Martin Blackman opens Blackman Tennis Academy in Delray Beach, Florida today. "After three very rewarding years wth USTA Player Development, I want to get back to my passion of coaching committed junior players," said Blackman.
Blackman is the former USTA Senior Director of Talent Identification and Development, past head of the Junior Champions Center in College Park, Maryland and Men's Tennis Coach at American University. His new academy will operate as a boutique training facility that will focus on developing high performance players.
I asked Blackman the 5 most common things players at all levels do wrong when looking to grow their game. Here is his list:
1. Most players who do not consider themselves high performance do not set long-terms goals for themselves. Learn from recreational runners; most of the runners I know have goals and benchmarks for their ‘times’ and training. They stay motivated and focused by going after their goals and hitting their benchmarks. Tennis players of all levels should meet with their instructor or ‘team captain’ or doubles partner to set short, mid and long-term goals for their game.
Tennis is a running game.
Tennis technique is dictated by parameters (a range of acceptability for grips and stroke production).
Tennis is a game of errors not winners.
Those three elements define tennis at every level; athleticism, technical competency and tenacity are the trifecta of tennis. Players should seek an honest appraisal of those three aspects of their game, and ask their coach to formulate a plan to improve one area at a time. The goals should be realistic, based on the limitations of the player’s abilities and the amount of time that they are able to devote to training.
3. Most players don’t understand the role of practice. The terms ‘deep practice’ and ‘deliberate practice’ describe the neural processes involved with learning skills. Repetitions of any sort create neural pathways in the brain, therefore, if I have been hitting my forehand the wrong way for 10 years, I won’t be able to fix it in ten days!
The rule of thumb is, the more ingrained the habit, the more deliberate the practice necessary to correct it. Supervised drills and repetition will replace "bad habits" with the correct technique. Supervision is a necessity for correcting a bad habit, because the player will invariably return to the old habit when fatigued or unfocused.
The flip side is, when the player – typically a young child - is taught the right way the first time, he or she can engage in deep or deliberate practice on their own, without supervision. In tennis, this could mean practice sets, or hitting against a backboard or shadowing.
4. Many players need to spend more time practicing patterns off the serve and return. At every level of instruction and play we don’t spend enough time on the serve and return. The serve especially, is the beginning of holding serve, which should be a tactical goal for players of all levels.
As a coach, I love to work on ground stroke and transition patterns, getting high reps and getting my player to move and execute correctly, to high percentage targets. But now, in order to help my players improve their serves and returns, I often start the drill with them serving or returning, to give the drill a more realistic context. I will not feed the ball unless the player makes the serve or return, and my feed will be based on the strength and placement of their serve.
Having said that, the serve is the most complex stroke in the game, and must be worked on in isolation as well, to ensure good reproducible techniques.
5. ‘Playing up’ too much. Everyone wants to play up! Tennis players love to play players that are better or ranked higher than they are. There is a simple reason for this, when we play up; there is no pressure! We typically hit out, and play better than we would in a high pressure situation. There is one big problem with this desire to always play up:
Playing up means losing. Playing up all the time, means losing all the time.
I can’t think of any reminder more important to coaches, players and parents alike, than WINNING IS A HABIT!