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Anatomy of a good tennis coach.

Posted by tennisplanet on May 16, 2007

If I were to ask you, to name world’s top coaches, irrespective of the sport, what names would you think of?

-Vince Lombardi.
-Phil Jackson.
-Red Auerbach.
-Angelo Dundee.

Maybe you have more, but what makes a good coach?

One thing we are certain of: top player rarely becomes a top coach. Some tried like Magic Johnson. Wayne Gretzky is trying. OK, Larry Bird did achieve success. But such examples are more of an exception.

In tennis, Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill are among the young upcoming coaches who have made a mark.

So what really constitutes a good coach. Of course, an in-depth knowledge of the mechanics of the sport is basic. You should be able to come with an effective combination of Xs and Os to maximise your pupil’s potential.

A keen eye to study the opponents’ game and find kinks to exploit on and off the court. Ability to translate this study into a workable and suitable strategy that can be executed with the skill set of your pupil.

Use of media and other means to psychologically engage the opponent and gain an intangible edge. Mohammad Ali was the master at it. Before the fight against Foreman, Ali initiated a spirited verbal exchange at the weigh in. When asked about it later, he said ‘I just won the first round’.

Use all means within rules, to distract opponent and dilute his focus and intensity. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his book on body building mentions how he achieved exactly that, when he was on stage with other competitors, ready to start posing for the judges.

He would whisper a funny joke to his arch rival to gain advantage. In fact, he has a photo of him doing just that, on stage to Zane Frank, in his book. Asked if it was not unsportsman like, he retorted, that you are responsible to maintain focus and the opponent is within his right to gain whatever edge he can within the rules.

Coach needs to ascertain the physical conditioning of his pupil in relation to the competition. Among the first things Brad Gilbert suggested to Murray was to gain weight and spend some time in the gym.

Coach should have thousand ways to motivate his pupil and seek to draw the best out of him every-time the bell rings. If you are not creative with it, that same old sermon becomes boring and ineffective. Phil Jackson, uses a variety of tools to achieve that, like the media. He would say things to media that would bring pressure to the player to improve in the area desired. He is also known to hand over motivational books to achieve the same.

It is vital that the coach finds a comfortable base to relate to his pupil, given the personality traits of parties involved. No matter how good a coach you are, if you are not on the same page after sorting out personality issues, it is doomed. Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant are perfect examples of how bad and good it can get when this is not addressed.

Maybe we are seeing the glimpses of that with Gilbert-Murray partnership.

Coach needs to have a calming influence on the protege. Being young and restless, a mature coach has to act as a stabilising influence to rein in his pupil and behave with respect and decorum. But more importantly, keep the pupil away from all the distractions of money and fame.

Instill the qualities of sacrifice and the willingness to pay the price of success. Uncle Tony has to be credited for filling this role beautifully for Nadal. Compare Murray, Djokovic and Nadal meticulously, and you will see the strides Nadal has made, solely because of Uncle Tony’s maturity.

At times, it seems the knowledge of the game takes a back seat, to all the other facets of the game that the coach has the power to influence. It is clearly not just about the Xs and Os, since there is so much more in play and subject to attack, than just the game, when the sport is played professionally. 

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