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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Knowing Your Self is the First Step in Tennis Success

Will Caroline Wozniacki make the necessary adjustments in the off-season to win her first grand slam? Self-awareness may be the key that unlocks her grand slam potential...
FOX’s reality television show American Idol is designed to identify vocal talent that has not yet been unearthed and transform them in to a star. The show has unearthed great talents that have gone on to successful music careers. While listening to these great vocalists can be entertaining often the most entertaining television occurs during the first few weeks of the show as the judges tour the nation to find pop star talent. Contestants often “bomb” as they attempt to be the next Idol. In fact, many of them sadly cannot hold a note. I find myself cringing as they ask for one more shot and the judges are pushing them out the door. So, why would they put themselves out there on national television for Simon (previously) to remark “don’t quit your day job”? For some it is about getting attention. For many others, however, they truly believe they can be the next Idol. Yet their singing is atrocious. Clearly they are lacking self-awareness. You can see it as they have interesting reactions to the failed audition. Some cry hysterically and others are absolutely livid, almost violent, as they realize their dream is being crushed. How couldn't they see this coming?
Similar to talented singers and musicians, great tennis players often have tremendous self-awareness. They have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. They know when they are attempting to do too much such as using a weaker skill in critical moments of a game. Serena is not likely to hit a drop shot at match point down. She is going to use her big time forehand and serve.
Great players also are realistic and recognize their capabilities and limitations. This does not mean they give up on their dreams or do not try to get better. Instead, they work with and on their limitations. What have we seen from Nadal and Djokovic the last few years in their attempt to dethrone each other and Federer? Nadal used the off-season prior to the 2010 ATP season to improve his serve. Going into 2011 Djokovic, to overcome Federer and Nadal, needed to be more consistent and aggressive. And, he did it. He controlled almost every match this year with his groundstrokes. Furthermore, during matches great players have game plans and strategies to use their “weapons” or strengths against an opponent’s weakness. That is why you will see many tennis players like Steffi Graff run around their backhand to hit inside-out forehands; they are using their “weapon.”
How can you enhance your self-awareness?
  • Listen to Yourself – be aware of your self-talk during matches and practice. Is it positive and productive or negative and unproductive? Also, how do you coach yourself when learning skills or tactics?
  • Listen to & Accept Feedback – sometimes the feedback that coaches, parents, and teammates give us is not fun to hear. However, to be your best you most learn from those around you. Make a commitment to focus on the message, and not on how it is being said.
  • Know Your Blind Spots – talk to others about the things you do that hurt your performance (a hitch in your swing) or relationships with others (a tendency to interrupt others when talking). This requires having a tough skin, but what you can learn helps you avoid acting unintentionally.
  • Watch Video – watching video of past performances can open your eyes whether it is during a slump or just to become more aware of your patterns of behavior in competition. When I watch video of my clients I will spend time looking at their body language, eyes, and routines especially before and after big points and critical changes in momentum.
  • Set Goals – spend time thinking about what you want versus what others want for you. What are your goals? These goals then take top priority in training.
  • Look for Signs During Matches – when and how do you get down on yourself? What are trouble spots when your performance drops? Knowing this allows you to develop a plan to overcome it.
  • Reflect on the Performance Post-Practice and Post-Match – after every game and practice take a few minutes to evaluate what happened in a journal. Ask yourself, did you achieve your goals? Did you follow the game plan? What went well and not so well? What should you work on in practice based on this performance?
Spend time analyzing your performances and you will develop faster. That is, of course, if you are motivated to do the work on the things that are most difficult for you to do in your game.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Cheating a "Cheater" Doesn't Work

Cheating a cheating player back leads to more cheating and hurts your reputation.

When I talk with players, parents and coaches the topic of cheating will often come up. There is concern with how to deal with cheating. When I ask the audience what they should do many will say to "cheat them back". I understand the frustration and wanting to get back at the person cheating. However, cheating someone that is cheating does not work!

Cheating a "cheater" (I use this term lightly and because this is how players refer to people that cheat) is not an effective strategy. Why? You are now distracted and focused more on getting back at your opponent than playing your game. Furthermore, you are playing the "cheaters" game. They want this drama because they feel it will help them win. And, do you think cheating them will make them stop? No. It will only motivate them to cheat you again because how dare you cheat them. What ensues is a battle to get back at the opponent with worse and worse cheating and behavior.

While the match it's self will become a disaster because neither player is focused on tennis, the long term damage is what coaches, players, and parents say about you. Your reputation will be affected by cheating the "cheater". You will know begin to be known as the "cheater". Do you want that title? I wouldn't.

Even worse that being called a "cheater" is that the word can spread to other players. Once you are known as a "cheater" other players will come out to matches sensitive to your calls and potentially be ready to cheat you first (or at least question any of your close calls). Now what was a one-time issue with a certain opponent has become a reoccurring nightmare of being questioned, and even questioning yourself about your line calls.

Do not fall in to the trap of cheating the "cheater". Not only will it hurt your performance in the match you are playing but long term it can negatively affect your reputation. And it is a lot harder to change a "cheater" reputation than it is to get it in the first place.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How to Play Great When Your Opponent is Cheating on Line Calls

The Orange Bowl is an exciting, very important tournament for junior players. So, as the 16s and 18s battle it out in Plantation, Florida I think about the high stakes matches that are taking place and the importance players, their families, and coaches place on results at the Orange Bowl. When the results matter greatly it makes for an exciting tournament, but also opens the door for cheating.

"If you are not cheating you're not trying." (attributed to former pro baseball player Mark Grace)

When the outcome is important you will have cheating. While cheating probably happens more often at tournaments where there are fewer officials it seems pretty clear based on my conversations with parents and junior players that cheating is rampant. Numerous times I have been asked how to deal with cheating; should parents allow the child to cheat them in return or try to take the higher ground? It is not easy question to answer, but I think I can offer a solution that is based on the player's reason for playing tennis - to play great tennis.

Playing great when your opponent is cheating starts with changing your view on the subject. Players are often sensitive to cheating because, well, they feel they have been cheated in the past. I would imagine nearly every seasoned junior player can talk about a match where they felt they lost because their opponent made suspect line calls. It becomes an issue when players begin to expect cheating and are quick to think that their opponent is cheating when, in fact, we know that juniors (as well as adults) are going to make mistakes calling lines. The older players are crushing balls near the lines, of course there will be mistakes! The other thing to keep in mind is that you are usually at a great distance from where the ball lands. So, if it is hard to call the lines on your side, how can you know for sure the lines on the other side?

Did you know that only 35% of replay challenges on the ATP tour and 36% on the WTA Tour are correct? Here are some statistics on the pros' ability to get the call correct.

Therefore, based on what I have written so far a player should not assume an opponent is cheating. This will help them stay focused on what is most important, playing good tennis. However, there are times that juniors blatantly cheat. How do you know when someone is cheating? Obviously when there is a pattern of it happening throughout the match.

I think what helps players stay focused when their opponent is cheating is to realize that the cheater cheats because she does not trust that she is good enough to beat you fair and square. As simple as that. To me cheating is a sign of weakness. A sign of not trusting in your game. When I see someone cheat I know that they are likely nervous, and definitely not convinced that they are going to win. Remember this in the heat of the battle. Cheating is a sign of weakness and a lack of belief. Use that to fuel your efforts to stay focused and play your game. Allow their bad line calls to reinforce that you are the better player and will come out on top despite the frustration of losing the point.

What benefits does a player gain from cheating? Obviously they get the point that the purposely cheated on. However, players that purposely cheat on line calls are looking to see your reaction. Are they getting in your head? Frustrating you? When the cheater sees their opponent getting frustrated, angry and making bad decisions it reinforces the fact to them that cheating works and well help them win.

You need to take away the reward that the player receives when cheating - winning, frustrating you, pulling you in to their game. This is one of the reasons why I say cheating them back is a bad idea. You are now playing their game! This is what they want, to play on their terms. You will be less focused and play less than your best tennis when focused on cheating. You will hesitate on line calls, and when the ball drops in you will be forced to either cheat or rush to hit the ball. This is not a good position to put yourself in! Your mind is no longer focused on the present. This is a great formula for poor performance.

Check out Why cheating a cheater doesn't work

Again, remember the ultimate goal, to play great tennis and win. When you allow the cheater to distract you then you are falling right into their plan. Don't let it happen!

What should you do when you feel an opponent is cheating... First, keep in mind that:
1. Maybe they are not cheating
2. It may not be personal (maybe they do this to everyone)
3. Cheating the cheater is not appropriate
4. Cheating is a sign of weakness, a lack of belief

Second, focus on solutions, not emotions. How? Take several deep breaths as you turn away from your opponent and focus on your strings. Attempt to get back in to your normal between points routine. If you are still thinking about the last point use the towel to wipe away the point as you count backwards from 10 or take a deep breath and count to 3 as you inhale, and 5 as you exhale. Why counting? It is a good distraction from the previous point. Do your best to eliminate thoughts of the last point before starting the next point.

If you are sure your opponent is cheating (there is a clear pattern of bad calls), then take these steps:
1. Ask your opponent politely if they are sure about the call or where it landed
2. If you are not satisfied with their response you can ask for an official to watch
3. Avoid getting involved in an argument with your opponent, for most players this serves to distract them not help them play better
4. Take deep breaths and focus on playing your game. If it helps let your anger motivate you to punish their weakness (make them run, play their weak side).
5. Play with more margin if necessary.

Again remember what the priority is when you step on the court: to be a good sport and play good tennis.  Work on a plan in practice to deal with cheating and trust me you will be more confident and play your game the next time it happens!