Meet Gill, Nikki and Miguel. They have all played professionally on ATP and/or ITF tours and are all full-time Tennis Directors on Nike Tennis Camps in England each summer.
Q. What are you looking for on the first day the player arrives?
Gill: “For me, as soon as we have a new player on court, I’m looking at technique, of course, but also speed and fitness levels”
Nikki: “I look at the player’s attitude. Is he or she going to want to work hard? With hard work and focus, great things are possible. Without hard work, improvement is restricted to basic talent – and basic talent is not enough”
Miguel: “Usually, I look at their shot construction first. If they have a solid technique, then we can work a lot more of fitness and tactics. If they have a shot which breaks down regularly, then obviously we are going to work a lot on that first”
Q. In summer 2016, you trained some very talented young players. Were there any common characteristics?
Gill: “The best players all want to train hard – on alternate mornings, before breakfast, we run a 45-minute fitness session and, again, at the end of the day as part of the warm down. We make the training a little bit competitive so you see them thinking ‘ I’m not going to lose this shuttle run’ . This attitude makes a big difference. Then you see a player who is not perhaps the best tennis player, but he is going to show he is the fittest. And what happens? Suddenly, he performs better on court. He has a little mental edge now.”
Nikki: “The strong players, even if they have a solid technique , they still want to learn more. Listening is a great start. We have 3 senior coaches who have all played professionally – we can tell them things that will make a difference in their next tournament”
Miguel: “The best players always want to win. They want to beat everyone , including the coaches! We had a boy this year aged 14. He had the mental attitude of a pro. ‘Don’t lose a point’ that was his mind set. He was a fine player and a great example to the others, older and younger.”
Q. What do you have to work on more than anything else?
Gill: “Depends on the player. Some are very talented but a little bit lazy. Then they lose to a player with less talent but more hunger. Then we have a chance to say ‘Look – you are a much better player – but you need to focus and you need to work harder’ “
Nikki: “As Gill says, it depends. It’s tough playing serious tennis while you’re growing physically and mentally. There are times when you just don’t feel like it. That is something we help the players to overcome. We set them challenges and stir their competitive natures!!”
Miguel: “ Anybody who beats me gets a chocolate bar. How many did I buy this summer? Zero – but it was close! Seriously, desire is very important – you have to want to do it so we use a range of different motivations”`
Q. Technically, do you have to suggest many changes in technique?
Gill: “Most of the players have been playing a lot. Their technique, if they play regularly for a club, is generally good but for those who play mostly on clay, yes they need to make small adjustments . For instance, grass is so fast; you don’t have the time to take a long swing; everything has to be shortened. In terms of the fundamental technique, we are not going to change the way players have been coached at home.”
Nikki: “Many players have poor volleying technique. They have been taught to hit hard from the baseline and rely on a big serve. But then they come up against a player who uses a lot of slice and drop shots , and suddenly they are at the net….with no idea what to do next!”
Miguel: “Grass is a big change ; many players who come to us have great technique on their favourite surface but grass, clay, acrylic…they are all different; you need to make little changes. As your shot selection changes, so you must change your tactics too”
Q. Mentally, how do you get the players to focus?
Gill: “A lot of the players play regularly in tournaments. They can focus….but for some, when a game gets tight or they lose a couple of easy points, then their mental attitude gets worse. You have to learn to fight your way out of a bad run. We teach them to stay in the game; whatever happens hang in there”
Nikki: “0-6, 0-6, 0-5 doesn’t mean you have to lose. We encourage self-belief. It’s a big part of what we do, on and off the court. A lot of these players are not as confident as they should be. We use little techniques to help them improve; a lot of it is encouragement and some of it has nothing to do with tennis!”
Miguel: “I had to learn this at a young age and I remember how difficult it was. But if you don’t do it, suddenly you miss a couple of points, the game is gone , then the match is gone. Mental resilience - without that, it is a huge struggle but, you know, with a little help , we see some of these players really improve in this area. It’s amazing.”
Q. What does a typical day look like on Nike Tennis Camps?
Gill: “If it’s an early fitness day, we get the players up at 07.00, fitness session for 45 minutes, then breakfast, following that the players have 30 minutes to get themselves ready for the day. We have a morning meeting to discuss the objectives on court, then tennis until 12.30. Players have time for a shower, lunch at 13.00 followed by an hour of downtime.
We meet again at 14.30, debrief on the morning, brief for the afternoon. Usually players will rotate coaches and court surfaces so the afternoon is always a different challenge to the morning. The briefing and de briefing is important because the players need to know what they are doing and WHY they are doing it…it helps with the bigger picture. And it’s good for their English!
The afternoon session finishes around 16.30 , then warm down and maybe a short fitness session. Off for showers. Supper at about 18.30 and from 19.30 we have evening activities. Some players will want more tennis, that is fine. Some will want downtime in the player lounge, or we might play some 5 a side football or watch a video. We monitor the players for tiredness. Generally, after 3 to 4 days we know how much activity each player can manage comfortably.”
Q. What else can you do to help players progress?
Gill: “We have them playing a lot of games – singles, doubles, short sets. Very often a result can turn on one or two points and very often, a player loses because of poor shot selection …for instance, trying for an all-out winner when he is dominating the rally and there is no need. This is just part of the learning curve of match strategy and we talk a lot to the players about this”
Nikki: “I agree. Understanding what shot to hit becomes automatic – when you’re an adult! But when you’re learning, playing someone with a very different style , or the wind is blowing, you need to think differently. We work a lot on this with the players ‘what are you going to do if...?’ ‘ what are you going to rely on to win you this game?’ This is an area where we see players improve a lot. “
Miguel: “ So much is self-belief. It is strange that often the most talented players seem to have the least belief in their ability! The psychological side of the game is absolutely critical – you are on your own, showing yourself to the world, no team mates to help you…….a lot of young people find that very uncomfortable…until they get used to it. And used to winning! Then it’s a different story!”
Q. What feedback do you ask for from the players?
Gill: “We give them a player pack at the start of the camp. Every day they have to complete basic information – how did you sleep, how do you feel today physically, how well did you play/focus yesterday? We have been doing this for years and it gives us good insight into what is going on, whether a player is getting tired, whether they are resting enough etc”
Q. What happens off court?
Gill: “It’s important they get enough downtime. We have a players lounge for them to relax in. We might play a little bit of football . We make sure they are eating enough. We make sure they call home! Sleep is not normally an issue – they get tired ! It’s great being with them 24/7, everyone learns about everyone else, their language , their culture, their school life etc.”
Nikki: “I’m always amazed at how organised these young players are. Those on one of the English courses seem to work really hard and fit in their course work at all hours. They are impressive and actually quite inspiring! Nike Tennis is hard work but the returns are great”
Miguel: “Off-site excursions are important. Gives the players a chance to unwind. Experiencing Real Tennis at one of the great castles in England, Hampton Court, is always great. We treat them all like young professionals. And they behave like young professionals. Mostly!”