What is it and how does one become confident and keep it when competing in tennis?
As a former Top 10 player now coaching kids in my academy in Charlotte, NC, from ages 6-24, I deal with this “factor” every day.
We are all born with character traits. These are inherited from our parents and forebears. Some people just have “it”, whatever “it” is. I can quickly spot a kid who has confidence and a kid who does not. Kids who are always scared to try things will almost never excel as much or go as far as a kid who is open to learn and try things, even if they fail! Many times these kids will fail, but they learn quickly not to do the same mistakes and will excel again. So yes, in my opinion, certain character traits lend themselves to a better athlete, in any sport.
The type of kids who sleep, eat, and drink his sport from a young age are the ones who excel the most and will risk more. They typically are very self-motivated, love the grind in practice, the long distance runs, the boring yet necessary practices at times to perfect a new grip, or learning a new stroke. It is a joy and a privilege to work with such kids.
I teach my kids from my gut instincts, which has served me extremely well over my 24-year pro-career. I read up on the latest techniques, I watch tennis on TV constantly, or go to the major events often to stay current and see what the best in the world do. I talk to fellow coaches, I listen to what the top pros say and do during their practices on back courts at Wimbledon, the US Open, and many other venues I go to. This way, I am confident as a coach that I know what I am talking about when I coach the kids.
To be a “complete tennis warrior” one has to check off a lot of boxes. These boxes are extremely important to check constantly. Here are some examples of boxes.
Each stroke in tennis is a box. Each stroke has even subcategory boxes. Let me explain it this way with the serve as an example. I think most people would agree that the serve is the most important stroke in tennis. Arguably, those with the best serves in the game make it pretty easy for them to do well.
I teach my boys and girls everything there is to know about the serve: toss positions, grips, racket-head speed, how and when to kick serve, slice serves out wide on the deuce court, flatter hard serves at the body, etc.; anticipation of the most likely return expected and how to act on it, etc.; how to “challenge” the returner with a type of serve; how to switch things up not just in speed, but in spin and positioning of the stance. So, just in this one box there are many things to technically get proficient at, but also, how to read what the returner does with whatever serve you throw at them. A second serve kick used as a first serve is a very good alternative to serving lots of second serves that can result in your opponent running around their backhand ripping forehand returns for winners or near winners all over the court!
The same box is true for the forehand. Most top pros have big forehands now because the wrist is just stronger and better positioned to rip forehands. Most top pros “protect” the backhand side by standing left of center on the baseline for right-handers and right of center on the baseline for left-handers. They leave the forehand area as their favorite area to hit from and hope players will go there. Watch the court positions of Nadal, Federer, Murray, and Djokovic next time they serve. Even on the forehand side there are many sub-boxes one must check off if you have mastered that side. For instance, hitting big top-spins on the rise, hitting slices when the ball is extremely low, and running for drop shots to name but a few. I can go on and on about each stroke for many pages but for the sake of discussing the confidence issue here, I will leave it at what I just said.
Only when a kid has mastered 100% of the strokes will he/she have a real possibility of achieving 100% confidence in his/her stroke production. If, for instance, a kid has not mastered how to move backwards after attacking the short ball, and gets lobbed over the backhand side and cannot hit a backhand angle overhead, or cannot control the ball off that side, then he or she may never have 100% confidence in approaching the net. So in my academy we practice shots you may sometimes never even use in a match, but what if you need the one-time backhand overhead to win on match point and you miss it because you never practiced it? That would stand out in your head as a big ol’ red flag constantly and will shy away from the net because now you are forgetting all the other good strokes you have between volleys and regular overheads, but instead you will focus on hoping they will not lob over the backhand side. That mindset is not instilling confidence.
So yes, character trait is a good indication of confidence in many instances, but strokes are taught and that takes a long time to master. Once mastered, the mental aspect of this sport becomes more and more important, the older the kid becomes and the higher the ranking becomes. It makes absolutely no sense if a kid is taught all the shots and then is never taught how to use them, in what combinations, and how to freak the opponent out by “sneak attacks”, mixing up shots that are risky but can mean the difference between winning or losing against an equally good opponent.
I find this aspect the most neglected area of junior tennis in America! Do not expect kids to acquire the mental edge they need by osmosis — by standing on a tennis court and hitting balls for eight hours a day. Mental IQ is taught. It is a must! One of the hardest things to teach great kids is for them to be able to “self-medicate” on the court. I see countless matches where a kid starts stomping, crying, cheating, and whatever else on the court, and it is all because they feel helpless. They look at mom and dad and the coach sitting there watching and pretty soon it all goes downhill.
I teach my kids not to look for help. They still make mistakes quite often but over time when their maturity at age 15-18 sets in, they start to look like pros on the courts. No more looking around for help. They throw a towel over their head at changeovers and they think about what is happening and what to do to get out of trouble. They know what I expect them to do with their body language when they are serving for the match at 6-5 in the third set. They know what to do when they see a kid starting to chirp at him or herself after being quiet for over two hours. They know what I expect them to do when they play a cheater. They know what I want them to do when things are going badly for them. They are taught to THINK! I have been there many, many times on the biggest stages of tennis against the biggest and best of that era. I wish now I had somebody of my knowledge and experience to tell me what to expect from age 12 onward. I can only imagine which big matches and events I could have added to my career resume.
Once an equilibrium is achieved with a kid in the technical, physical, tactical, and mental departments of their tennis development, the potential is limitless for this kid. Only then will I feel that true “confidence” is now achievable!
It takes knowledge, a very willing participant, time and patience to create that confident kid. A confident kid is a kid with lots of knowledge. Experience just adds to their knowledge base.