures and increased expectations is not benefiting these children in the ways we are hoping it would. Despite better facilities, increased competitive pathways, more educated coaches, the level of tennis I see is only marginally better than what it was two to three decades ago.

There is more depth in the college game but I don’t see a significant improvement at the top levels and I don’t see the type of improvements I once saw in college players over a four-year period because they have already played so much by the time they set foot on campus.

What I do see is a much higher burn out rate, a lack of awareness about why they are even playing the sport, increased number of injuries and their love for training and competition is dwindling if not extinguished completely. They are merely on auto pilot, recognizing that they are very good at tennis, and have received a lot of praise and accolades for their achievements.

They have also probably had to say no to a lot of social, family and hobby engagements as they pursued their tennis careers. They rarely stop to question why they followed this path, if it was all worth it or what would be the consequences if they decided to just stop playing at such a serious level. Would they still be as good if they had taken that family vacation at Christmas rather than going to some tournament on the other side of the country?

Would they still be getting a college scholarship if they had committed a few weeks to acting in their school play rather than that training camp they were picked to participate in? Would they still be winning matches and playing at the same level if they hadn’t gone to that academy to play 5 hours a day and just stayed home and did 2 hours at the local club in which they began? I don’t know.

What I do know is that all the training, competition and development systems around sporting excellence have sped up dramatically in recent years. College coaches are recruiting younger players, and players are committing at earlier ages.

I see coaches in many sports coaching 10 year olds the same way they would coach 22 year olds. They try to implement the same off the court training regimes and expect hours of structured hitting, conditioning and organized match play. Parents believe that if they don’t get their kids into the “system” as early as possible then their kid will miss out.

The kids get on this treadmill, and parents rarely ask whether or not it is truly the best thing for their child and feel pressured to conform. Just because they have an interest and passion for tennis at age 10 doesn’t mean they will still like at it age 15.

However, by then, countless thousands of dollars have been spent, the kid’s social life probably stems a great deal around their tennis connections, their self-worth is wrapped up in their results, and if they take their foot off the pedal by then, everything they worked for, a college scholarship, could be gone; so they continue on this pathway, not really loving it but not really hating it either. They are just in a purgatory, going through the motions and not questioning their decisions.

It is such a delicate balance as a parent and something I am struggling with now. I don’t want my 11 year old to just be going through the motions and not enjoying his soccer in the same way he was at 10 or 9. I am not sure at what age it should become so serious, I guess that depends on the child, their maturity level and what other interests they enjoy. I know it is not 11, maybe 15?

My son also plays field hockey, is in the chess club and is excited to give rugby a go this summer. He reads a lot, and is very interested in physics and the solar system. My goal as a parent is to have him pursue as many interests as possible for as long as possible, and hope that he does not get burned out on the things he truly loves to do because of over training, unrealistic expectations or misinformed coaching styles.

Our time and financial investment in him will match his level of desire when he gets a little older. I will be looking for the tell-tale signs of burn out or waning interest, and with that we will invest less in terms of pursuing his soccer.

I am already having these conversations with him and getting him to reconnect with why he loves football. He is working on transferring the joy he feels on the school yard with his friends onto the game-day soccer pitch. I believe we adults are robbing children of the joy they should feel every time they walk on the court or pitch to play or practice.

We need less parent and coach involvement and just allow kids to explore these games on their own terms. I would even argue that their athletic development is being stifled by these coaches as they get boxed in to specific game styles and positions, and become overly reliant on coaches’ feedback to get through a practice session. They learn few leadership qualities and just punch in and out of their training sessions like they work at a manufacturing plant.

We are getting our son to balance his structured sessions with completely unstructured sessions at the local parks and football pitches. He will go out with his friends and they will often find pick-up games with NO adult supervision.

The lessons he is learning at the park about leadership, working with others, being allowed to fail and playing different game-styles and positions is helping his personal and athletic development more than his 2-hour team training sessions with his club.

I hope my son is learning lessons on the sports field but that is not the only place I want him to learn such lessons. I believe sports may be able to expose adversity and weaknesses in his character more rapidly than anything else in his young life, and that is ultimately why I love that he has an interest in sports. I could care less what success he has with it, and my relationship with him will never be based upon his successes or failures as an athlete.

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Food for Thought for Tennis Players

Whatever you do in life, nutrition is important. But for sportspeople and tennis players, in particular, be it professional, semi-professional, or amateur, it can help give you a vital edge if you put in the right “fuel”. Here we look at some of the foods people should avoid or cut down on in the pursuit of tennis glory and trophies.

We begin with probably one of the more famous examples in recent years, at least from the tennis world anyway, and a certain Serbian, yes, it’s Novak Djokovic. Djokovic used to suffer from regular mid-match collapses, but as he revealed in his book, Serve To Win: The 14-Day Gluten-free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence, a change in his diet proved pivotal.

The book was published a few years ago now — back in 2013 — and, as the title suggests, Djokovic revealed how he eliminated gluten, dairy, and sugar, all to a great effect. Indeed, since adopting his “new’” diet in 2010, he has gone on to become one of the best tennis players ever, and to date, he has won twelve grand slams — all but one since that decision to stop eating foods containing wheat, barley, rye, and oats.

Now, this is not to suggest that everyone should do this, and as Djokovic himself says in his book, every individual is different and needs to tailor their own diet.

“Most diet programmes assume the same plan works for everyone and that you ‘must’ eat certain foods. ‘Must’ just isn’t a good word. Your body is an entirely different machine from mine. I don’t want you to eat the best diet for my body. I’m going to show you how to find the best diet for your own unique self,” he wrote.

So where do you start?

If you are going to make a massive change to your diet like Djokovic, it is always recommended that you consult an expert first — ideally a dietician or a nutritionist, but make sure you know the difference between the two. Most will probably advise you not to eliminate anything entirely unless you have a diagnosed condition that warrants it. But if you do want to make some changes, just think carefully about what you eat and drink.

So, cut down on alcohol, soda, and caffeine, limit carbs and sports drinks, avoid “bad” fats (saturated) — replace with good fats like nuts and avocados — and also reduce your intake of processed foods (sausages, bacon, etc.).

Instead, try eating more vegetables, fish, and lean meats, and if you want an alternative to wheat and rice, try quinoa. If you find yourself wanting an odd alcoholic drink or a pizza, don’t feel bad about it, as long as it is the exception rather than the rule.

If you follow some of these tips it could very set you up for success in tennis and life in general. And maybe one day, you will be one of the players gearing up for Wimbledon or next month’s U.S. Open in New York, where Stan Wawrinka and Angelique Kerber will be hoping to defend their 2016 Grand Slam victories among the list of favorites, which will, of course, also include a certain Djokovic.

Don’t Try to Be Perfect

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Marcin Bieniek

“Perfect shot”. “It was a perfect match”. “The conditions were perfect”. These and many more sentences we can hear during practice sessions or while being on the tournament. What is the one word that connects all these example? The word is “perfect”.

For many of us hearing this word is a motivational boost of energy but it also has some serious problems hidden behind. Perfect world doesn’t exist so you should be aware where you are heading for…

Tennis is a difficult sport. If we want to get to the top we have to compete against thousands of players who have the same dream, more money than you, better hitting partners and environment that you can forget about.

That is why we coaches put a lot of emphasis on effort. With this approach it doesn’t matter how much talent you have because you are sure that you put your best effort every day. There are some things under our control like effort or emotional control but there are also factors that we can do nothing about like weather conditions or draw in the tournament.

Hearing that we have to be the best every day on and off the court we start to misunderstand the process that we participate in. Giving your best effort doesn’t mean that you will be perfect. It still means a lot of mishits, hundreds of mistakes and thousands of collapses. Giving your best is your attitude – not your performance or false assessment.

Trying to be perfect can lead to many unpleasant situations. Starting from frustration, going through the anger, and finishing with a burnout that can result in the end of playing career. These facts should make players and coaches aware that it is not worthy to try to hit all the balls exactly where we intended too or to win all the matches in 365 days.

Tennis as any other sport is a constant learning path where players go through many ups and downs. Big achievements come from experiences that are based on failures so looking at mistakes as negative things prevents from achieving own potential.

Is Roger Federer perfect? I don’t think so. He missed many shots and lost many matches. Is Serena Williams perfect? The answer is NO. She didn’t win all Grand Slam tournaments and you can find many of her matches that she supposed to win but she didn’t manage to do so.

That is why trying to be perfect is a false approach. If you have it already you can consciously work on this weakness to finally get rid of it. Why shouldn’t you be perfect? Look below:

Being perfect is impossible

I know Adidas’ slogan that „Impossible is nothing” but I think even Adidas doesn’t have power to make tennis career perfect. Perfect means immaculate. Perfect means that everything is executed without mistakes. Is it possible in the long-term process as tennis career is? I don’t think so.

You will always miss some balls and lose some matches. This is truth and it is time to accept it. If being perfect is impossible to achieve why would you spend valuable time of trying to get it?

Being perfect makes you sad

If you try to be perfect you will never be happy of your small and bigger achievements. If you make 9 of 10 shots in the exact spot that you wanted to hit them you will be sad because you could make 10/10. If you play your first Grand Slam and you „only” reach semifinal you won’t be happy because  there were chances to make the final.

If you don’t break the record of consecutive won matches on clay you will not feel successful because there is always someone better than you. It simply means that you will never be happy.

Playing tennis for many years requires happiness to wake up every day and do your routines. If you are sad you will not only make your experiences less valuable but you can also face serious burnout.

Being perfect leads to overloads

You can always do more. You can always do things better. There is no finish line for you. These motivational lines are great for serious players who start to understand that it is critical to put best effort every day. If you stay with this mindset it is great for your performance.

On the other hand if these lines make you feel not perfect and it is time to change it you risk much more than you think. If you try to be perfect you will always look for more. More practice sessions, more load in the gym, more tournaments to chase ranking points and „more”. In the short-term you will see a positive impact on your change but in the long-term your mental and physical health will hurt. More injuries, more stress, more doubts…

This article can be hard to understand for many players. I am not saying that you shouldn’t try really hard every day. I am also not saying that trying to go a little over the line is a bad thing. To get to the top you have to take some risk but you can achieve it without being perfect. Knowing that you can get your dreams with some mistakes and lost matches will make the process much more friendly and achievable. Perfect solution right? 🙂

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