With the high school tennis season in full swing and having been a recent high school coach for both highly skilled boys and girls, I feel qualified to discuss a few salient points. In 2002, I had the distinct opportunity to coach both a boy's team (Roslyn) and a girl's team (Cold Spring Harbor) to a County Championship in the same year. First, let's discuss the similarities.
Nobody knows how to play doubles!
I've always spent the majority of our practice sessions teaching the intricacies of doubles. Formations, shot selection and teamwork are the keys to successful doubles play. Most of these athletes have little experience playing competitive doubles. They're so overly concerned with rankings and singles tournaments that even the most skilled players need to be taught effective doubles and proper positioning. I’m always on the lookout for good, aggressive athletes who might turn out to be effective doubles players. Many of our players have had coaches, were ranked juniors and continued to play tournaments. They were our singles players. Everyone else vied for doubles positions. This was the case for both girls and boys.
Team or individual sport?
While tennis, for the most part, is a sole endeavor, it is my contention that it's best enjoyed as a team sport. I try to make everyone feel like they are part of a team. Practices are often team competitions with unique scoring. Anything to make it fun. Players not participating in a match (alternates or anybody not playing at a specific time) are required to watch a match and root. No homework! No watching other sporting events that might be taking place simultaneously. No player is allowed to leave a match until the results are final. We try to travel to and from matches as a team. It's a common practice for parents to pick up their offspring after a match because of other extra curricula activities. I try to discourage this. We always have a team dinner after the season where we give out fun awards, such as most improved player, best partner or teammate with the best attitude. These awards are voted on by the players.
Attitude and effort!
As a coach, I only require a few things of all my student-athletes: A positive attitude while competing, or better yet, no negativity. Negative energy is self-destructive and often fuels the opponent. There's the rare case when a negative attitude or behavior can be helpful. Another requirement I have is 100 percent effort! It's often easy to accept an inevitable loss than to fight to the very last point. This is easy to monitor, and I'm always on the lookout for someone who's about to quit. Down 2-6, 0-3, you'll see it all the time. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm gong to lose anyway, so why fight it? It's all about effort and attitude. It’s much harder to do than learn a spin serve or effective backhand, but in the end, much more valuable.
Keeping everyone involved
This is a tough one. Often, alternates or anyone not playing in a match, feel left out and isolated. I always try to give everyone specific tasks. Charting a match is my favorite. A great deal can be learned by watching someone else play and objectively keeping track of unforced errors, first serve percentages, points won at the net, etc. It helps the player and the statistician as well. We have a user-friendly chart that I introduce at the beginning of the season that we all can use. After each match, I allow the player being charted and the person observing and charting to consult. This can be very fruitful and educational.
In the end, the quality of the experience, for all, determines if you have run a successful program or not. The wins and losses, the championships and the individual honors are all icing on the cake. They're nice and make you feel good, but are still secondary and transient.
Of course this brings up the obvious question as to what you can learn from losing, or more importantly, how can you have a positive experience from, what seemingly appears to be a negative situation, and there lies the problem in a nutshell! It's so easy and seems so obvious, to associate success with enjoyment. I mean after all, don't we all feel better and more fulfilled after we win a tennis match? Losing sucks, right? But I digress ... and this leads to another discussion.