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Johan Kriek on Progress and Regress in Tennis

Junior tennis mentoring is very challenging even in the best of times. The kids’ brains are not yet fully developed, and we, as coaches, are trying to instill beliefs and knowledge that require high-level thinking. But it has to be done from an early age. I am going to touch on a subject that I think is important for coaches, kids, and parents to understand. Every kid is different, and some mature early and some not. Everyone is different!

I just came back from a tournament and watched girls in my academy play in the 10′s, 12′s, 16′s, and 18′s. The older kids are definitely more polished in their thinking and execution of shots, but one fundamental fact remains across the board: the inability to read what is happening on the court, and the lack of know-how to take advantage of opportunities.

I force my 12-year-old players to practice serve and volley in doubles. At least on first serves to learn the attacking game. I also make them do it on second serves in practice to learn to overcome fear of the return, etc. They are getting really good at it. At first it was pretty pathetic, but as they have become used to running forward and volleying off the deck, half volleys, high floaters, etc., they are not only learning to move forward into the court better, but they also play with better instincts already. It is all a process and it takes a couple of years from age 12 to get the hang of it.

But here is what I saw happen this past weekend at a tournament. Three of my academy kids in the 12′s doubles served and volleyed ONLY once and when each of them lost that point they completely went back to the old ways – the entire tournament! All three missed the volley and shut down 100% the rest of the weekend. Went back to playing crosscourt singles in the hopes of the other player missing. One dimensional playing that got them some wins but IMHO not really furthering their tennis knowledge.

That is NOT what we practiced! The concept of “process driven” vs. “result driven” is understood very well under a roof with a notebook in front of them but come a third-set tiebreak, and all I see is crosscourt singles play in doubles which is fruitless. One of the hardest things to instill in kids ages 12-14 is to become brave. It takes a certain determined player to risk more which is hard since they are not used to it because in the 10′s and a lot of the 12′s these runner/looper/defenders with nothing but groundstrokes and a loopy serve have been getting the best of them.

But in the long run nearly all of the looper kids disappear from the semis and finals at ages 14 (second year) and the 16′s. I am not saying that a loop is a bad shot. It is by all means a great type of shot to reset a point if you were pulled way wide and back at the fence and to throw a kid off their power game but all I saw was hours of mind-numbing looping with parents cheering for mistakes after 25-30 ball rallies. As if that is just great play. It is really crap and we wonder what is happening to tennis.

In order to get good at this game, one must be able to accept that to learn new techniques, new grips, new tactics, and to employ those tactics under severe stress is very difficult, and the chances you will lose that third-set tiebreak because you were not yet totally solid with the techniques or nervous to execute, etc. is very likely. You will lose quite a lot but if you stick to it, then in a couple of years you will be way ahead of kids that just sat back on the baseline and trench walked for years.

To teach a kid not to fear failure but to accept it as part of learning the game the right way is very trying to say the least. We as a society value winning so much that parents, coaches, and players lose sight of the fact that tennis is not a short-term sport in terms of learning. It takes a long time, no matter how talented you are. I see kids coming off the court all jubilant that they have won. No clue that their tennis is actually barely O.K. in winning right now but their skill levels outside of “looping” are so poor in many that I can guarantee you, these kids will be out of tennis by age 16, frustrated and unable to compete with the all-court smart player.

I am not saying that every kid needs to be an all-court player. All I am saying is that one needs to have skills in all facets of the game, no matter what tactic you employ but to only play from the baseline with almost zero skills in moving forward, proficient at the volley and overhead, not to mention “reading skills” on what type of shot is expected to come back, etc. For example, Nadal plays mostly from the baseline. His strength is his forehand and his mind. His backhand is excellent, too, but he uses it more as a “complimentary” shot. Besides that his serve is good but not super great like an Isner but he knows that he is great at the net even if he gets to the net six times in a match. All I see is baseline bashing and looping in junior tennis right now. Very little else.

So in short, one may have to swallow many losses in order to get better. There is no progress without a certain amount of risk – period! I view top tennis juniors quite similar to the way the Navy SEALs approach their training. Many, many enlist and then the weeding out begins. Pretty soon out of thousands enlisted there are only 200 left, and at the end of training there are but a handful of truly super specimens left. Tennis is no different in its outcomes. There will be very few that make it at a high level. But it takes a lot more than just hitting a ball into that box than meets the eye. Accept that in order to learn, a player may very well be losing a lot, maybe for a few years even or more. But if you stick with a great coach, a great work ethic, and you believe you’re making progress, it will most likely come true.

I was watching CBS’s 60 Minutes last night and saw the guy who founded the organization Robin Hood. What an amazing guy, and an incredible organization. He had a marvelous quote when the interviewer asked him about his initial failures even though all his intentions were there to do good: “Out of terrible failure a flame is ignited that forges the necessary steel to make the best sword.”

He couldn’t be more right!

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About Johan Kriek

Johan Kriek is an internationally renowned tennis player and a contributor to the Tennis Frontier. He won the Australian Open in 1981 and 1982 and is currently the only professional player at his level who is dedicated to personally teaching students in the sport.
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