Jack L. Groppel, Ph.D.
Senior Partner and Principal, LGE Performance Systems, Inc.
Honorary Chair, USTA Sport Science Committee
Without question, some of the most critical moments of your tennis-coaching career occur in the moments, hours and sometimes days following a big match. Win or lose, the athlete wants the feedback, support and knowledge that will take him or her to the next level. You must be sensitive to the athlete’s needs. In other words, you have to be gentle when you need to be, tough if necessary, ready to answer questions, ready to practice, prepared to work with a trainer, and sometimes just ready to listen and not talk. But how do you know what to do and when to do it? This article will try to answer that, based on what we know from science and from the experiences of those coaches who have worked with top players under stressful conditions following a match.
Rule #1 – Set the ground rules with your players (long before the competition) about their expectations of you once the match concludes. What you say and how you say it are important. Even more important, it’s not as much what you say as much as how it’s perceived by the player. So, before we proceed into a menu of what to do, you must talk with your players about their expectations of you after a match. We call these the, “rules of engagement.” Each of us has worked with players who don’t want to talk for at least 20-30 minutes after a match as well as with players who want a complete breakdown of the match immediately afterward.
Rule #2—The rules of engagement must be agreed upon with the parents. As everyone knows, this might be easier said than done. The key is developing a good relationship with the parents and earning their respect about your role as the coach. When the relationship is solid among the parents, coach and player, many great things can happen for all involved. You will grow as a coach, the parents will grow in their relationship with their child and the player will get the best fromeveryone!
Rule #3 – Strive to communicate clearly in all that you do. Many coaches make the mistake of believing that knowledge is king when it comes to coaching. Well, knowledge of all aspects of the game are important, but the communication of that knowledge is even more critical. And, communication of knowledge is different than just knowing what happened or what to do. Coaches have been seen after a match giving an “information dump” to players who actually do not care “what the coach knows” – players only care how it applies to them. Are you clear in what you are saying? Does the athlete ever say, “Coach, I’m not following you,” or, “I don’t understand what you mean?” Always strive to understand how to say what you want in the simplest, most effective way. The goal should be that the athlete could act upon what you say and improve.
Rule #4 – Make it safe to talk. Being able to talk things out and let your players talk about what they want is a skill. You must be able to create an environment where the athlete is comfortable and not threatened. Listening to the needs of the athlete is crucial here. The players know you are there for them and they will eventually want to talk. You might hear something like; “I really had a hard time with my inside-out forehand today.” Your response could be, “It seemed to me that you were just missing it a little.” And then, go on, if--and only if--the athlete feels comfortable talking.
That being said, let’s discuss a laundry list of what you should consider doing and saying after the match. Many of us have watched our players lose and we immediately know what they were doing wrong technically and what they should do to improve upon the problem. Error detection and correction is tricky right after a match. What if you player has another match to play in a couple of hours and you start telling them about their mechanics on a certain shot? Odds are that the player would go through what is called “paralysis by analysis” and whatever “game” they had would go even further downhill. Few players want to hear immediately what they did wrong mechanically, whether they win or lose. Let the players celebrate a win or get over a loss on their own time. You will usually have plenty of time to go over match statistics or video replay later. Rule #5 - Don’t over-correct!
But, what if it is a small tip and the player has another match coming up right away or what if the player is frustrated about how poorly he/she was executing the shot and really wants your input? Here, you may very well want to explain what happened and what to do but make sure the environment is calm. If the player is frustrated or excited, calm him/her down and explain it very simple terms. Saying something like this can go a long way: “Hey, it wasn’t that bad. All you have to do is…and the problem will correct itself.” The simplicity with which you must communicate cannot be overemphasized. And, at the end of the day, you must use common sense about where the player is psychologically and be the judge of what to do.
Strategy and tactics involve another area you must consider. Your thoughts and your approach may be a bit different here. Assuming the player wants to talk, the sooner you can remind him/her of what they were doing tactically, along with why and how it could have been better, the easier the player might understand what you’re concerned with and improve upon it. This feedback may be lost if you wait too long afterward because the player might not remember the instance(s) you talking about, unless of course, you have videotape of the match to which you can refer.
Rule #6 – Be prepared to help! One thing you must be ready to do is help the athlete. It might be with nutrition and hydration, or it could be to re-grip a racquet, or any one of a hundred different things. Yes, some coaches feel that the players should be responsible for these areas, but there will be times when your players need your help, advice and wisdom.
The area you really need to be prepared in is nutrition. Their water bottle might be empty, they ran out of energy bars, sport drinks or any number of other things might have happened. You already know how critical nourishment after a match is; that athletes need water and energy for recovery very soon afterwards. Also, be ready to give your players some grace here. Have the sport drinks ready, a few extra energy bars or sandwiches in the cooler. You may just save the day!
Rule #7: Understand all aspects of emergency care at the tournament site (location of ice packs, trainers available, etc.). What if the athlete has a muscle strain or some other minor injury? Your job is to know where ice packs are and guide the player by responding to his/her needs. Since this could be an article in and of itself, you must know your resources. If this an area where you could improve your actionable knowledge, the USTA Sport Science Committee has published Emergency Care Guidelines. Contact the Sport Science Department to obtain a copy.
Rule #8 – Know how your athletes’ best warm-down (or cool-down) – If you have worked with the players for a while, you know them, their mentalities and their bodies. You know how tight they are or how loose-jointed they are. Few people know them like you do. Guiding them in their warm-down or cool-down is essential. Many players have allowed themselves to NOT warm down or cool down and then get injured on some very simple movement a little while later. The key word here is to be intentional about what to do. Have a routine for coming down after the match and for stretching. Everyone knows the body is the warmest after activity, so stretching is most important at this time. You can stretch your player, which again creates safety with the player and stresses the fact that you really care about them. Helping the player stretch actually build a bond without any words being said.
Rule #9 – Know your sport psychology. Some players struggle with pressure. And, even those who don’t struggle with pressure often don’t have any rituals between points; they just go through the motions. Today’s coach is savvy enough to know that only 35% of a match is spent hitting balls and 65% is spent between points and on the changeovers. What is your player doing mentally during these non-playing times? Are they using their between-point rituals and recovering properly on the changeover? After the match, help relieve any pressure they may feel by ensuring them that they were doing their rituals and doing the right things. (If they weren’t doing the right things, decide when the appropriate time will occur that you can coach them on what to do). The worst thing you can do is just say, “You weren’t doing what you were supposed to be doing.” That says nothing to the player and will hurt your relationship because you are not offering solutions, you are only pointing out the problems. Remember that the brain can only effectively handle one thing at a time. What you say must be perceived as constructive and helpful.
Rule #10 – Develop post-match rituals. After a tough match, your players could be going through any number of emotions based on how they played and whether they won or lost. Professional players on the tours have noted that, after the match and because they are so keyed up from competing, they are virtually in a daze, almost numb to everything around them, almost like “a deer in the headlights.” Regardless of how your players respond, one thing is for sure: After a long match, their bodies have been physically and emotionally taxed. It is important that they have rituals in place for the warm-down (or cool-down). These routines should be very specific and structured so that they will become automatic over time and employed after every match. You and your players should be very clear as to what each of you is to do. Your role as coach and leader is central to this. For example, perhaps you and your players have rituals in place where you help them stretch. Not only will you play a pivotal role in stretching them, you build rituals into their lives that serve a major purpose for both of you.