Every junior player's tennis journey will be highly unique. However, there are many aspects that are essential, so from my personal experience (our best player reached No.23 in UK, and No.2 in Surrey in 2023), let's take a look at the 10 KEY INGREDIENTS that are universally important for such a journey.
Children don't have the maturity or experience to be able to manage their tennis journey without a massive amount of hands-on support from the most influential people in their lives - their parents.
Even the most dedicated and caring tennis coach will only be able to give a certain number of hours in the week to directly helping develop your child's tennis.
KEY INGREDIENT 1 - A HEALTHILY DEDICATED PARENT: The hours of purposeful quality practice need to be put in, whether it be shadow strokes, feeding drills, tennis fitness, serve baskets, match practice, you name it. There must be a parent willing and able to manage all this on a regular basis, and most importantly to keep a consistent commitment going, from the long summer days, to the cold dark nights of winter.
KEY INGREDIENT 2 - A JUNIOR PLAYER'S TENNIS JOURNEY MUST BE FULL OF FUN, LAUGHTER, AND OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN AND DEVELOP LIFE SKILLS: Again, the coach only has a certain amount of influence over making sure a student's tennis journey is a positive and healthy one. Ultimately, the parents are the biggest influence on making this happen.
A junior tennis player can learn so much about life along the way, and learn so many tools and skills to help them be happy, kind, and calm human beings, and to take these traits into adulthood.
It's not easy! The nature of competitive tennis can make it very difficult to avoid moments and periods where stress, negativity, lack of confidence, and disappoint can creep in. However, the brutal nature of competitive tennis can also act as the most powerful teacher! If through the help of their parents and coach, a child can develop the ability to play with joy, to feel relaxed on court, and to have minimal stress about every aspect of their tennis journey, then given the tough environment, they will definitely be winning in terms of personal development, and probably on the tennis court too!
Click here for the beautiful way that Carlos Alcaraz describes the importance of being stress free and happy on the tennis court!
The best book out there for tennis parents!
Every tennis journey is different because every personality that is on those journeys is completely unique and not replicated amongst any of the other 8 billion people on this rock. As a coach, you have to expect everyone to be different, and that means a different challenge to find the solutions to get the best from that player based on their personality. I just love that challenge!
KEY INGREDIENT 3 - ADAPT COACHING TO THE INDIVIDUAL PERSONALITY OF YOUR STUDENT: You have to let your student be themselves on court, not just so they feel comfortable, but so you can slowly understand what makes them tick, and in turn what they respond well to, and what they don't respond well to. The coach is then in a position to run sessions in a way that will get the best out of the student.
This also extends to their individual playing style. As we know, playing styles vary enormously, and are very personal. There is no point fighting what comes naturally to a tennis player. Instead, a coach must work with it, by building a full understanding of a player's preferred game style, discussing it with the player, and then developing it in order to maximise its effectiveness on the match court.
You just have to look at some of the players on the ATP and WTA tours to understand that it's certainly possible to reach the highest levels with small technical flaws. These often get bedded in through endless practice without enough attention on developing great technique.
However, great technique gives a player a huge advantage, both in terms of maximising the potential of their strokes, and minimising the risk of injury.
Great technique should be developed early on, and will often need to be tweaked well into teenage years. Use of video analysis is an essential tool to help develop great technique, but nothing beats the benefit of doing shadow strokes to bed down technical improvements.
Individual lessons on their own are not going to have much impact, without time spent in between the sessions complimenting the work being done. Shadow strokes are simply the No.1 most simple and powerful tool available when working on making technical changes. Players should be doing shadow strokes of their new technique every day, and also practising it regularly outside of the sessions.
Shadow strokes need to be done correctly in order to be effective. The key to making the most of this powerful tool is to slow them down until the technique is perfect, and then slowly build up to normal speed. Once the shadows are being done correctly and at normal speed, executing the perfect technique is as important as feeling the 1-2 rhythm of the shot. Part 1 should feel smooth and deliberate, and Part 2 explosive and full of energy. Split steps and footwork can then be added to the shadow exercises for maximum benefit.
KEY INGREDIENT 4 - PURPOSEFUL PRACTICE: You can already see the importance of doing shadow strokes properly and purposefully to get the full benefit, but this purposeful practice extends to every area of training and development.
Let me give you an example of how easy it is NOT to practice purposefully: I often ask players what they are going to work on in a practice session. I'll get replies like 'I'm going to work on being more consistent', or 'getting more power on my serve', so then I reply "Great! How are you going to do that?". They often don't know, and don't even think to ask, and would happily head back onto the practice court without a plan. The 'HOW?' is the key to purposeful practice. I'm going to work on more consistency by putting a bit more topspin on my shots, or I'm going to work on serve power by working on a deeper racket drop. Beyond that, they then need to know how to develop more topspin, and how to develop a deeper racket drop. The understanding must be there, as well as the willingness to practice it with purpose.
How about practice matches, and even real matches? Taking a purposeful approach is very different and a lot more beneficial than just going out and playing and trying to win. The goal of winning is fine, but a purposeful approach often involves focusing on executing things that will make winning more of a possibility. Some examples:
I'm going to focus on getting a higher percentage of 1st serves in by ensuring my ball toss is further in front, and that I re-throw any poor ball tosses.
I'm going to work on being more aggressive with my shots by trying to get an earlier contact point on my groundstrokes, and transfer my weight forwards more strongly.
I'm going to work on developing my kick serve by hitting it on 1st serves as well as 2nd serves. It might help my opponent but this is only a practice match, so the score doesn't matter.
The last example is also a great example of having a growth mindset, one where the focus is much more process based (getting better, executing skills well) and much less outcome based (winning/losing). A growth mindset allows players to learn more from training and matches, and in turn develop at a faster rate.
In order to tap into the magic of purposeful practice, a growth mindset is very helpful.
Video analysis is an essential tool for technical development
KEY INGREDIENT 5 - COACH MUST WATCH THEIR PLAYERS COMPETE REGULARLY: I can't stress the importance of this enough. A coach who doesn't watch their students compete in live matches becomes up to 90% less effective in lessons because watching players compete always provides a wealth of knowledge and understanding that is not attainable any other way. Without this knowledge and understanding, the coach won't have clarity about what specifically needs work.
Even now, I'm amazed at the things that I pick up when watching students compete, that I just wasn't expecting.
Ideally, I want to see my most committed students competing minimum once a month, but again it does vary from student to student.
KEY INGREDIENT 6 - COLLECTING DATA FROM MATCHES THAT IS SPECIFIC TO THE INDIVIDUAL PLAYER: Here's a great example of how valuable such an exercise is, especially as no matter how good a player you are, it's so difficult to be aware of things in the heat of a match, that simple stats can shed so much clarity on afterwards.
Here's a past example from a Grade 1 national tournament, where my student was working on using a consistent powerful 1st serve, and was doing well until leading 4-1 in the 2nd set when they reverted to an old habit of hitting the 1st serve safe, and went on to lose the set 4-6.
I did the stats for the whole match, and when they went for a power serve, they made it 19 out of 30 times (an impressive 63%), and of those 19 occasions they landed it, they went on to win the point 13 times (68%). When they attempted the safer spin 1st serve, they made it 74% of the time (20 out of 27), but only won 6 of those 20 points (30%).
When a bit of understandable tension crept in, and that old habit came back causing this player to use only safe serves from 4-1 up onwards, the stats clearly show why it was such a struggle to close out what would have been a deserved 2nd set victory. They were using an option that gave a 30% chance of winning the point instead of potentially a 68% chance.
A simple, but very powerful and valuable lesson for a junior player.
There are match tracking apps, but every single one is useless because they are far too restrictive in what data they allow you to collect. The only way to get relevant, quality, and specific data is good old pen and paper! I might find myself tracking the depth and quality of returns, or the emotional control of my player in between points, or the intensity of their footwork and movement, whatever will be most helpful to them.
KEY INGREDIENT 7 - TOURNAMENT SUPPORT BEING PRIORITISED BY THE COACH: How does it work? Every coach is different. I charge very reasonable rates to do data collecting at a tournament, whilst attending a tournament to just watch/support is part of the service for my most committed players. I love being there so will always look to make time for it. I'll also look for every other opportunity to learn things from watching my players compete, with Hawker Matchplays, and supporting our players when they play team matches, both providing regular opportunities.
For players that I've helped train to national level, tournament attendance and basic data collecting at national events are part of the service. Most coaches just won't prioritise tournament support to anywhere near the required level, but I'm not like most coaches!
An example of a tracker that tracks return quality and outcome during a match
KEY INGREDIENT 8 - WORKING WITH A COACHABLE STUDENT: No-one likes to hear criticism, or that they're doing something wrong, it's a natural defence mechanism fuelled by the ego, in a mis-guided attempt to protect the self. This needs to be overcome so that the player can embrace feedback and information, allowing them to practice in a way that will enable them to develop their skills faster and more effectively.
You would think all budding tennis students would be coachable, but it's not always the case! The above picture (of a page from the fantastic book 'Champion Minded' by Allistair McCaw), can allow you to check in with your coachability!
It's vital to say that every student has mental/emotional struggles when playing competitive tennis. The environment coupled with the way the human brain functions makes this inevitable. How those issues manifest themselves will vary enormously from student to student, as everyone is uniquely different. Some will show obvious outward signs of struggle, whilst others will look calm but be suffering inside. The reasons behind it are often complex and varied, and I just love the challenge of figuring it out!
KEY INGREDIENT 9 - COACH ALWAYS READY TO TACKLE MENTAL/EMOTIONAL ISSUES: Any visible signs of trouble, or less visible signs (such as playing more tentatively in important moments, or not enjoying matches) should be looked out for, and tackled when they emerge. There are many tools to help players become mentally strong and emotionally in control on the match court, which will in turn help them to enjoy the experience. After all, tennis is a game, and no matter what level a player is at, it should be enjoyable and fun!
Progress in this area is often difficult to make, and at best, tends to happen slowly with plenty of bumps in the road. It's sad to see some junior players go through their junior tennis years without making any significant progress, and so never break the cycle of regularly suffering with frustration, and lack of confidence. It's important for a student to know that this area is going to be worked on, and not ignored.
I think the perfect combination is being an absolute warrior on the match court, but still being able to laugh and smile when crazy or funny stuff happens in a match. Some of the best players that I've trained over the years at Hawker have invested in their mental/emotional development, and managed to achieve this, which is highly rewarding for them and me!
Of course, these skills are transferable into life, and students who make progress in this area will have the tools to be calmer, stronger, and more confident in every day life situations as well as tough battles on the tennis court.
KEY INGREDIENT 10 - AMAZING FOOTWORK AND MOVEMENT!: When it comes to footwork and movement, the most important thing for a junior tennis player is developing a reliable habit of giving their absolute best effort to their footwork and movement whenever they are on the match court.
Most students don't enjoy working specifically on footwork and movement in training, although some do. Most students also aren't prepared to give 100% to their footwork and movement when they play matches, though some are. Without a doubt, the best category to be in is the last one! Make it a habit when competing!
Players who put the hard work into physical training and doing their best footwork and movement on the practice court, sometimes struggle to find the same level of intensity on the match court. If I know a player will adopt their best footwork/movement on the match court, with high levels of energy and intensity, then I know it's not so essential to demand that they are giving that same level in practice. HABIT on the match court is the key, as that will allow it to develop beautifully, with the help of some complimentary, but not so demanding work, in their lessons.
Strength and conditioning is a huge part of performance tennis these days, and it's important to note that I fully support the benefits of strength and conditioning work. However, what some people don't fully grasp, is that every human body is different, and will respond better or worse to different things. Some players are more naturally strong and fit, and may be able to move fantastically and avoid any injuries just through being meticulous with warming up properly, and stretching down afterwards. Others can do loads of strength and conditioning work, but still find that their bodies let them down frequently, usually because their bodies aren't naturally built for the rigours of performance tennis.
As recently as the 1980's, top players of the game did nothing to look after their bodies before or after playing (including stretching!), as referenced in plenty of places, including the BBC's recent 'God's of tennis' series!
I'll assess players on an individual basis, and I'll stress the importance of development in this area if it is what they need. After all, footwork and movement is the foundation of a player's tennis game, and strength, balance, speed and flexibility are all necessary to make that foundation strong.
Thanks for reading this article. As always, I love hearing from people, so if you wish to get in touch with any comments or questions, please use the contact form here!