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Monday, March 2, 2009

Talking with Robert Lansdorp

©Colette Lewis 2009--

I had the pleasure of speaking with famed coach Robert Lansdorp today from his Southern California home, and although his phone call caught me a bit by surprise (hence the paraphrasing), I thoroughly enjoyed picking his brain on the subject of player development. I will do a great disservice to his knowledge and his opinions to summarize them so casually, but I am going to try to get at the heart of some the views he shared with me. Those who know him, whether personally or by reputation (he's coached Maria Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport, Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras and many, many others) knows that he speaks his mind, on and off the court, leading to some expletives (BS in its full form being a frequent one) here and there for effect.

Lansdorp is now on an USTA coaches advisory board, although he said he is still waiting to actually do something, and he joked that he really couldn't criticize them anymore given that relationship--and then went on to do just that. Near the end of our talk, however, he mentioned his hope that Patrick McEnroe was capable of steering player development in the right direction, although he added he would be more confident of that were McEnroe not also doing TV and Davis Cup.

He was skeptical of the "get the best athlete" approach that now seems to be the rage, and then offered this anecdote.

There were a group of athletic girls who gathered for a drill, and one was the fastest girl in the school--a track star. In a drill of running to the baseline and touching the net when the word "go" was given, she won. But the girl who finished second in that race finished ahead of the track star when it came to chasing down a drop shot he hit.

Lansdorp attributed that to eye-foot coordination, which he feels is much more important than hand-eye, and suggested it may account for the European domination of the game now. Other qualities he looks for in assessing a prospect (and although he will go as young as four, he seems to prefer the 8 to 10 age group):

--Parental involvement. A parent dedicated to doing what it takes to get the child to the lessons, the tournaments, the practice matches.

--Ball striking (my phrase, not his). He looks for a cleanly struck ball, with depth, and--this seems counter-intuitive to me--no unforced errors. They are a waste of my time, he said.

--Willingness to be coached. Lansdorp is famous for throwing players off his courts if they do not show the ability to concentrate, absorb his teachings and try their best to implement his suggestions.

--Independent thinking. If a player can't offer his own feedback on the reasons for his errors or his winners, Lansdorp questions whether he can process information appropriately for high-level tennis. I suspect that mumbling "I don't know" when asked why you hit a drop shot will get you thrown off the court in a hurry.

--Love of the game. Although Lansdorp scoffed at this when I phrased it that way, he did say later that a player really needs to enjoy just hitting the ball, wants to hit the ball again and again.

--Competitiveness. Wanting to play matches and caring about winning them. He went on to deride the USTA's decision some years ago, since abandoned, to shield 12-and-unders from the pressure of competing.

The only young player he mentioned today by name was Kazakhstan's Mariya Shishkina, the 10-year-old I wrote about at last year's Eddie Herr, citing her unusually consistent depth. He mentioned a four-year-old that he threw off the court, calling him talented but spoiled--a "mini-McEnroe" I think was his phrase--and suggested that he come back in ten years. He talked about a girl from Texas with "a golden arm," and about an 11-year-old who was oblivious to the skill and the desire of all the other boys his age around the world.

Lansdorp is not sold on academies, although he does concede their value as far as practice and competition, and had kind words for the atmosphere and opportunities at Bollettieri's. He was very critical of all the "academies" that start as a coach and one or two good players and then suddenly have 30 juniors of varying levels doing nothing but drilling. Lansdorp believes one-on-one coaching is the foundation of development but although it may be tempting to reduce development principles, like I just have, into bite-size morsels, it's ultimately misleading.

"It's not that simple," he said. "It's complicated."

28 comments:

Not_Guga said...

I love that P Mac is getting all of these different types of thinkers together for American tennis.

I was fortunate to experience a small group lesson with Lansdorp many years ago. He came to my town during a Vilas-McEnroe exo and my neighbor somehow scored two of like 8 tickets in the city for a lesson with him in the arena that morning. My mom pulled me and a friend out of school and took us down there. It was great. It was just six middle-aged ladies and the two of us high school kids.

After an hour they all left and they let us play in the empty area. Lansdorp came back after lunch and talked to us while we played. Robert Van Hof was traveling with him at the time. He came out and hit balls with us.

What a great time.

Amtex said...

Robert is a little delusional. Yes, he has worked with some excellent players. But his down fall is his arrogance. If you watch the Spanish and Russian and Croatian and Argentinean coaches work, they are nurturing. They adapt to the individuals, some 5 year olds are talented yet bratty, other 5 year olds talented yet can concentrate.

Robert constantly judges and throws kids off the courts. His immense ego is horrible. The coaches from other countries that are producing top players are almost egoless.
The other countries are much better at working with young kids.

Hence the wave upon wave of foreign, elite kids that will only dominate tennis more and more.

Robert is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

tennisjunky said...

collete

who is the girl w/ the golden arm?

Colette Lewis said...

I don't know.

Duey Evans said...

Robert Lansdorp has proven himself to be an independant thinker who has played a relavent role in the development of several GREAT players. His abrasive nature holds possibly the most important component of the player/coach relationship. His is amazingly consistent in his beliefs and actions.

I would also say that he had evolved over time. Where he once would teach a one stroke fits all kind of way, he has learned that players adapt by making unconscious corrections. Hence he now actively teaches what he refers to as a "reverse forehand".

If he were a jockey, he would only do well with a mount who responds to the whip. But were I an owner who had a three year old who only responded to the whip, he would be my jockey.

Eric Amend said...

Amtex,

Robert Lansdorp didn't "work with some excellent players" as if he was some tercerary coach in passing. He built Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, Eliot Teltsher, Robert Van't Hof, Jeff Tarango, Justin Gimelstob and Maria Sharapova from the ground up along with a host of others like myself, whom you've never heard of but were always nationally top 5 ranked juniors in the country and National Champions. Which lead to other pros, such as French Open Champion Anastasia Myskina, taking lessons from him once they were established tour veterans.

I started taking lessons from him back in 1977, when I was 11 years old up until the time I went to play college tennis at USC. I grew up practicing with Tracy, Eliot, Robert Van't Hof, Jeff and Justin. "We" were all scared of Robert when we were younger but the process made us tougher and we all knew that he made us tougher, and better, so we stayed with him. As we got older, he didn't seem as mean spirited as we thought he once was because we survived his wrath and things always look meaner when you're a young kid. He taught us the ability to concentrate and focus under pressure IN PRACTICE as if it were a match, something that too many of today's juniors lack and never figure out until it's too late.

I'll admit that Robert's style is a bit abrasive but it has two objectives that have proven effective. 1) He weeds out the spoiled, "bratty" young type of player that wilts under his pressure that this country has had tremendous success in developing into spoiled, "bratty", and egotistical teenagers that never really amount to much in terms of professional tennis. He isn't trying to make good college players or junior recreational players. He's trying to make seasoned professionals so forgive him for being so honest in his approach.

Which leads me to the main purpose of his abrasive style. 2) The young players who meet his demands for excellence and keep coming back for more are taught the ability to execute under intense pressure which is what playing professional tennis is all about. I'll say it again, EXECUTION UNDER INTENSE PRESSURE.

Parents and players should already know what they are getting themselves into before they dare step on "his" court for a lesson since his reputation as being a hard-a** precedes him with more than 30 years of success!

Also, I challenge your overgeneralization of coaches from other countries that are "egoless" and "nurturing" in which you seem privy to what goes on behind close doors without any facts to back up your statement what-so-ever. I mean, just because you might see what happens at a tournament between a player and a coach, doesn't mean that the coach doesn't scold or criticize their player at home during a private lesson held away from the public eye.

Actually, the tone of your post hints at you having been privy to the experience of a parent of a player that Robert "judged and threw off his court"?

And what you may call "nurturing", I like to call butt kissing and our country has definitely dominated the tennis world in that category which has lead us to a host of spoiled American junior players that falter upon "turning professional" and forgoing college tennis where they could have developed into a better player before being thrown into the cut throat pro world.

Are there other types of coaches that are successful with an opposite approach?? Of course, but as I said before, you need to know what you're getting yourself into BEFORE you step on his court for a lesson. We all have our faults but my view is that Robert Lansdorp is one of the great coaches of all time.

kdt said...

I think the most telling comment is early on, when he says that he is still waiting to actually do something. That makes me concerned that his membership on the board is just window-dressing, and that nobody actually intends to take advantage of his expertise.

I think he is on the money with many of his comments. Players need to accept up front just how hard it is to make it in tennis. So many stars need to align: fitness, talent, coaching, intelligence, drive, and luck, to name a few. There is little room to coddle players, and there are far too many spoiled players in US tennis. The competition outside the friendly confines of USTA junior tennis is brutal, and for US players to dominate, they need to understand that. Landsorp understands that, and is right to keep his standards high.

get real said...

kdt,

excellent comments on lansdrop. could not agree with you more. eric,

he did not coach maria from the beginning, try nick b.

Eric Amend said...

get real,

I have first hand knowledge that Maria split her time between Nick's and flying out from Florida to Los Angeles when she was 13 years old to stay for 10 days at a time and IMG picked up the tab. Maria would finish her lesson just before a girl I use to coach would also take a lesson from Robert. Sometimes the girls would hit or play a set as well. That's young enough for me to consider her to have been a Lansdorp protege.

Eric Amend said...

Michael Joyce, another Lansdorp pupil, coaches Maria as well and she lives in the South Bay of Los Angeles.

A.Meek said...

Eric,
Great insight from you on Landsdorp, I remember your name from back in the 1980s.

I wonder does he treat male and female players the same? If so it would suggest that women players can be "bullied" up to a higher level than the guys.

I would be interested to know how Stefanki's approach is different, he seems to do well with men players.

Great discussion

ramon said...

I commend Eric Amend on his comment about Lansdorp.He knows what his talking about, his records speaks for itself! Incidentally,there's this book called A Champion's Mind, written by some dude name Sampras,who speaks so highly about Lansdorp. Pete, also mentioned that if his kids decides to play tennis,and if Lansdorp is still on the court,he would be the guy he'll ask to teach them. I believe Pete, he did alright...

BTW: Eric Amend- happens to be, one of the best coaches in college tennis.

Stanford93 said...

Eric Amend's comments have hit on precisely the reason why American tennis has been doing so badly for so many years. Not enough coaches helping build players games and minds for the pro tour. Guys like Lansdorp are aiming for the pros and that's why they get results. Its also why so many people who know nothing about tennis are able to drive their talented kid on to a good pro career. They're looking at the big picture which is a pro career, not small potatoes like junior wins or a spot on a college team. Yes, they put their kid under intense pressure but that's why the kid succeeds. They can handle the pressure and they've got the big picture pro career in their sights. Its also time people stopped making such a big deal about junior tennis. Yeah, lets applaud a kids progress but keep the articles and adulation until theyve done something on the big stage.

A.Meek asked if he had a different approach to the girls and the boys. I can say for certain that with the Sampras kids Lansdorp was tougher on Pete than Stella even though she was also really good as a junior. He's said as much himself.

Amtex said...

Andy Murray was a punk as a kid. Nadal was totally unorthodox and bratty, he lived for soccer and had to be playfully enticed by Uncle Tony to play tennis. Henin had a monster chip on her shoulder. Agassi was a sensitive nutty kid. Graf was super stubborn as a child.

Robert would have kicked them all off his court.

The coaches in our group have traveled world wide and observed the styles of the successful coaches. They are egoless and adaptable.

They are amazingly nurturing and adaptable to the 4-10 year olds. They understand how each kid may be equally talented but need to be handled differently. They bring along lots of kids in tennis. As the kids mature, they change. Once the kids hit 11 they are in a tougher setting.

Robert throws 4 year olds off, he throws 6 year olds off, he treats 5 year olds like 15 year olds.

Robert has turned many more kids off to tennis as he has ever created great players. His ego is immense.

Jon King said...

Maria was already 95% done at 13. At 7 she was amazing. From 9-13 she played 6 hours a day at Nick's.

Anyone who is involved with female sports knows that girls flatline at 13. A 13 year old is just as strong and fast as a 25 year old. 100% different than boys who change like crazy from 13 to 20.

Sharapova would have been what she is if Lansdorp had never entered the picture. He did not do anything that would not have been done at IMG.

Her father researched coaches in America and Lansdorp was suggested to him so he sent Maria there. Many coaches could have worked with Maria from 13-16 and she would have been just as good.

And since Maria was a little precocious and flighty at 7 she would have most likely been kicked out of Lansdorp's place anyway!!

McLovin said...

Maria's backhand was always good. Her forehand and serve was much improved by Landsorp which enabled her to win at the higher levels. Nick has always done better with girls than guys because girls play a one dimensional baseline game. The guys that he developed have serious flaws in their games, namely the inability to volley and to close points at the net. Had Agassi and Courier developed a more all court attacking style, they may not have been 2nd fiddles to Sampras. If Agassi had developed an ability to volley he would have been a much more dominate player.

Kim Stafom said...

What exactly did Mr. Lansdorp do for Maria Sharapova? Her forehand is hit falling back many times, not what he teaches. Her serve is suspect.

She wins on grit, huge power due to her amazing height, and natural talent, not on the beautiful stokes he tries to hammer into kids.

Mr. Lansdorp is yet another example of coaches who take credit for the few successful players they get lucky to cross paths with.

Rick Macci is another, he always talks about the Williams sisters and Caproati. He never mentions the 1000 other kids who he has touted as "scary little tennis creatures" that never pan out at all.

Funny how Nadal never was coached by a big name coach, nor Federer, nor most other top players.

JQP said...

If you didn't grow up in the South Bay neighborhoods of Los Angeles County it may be easy to underestimate Robert and his accomplishments. He didn't merely "cross paths" with a few of these players.

He worked out of three of the main clubs in the area: Kramer Club, West End, and the SBTC. He didn't troll for students. He worked with the kids who lived on the Hill, in Torrance and in the beach cities.

Many of these kids went on to play professionally and in college including the previous poster Eric Amend.

You may not agree with Robert's coaching style, but there's no denying these facts concerning Pete Sampras, Lindsay Davenport, and Tracy Austin:

All three grew up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

All three were ranked number one in the world.

As kids, all three learned their groundstrokes from Robert Lansdorp.

Name any other coach who has had that type of influence in the foundational development of that many number ones.

As Ramon mentioned, both Tracy and Pete have said they would send their kids to Robert if they wanted to learn how to hit a ball properly.

Robert kicks everyone off his court at one time or another. He demands excellence and expects his players to show up ready to go to work, and to leave any attitude at the gate.

This idea that he is unwilling or unable to work with different types of kids is preposterous.

Work hard, pay attention, don't be a jerk.

Yeah, real tough stuff.

It's not as if his reputation is a big secret. If a child needs a coach who is more "nurturing and adaptable", isn't this the responsibility of the parent to find a suitable coach?

After all, is every coach right for every kid?

As for:

"Robert throws 4 year olds off, he throws 6 year olds off, he treats 5 year olds like 15 year olds."

All I can say is if you're a parent and you want your child to specialize this early, well, you're nuts. Start a college fund instead.

Colette Lewis said...

This is a response to an anonymous comment (and I've several of those on this post, which won't be published because they are anonymous) about the "unforced errors" part of Lansdorp's conversation.

I have occasionally heard coaches, agents, reps, etc. say something along the lines of " just wait until those balls start finding the court, and he or she will be great." I interpreted Lansdorp's remarks to mean that future greats don't miss much, from the beginning, and if you make frequent unforced errors you are not likely to develop into a world class player.

Eric Amend said...

JQP,

You said it much better than I did!!

"Work hard, pay attention, don't be a jerk.
Yeah, real tough stuff." --LOVE THIS!!

"Robert kicks everyone off his court at one time or another. He demands excellence and expects his players to show up ready to go to work, and to leave any attitude at the gate."
--You're absolutely correct, Robert did kick everyone off to grab your attention and demand your respect. If you didn't work hard enough, he'd kick you off and then you busted your butt the next time you were on his court or he wouldn't teach you anymore. You had a cocky attitude?? He'd cut you down to size and it was for your own good! No one was immune which made everyone accountable on his court.

TRUE STORY:
I remember one time when I was about 16, I use to take hour long lessons once a week and they were physically, and mentally, difficult so I told him I wanted to take a half hour lesson, 2 times a week. Well, the first half hour lesson I took he ran me into the ground even harder than before. Needless to say, I went back to hour long lessons right away!!!

TechGirl said...

Eric,

If you could be worked harder in half an hour (wouldn't that have cost less?) than in one hour, why not just do the half hour and be worked harder? Sounds like you took the easy way out.

Eric Amend said...

TechGirl,

No, he purposely killed me in the half hour. I didn't throw-up but some kids would if they were in lousy shape. He just ran me the entire time because he knew the reason I wanted to take the half hour was because I thought it would be easier than the hour. He wanted to prove a point to me that if I wanted to be good, hard work was inescapable.

Anyway, a half hour lesson was pointless because I couldn't work on as many things nor could I get the full benefit of the cardio work he would put me through in an hour and, as we all know, almost every tennis match is longer than an hour.

socalgirl said...

Eric Amend is the bomb !!!

Tim Seals said...

Having worked the entire summer of 1986 for Robert in an environment that included a ten yr old Davenport as well as Robert's daughter and later Az State All American Stephanie Lansdorp, I am still amazed at how many people are misguided by both his deamenor and intentions toward the students.

What more can a player or a parent want than someone who will shoot it straight, give you your best chance to succeed and do it w/o regards to cashing a check at the expense of honesty? With robert is has to be a two way street, his concepts and your desire.

For anyone to suggest that Nick molded Maria's game must not be watching her play. She has Lansdorp marked all over her.
Michael Joyce continues to to great work with her.

I recall several years ago calling Robert at Riveria CC to ask him a question about helping a student of mine w/ her backhand. At this time I told him that I had hit a few times during the girls 12 nationals w/ then 11yr old Logan Hansen(Stanford Fresh.) who Robert had given a few lessons to.

"She is ok, he said not bad, but I have this Russian girl who fly's here from Florida, and she will be GREAT!" That was of course Maria who I believe was 14 at the time.

I have coached the winners of 17 USTA national championships and I can assure you that along the way I have and will continue to use every piece of information that I can beg borrow or steal from Robert.

Jeffrey said...

In the late-1960s/early-1970s my sister Denise was married to Robert Lansdorp when he was first teaching tennis in San Diego (he developed the Redondo kids)and then with the Kramer Club in Rolling Hills.

I always liked Rob in spite of his booming Dutch voice and arrogance. I respect intelligent and gifted arrogance.

When Rob first got ahold of the young Tracy Austin (Vic Braden wasn't doing anything for the budding star) he told me once at his Rolling Hills home that he was going to turn the pigtailed kid with braces on her teeth into a world-class star someday. He said she'd be #1 in the world. I laughed at him, thinking him a bit deluded. Well, I was wrong and Rob was right. After that I never doubted his coaching talents again.

George said...

I once was an instructor for Robert in his Summer Academy. I worked with Lindsey Davenport, Pete Sampras, Justin Gimelstob , Jeff Tarango, Debbie Spence and many more. Some became #1, other left tennis because they were over worked and burnt out. Yes, he demanded the BEST from everyone and allowed NO slackers, but that was Robert. Everyone knew what they were getting when they arrived it was NO surprise. He is a tennis coach not the parent and doesn't need to be the nurturer.

He then as I am sure he still has an incredible eye for talent. I wish him all the best and hopes he finds another GEM of a player.

Jeffrey said...

When my sister and Robert first moved from San Diego to the Kramer Club (circa 1970/71?) Vic Braden was still the pro there. Rob was brought in to replace Vic. I was a college kid working a part-time summer gig at the Kramer hosing down the courts. Tracy Austin's brother worked with me.
The day Vic had to move out of the apartment the club was providing for him, he offered Tracy's brother and I each $20 to help him load his U-Haul truck. We busted our butts for that guy, but when it came time to pay us he suddenly had no cash. He told us he'd drop by the club later to pay us. He never did. He stiffed us, a couple of kids.
So now I must wonder how much that $20 would be today after 38-39 years with interest.
If Vic Braden is still alive and anyone who reads this post knows him personally, tell him he has an unpaid debt from 4 decades ago.

Sanjin said...

very very good article. Thank you!