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How is Your Tennis Coach Performing?

1 Feb

My last post The Formula for Perfect Tennis Practice discussed the 5 key ingredients of world-class practice. My first reaction upon learning these key factors was to realise how inadequate my own practice was (or the activities that I used to call practice).

Now that you have this awareness too, you can give your coach a report-card.

Rate Your Tennis Coach

Here are the criteria you should be using to assess them.

  1. Are they regularly identifying goals for you?
  2. Defining specific skills and abilities to improve – is there a plainly stated specific purpose to every lesson and every shot?
  3. Is he or she pushing you to extend beyond your current abilities?
  4. Are you getting continual feedback?
  5. Are you being given things to work on (homework) outside your coaching sessions?

When I think back over my coaching, there was a lot of going through the motions. Hit some forehands, then switch to backhands, then a few volleys at the net, then a couple of smashes, and some serves to finish. It was very predictable and mostly well within my abilities. In contrast, good training means attempting specific things that you are just (or not quite) capable of – until you become comfortable doing what you couldn’t before. Then you strive once more for the next level, which may have previously been unrealistic, but is now just out of reach.

An Important Role for Parents

For young kids learning the basics of tennis, developing a love for the sport is the most important role of a coach. As children grow older and more self-driven, the technical expertise of a coach (and their track record of having produced top players) becomes more important. Accordingly, players will generally change coaches a few times as they advance, because their needs change over time. Because of these changing needs and the importance of having the right coach, the research of Benjamin Bloom (Developing Talent in Young People) found that choosing coaches was one of the most important roles of parents.

So how does your coach measure up?

If they are falling short, talk to them about what you’d like them to do more of. Junior players and their parents often delegate responsibility for improvement to the all-knowing coach, but your coach is not supposed to carry you all the way to success. Your coach may have 100 other students – do you think he or she is taking them all to  the top? No way.

Consider that in any coaching group, typically none (and sometimes one) will make it to the pro ranks. So if you have big goals, it is illogical to believe your coach will carry you to the top. This is YOUR responsibility. So get your coach working for you (not the other way round). And keep educating yourself about performance (read this blog) and read about the top players in tennis and other sports. You need to know what it takes.

The Formula for Perfect Tennis Practice

23 Jan

Any tennis player knows that the use of repetition is fundamental in tennis practice, and my last post How to Build a Tennis Brain explains why repetition works. Repeated firing of a skill circuit in your brain builds myelin, which improves the speed, capacity, and reliability of the circuit controlling the skill, and this improves our performance of the skill.

Great, but what does this mean for your practice? It means we can design our practice to exploit this mechanism and achieve accelerated improvement.

How can we practice better?

Geoff Colvin (Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers From Everybody Else) used observations from researchers on the practice regimes of wide ranging experts, to develop a framework for what constitutes the most effective practice. The most important features of this “perfect practice” or “deliberate practice” are summarised below, and fit extremely well with the skill-building myelin mechanism we learnt previously (How to Build a Tennis Brain).

1. Practice activities are designed to achieve very specific goals

Top performers identify sharply defined elements of performance to improve, to ensure stimulation of a narrower range of circuits a greater number of times. They apply this concept to large complex skills by working on small specific parts of the skill. “Play” and non-directed practice do not target any particular skill circuits with the necessary focus, and represent lower quality practice. Note however, that play is essential in younger years when enjoyment should be the primary concern [Benjamin Bloom].

2. Activities are chosen at the edge of current abilities

Top athletes are continually attempting skills that are beyond their comfort zone. Practicing what you can already do won’t improve anything. Practice is designed this way so that small failures can be embraced and corrected. The most powerful learning stems from failure and correction over and over.

Daniel Coyle’s study of talent hotbeds (particular schools, academies, and clubs that produce a disproportionately high number of world class athletes) characterised great practice as follows: Try, fail, stop, think. Try again, get a bit better or a bit further, fail, stop, think (analyse errors), repeat.

Coyle likens this process to ice-climbing, where crucially the person is seeking out the slippery slopes, purposely operating at the very edge of their abilities, so that they WILL screw up. This is the key to accelerated improvement. By contrast, effortless, comfortable practice is a poor way to learn.

3. Repetition

Now that we know why repetition works, how is it best implemented? Coyle found that the training academies producing the best performers used the following strategy to achieve deep practice, which enables repetition to be more effective.

Chunking.This involves dividing a skill up into small fragments or chunks, resulting in smaller and less complex skills that can be learned and perfected individually. Using this method the student becomes intimately familiar with the components of each skill. These components or fragments of the skill can then be strung together into chunks of increasing size until eventually the complete skill has been constructed. Note that before chunking, students should get an impression of the whole skill (by watching it being performed and imitating), so that they can visualise the final goal.

Repetition. The foundation of practice, but more is not always better. More is better only if you are in a state of intense concentration. You must be: 1) at the edge of your abilities; and 2) still paying close attention to mistakes.

Feel it. Learn to feel the struggle that represents the edge of your abilities, the struggle of maintaining concentration and the feeling of striving for a specific goal, falling short, evaluating and trying again.

These steps are strongly embraced by the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, Russia. This club has only one tennis court, and a bare minimum of facilities, yet has used the principles above to create a quality of practice that is perhaps unrivalled. The proof is in their results. This one small club has produced Anna Kournikova, Marat Safin, Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Mikhail Youzhny, and Dimitri Tursinov; and churned out more top twenty ranked women from 2005-2007 than the whole United States.

4. Continuous feedback is crucial

The performance of top players is carefully monitored for errors and ways to improve further. They take advantage of a range of feedback sources including coaching, self monitoring, competition results, and match statistics. The crucial role of your coaches is to keep you in the learning zone (near the limit of your skills) and to provide continual feedback. Experience allows them to assess where you are and the best route to your goal, and therefore what you should strive for next.

5. Mentally demanding levels of concentration

Deliberate practice must be difficult and draining. The difficulty comes from the intense concentration and close attention to errors that is required, and as noted above you should be operating close to the limit of your abilities. Practice without such concentration is unhelpful, and can even be detrimental to performance.

Not being highly attentive to errors can encourage flaws and poor technique to be developed, due to insulation or reinforcement of the wrong skill circuits. The best strategy therefore is to focus on shorter more regular sessions to ensure higher concentration levels during practice. This point is discussed in more detail in a previous post Optimal Duration of Practice for Tennis Players.

The methods described here build an ideal picture of what your practice sessions could be. While reading through this post you probably realised how far most “coaching” falls short of these ideals. The gap between typical coaching and the training described above, is where the power lies for you to shift your training to a new gear and make improvements quicker than others could imagine.

Please comment below with any of your own insights, or better yet share this post with any young tennis players you know (or their parents) (or their coaches)…

Thanks for reading.


How To Build A Tennis Brain

16 Jan

One of the great break-throughs in studies of sports performance is the discovery that physical skills improve as a result of physical improvements in the wiring of our brain. This means we can physically re-wire our brain for tennis or any other sport.

Where Are Our Tennis Abilities Stored?

Every human skill is created by chains of nerve fibres carrying a tiny electrical pulse, in other words a signal travelling through a circuit in our brain (that’s right, our skills exist in our brain rather than in our muscles). When we perform a specific skill, the specific circuit controlling that skill is activated. When we repeatedly fire this circuit (by practicing), we stimulate the growth of a substance called myelin.

Myelin begins as tiny strands that attach to the stimulated circuit, and with continued firing forms a sheath that insulates this circuit [1]. This sheath can be likened to the insulation of copper electrical wiring, which prevents leakage of current from the circuit and short circuiting. The thicker the myelin casing becomes, the better insulated the circuit becomes, and the more reliable the circuit.

Broadband for Your Brain

This transformation can be likened to converting a narrow potholed road into a multi-laned freeway. Daniel Coyle calls it a superhighway or “broadband for your brain”, as it allows information to travel at much higher speeds and successive signals to be sent much more rapidly, boosting your overall ability to process information by up to 3000 times!

Each layer of myelin increases the speed and accuracy of the skill being performed, and more importantly this IS what makes up a skill (i.e. each skill is simply a reinforced circuit in your brain). Every skill we have (from tying a shoelace to a backhand overhead smash) has been built this way. If we have a skill, it is because we have fired the circuit for it (by practicing or performing it) repeatedly until enough myelin was formed to make the skill repeatable, reliable, and fluent. Weak skills are weakly myelinated and our best skills are the the most myelinated.

This Explains Why There Are No Shortcuts

Myelin explains why the 10,000 hour rule applies across so many different types of performance (including a wide range of sports as well as non-sporting fields) – because there is a common physiological mechanism that is responsible for the rate of skill acquisition in all fields. While over time incredible transformations can occur, the rate that anyone can improve over shorter time periods is limited by this mechanism. This is why all humans are only able to reach mastery bit by bit, day by day, and research has shown that that is the only way anybody ever has achieved greatness in any field.

Your Brain is Like a Muscle

The big shift from traditional thinking is to think of skill as a muscle that can be built. When you use your muscles in a specific way by training them to their maximum, those muscles will respond by getting stronger. But it takes time, because there is a limit to how quickly a muscle can be repaired. In a similar way, by firing your skill circuits in a specific way (by struggling to perform a skill at or above your current limits) these circuits will respond by getting faster and more fluent, but the rate of improvent is also limited physically[2].

How Can This Help Us Practice?

Any tennis player knows that the use of repetition is fundamental in tennis coaching, but now we can see why! Repeated firing of a skill circuit builds myelin, which improves the speed, capacity and reliability of the circuits responsible for a skill, and therefore improves our performance of the skill.

Now that we understand WHY practice works, we can make our practice more effective by better exploiting the myelin mechanism. As an analogy, think of the way we can make crops grow faster and bigger by understanding what makes them grow in the first place.

Next Step

In my next post we will discuss the 5 ways we can design perfect practice sessions to build a brain that is truly wired for tennis…



[1] Fields, R.D. (2008) White Matter Matters. Scientific American, March 2008, p54-61.

[2] Coyle, D. (2009) The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how. Bantam Books, New York.


The Superstar Effect: Your Rocket Fuel for Success

31 Dec

The Superstar Effect

The Superstar Effect refers to a phenomenon where the best performer in a field gets a disproportionate amount of attention compared to other (almost as good) performers.

This concept was outlined in 1981 by Sherwin Rosen (The Economics of Superstars, 1981) and can be observed in sport, music, Hollywood, art, and more. The extra attention brings greater notoriety, fame, more money, and most importantly more opportunities. A famous actor gets offered all the best roles in the biggest movies. A superstar singer attracts the best management, record deals, and can charge top dollar for concert tickets.

superstar effect

In tennis, Roger Federer’s status as the World #1 junior and junior Wimbledon champion won him 8 ATP wildcards while still only 17! This and other unique opportunities ensured that Roger did not compete on a level playing field with lower ranked players. They were stuck in qualifying events and lower tier tournaments, while he was learning from the likes of Andre Agassi and other top players.

Tournament wins and media attention ensure that people take notice. People remember your name and label you as talented or gifted. So months later when selectors are choosing a squad to represent your region or to attend a training camp, they will be strongly inclined to select you (based on your reputation) in preference to someone who has attracted less attention, even if they are just as good a player.

In other words the multiplier effect can be supercharged for anyone who makes headlines or establishes themselves as #1 because you attract an almost unfair amount of support from others.

Rise of the Small Town Hero

This advantage can be exploited by young players in smaller towns in particular. Sure, in a big city you may have access to ample training facilities and tennis programs, but the landscape is highly competitive, so it’s harder to stand out.

In regional areas there are fewer competitors, and it’s therefore easier (relatively speaking) to stand out. A #1 player in a small town might not be ranked in the top 20 in a major city, but because they are the standout in their area they might attract sponsorship, qualify for the best coaching programs in the area, be featured on the news, and generally attract a lot of support. This leads to selective opportunities that an equally good player might not get in the city because they are lost in the crowd.

Choose Your Weapon

In essence, the superstar effect is simply an extreme form of the multiplier effect, reserved for those at the pointy end of the tree. So find ways to stand out from your peers, and reap the rewards. If you can’t get the #1 ranking, be known for something else – the biggest serve, the best serve-volleyer in the region, the fastest player around, the fittest, or a feared doubles specialist. Develop a weapon…and be known for it.


The Multiplier Effect: Roger Federer’s Secret Weapon

30 Dec

Introducing the Multiplier Effect

When a child shows slightly above average tennis ability, this will often stimulate encouragement from parents (and coaches) to pursue further training and practice. If a parent adopts the idea that their child is special and has a chance to be successful, this can be the single most powerful factor in driving the child’s continued commitment to training, and therefore their success. This seed can be planted in the mind of a parent by an unexplained “natural” ability, early exposure to tennis, size or developmental advantages, early praise, or even pure parental bias. Regardless of the cause, the increased opportunities for quality practice that follow are the source of the extraordinary power of the multiplier effect.

multiplier effect

 How It Works

In tennis the multiplier effect works something like this:

  • A child tries tennis for the first time, and shows better ability than average for his or her age. Contributing factors? For a 3 year old, anything from a love of chasing butterflies with sticks, to a love of playing with tennis balls could give them a head start; for a 9 year old it may be learning quickly due to good hand-eye co-ordination and athletic ability from playing other sports. It could also be the delusions of a loving parent. In Roger Federer’s case, he was ball-crazy, sports-crazy, and his parents were avid tennis players.
  • Whatever the reason, this prompts continued participation and encouragement.
  • Enjoyment by the child may cause him/her to seek out further opportunities to play (with friends, against the garage wall, at school, in the backyard etc). Federer’s parents remember the incessant thump, thump, thump of a tennis ball against their garage door, day and night. They may also begin to watch tennis on TV, adopt a favourite player and dream of emulating them.
  • This increased playing time quickly raises their skills ahead of their peers. Any gap in ability that existed in comparison to other kids the same age, has now been exaggerated, and if the original talent was imagined it is real now.
  • As a result of standing out from the crowd they are selected for coaching groups that train more often. In these groups, coaches notice his or her ability, earmark the child as talented and encourage the parents and child, and private coaching is offered. Such coaching was offered to Roger, and was subsidised by his tennis club, because the investment was warranted by his talent and potential.
  • Now taking private and group coaching, the child is soon a standout for his/her age, perhaps wins a local tournament, and is selected for a regional squad with highly experienced coaches. They are now being offered opportunities that the other kids are not. Federer’s acceptance into the Swiss National Tennis Academy at age 14 is an example of a crucial opportunity that allowed him to increase the gap between himself and other good players.

As you can see a small initial advantage made possible another small advantage, which led to another. Each advantage presented an opportunity for greater quality and quantity of practice. Pretty soon a wide gap has opened between the player who had the initial advantage and one who didn’t. This gap can be so surprising to people that Daniel Coyle (author of The Talent Code) calls it the HSE (holy sh#t effect), because that’s what people say when they see a 6 year old with the skills of a 10 or 12 year old.

The Multiplier Effect can be artificial or contrived

A 2001 German study (Musch and Grondin, 2001) showed that this initial advantage need not have anything to do with natural abilities. They showed that players born closer to the cut-off date for an age-group (i.e. the older players in the age-group) had an initial advantage (due to a size and developmental headstart) that triggered the multiplier effect because these players were more likely to be selected for representative teams which were then given more specialised coaching. This effect is also discussed in detail in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The story of success.

Additionally, the research of Dr Carol Dweck and Benjamin Bloom has shown that the rate of improvement of students can even be influenced solely by the feedback given. In these cases positive feedback and praise for effort (rather than results) strongly influenced the desire of children to practice an activity further. In doing so, the studies created an artificial multiplier effect that caused a subset of the children to progress their skills more quickly than others. This accelerated progress occurred through improved attitude to practice and was not related to actual ability levels.

The bad news for late starters

The multiplier effect highlights some of the reasons why it is difficult for late starters to catch up to early starters (who continue with optimum training levels):

1)      The top coaching organisations select those who perform best in their age-group (the same applies to sponsorship, scholarships, and selection for representative teams). These people then get more specialised training that it is difficult for others to match without the same support.

2)      Accumulated practice hours count, not current practice levels. Which means that to catch up you have to practice more or better than players already at the top. This is difficult if they are already training at high levels with strong support. Drastically increased training loads for the late starter are difficult to maintain and could lead to injury and burnout.

3)      Belief in their own ability/potential (as well as the belief of parents and coaches) is primarily based on their performances. It is more difficult to believe in your ability to reach the top, if there are other players well ahead of you.

The good news for late starters

If you understand the power of creating and taking opportunities that increase your quantity of high quality practice, you’ll understand that a series of accelerating opportunities can take you further than simply starting early.

How to harness the multiplier effect

The concept of natural talent is not supported by hard evidence, as we have discussed in previous posts (Natural Talent: Fact or Fiction), BUT the illusion itself is very real indeed. This is important, because it motivates parents and coaches to provide crucial support (time and money) and encouragement, so if you are able to get to a level above your age-group peers (by any means and especially working hard), you are best positioned to stand out. And standing out is your key to tapping in to the multiplier effect.


Have you seen the Multiplier Effect in action? Or harnessed it yourself? If so, I’d love for you to comment below.

Why People Love to Believe in Natural Talent

21 Dec

In previous posts we have presented evidence that points to “natural talent” as being largely an illusion. For a recap see the posts on natural talent, the 10,000 hour rule, and unlimited speed and reaction times.

So if natural talent doesn’t exist (or is not nearly as important as it’s made out to be), why is the theory so popular? That many people can’t be wrong, right? Well it is favoured for a number of reasons:

1) It’s romantic. Everyone loves the story of someone with a rare gift that the rest of us don’t have. It almost seems like a super power, and is highly valued. A natural talent is considered special, whereas the reality of dogged acquisition of a skill by repetitive practice seems far more everyday and less glamorous.

2) Starting early builds skills and expertise that are unexpected for somebody so young. This surprises people and is labelled natural talent by those who don’t know the training history of the child.

3) Acquired skills FEEL automatic. Even when we have worked hard to develop a skill, once gained the skill feels natural. This effect becomes even more dramatic the more we practice, and by the time mastery occurs it feels utterly natural as if we were born with it, and it is easy to forget much of the hard work that went towards gaining it. Highly honed skills also  look very natural to outside observers.

4) The multiplier effect. This effect occurs where the slightly better performance of one child provides encouragement and opportunities that aren’t given to other children. By taking advantage of extra opportunities and practice, the gap between the child and their peers is multiplied. The accelerated learning that results is commonly mistaken for a natural ability to gain skills more quickly than others. Again this is because of failure to look objectively at the training history of the child. An understanding of the multiplier effect is of primary importance for anyone looking to perform at a high level and is therefore the topic of an upcoming post. Its importance is discussed in detail by Ceci and others, 2003 (Developing Childhood Proclivities into Adult Competencies: The Overlooked Multiplier Effect).

So it’s easy to see why the idea of natural talent is so popular. It’s romantic to think that each person has their own special gift that can’t be manufactured by others, and there seems to be evidence of it all around us – after all, people’s skills vary so widely, and in ourselves we find some things easy and others difficult.

Great performance can be explained without it

On initial inspection, such differences in performance may appear difficult to explain, so natural talent is used (you could say invented) to bridge this gap in our understanding. But when we look deeper, and go behind the scenes (which we do with the great athletes in sport), we see very different levels &/or amounts of accumulated practice and opportunities that were not obvious at first. And we see that the extraordinary differences in ability can indeed be explained. |Revisit this post for more discussion of great performers|

Does it prove natural talent doesn’t exist? No. But high levels of performance DO make sense, so conjuring natural talent to explain great performance is no longer necessary.

What do you think?

Optimal Duration of Practice for Tennis Players

6 Aug

High Quality Practice is Difficult

Authentic high quality practice can only be sustained for limited periods of time. Why? Because it’s hard. Not always physically, but mentally. The formula outlined in Geoff Colvin’s book “Talent is Overrated” tells us that “perfect” practice involves performing highly specific activities at the upper limit of your abilities, and paying close attention to errors. These activities require intense concentration, and we can only stay in the optimum zone for learning as long as this mental intensity is maintained.

So let’s talk hours and minutes

Anders Ericsson, in his landmark paper The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance, reviewed several studies that showed no benefit from durations exceeding 4hours per day, and reduced benefits after 2 hours, due to a decreased ability to maintain sharp concentration. Among his own study subjects he found practice sessions among elite performers averaged 1 to 1.5 hours, with experts completing more of these short sessions per week rather than practicing for longer periods. This included professionals who have all day and night available to train if they wanted to.

This difficulty of maintaining sharp concentration plays a role in the 10 year timeframe that is usually attached to the 10,000 hour rule. Theoretically at 6 hours per day you could churn out 10,000 hours of practice in 5 years, BUT the research shows that the number of high quality practice hours would likely be much lower, for the reasons stated above. This gives some insight into why players can typically only reach the top of world tennis after a decade or more of playing.

Chalk this up as another advantage to early starters, since later starters cannot simply blitz out insane amounts of hours over a few years to catch up. Attempts to train for durations beyond the optimal levels (over 4hrs/day and less if younger) may yield rapid short term results, but without the necessary recovery schedule (rest breaks and sleep etc) players are prone to burnout (mental and physical fatigue, loss of motivation, injury). Quitting tennis altogether due to motivational burnout has been shown to be a common occurrence after increasing training to high levels as competitions become more competitive.

The Good News

The good news for readers of this blog (and The Blueprint Tennis Manifesto) is your knowledge of what makes quality practice. Many kids are training for hours per day, but quality is an area where there is still scope for big advantages to be gained. One hour of the highest quality practice can be better than 3 hours of just hitting balls! Indeed Daniel Coyle in his study of talent hotbeds found that in most cases the hours practiced were not extreme. Instead a premium was placed on quality, perfecting techniques, and intensity.


  • No benefits from practicing more that 4 hours per day (not because more practice isn’t better, but because quality of practice falls dramatically over long peiods due to mental and physical fatigue).
  • Practice sessions among elite performers averaged 1 to 1.5 hours (optimal lesson duration is shorter for young children because they typically maintain concentration for even shorter periods)
  • Experts complete more of these short sessions per week rather than practicing for longer periods (because concentration levels are higher during shorter sessions). The same applies to children. Four 30 minute sessions per week is far better than one 2 hour session because the total time spent “sharply focussed” will be greater.


I think the lessons here are: 1) Practice is more than just hitting balls; and 2) While more practice is better than less (that hasn’t changed) you should be committed to highly focussed, high intensity practice sessions. Sessions that extend you to your limits. Sometimes physically, but always mentally. If you do, you will be getting more bang for your practice buck…or maximum improvement from the time you spend on-court. And figuring out how to maximise the return from your investment of time and money is one of the key skills needed for the race to the top.

What are your thoughts? Please leave your comments below.

The Tennis Parent’s Guide to Motivation: 9 Lessons

15 Jul

Completing hour after hour of difficult deliberate practice for a decade or more, and sacrificing play and leisure time to do it, requires a huge amount of motivation. The findings of Benjamin Bloom, Daniel Coyle, Carol Dweck, Anders Ericsson and others reveal the following advice about how top performers were motivated during their development:

  1. Observation. Children were observed closely from a young age to identify their areas of interest, then encouraged to pursue these activities.
  2. Love of the game. The most important role of parents and early coaches was to foster a love of the game. If they don’t love tennis, they will never work hard enough to be great. They might also love the satisfaction of improving, or the rewards of winning, but it must start with having fun!
  3. Early praise. Early praise simply encouraged further participation, which alone gave children an early advantage.
  4. Praise for effort rather than results. Vital because this encouraged them to try, to experiment, and attempt difficult things (the most effective way to learn) without being worried about consequences of failing or poor results.
  5. Capture their imagination. Future top performers were continually reminded of the possibilities of success in their sport, in order to develop a strong desire in them and encourage them to dream. Examples of such reminders were: young pros playing on the next court; a well publicised selection process for representative teams; and regularly celebrating successes. Coyle points to the flooding of female Russian players into the world’s top 100 about 10 years after a 17 year old Anna Kournikova inspired young Russian girls to be like her. It inspired in them a single thought: “That could be me one day”.
  6. Self motivation. Early on, parents were often the main driving force behind practice, but at some point the child became engaged in the pursuit and drove themselves. Tiger Woods agrees: “My dad never asked me to play golf. I asked him. It’s the child’s desire to play that matters, not the parent’s desire to have the child play.” If you review points 1 to 5, you’ll note that they are all aimed at triggering self-motivation.
  7. Keep the flame lit.
    1. Goal setting. We have already seen how setting specific goals for training is crucial for effective practice, but Bloom also identified goal setting as critical for motivation in his study of top athletes. The alternative of slogging away without specific goals led to loss of motivation.
    2. Hurdles. They arise in the form of plateaus in results, doubts of ability, lack of opportunities, and so on. Understanding that performance is not capped by innate abilities kills the idea that they lack the required talent or x-factor (commonly the fatal blow for tennis careers). Knowledge of the principles of deliberate practice also encourages the attitude that these challenges are beneficial because they force us to seek new ways to improve.
    3. Avoiding burnout. Ericsson in his wide ranging studies found that experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout, which is vital for maintenance of motivation over long periods.

Have your own ideas? Please share them in the comments…

Every Tennis Parent Needs Help: How to Get It

5 Jul

Producing a top tennis player requires a huge investment of time and money from parents. These investments will be beyond the means of almost all parents, and supporting the schedule of an aspiring athlete can quickly become unbearable if your time and money are poorly managed. Roger Federer’s parents for example invested a great deal of time and money in his career BUT in total they paid only a fraction of the total cost of his training because Roger was able to take advantage of the assistance of local and national structures early on. For years Swiss Tennis picked up the bill for travel and accommodation at many of his matches and also provided opportunities for training and other support.

You need FANS

Fans are people who believe in your son or daughter’s ability, who like them (and you), and are willing to give  them helping hand towards their goal. No champion ever did it on their own, and every top player had a whole series of fans who voluntarily went an extra yard or two to help them. For Federer these included his tennis club giving him subsidised lessons to hep him achieve his potential, local coaches driving him to tournaments,  national coaches who selected him to join the national tennis academy, the Swiss Tennis association who funded his international travel, his sponsors who provided his equipment, clothes and shoes, and tounament directors who gave him wild cards to ATP tournaments as a 17 year old.

Where to Start

  1. Be noticed. Players who stand out are rewarded more than those who don’t. This may seem obvious, but the point is that a tournament winner is noticed 10 times more than the runner up. This may seem quite unfair given the usually small difference in their play, but that’s how it goes.
  2. Team up with other parents. Start with simple things like carpooling to tournaments or coaching sessions, and be creative about finding other ways to get the most mileage out of the resources you have. Good hitting partners for example is a great way of getting good practice cheaply.
  3. Look for opportunities with local clubs; regional, state, or national tennis associations; and sponsors. Federer tapped into these sources at each step of his career, and as a result he never had to forego an opportunity because of expense. Be friendly, be sociable, make friends,  and be a good member of the tennis community, this all helps, but in the end the best way to gain their support is to convince them that your child has a lot of potential that is worth fulfilling. This is best achieved by your child demolishing players far and wide. Simple enough?
  4. Improvements in quality and quantity of training are always the goal, but the cost will dictate how long it can be sustained. Usually the better the training the greater the cost. Roger and his parents managed to seek out opportunities to elevate his training AND reduce costs at the same time. This was usually achieved by gaining selection into teams, squads, academies etc. These got him subsidised or fully funded coaching and travel for example but at the same time exposed him to new levels of competition or training. Compared to the next player, Roger’s parents were left paying less but for higher quality coaching and competition. Such powerful opportunities can be a turning point in a young career.

What Can Kids Do?

  • Help your parents out. At some point you need to drive your own improvement and success. According to Roger Federer’s mother, a key to Roger’s success was that from a young age he made his own decisions about tennis.
  • Show them you want it. If you can hardly be bothered to go to training or fill out your own application forms, they won’t be as inclined to go out of their way (make sacrifices) to take you away to tournaments, buy you new rackets etc. If you make it clear to them (with your actions) that this is your dream, then they (and others) are far more likely to get behind you.

To the 10,000 hour haters: It’s not about the number

21 Jun

There are people who fiercely oppose the 10,000 hour rule. Great! Debate over such an idea can be healthy and constructive, but unfortunately many of the arguments centre on only the name – “The 10,000 hour rule” – rather than its practical implications for young tennis players. They ridicule the idea of such an exact time-frame for expertise (mockingly describing the transition from loser to champion as the 10,000th hour ticks over), and cite all types of examples that defy “the rule”. In reality however, the 10,000 hour rule does not assign any magical powers to the number 10,000, nor does it actually claim to be a rule (a rule of thumb is a better way of putting it).

The fact is, sometimes an important concept needs a catchy name, and in this case it works. 10,000 is such a round number and so easily remembered and repeated, that this “rule” is now well known in most sporting circles. But unfortunately, the real essence of this concept is not well understood.

Let’s start by dealing with the number itself…

Firstly, yes of course 10,000 hours is an estimate.
It is not a magical number and may be higher or lower depending on the following factors:

  1. Specific sport. The biggest factor here is how competitive the sport/activity, but also how complex the sport is, how many people play it around the world, and how many play as professionals (how much money in the sport). 10,000 hours has been used as an estimate (based on averages) for competitive (and lucrative) sports such as tennis. If I were to take up underwater hockey then I could reach the top far quicker.
  2. Quality of practice. Practice is not about quantity alone, the quality of practice is equally important. Number of hours is used simply because quantity is far easier to measure than quality. Note that for any athlete some practice is high quality and some is low quality (high quality practice is difficult to achieve in all sessions). This means that while in any one practice session an athlete could achieve extremely high quality, the average for all sessions will be lower and usually comparable between those who have reached a world-class level (i.e. total hours will tend to be similar, although there is still some potential for higher-quality practicers to get ahead).
  3. The term world class is often used, but this is not well defined and could refer to someone in the top 50 in the world or number 1 (which could easily be worth 3 years or 3000 hours alone).
  4. Skills transferred from other sports. Co-ordination developed from other sports may give a head-start in a new sport.

The point is not that 10,000 hours guarantees success, nor that 10,000 hours is any more correct than 8000 or 15000 hours. But that there are no shortcuts! The person to succeed Federer/Nadal/Djokovic WILL NOT be a 5000 hour player. Why? Because such an inexperienced but “gifted” player does not exist in the upper echelon of world tennis (despite the millions of players out there). Because we are what we DO, not what we ARE. The players at the top invariably had exceptional childhoods that have enabled them to acquire more high quality practice than anyone else.

Those who proclaim natural talent and genetic gifts to be an important part of the equation are implying that talented people get an easier ride or shortcuts to the top, but where are these people at the top of world sport? When we look at the histories of the very best performers in highly competitive sports (the Federers, Jordans, Gretzkys, Woods,…) their performance is explainable. Their practice history was extraordinary. And this I think puts the “natural gift” theories to the sword.

What is the 10,000 hour rule really saying?

This I think is the important message for young people to learn (and a powerful motivator): that your results and career depend on what you DO, not what you were born with.

Compare this with the popular message that “No matter how hard you work, most of you will never be capable of reaching the top because of your genetics” – a stance that some are actively fighting to promote!!! This attitude is one of the reasons why many countries don’t produce the number of top players that they should; because they try to pick or predict champions rather than produce them…


As always I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please comment below…