“In tennis, there’s no coaching, no passing the ball. It’s problem solving at its purest,” Andre Agassi once said.
Tennis is a great sport for many reasons and one of those reasons is exactly what Agassi is implying in this quote. When you are on the court you are forced to solve problems. You cannot rely on a teammate or a coach. You have to do it.
The problem solving that is inherent to tennis can create many headaches for developing players. Coaches and parents are constantly scratching their heads at junior tournaments trying to figure out why their junior went for a slap winner down the line from behind the baseline or approached cross court to the opponent's strong forehand.
To become an expert in tennis these failures in judgment are part of the process. You have to fail - make poor decisions and suffer the consequences. Those junior players that can learn quickly and not become despondent with their failures will be able to go farther in the game.
As coaches and parents we have a huge role in this learning process. We set the tone; we help to create the learning environment. And, that environment should be one where mistakes are almost welcomed and seen as part of the process. Mistakes are not something to become angry about.
I wrote a post on the learning mindsets of Djokovic and Nadal over a year ago. I believe it may be the most important reason why they are able to extend gap between themselves and the rest of the field (I would include Murray and Federer in this conversation, too).
Read the Learning Mindsets of Djokovic and Nadal here
As coaches and parents there are a number of things we can do to help a junior player improve his or her problem solving on the court.
1. Talk about mistakes and errors as part of the learning process. Instead of punishment and yelling approach them as learning opportunities. This will take much of the emotion out of the equation and allow the junior to think rationally about mistakes as they happen.
2. Discuss how to solve problems. Clearly define the issue, she is beating me by bringing me to the net and passing me. Then, create several possible solutions. Next, think about the consequences of each solution. Finally, choose the solution that will lead to the most success, or at least minimize the risk of future failure.
3. Instead of always telling juniors what to do ask them open-ended questions. Your opponent is hitting "moon balls" and giving you no pace. What options do you have for playing good tennis? Then, work the problem solving process in point #3 above. Start the process of learning to solve problems in low pressure environments. Watching matches together and discussing them is a great way to get the conversation going...
4. Practice problem solving in practice points, sets, and matches. Have changeovers and time to discuss what is happening and how they can solve it. This is great practice because the emotions that will exist in a match are there, maybe not as intensely, but they are there. Learning to clear your head and focus on solutions under pressure is an amazing skill to learn.
5. Teach your junior to use deep breathing and cognitive restructuring to deal with the demands they are facing in a match so they can think more rationally.
6. Develop routines that move the junior player towards thinking clearly between points. Help them learn to take their time by using a towel between points and learning to plan out a simple next point. Next you will find two blog posts related to routines.
Close out a match like Sharapova
Focus on execution of the game plan under pressure like Agassi
If you want to learn in depth about routines, deep breathing, and cognitive restructuring (self-talk) the USTA Mental Skills and Drills book is available at https://www.coacheschoice.com/p-2215-usta-mental-skills-and-drills-handbook.aspx