It can be very frustrating for parents when their kid’s technique is poor or the player is struggling to make and retain important technical changes. More often than not, the failure is due to either the fault of the coach, player, or parent—or a combination of the three. Over the last 20 years that I have spent building and rebuilding technique in the trenches, I’ve seen just about every situation and have learned many lessons about how to unlock technical progress. I love building technique. I like the intellectual challenge, the science and biomechanics, as well as the creative process of technique building. Developing world-class technique is an alchemy of art and science.
Here are the most common reasons that a player struggles to learn a technical skill, including footwork, which I consider technique too:
1. The coach is teaching outdated or incorrect technique that is not evidence-based or following accepted biomechanical principles
It’s is important that parents ensure their child is learning good and modern form. Some coaches are teaching the same techniques as they did 30 years ago! Watch out for old school technique!
2. The coach is not connecting and building trust with the player during the technique building process
Altering or rebuilding technique is as much a psychological process as it is a physical process. The coach must wire—but he or she must also inspire. The coach has to build trust and develop confidence in the player. It reminds me of a sales job. The coach must be a master salesman, convincing the player of the value of the changes and supporting the player emotionally during the technical development process.
Learning a new technique is hard. The coach must have empathy and be charismatic and persuasive. The best technical coaches have these qualities. Some coaches just don’t understand this aspect. They may have the right knowledge, but they fail to communicate the knowledge in a way that connects with the player and they may not support the player emotionally enough during the process.
Learning new technique is anxiety provoking for many players. Players need a lot of emotional support. Even if the coach is teaching the right skills, players may not have the belief or will to make the important changes—or they may not trust the coach enough.
Some coaches have neither the right biomechanics knowledge nor the salesmanship. Parents have to do their due diligence. It’s hard to find a brilliant technical coach in the tennis world. I only know a handful of coaches whom I would trust to build the hardware of my son or daughter.
3. The player does not believe what the coach is saying
If the player doesn’t trust the coach implicitly, if there is no bond between them, the technical project is going to fail.
4. The player is not motorically gifted
Let’s face it, some kids can watch great technique and have the uncanny ability to mimic and learn a skill very easily. Many kids, however, are not so motorically blessed. It’s important to identify if the player is not that coordinated because at the end of the day this type of kid will require more emotional support and more repetitions. Sometimes all parties including parent, coach and the player himself get frustrated and impatient. This usually happens when the player is not as gifted and just needs more repetitions than some others. Less coordinated players will always need more emotional support because the technical process will be longer and harder for them!
5. The parent is interfering in some negative way
Parents can be a great asset in helping to reinforce the right habits and assisting the technical coach during the building or rebuilding process. However, parents can also be a hindrance and block the progress of a player. The parent could undermine what the coach is teaching by not giving the same advice to the kid. Or the parent could undermine the bond and trust between the player and coach. It’s important for the parent and the coach to realize how traumatic and anxiety provoking learning a new technique is for many players. The parent and coach have to work cooperatively as a team to instill the player’s confidence in the new skills and to support the player when he or she is feeling anxious and has doubts.
6. Other coaches can also be a hindrance
During the technique building process, it’s essential that the player not receive any mixed messages. Sometimes other coaches—well-meaning or not— give contradicting advice to the player—and this will ruin the technical process.
7. Sparring with players at too high a level
After the initial learning of the new skills, it’s important to rally and spar with hitters who play softly and without too much pace. Many times, I see the technique being lost in the process of starting to play points and in live ball situations because the player is thrown in with other kids who are hitting hard and too big. If you throw a kid into fast points who has not fully ingrained a new motor pattern in the neuromuscular system, he will inevitably panic and revert back to his old strokes and comfort zone—and the new skills will be lost! This happens frequently and it’s a shame!
8. Match play and tournaments
In the same vein as the above mistake, playing high level tournaments or match play too soon, before the motor patterns are wired deeply enough, is a sure fire way to undermine technical development.
Players who are thrust into high level competition with newly learned skills have a high likelihood of reversion—going back to previously learned motor skills. It’s paramount that players who are learning new skills apply those skills correctly under pressure in match play and sparring so as to further ingrain the new motor program and myelinate those neuro-pathways rather than reinforcing the old motor programs.
As you can see, there are many blocks to progress that can occur when building or rebuilding technique. Player, coach, and parent all need to work together to understand the nuances of the technical development process and to support the player from start to finish. Even the least talented kid can learn beautiful world-class technique if they have good training and avoid these pitfalls.
Good luck amigos!
Chris Lewit is a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player. He is a high-performance coach, educator, and the author of two best-selling books: The Secrets of Spanish Tennis and The Tennis Technique Bible. He has coached numerous top 10 nationally-ranked players and is known for his expertise in building the foundations of young prodigies. Chris is currently working towards an advanced degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Science with a focus on Biomechanics. Chris coaches in NYC and year-round at his high performance tennis academy in Manchester, VT, where players can live and train the Spanish Way full-time or short-term. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail Chris@chrislewit.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.