I have re-written the start of this blog about 10 times now. This is very unusual for me as writing normally comes naturally to me. The reason I’ve struggled, I didn’t want to write about myself as I’m concerned I come across as narcissistic. As with a lot of people, I tend to overly worry about how I come across. Actually, my next blog is about that so I’m going to plough ahead and base this blog on myself. So, here goes….
I started playing tennis at 12 and didn’t compete until I was 13. There is no way of dressing this up, when I started, I was truly awful. I had played a lot of other sports but nothing where I had to, single-handedly, receive and send a small, spherical, bouncy projectile with a trampoline on a stick while running around a piece of real estate that was around 4 times larger than the square footage of the tenement flat I lived in. Oh, and I was tiny and had limbs like pieces of rope.
However, someone showed faith in me. His name was Ken Melville and he was the volunteer coach at Stonehaven tennis club. He would occasionally take me for free lessons. He invited me along to team practice on a Friday night. He would set up practice partners for me. He would drive the junior teams to the matches on a Saturday evening and eventually he would enter me into, what we used to call, sifts (trials).
At 14 I made it into the NE of Scotland District Programme. However, I was still rubbish but, for some reason, I knew I could be much better than I was. For the first time in my life, I had discovered something that I really wanted to master. There was no doubt in my mind, others around me wrote me off but they were judging me on what they were seeing. What they didn’t know is, it’s what they didn’t see that made me different.
I was, and still am, obsessed about two things:
- Tennis and everything connected with it
- Constant and never ending learning
The combination of these two areas meant I spent countless hours watching, reading and thinking about tennis. I would get my hands on old tennis magazines and read them cover to cover. I could have told you everything about the players, from the composition of their rackets, the strings, the clothes they wore to their career stats.
Tennis was only really on TV at Wimbledon. You would occasionally get the Davis Cup final but that was about it. I remember the 1988 Nabisco Masters final being on TV so I decided to record it. I saved up my pocket money to buy a 5 hour blank VHS tape as I knew the 3 hour ones we had may not be long enough. The match lasted 4 hours 42 minutes. The match went to a 5th set tie-break and at 6-5 to Becker, the pair exchanged 37 shots with the last one being a dead net cord for Becker. He then threw his racket into the crowd. I can remember being so jealous of the guy in the crowd who caught it.
I used to watch this match over and over. This lead to me visualising how both these players played. I would day dream about how they moved, how they played their strokes, how they walked around the court. I would be able to mimic all of their mannerisms and, of course, I would then try and replicate all of these things on the tennis court.
I would constantly change my technique, desperately trying to find what worked. My service action would change weekly as would my forehand. My backhand remained the same. I think I know the reason, there were less variations in style on the backhand of the top players. However, the forehands were all completely different. That could be another blog.
That VHS tape became my tennis bible and I remember being heartbroken when the tape eventually wore out and snapped.
Fortunately, I lived very close to the tennis courts. I could literally run to the club in 10 seconds. This meant the club became a second home for me. My mum could call me back in for dinner out of the living room window. My tennis friends found this hilarious, mainly down to my face becoming beetroot with embarrassment. I was literally surrounded by tennis.
For many years I believed, it was the time I spent imagining and day dreaming about tennis, that led to my improvements. It felt like I could practice without actually going to the courts. When I was in my late teens, I used to visualise playing a certain way in my matches and I would repeat this process so often that it started to physically happen. I still use the same process for when I am presenting, doing talks and running workshops.
It is around this time that you are starting to think I am nuts so let me get to the point.
Two years ago, in a twist of fate, I met someone called Dr David Hamilton. He was a guinea pig player for a coaching course I was tutoring. We instantly hit it off and it wasn’t until later that someone told me what he did for a living. David is an author and speaker on the topic of the mind-body connection. Amongst the many things I love about David, he brings science to everything he does. Nothing is pure theory, everything has been thoroughly researched. He has written 10 books and speaks all around the world on the topic. Check out his site for full details https://drdavidhamilton.com
In October 2017, I took the train from Aberdeen to Manchester to see David in action. I had an epiphany as I listed to David talk on one particular area.
David began to talk about the power of imagery and referenced a couple of research studies carried out where one group had been given a physical task to repeat for an agreed time for a number of days and the other had to simply imagine doing the task for the same length of time. To my astonishment, the group who had visualised it made a significant physical development when retested at the end of the study.
I’ve attached the two studies for you to look over.
It suddenly made sense to me, all of the hours I spent day dreaming, reading, watching and imagining about tennis actually did have a positive effect on my physical ability to play the game.
Now, where does this fit into the world of coaching as we know it. Am I suggesting we stop coaching and have our players sit at home with their legs crossed, forefinger and thumb together, while visualising tennis? Of course not but it could help us explain why some players get better without the same amount of training.
I am not a gambling man but I would bet serious money there would be a strong correlation between players who improve the quickest and players who really study tennis when at home. Reading about their favourite players, watching their favourite players, studying their effective patterns, how they move, how they react to adversity etc.
I regularly ask tennis players about what is happening on the tennis tour and I am astonished how many times they don’t even know what event is taking place. There is more tennis on TV than ever before. YouTube is awash with amazing points within matches yet a lot of young players don’t watch them.
So, what can we do about it?
Try this, give your players a homework task that relates to what is happening in the tennis world. For example, ask them to see how many players enter the Australian Open qualifying, what ranking range do they cover, how many players qualify into main draw, how many wild cards are there, does it change between the mens and the women’s draw etc.
At first, you will find out what percentage of your players actually even complete the task. Over time, you will discover who absolutely loves tennis. I can guarantee you one thing, they may not be your best players but they will be involved in tennis for life, and one day, you may even read one of their blogs.
I am seeing more players than ever before believing they need to be on the court for hours on end, for 5-6 days a week, to make improvements. This is symptomatic of society, where too many compare themselves with others and try and better what they see. Take stock and remember….
It is what we don’t see that really makes the difference.
Can you think of other things we don’t see which could have an effect on a player’s development? If so, write them below.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Pass on to your friends.