Has your Child Been Bucket or Hand Fed Too Many Balls?

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Todd Widom

Do I use hand or bucket feeding for my junior players? Absolutely. Is it the basis of the training I do with them? Absolutely not. I use it to work on specific things, but the true test to know if they become proficient in what we are working on is to work in a live ball situation in practice.

Afterwards we then work on point play situations in practice and then ultimately it comes out in a tournament match, which is the true test of whether they truly understand and trust what they have been working on.

There are many coaches that only do hand or bucket feeding and it is definitely not wrong. A developing junior player requires all different aspects of training. Each child is different so a coach needs to make sure they know what to work on and how to fix the areas that need fixing.

Do you ever wonder why your child hits the ball so well during these lessons, yet it does not translate over to match wins in tournaments? Bucket drilling and hand feeding are unrealistic in terms of if your child can win more matches in tournaments. Some may use the logic that more lessons should equal more match wins, but this is not always the case.

The pace of ball coming at your child in these lessons are usually very slow, so they can have many technical deficiencies and look pretty good to you as the parent. I can feed a ball with either my hand or my racquet and put it so perfectly in your child’s strike zone that they will look like a superstar, but why don’t they have the desired results in tournaments?

So here is what I am seeing and what should be taught. When you are hitting with someone else, every single ball being hit to you is different. The spin, the height, the pace, the trajectory, etc.

I will put down a cone three feet by three feet from the sideline and baseline and tell two students to play the rally with the same intensity trying to hit the cone as they would in a match. The result many times is they are spraying the ball all over the place, in the middle of the court, short on the service line, long over the baseline, or even in the alley.

How can this be? You have probably spent significant dollars with tennis lessons and groups and your child cannot hit more than one or two balls close to the cone without missing.

What I am seeing is that the kids that have been hand fed too many balls without having enough live ball practice, and cannot adjust to what is required. They have trouble anticipating and reading what is being hit to them. Without that skill, your child is just a good lesson taker and you are a money donor.

You do not need this skill nor do you obtain this skill in a hand fed or bucket fed situation.  Your child will have trouble moving and using their body effectively to get in position. Since they do not understand what is being hit to them, they have trouble adapting their swing.

If the ball is coming to them slowly, then they are used to that pace because of all the hand fed and bucket fed drills. If the ball comes fast or deep, the junior does not have an understanding on how to adapt their swing to be able to hit a clean ball on their target.

They are usually late and their racquet preparation is late because they did not see the ball coming faster or deeper at them. They are so used to taking the same swing that they are incapable to improvise to hit a quality shot.

Seeing the ball out of your opponents racquet is so very important because you need to be able to see if the ball is coming short, in the middle, or deep in the court, so now the movement is late also and the preparation of the racquet is late and the shot will be hit in the middle of the court. At a high level of tennis, you are going to be in big trouble.

In my opinion, the developing juniors need all different types of training; however, I am seeing too many juniors practicing and being taught in too much of a controlled environment to make the lessons worthwhile. Tennis training at a high level needs to be as realistic as possible to a tournament match so that the junior can achieve their goals.

The only way for this to happen is for the training to be in a live ball situation and for there to be specific goals that must be attained. Many times the goals are how many balls in a row can be hit on the cone for both players before one is hit away from the cone. That is good for starters and then you build it up to more shots as the players become more advanced. Best of luck and remember, make the training as realistic as possible if you want tournament results.

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Why My College Roommate Did Not Fail as a Tennis Player

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David Mullins

A few months ago, I explained some of the reasons as to why I failed as a professional tennis player. This time, I want to discuss how one of my college teammates and roommates made it as a professional tennis player.

His name is Peter Luczak and he reached number 64 on the ATP world rankings, beating several highly ranked players and reaching the 3rd round of the Australian Open twice.

Many of you may not have heard of Peter, but to give you some context, if he was one of the world’s top 100 soccer players, he would be playing for Barcelona or Juventus. If he was the 64th richest person in the world, he would have a net worth of over $15 billion. He was at the pinnacle of one of the top 5 sports in the world!

Peter and I arrived in the USA on the same day, Peter from Australia and me from Ireland. We hit it off immediately due to our ridiculous long hair! The next day, we played a set and I won 6 – 4. That was the first and last set I ever won from Peter. Peter basically improved every day from that point on and this is how he went about it:

1. Consistent approach and engaged process to training

Peter was not out on the court doing an ungodly amount of hitting which is contrary to what you will hear and be told by coaches. However, what he did have was an aptitude to maintain a high level of focus every time he stepped on the court. It was obvious that he enjoyed being on the court but also managed to concentrate for a long sustained period.

He did not waste energy losing his temper or allowing himself to be distracted. He was never too high or too low, he just kept going about his business in a disciplined and engaged way every time he started a drill or played points. He did not necessarily work harder than everyone else from one day to the next, what he did was work hard EVERY SINGLE TIME he stepped on a tennis court.

Where the rest of us could sustain a level of focus for a few practice sessions or portions of practice sessions each week necessary to develop, Peter maintained concentration for what appeared to be every minute of every practice. He also took days off like the rest of us, but clearly understood when he had to do more and when he needed less.

I don’t know how he learned this ability but looking back at it now, it was extremely impressive the way he managed his time, his body and his mind.

2. Written Goals

I never told Peter this, but I remember going into his room once to look for a pen to do an assignment, and I came across his goals in the top shelf of his dresser. Sorry for snooping Peter, but they were right there and I could not resist!! On that list of goals, he had low level goals like do 100 sit-ups and 50 push-ups every night before bed.

He also had on there very high level goals like “become a top 100 tennis player”. He never lost sight of what his goals were, he kept them close and followed through on everything he had written down on that small card. Peter was also willing to sacrifice whatever he needed to do to ensure he stayed consistent with his goals.

He did not do any crazy partying, understood that having a girlfriend would distract him from what he wanted to accomplish, and had the confidence in himself to not get swept up in any peer pressure or situations that could take him away from the goals he had written down for himself.

3. Maintained a firm belief in his abilities and destiny

Peter was born in Europe to Polish parents. He was eligible to play Davis Cup for Poland when he was in college and I would tell him, “Peter, you have to go play for Poland, you are NEVER EVER going to get on the Australian Davis Cup Team. If I can hang with you in practice, then the Aussies are going to chop you up!”

Recognize here that part of why I would say this was because I had such little belief in my own abilities; if I could practice with this guy then he could not be that good. Instead, I should have seen that I can hang with this guy and I am better than I think, if I keep working hard and use him as my inspiration, maybe I can have the type success he is having. Instead of striving for his level, I was trying to bring him down to my level. Not intentionally of course, but subconsciously, this was what was happening.

Many people will say things to you due to their own insecurities and not recognize the belief you have in yourself. Sure enough, Peter did not listen to me. He believed he would play for Australia one day, and he did it. He is an extremely proud Aussie and nothing was going to get in his way of representing the country he loves.

4. Always looking for ways to be better

Both Peter and I share a love for learning and Peter read a wide variety of books and texts throughout college. I believe he was reading them and figuring out how he might apply these teachings to his tennis.

Like I mentioned before, Peter got better every day on and off the court. I remember going to watch him play at the Australian Open in 2003 and was shocked at how much better his serve had become over just a nine-month period since I had last seen him play. Here he was at almost 24 years old and he was still getting better.

His serve had become faster and more consistent. His second serve was getting up even higher on his opponent. Here was a player that was already really good (undefeated at # 1 singles his final year of college) and he was still finding ways to get better.

5. Stuck to his Routines

Peter had set routines in place before his serve, return and on the changeovers before he even came to college. Peter was a decent junior player but nothing special. We used to imitate his routines and give him a hard time but he knew they were helping him play his best tennis. His routines were unique to him, he wasn’t trying to copy anyone else, he just understood what he needed to do to refocus his mind and maintain the appropriate level of intensity.

6. Fearless

Peter would almost always serve-volley when he was down break point  even though this was not a style of play he was particularly comfortable with. He trusted in his kick serve and the element of surprise on these big points and it felt like his conversion rate was 100%!

He was completely fearless when it mattered the most. I would watch this in awe and as a teammate, you always wanted Peter to be the last person on to clinch the match as you knew no one was as fearless as he was. What a stud!

7. Love

What I think separated Peter from his teammates and college rivals was his love for the game of tennis. He genuinely enjoyed being in any scenario on the tennis court. From the warm-up to clinching big matches, you could see he had this incredible combination of love and focus.

He had not lost the childlike pleasure for the game we all have when we first start showing signs of promise. I don’t believe that can be taught, yet, we keep trying to force young players to love it more! You can’t make people love something more!

The game of tennis captured Peter’s imagination and intellect in way that eluded the rest of us. Those that know Peter would not confuse him for being the most talented player, but they know how much he loved the process and the game itself.

Peter is an absolute gem of a person, the ultimate gentleman and competitor. He achieved this success by staying focused on himself, never complaining and treating people and competitors with respect. He did not get caught up in any minutiae or negativity.

The game of tennis is lucky to have someone like Peter still involved with it, and those that he coaches or mentors might be the luckiest tennis players on the planet. When I think about the type of person I want my children to become, I often think of Peter.

There are any number of pathways you can take to reach the type of success Peter had, but I think you will find you cannot deviate too much from the elements I have described above. If you want to reach your potential I would starting copying this road map to success.

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US Open 2017 Can Teach Juniors a Lot

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Marcin Bieniek

I was fortunate enough to be able to come to New York this year. Junior US Open starts during second week of regular US Open 2017 so this opportunity gave me a chance to see many top professional players. Hanging around guys like Federer, Pliskova or Del Potro is not only great to remember but it is also a huge lesson that juniors can use to get own game to the next level.

Loud fans. Arthur Ashe stadium. Wilson balls. All these factors are related only to this spectacular event. US Open 2017. Getting to watch Sharapova or Nadal on the biggest tennis stadium is hard to explain in words. It is an unbelievable experience for a human being but as a tennis coach I also look for lessons that I can share later with my players.

A lot of spectators look at match just to enjoy it but my approach is not the same. I want to enjoy but I also want to leave stadium smarter as a tennis coach. During second week of US Open 2017 I was watching a lot of matches. Nadal, Carreno Busta, Shapovalov, Sharapova, Vandeweghe are just few of many players that I was able to analyze.

Their game is great but as we know at the top level most of the players have similar technical and tactical skills. That is why I always look for these „hidden” skills that really make the difference and I think I found them.

Not everyone can be like Nadal or Federer who are able to dominate for many years but most of competitive juniors can definitely be like Carreno Busta or Sloane Stephens who work hard on their game and are able to come up with great final result.

Too many times young players admire only the winners forgetting that getting to the quarterfinal is the success that most of us can only dream about. That is why it is worthy to learn from everyone and try to incorporate little details that can give us advantage in the long term.

So what are these hidden factors that I was able to notice during my trip to US Open 2017? There were many lessons but I would like to share with you the 3 most important ones. Here they are:

1. Beginning of the match

It is amazing to see that top players are able to start matches really well. It is visible especially between male competitors. As we know male players base their hard-court game on serves so if there is one break in a set many times it means the set is over.

That is why it is so crucial for professionals to be able to start the match on their own high level. And they are able to do so. It is important lesson for juniors who need 2-3 gems at the beginning of the match to get the rhythm and needed control over the ball. On the top level you don’t have this time. If you don’t start the match well you can lose a set pretty quickly. Work on your beginning if you want to be like pros!

2. Towel

This little detail was never so visible for me on TV but it took my attention immediately on all matches played on Arthur Ashe stadium. Nadal, Vandeweghe and other top competitors use their towels after every point! They know how important it is to play the best game during each point so they don’t want to have situation when the racquet slips in their hands and they lose control over the shot.

Using towel is a great way to get rid of extensive sweat, analyze the last point and plan the next one as well as not to rush between the points. Many juniors lose few points in a row because they don’t take enough time between rallies. Towel can be a great friend for tennis players but you have to start using it.

3. Playing with big pressure

Arthur Ashe stadium. 22 547 seats. Two players playing tennis. One is American. Can you imagine how big pressure there is? American player has a big support but also there is big responsibility. Rival has to deal with the crowd that claps hands and screams after every point won by American. This experience was mind-opening.

If you want to get to the top you have to learn how to deal with big pressure. Many juniors complain during tournaments that few friends of the opponent are too loud. Really? Compare it to over 22 thousands of friends of your rival. That’s a challenge. If you are able to focus on your game when the environment is hostile then you are on the right way to become a champion.

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Here Is the Formula to Become a Money Making Tennis Pro

Ingredients:

  • Starting vision to make it happen
  • 1/5 part Crazy Parents
  • 1/5 part Willing kid
  • 1/5 part Loads of Money
  • 1/5 part knowledgeable coach at right time
  • 1/5 belief and competitive spirit
  • Little handful of luck
Picture of Javier Palenque

Javier Palenque

First, parents and coaches need to understand that neither makes champions. This is key; the champion is within the kid. So, it’s the parents and coach’s job to guide the impetus of the kid so the kid can decide if this is something that he needs. The need to be a champion is a rare trait.

Once you have this a vision needs to be crafted along with a plan for the kid. Suggestion: get serious after 16, before makes little sense even though the coaches will push for earlier, resist this.

Now that you have a starting point it is key that the parents are crazy, not in the demented way, but in the supportive, willing and spending inordinate amount of time in support of the kid’s vision and desire.

A key here is that the parents are educated in the impossible probabilities and yet still decide to give it a shot. It is important that both parents have a common vision and different support roles. If these parents start having different views, it most likely will not work out.

Sometimes, you need it to be the job of one of the parents, driving the kid here and there and sooner or later it becomes a job for one of the parents.

Next is the 1/5 part willing kid, this can be confusing as all kids say they are willing, but few understand what that means. Willing kid does not mean wanting something only, it means willing to work, learn, listen, sacrifice, and be able and willing to do what no one wants.

Let me give you an example, we constantly tell our kids to go hit the wall for 30 minutes with a routine in mind. They seldom do it, Borg, Vilas, Azarenka, Noel had to be removed from the wall as they would spend hours by themselves. Also willing in this day and age, means studying the game without the need of being taught, and taking the time to read the great books and learning from other coaches on their own time.

Most kids talk a good game to state that they are willing, the reality is most are not willing to put the sacrifice it takes. If you are a parent of a kid with such characteristics, get educated on how to help channel that desire into, gasoline for an attainable dream.

The next 1/5 is super critical, you need loads of cash for trips, coaching, tournaments, more coaches, hotels, flights etc. etc. It seems like it never ends. The key here is to understand that every kid and parent will hit the money wall guaranteed at some point. There will be many who think this wall won’t come, let me be blunt it will.

The key is to hopefully get results at the proper ages so that you can help from the USTA or find a willing investor. Key to understand in this important part is that, although money is important, having a willing kid is much more. If you look at the top pros, most of them come from modest means. Therefore, while money counts, alone it is simply not enough.

Now we have to add a key ingredient which is a willing coach. Those are hard to come by as one needs to know about them before committing time to them. One also has to know that the best (usually more mature) coaches should be teaching the kids early on. This is very important to understand.

Tennis is a game of time, and to have a money making pro, you need to be taught well so you build on the learning and not have to pay again to unlearn and learn again the right way. This is instrumental in not wasting time and money. In my opinion, the key is to have a coach that knows and also cares for the kid more than your cash. This is almost as hard to find as a needle in a haystack. But, they are out there, look for them.

Also be aware of the showman coaches, they talk a good game but their intentions are not remotely near yours. Learn to screen out the salesman from the professionals. At every stage of the career, you need different coaches. You need to know when you need what. If you don’t understand this you are wasting time and that is something you cannot afford.

One key point on this ingredient: this is the secret, the kid needs to learn to be his own coach this is the goal.

The last ingredient is a never ending belief and competitive spirit. What exactly does that mean? It means that if you have a kid that competes in tennis, but not in other meaningless stuff. He is not competitive.

For example if your kid does not compete in chess, ping pong, races or anything. He or she may not be competitive enough. To be money making pro you need competiveness in your DNA and that means compete to win at everything.

This ingredient is a tough one, as most kids compete but not at everything. That is why there are few money making pros in the universe.

To conclude you need of course a little bit of luck. Truth is though that if you do what you are supposed to everyday, luck will come and your kid will be ready to use it. Luck is a product of circumstance and opportunity and not under your control. The harder you work, the luckier you will become. I promise.

Now that you know the secret of a money making tennis pro, you realize why it is so hard to become one. Too many factors need to workout at the right time. It almost seems impossible. Truth is it is highly improbable that any kid will be a pro even if they win whatever tournament. Certainly having a system like the USTA has to develop players makes no sense given these requirements. Would you not agree?

If we want to have more money making pros in this country, the solution is very easy. Just grow the game, the champions will come. More players, means more crazy parents, more coaches to choose from, more fit people, more opportunities for all.

Keep in mind the USTA has not grown the game in the US in the last 30 years, and the way it is managed it is not about to start. Good luck if you give it a go. Call me if you need help. Half of you reading this article will agree with me others will not. All comments are welcome. I can be reached at @palenquej

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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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