Written by Todd Widom
For some of you who follow me on social media, you know I have a passion for golf as well as tennis. I grew up playing golf with my father at six years old and have continued to play for fun. When I retired from the ATP Tour in 2010, I was able to compete with many high-level golf amateurs in my community, which raised my level further. Some of the amateurs played on professional golf tours, so for me to be able to compete with them; I had to improve my skills. This was a chance to see how good I could become and have some fun in competitive games outside of tennis. When I was a child, golf was used as a way to spend some time with my father and to take my mind off tennis.
The basis of this article is to go over what I see all the time from junior tennis players and tennis coaches from a teaching perspective. Has tennis turned into a highly technical sport like golf? I can tell you from experience that when you are playing golf whether you are hitting long shots or short game shots, if you are off by fractions of an inch, you are not going to hit a clean shot and you may be spraying golf balls all over the place. This is not the case in tennis. Tennis is too fast to be thinking about whether this or that is in position properly to produce a solid hit tennis ball. I am seeing all these complicated steps to hit a forehand, backhand, or serve and the other shots in tennis. This merely produces more money for your child’s coach. That is right! Your child is going to go through all these highly technical tennis lessons, the camera may even come out and you can hit balls for the hour trying to perfect a little technique. The next lesson will be the same and so on after that.
I have trained juniors that have been brought up this way by their former coach and I can tell you from experience that the kids look like a bunch of stiff technical robots. Every time they miss a ball they are not sure if it was the angle of their wrist, angle of their head, or even if their right foot pinky toe was pointed correctly. Do you understand my point? Then, when they play a poor match, they come back to their coach and this or that was wrong technically and they go through the whole process again with all these super complex steps to hit a ball. This equated to more money for the coach. What this produces is a dependence on the coach that is unhealthy, because every time they miss hit a ball or something goes wrong, they need a camera and a lesson to fix the issue and it becomes a never-ending cycle of highly complex tennis lessons. This is exactly why I constantly see juniors that have hitchy and stiff strokes. The strokes are not natural and there are way too many thoughts going on in the junior’s brain to be playing tennis when a ball is coming at you at a fast speed.
When I start working with a player that has all these highly technical thoughts, it takes time to retool their brain. You need to teach them how simple the tennis strokes are but what you also must do is make sure they are not dependent on you. If your child cannot think and make corrections on their own, they are not going to have much success playing this great game. It is only them who are going to be able to win and lose on their own.
My tennis upbringing was with highly physical tennis groups and lessons that taught you swings, grips and movement all at once. It was not a salesman type lesson that taught you one certain technique, and then the next lesson the same and so forth. These coaches were killing many birds with one stone, but they also produced champions. The sole goal was not to make a bunch of tennis lesson money, but it was to produce high-level players. The money will come when you are producing great players at a rapid rate and not try to sell a bunch of gimmicks to some uneducated tennis parents.
Do I use hand or bucket feeding for my junior players? Absolutely. Is it the basis of the training I do with them? Absolutely not. I use it to work on specific things, but the true test to know if they become proficient in what we are working on is to work in a live ball situation in practice. Afterwards we then work on point play situations in practice and then ultimately it comes out in a tournament match, which is the true test of whether they truly understand and trust what they have been working on.
There are many coaches that only do hand or bucket feeding and it is definitely not wrong. A developing junior player requires all different aspects of training. Each child is different so a coach needs to make sure they know what to work on and how to fix the areas that need fixing. Do you ever wonder why your child hits the ball so well during these lessons, yet it does not translate over to match wins in tournaments? Bucket drilling and hand feeding are unrealistic in terms of if your child can win more matches in tournaments. Some may use the logic that more lessons should equal more match wins, but this is not always the case. The pace of ball coming at your child in these lessons are usually very slow, so they can have many technical deficiencies and look pretty good to you as the parent. I can feed a ball with either my hand or my racquet and put it so perfectly in your child’s strike zone that they will look like a superstar, but why don’t they have the desired results in tournaments?
So here is what I am seeing and what should be taught. When you are hitting with someone else, every single ball being hit to you is different. The spin, the height, the pace, the trajectory, etc. I will put down a cone three feet by three feet from the sideline and baseline and tell two students to play the rally with the same intensity trying to hit the cone as they would in a match. The result many times is they are spraying the ball all over the place, in the middle of the court, short on the service line, long over the baseline, or even in the alley. How can this be? You have probably spent significant dollars with tennis lessons and groups and your child cannot hit more than one or two balls close to the cone without missing. What I am seeing is that the kids that have been hand fed too many balls without having enough live ball practice, and cannot adjust to what is required. They have trouble anticipating and reading what is being hit to them. Without that skill, your child is just a good lesson taker and you are a money donor. You do not need this skill nor do you obtain this skill in a hand fed or bucket fed situation. Your child will have trouble moving and using their body effectively to get in position. Since they do not understand what is being hit to them, they have trouble adapting their swing. If the ball is coming to them slowly, then they are used to that pace because of all the hand fed and bucket fed drills. If the ball comes fast or deep, the junior does not have an understanding on how to adapt their swing to be able to hit a clean ball on their target. They are usually late and their racquet preparation is late because they did not see the ball coming faster or deeper at them. They are so used to taking the same swing that they are incapable to improvise to hit a quality shot. Seeing the ball out of your opponents racquet is so very important because you need to be able to see if the ball is coming short, in the middle, or deep in the court, so now the movement is late also and the preparation of the racquet is late and the shot will be hit in the middle of the court. At a high level of tennis, you are going to be in big trouble.
In my opinion, the developing juniors need all different types of training; however, I am seeing too many juniors practicing and being taught in too much of a controlled environment to make the lessons worthwhile. Tennis training at a high level needs to be as realistic as possible to a tournament match so that the junior can achieve their goals. The only way for this to happen is for the training to be in a live ball situation and for there to be specific goals that must be attained. Many times the goals are how many balls in a row can be hit on the cone for both players before one is hit away from the cone. That is good for starters and then you build it up to more shots as the players become more advanced. Best of luck and remember, make the training as realistic as possible if you want tournament results.
Written by Todd Widom
A catastrophic mistake parents and junior tennis players make is that when they become the best player at their academy or current training arena, they feel like they have outgrown that environment. This is where the problems begin. First, you should never change a winning formula and this goes for your strategy during a match or your current coaching situation. It is great your child has become the best player where they train, and it may mean your coaches are doing a great job.
What I am seeing and hearing is that once a player reaches the level where they are the best at their current training environment, it is time to move on. This is incorrect thinking as the player is having good or even great results in tournaments. All this particular player may need is just some tougher match play situations once or twice a week, but you should not change training environments.
The reasoning behind this is because it takes quite some time to connect with a new coach and have them understand how that student clicks with many different ways of communication. Every child is different and the cookie cutter mold does not work for every student. How one learns may be completely different from how another learns. I have learned that you may need to adapt the communication depending on each student. I believe the job of the coach is to try to get the best out of each student, no matter what it takes.
I was very fortunate from a very young age to be trained at an extremely high level from two coaches who produced tennis champions. Because of this training, I achieved a good level of play through my early teenage years, but my game really took off when I was about 16. At this point, I started to get my feet wet in professional tennis. I was playing at a high national level, and I was, and had been the best player where I trained for years. I never thought for a split second to change my tennis training environment. I wanted to be a champion, and my coach had been producing champions for many years. I kept having better results without training with anyone better than me. I was determined to be a professional tennis player.
I was trained from day one to learn how to be disciplined with my tennis and how to have tunnel vision concentration. All practices were very productive no matter who was across the net. I had a plan on what I was working on and it was work every single day. You have a plan and you work towards it every day. If you are not executing the plan well, you stay after normal practice hours and keep working on it until you are happy with what you have accomplished that day. This is how you get better.
One of the boys I played against regularly was an excellent player. He was one of the top players in the country and played at a top Division I college in Florida. One weekend we decided to play some practice matches against each other. On Saturday, we played and I won 6-0 6-0. Was the practice match beneficial? Absolutely. I worked on all the aspects I had been working on and I executed them well. We came back on Sunday and I beat him again 6-0 6-0. Once again, it was an extremely productive practice. I was able to follow my plan, execute what I was working on, and do it in such a discipline manner. I never made silly mistakes, which would be a lack of discipline and concentration. To beat someone 6-0 6-0 takes a lot of concentration to not give away any free points. This boy was an accomplished player and a top nationally ranked player, so it showed me I could sustain a high level of tennis for a long period. It was a test of my brain and I passed the test twice that weekend. It was up to me to make the practice productive and it was very productive because it gave me confidence to know I did not have any mental lapses.
Soon after this weekend, I won the boys 18’s Super National Clay Courts. I had many 6-0 sets in that tournament and only lost one set enroute to winning the tournament. My brain was trained to sustain a certain level. It is all about what your child wants to put into the practice and what they want to take out of the practice, not who is across the net
This article was prompted by numerous parents calling me over the years about their child lacking confidence. Some of the questions I receive are around developing confidence and being nervous in tournaments. I explain that their child is nervous in tournaments because they are unsure of what the outcome will be and they are looking into the future when they have not even struck the first ball in the warm-up. Let’s look at this at a deeper level.
How does a junior tennis player build confidence in themselves? The easy answer is that they go play a bunch of tournaments and hopefully they win more matches. They will then be more confident in themselves. No one does well on an important test in school without learning and studying the material. Failure to prepare is preparing to fail. Junior tennis players do not just get lucky to have better results. Your homework is your training and your exam is the tournament.
Your child cannot hide when they are in tournaments and results never lie. Building confidence is as easy as preparing so well that your child is sure they are ready to perform at a good level in tournaments. When I speak to parents about confidence, one of my first questions is, does your child feel proud of what they are accomplishing on a daily basis at practice? A junior tennis player knows and feels if they are improving, and the way to improve is to have a disciplined plan on how that particular player is going to reach higher levels of tennis. Then you must work towards that plan on a daily basis. A one-hour lesson is not what I am speaking about, but rather training and working on the plan for hours on a daily basis. Your child must get off the court and feel proud of what they worked on in that session and if they do not feel proud after that session, then it was not productive. No productivity means no progress. From a coaching standpoint, you can tell when the student is working on the proper things and improving because they are usually happy because they are seeing the results, and feeling the results on the court.
Another question I am frequently asked is what does my child need to work on to become a more confident player? Each student is different and so are their techniques. No two players are alike. In my experience, some of the players I have trained have needed some form of cleaning up on the technical side, but almost all of the kids have little or no understanding of how to properly move and balance themselves on a tennis court, as well as how to construct a proper point strategically. The players have taken a bunch of tennis lessons where the coach has fed or hand fed balls to them. This is not wrong, but this is strictly technical tennis teaching, and is only one piece of what your child needs. This is not teaching your child how to learn the game and how to apply their game to be able to win more matches.
I also receive phone calls from parents wondering why their child is struggling in tournaments when they are taking many tennis lessons. The parents thought process is, if my child is taking a bunch of tennis lessons, then my child should be winning more, and as a result should be becoming more confident in themselves. This is incorrect. When your child is trained to understand what they are good at, and how to break down other opponents due to being smarter and more disciplined with their tennis, they will as a result win more matches and become more confident.
In closing, I am repeatedly seeing tennis players with the same deficiencies. If you would like to have a more confident junior tennis player, that confidence will come with a greater understanding of the game as well as of their own game. A lesson is great, but that is just one little piece of the puzzle. Understanding how to compete, understanding your game, and understanding how you are going to break down the opponents game is how you will have better results. Productivity, purpose, and understanding why you are working on a specific skill is how you are going to see results. Keep in mind that you must work on these aspects all the time so they become ingrained habits. When your child does not need to think about these aspects in tournaments, it means the habits are ingrained and they should be on their way to winning more, and as a result, becoming more confident.
Written by Todd Widom
I truly enjoyed my time going around to the best clubs in Boca Raton and Delray Beach watching some of my students compete in one of the most prestigious events that is played in my own backyard. It brought back memories of when I played the 18’s Clay Courts. It was also nice catching up with many of the men that I competed with throughout my junior, college, and professional tennis career, as well as, catching up with the college coaches that were coaching college tennis when I was in college. Most of these men who have stayed in the tennis business after their college or professional career became college coaches. I have noticed that not many have gone into junior development, but both jobs have their challenges.
What I would like to speak about is how your son or daughter is going to impress the college coaches so that they can attend one of these fine colleges and have a great four years as a student athlete. First, the college coaches were coming from junior Wimbledon so that already shows you that your son or daughter is competing against the best juniors in the world for these spots on college tennis teams. The reality of the situation is, and I am sorry to tell you, is that these coaches are not traveling to Europe to recruit American players. You may be thinking how can my child make it to one of these good universities and be a starter in the lineup, when they are competing with the best juniors in the world for these starting lineup spots.
Before I get into any discussion about hitting a tennis ball, let’s speak about movement and the physicality of what it takes to be successful, not only on a clay surface, but on any surface. I am seeing kids that do not have any understanding of how to move, court positioning, and use of their lower body to load and explode into a ground stroke. At this tournament, sliding into a shot so you can recover is imperative. Your child’s understanding of the difference between offense, neutral, and defensive positions is crucial to what shot they are going to hit to break down their opponent across the net. For example, if you are eight feet behind the baseline and you hit the ball like you do when you are three feet behind the baseline, the ball will land short and you will not get out of a defensive position. Most likely, you will be running at the fence because you defended poorly. A sign of a high level player is one that can be put on defense and turn that defense into offense during the point. This is what you are seeing with the best tennis players in the world on television, especially with the men’s game. The women’s game has some first strike players like Jelena Ostapenko who know they struggle with mobility so they have to get that first big strike in to start the point. Roger Federer, James Blake, Novak Djokovic, and Andre Agassi are some of the men that can or did take the ball so much earlier than any other players. If you think your son or daughter has this type of eye hand coordination and timing, they are a one in a million tennis player. We need more of these type players in the United States.
Is your son or daughter able to adapt their game to be able to play on the slow clay courts? I am seeing junior players not adapting their game styles and just banging a ball and running. They are also banging a ball at targets on the court that does not really do much. At this level, placement of a shot on a proper target with moderate pace is far more valuable than ripping a ball that hits a foot past the service line. If you watch closely, what targets are the juniors hitting and how many quality shots does it take for one of the players to be dominating the middle of the court because they have a short ball.
I would like to touch on what I am seeing with the junior tennis players as it pertains to their strokes. I am seeing tight and hitchy type strokes that have trouble generating power. It is unnatural. There is no feeling in the hands and wrists. The player should be able to swing and hit, but instead there are multiple complicated steps for hitting a groundstroke. To generate power, the power comes from your core and lower body, and wrist acceleration. Instead, I am seeing unnatural strokes, and chances are that your son or daughter have taken all these super complex tennis lessons and cannot produce a solid, powerfully hit tennis ball.
Lastly, many kids have only one game plan and if that plan is not working that day, they will have an unhappy car ride back to their hotel room. Great tennis players have multiple game plans based on how they are playing that day, plus they have to take into consideration how their opponent is playing that day. For example, in my quarterfinal match at the 18’s Clay Courts, I was playing a player who was ranked about 30 in the world in junior tennis. I started the match great and was hitting behind him a lot during the rallies because he had trouble moving on clay and was slipping and sliding all over the place. The second set came around and he started getting his footing and started dominating some of the rallies. We split sets and it rained. In the third set, I decided to start taking the ball a bit earlier and start taking time away and come into the net more. I took his second serve and hit the return and came into the net which I had practiced many times. I ended up winning the match and was fortunate enough to win the Super National Clay Courts Tournament a few days later, but the point to the story is that if you have a failing game plan, you must make adjustments to get through that day with a win. Now understanding when to change game plans is a different story and that is taught by an experienced and knowledgeable coach so you are able to have a complete game to get through a long tournament. Best of luck to your son or daughter the next time they play Super National Clays Courts or any other clay court tournament.
Written By Todd Widom
This article was prompted by an increasing number of parents over the years contacting me for a truthful assessment of their child’s tennis. It is not so easy to receive the truth for some so I am here to give you the truth. Many parents get very excited when their 12 or 14 year old is obtaining excellent results. Does it mean that the child will go on to do great things in tennis? Maybe, but in many cases the real answer is no. The strategy of spending money is easy, because as long as your child is winning everyone is happy. However, you may not be so happy in the later stages of your child’s junior career when they need to peak to get into a great school.
The essence of what I am getting at is if you think your child is having great results, be prepared that you are going to keep investing in his or her playing career. The issue is that you want your child to peak when he or she is 16 to 18 years old and what you must face is the reality that your child is going to require the necessary tools to attend a great university or maybe play professional tennis. Just because your child is winning, does not mean that they have the necessary foundation and tools to play great tennis in their last couple of years of junior tennis, which is when it matters most.
The younger divisions of junior tennis are for learning and developing your game for when you are older. What parents must understand, is that your child should be learning how to train, compete, construct points, have a great attitude, and be mentally prepared. There is no time to be trying various strategies, or going from academy to academy. You will lose precious time and no child has that luxury. Certainly, if an academy or coach is not working out then a change is required, but due diligence and research is required to find the right coach.
When a person gets an opinion from a doctor that they need surgery, they should get a second opinion. The same holds true in tennis. When a student is looking for a new coach or to improve on something in their game, they should interview coaches, obtain a second opinion, and select the one they feel like will get them to the best place in their game.
In addition, when your child is figuring out what college they would like to attend, they should have a list of schools, research them and visit them. I counsel many kids and their parents on these issues. You are making a financial investment in your child’s tennis, and your child is making a commitment to tennis. In addition, the coach is making an investment in your child and their tennis career. What I keep seeing over and over again are junior tennis players not peaking from sixteen to eighteen years old and this is not only a very significant problem, but this is also a costly mistake the parents absorb financially and the player absorbs physically, mentally and educationally. Even though each case is different, what I can tell you is that the majority of kids do not have the solid foundation required to play at higher levels of tennis. As a coach, mentor, friend, and teacher to my students, I make sure that all aspects of what creates a strong and solid foundation are set into motion from day one. This is the only way I know how to do it, and I am not merely a coach. My business actually started this way as parents were panicking that they have spent all this time, effort and money, and at the most important juncture of their child’s junior tennis career, their child is faltering, their foundation is cracking and their dreams are quickly dissolving into thin air. Do yourself a favor and get your child assessed by someone experienced so that you will save yourself major headaches in the upcoming years.
As the Orange Bowl Boys and Girls 16’s and 18’s International Tournament in South Florida is coming to a close, and the Boys and Girls 12’s and 14’s are getting underway, it is important to note there are some players that come from different climates to play in this prestigious event. I coach players who come to South Florida from the northeast that have to learn to adapt their games to be able to succeed outdoors. This is also going to be true for all the players that are heading out to Arizona for the winter nationals that are coming from indoor tennis training. I am seeing a lot of similarities in the way these junior players are playing and constructing points, and if they do not make the necessary adjustments from indoor to outdoor tennis, they are not going to be too successful in an outdoor climate.
The students I train know my tennis background and know that I was trained by some very tough Argentine disciplinarian coaches, who produced some of the best professionals and also some of the best amateurs in this country over the past thirty plus years. In this day and age of technology, YouTube videos, and over coaching are what players may use to learn how to adapt to tennis outdoors. This article is about the different issues I see with the players coming from indoor tennis and trying to adapt to outdoor tennis, which tends to be very difficult. Remember, everything that these young players do, whether it is good or bad is a habit, so this transition from indoor tennis to outdoor tennis is not easy for many kids. (more…)
At sixteen years old I was one of the top juniors in the United States. My dream from when I was a young boy was to be a professional tennis player. I had dreams of playing in front of big crowds on television and on the best stages in the world. I was starting to grow and I was getting stronger due to some very intense physical and tennis training that I was doing on a daily basis.
In 1999 I was preparing for an important junior tournament, I booked my airline ticket, a rental car for my mom or coach to drive and a hotel room. (more…)
The vast majority of your children are not going to do what this article is discussing. To be elite in this sport, you have to be different than the rest, and it is the small things that make the biggest difference if you want to be special. If you do not go above and beyond the call of duty, you will be like the rest. It all depends what your child wants out of their tennis.
This past December I had a discussion with a young touring professional who was having trouble sustaining his level of fitness during matches on the ATP tour. He had some very good chances to win matches against good players, but he would run out of gas and not be able to sustain his level of play. After telling me his physical issues during his matches, he asked me if he should be doing fitness during tournaments. My quick response was, of course!
Included in this article is information on fitness for those who are trying to become elite junior tennis players. The norm for a junior tennis player is to warm up for their match, play their match, maybe stretch 5 to10 minutes, get food, maybe play another match or go to the movies, or hang out with their tennis friends for the rest of the day. If the junior tennis player trains well for a tournament, they should be physically fit entering each and every tournament. The reality is that if this player does not keep up their level of fitness during tournaments, they will be out of shape when they come back to train once their tournament is complete. For every day they skip doing some physical fitness during a tournament, they will lose a bit of their physical conditioning, which will have to be boosted up again when they come home to train. (more…)