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USTA's Performance Team Model streamlines holistic development
In the years leading up to the 2017 grand opening of the USTA National Campus in Orlando, the groundwork for another foundational element of the USTA’s player pathway was also being laid. From the early 2010s, USTA Player & Coach Development began to adopt a Performance Team Model in consultation with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. This model of holistic development has now become central to the work done by PCD to improve players—and coaches—at all levels of tennis in the U.S.
“Our success over the last 13 years can be attributed to a balanced approach of targeted investment and direct support of our top players and broad, educational indirect support to the entire competitive ecosystem,” Martin Blackman, the general manager of USTA Player and Coach Development, said. “The two wings of the plane are culture and excellence. … We’ve gone through three cycles of development since 2008, with the results showing throughout the pathway because of the combined focus on these two areas.”
The concept is to decentralize decision-making—an area previously dominated by coaches—and bring together experts on the various topics critical to high-performance tennis. These experts come from the various arms of the Performance Team, including strength & conditioning, mental performance, sports medicine, performance analytics, equipment optimization and more.
“We were very coach-driven, and we still tend to be coach-driven, but we needed a better balance of people in these very specialized fields to be able to bring to light a little bit more feedback in those specific areas,” David Ramos, the director of coaching education & performance analytics with PCD, said. “The coach can proceed with their advice, like a system of checks and balances.”
While a tennis coach can be a jack of all trades, with knowledge across the board, utilizing the subject experts within the USTA helps create a more well-rounded plan for a player’s overall growth. Gathering input from these various departments within PCD is not new, but the streamlined operation of the Performance Team Model has synergized their expertise like never before.
“We had great professionals in each department, but we didn’t communicate with each other very efficiently,” Satoshi Ochi, PCD's head strength and conditioning coach, said. “That’s not to say we didn’t communicate at all—we did.
“But we were trying to figure out the best way of connecting each one of us in the Performance Team. That’s ultimately good for our players—that’s the whole purpose of it in PCD, trying to develop the next generation of tennis champions.”
Novak Djokovic’s rise to world No. 1 can be traced to a similar model, according to Ramos. The Serbian reshaped his diet after learning of a gluten allergy and remade his serve early in his professional career—using external help for both, outside of his coaching staff.
Citing the example of improving a player’s backhand, Ochi shared how the Performance Team framework might work from his perspective at the USTA.
“If it’s a backhand—to make that shot better you have to be loading better and transfer the energy better,” he said. “So what I can do is make the legs stronger and at the same time do more movement-specific drills.”
Throughout the process, Ochi would report progress to the rest of the team in both casual huddles and more formal quarterly meetings. Eventually, a new goal is set—perhaps a mechanical or biomechanical target, one that requires video analysis to view in totality, and a new strength & conditioning approach.
“It’s all connected around their goals,” Ochi said.
Dr. Larry Lauer, a mental skills specialist with PCD, also tailors his work to the specific targets set by the Performance Team. “Our priority is supporting whatever areas of focus or goals that the team is coming up with,” he said. “We ask, ‘How do we support that?’ ‘How is the brain involved?’ ‘How is their thinking impacting their ability to strive toward and achieve this goal?’”
Lauer often collaborates with coaches to implement mental performance training into practices and match play. Relying on the analytics team, he may request video footage to inform his work—looking at a player's routine in between points, for example. Or perhaps he will drop in to a strength or fitness session, teaching breathing techniques and body language as players do sprints.
In addition to these regular interactions between departments, formal Performance Team meetings are held quarterly, usually coinciding with the changes in playing surface at the professional level. These meetings—which could focus on a specific player, in the case of pros, or a larger group of juniors in the same age group — allow the group to digest learnings from one part of the season and plan ahead for the next part of the competitive calendar.
This meeting time with players and coaches is an opportunity to review progress from the perspective of the various experts and present a unified message.
“We usually have a pre-meeting with the Performance Team where everybody gets together and lays everything out that they want to talk about,” explained Ramos, “maybe get some things resolved before we have the player, the agent and the external coaches in the room so that we're all on the same page about where we stand internally and what the approach is going to be.”
The program is run similarly from the junior level through the professionals, though the pro players are handled on an individual basis while the juniors are grouped together by age.
“In general, we try to run it as similarly as possible,” Ramos said.
At the junior level, the USTA also provides stipends for coaches to attend camps with players so they can gain exposure to the various arms of the Performance Team Model first-hand and bring that knowledge back to their everyday routine.
PCD is also keen to use its work at the National Campus as a sort of tennis lab, with the goal of discovering best practices and spreading information to coaches, players and parents throughout the country.
“There's only so many players who are on the pathway to becoming top professionals, but we have to try to take the best practices from each one of these areas,” Ramos explained, discussing potential for growth within the Performance Team model.
“The things that we see very clearly and trends in the different age groups, we want to try to communicate that with the industry and become known as experts and say, ‘Hey, this is what we've experienced here as the best practices. Here's how you can apply some of the things that we've learned without having to have your own doctor, or a $100,000 Hawk-Eye system, or something like that.’
“I think it's always about trying to scale our learnings and pass on the best practices in a way that the whole country can get better and improve.”
“We love it when players progress and develop at home with their private coaches and their own teams, because that frees up more resources for the players that need them,” Blackman added, “but even for those players who have what they need at home and are independent, we are always available and accessible for them as a resource. We often learn from what they are doing as well.”
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