Kalamazoo's Super Sweet 16s: Interviews with Two Junior Development Coaches - Guest Post by Jonathan Kelley
by Jonathan Kelley, On The Rise Tennis
I interviewed two junior development coaches, Mark Bey (Glenview, IL Tennis Club) during The Zoo and Sylvain Guichard (USTA Player Development) a couple of weeks afterward, to get their impression of what it takes to coach and develop players currently at the 16s level.
|Junior development coach Mark Bey|
Q: The winner here gets a junior US Open main draw wild card. What is it that motivates kids at a tournament like this to play the back draw and try to do as well as they can?
MB: The main draw and back draw are two completely different answers. Obviously, the prestige of a tournament like this for an American kid -- just the history (look on the wall, see the names), obviously you always want to be part of history. Wild card in the US Open juniors -- any time you can play in your country's home grand slam, obviously it's the #1 carrot you can possibly chase. So a lot of players that are in the top of the 16s could forego playing the 16s and they could have qualified in the 18s. They're choosing to play back and play against each other for the right to have that coveted wild card. So it ultimately spurs a bunch of back draw defaults because that's the only reason why those guys in the Top 10 are even playing this to begin with. Generally those guys are playing an 18-Under schedule anyway. This is just the tournament where they come back to see who the best of the best is. No different than the 18-Under guys that are playing Futures and pros coming back for this as well. It's a truncation backwards.
As far as the consolation brackets, the people who play those are well-parented, well-coached, or they really understand the value of getting extra practice in. By and large a lot of the players that put all of their eggs into one emotional basket to get the major wild card don't have the emotional fortitude to come back and play in the back draw and they just fake an injury and pull out.
Q: As a coach yourself, what do you look at when you're helping a guy get through a tournament like this or the girls' tournament in San Diego. What do you focus on for the player?
MB: We try to focus on routine, because all of the top players in the professional tennis ranks are routine-driven phenomena. Djokovic has a routine, Rafa has a routine, and the Bryan Brothers have a routine. [Bey works with the Bryans as well as doing junior coaching.] So you're trying to train them on the professionalism, because a lot of people that do well at this are trying to be either the tops of college or the tops of pros. So you're trying to give them the rites of passage so they can become that as they progress. You can't always control the result but the process is where you're trying to be as professional as possible.
And you're really trying to train them on how to play through a long event, because there's a lot to do with distractions and sleeping and stretching and dealing with adversity.
And then lastly, you’re trying to play against different players from different parts of the country with different styles, and learn how – in the 16s, they still haven’t really officially formed a game yet. They’re almost there, but they’re learning more about who they are and at the same time trying to best template what they do well on top of somebody else’s game style. That’s not always that easy, and that’s where the coaching comes in, showing them how they’re supposed to be reacting and interacting and imposing and organizing and seeing if they – once you give them that information and that armament, you step back and see how they actually perform that in a big moment.
Q: For a novice guy like me ... I came here last year, hadn’t really seen the 16s level before. I watching a match between Zeke Clark and Connor Hance and I was kind of blown away by their ability to generate power despite their age and size, their competitiveness, and their ability to still have variety in their games. What really makes the difference between that level and the high levels of the 18s: the Tiafoes, the Kozlovs, etc.
MB: Some of those guys actually have a good amount of variety at the younger ages, and then some of them don’t. It’s usually either A or B, it’s not a lot of A-minus or B-plus. Some kids are variety-driven creatures and some are one-trick ponies. I don’t prefer that style – I prefer to have people have more options because gives them the ability to beat more people and allows people to be more coachable at different levels, so that’s the style I’ve gone with with my students.
Usually when you jump from the 16s to the 18s, there are 3 major things that happen. Athleticism and speed; height and serving for serve performance – like, being able to serve for free points; and then having a very defined weapon that you’re utilizing when you have time and opportunity, you’re imposing your weapon on the other side. That’s usually where you see the bigger jumps and that gives them the best chance to transition, whether they’re going to college or going pro.
Some kids go from 16s to 18s and they don’t take formidable jumps in those areas, and those are the kids that tend to stagnate and then they end up playing at the middle or bottom of college teams instead of playing tops of college teams or going on and playing pros.
Q: Speaking of college, and thinking specifically of the 16s and 18s back draws: there are a lot of high-level college coaches watching. What kind of pressure does that put on 15/16-year-olds in terms of their performance?
MB: It’s an incredible pressure – particularly this tournament, a lot different from San Diego. In San Diego, the court is a little bit removed from where people stand, where here, if you play on the stadium court, maybe a coach could hide, but if you play on the back courts, or at Western Michigan, you really see the shirt of the person who is coming to watch you, and now you’re internalizing that when you’re supposed to be focused on the ball. So there’s a lot of nerves and choking associated with recruiting. And that’s a fair pressure – it’s a fair part of the experience that players have to learn. So when they’re going from sophomore to junior and from junior to senior and people are at their court, they need to best understand two things: 1) They can lose matches and still be positively recruited. Just wins are not automatically what always drives recruiting; 2) they need to best represent a quality product in terms of person, athlete, and performing player under pressure. So if you do that, the top schools are still going to want you, win, lose or draw. They’re not going to write you off.
But that’s the challenge, and the kids that go home or lose, and are upset, or the parents are like, “Oh, this coach isn’t going to want you now” … there’s a lot of bad information and bad assumptions about losing when you’re on display. It’s much more important about the type of tennis because these coaches are making a decision on a child who’s not – even if they’re a senior, and making a decision right now, that person’s not going to play a down for that school for 14 months. And so there’s a lot of time and a lot of opportunity to go further up or go backwards or stagnate as well. And so the coaches struggle because they’re having to gauge something that’s really a dodgy target. At the same time I personally try not to use the word “talent” or “potential.” Coaches say “upside,” that’s a new en vogue word. If people don’t really get the professionalism, the hard work, the competitiveness – they don’t really want the moment, they don’t really like being a tennis player, that’s going to show. At some point when they get to college, they’re not going to do the best that they can for the schools. And hopefully the best college coaches are reading between the lines and not just looking at Tennis Recruiting and making a subjective decision based on a star rating.
Q: Last question, about the team aspect of college. Some of these kids play on a high school team, but many are home schooled. Whereas when they do go to college, it’s all-team, all the time. Some of your ego has to take a back seat whereas here it has to be on display. How do you teach that as a development coach, and how do college coaches measure that?
MB: What I try to do as a junior developer is build a team concept within my academy. So I try to have them be part of a team and I actually just got a text from a parent that really complimented me on the way my players were behaving like a team out in San Diego. So I really believe in that. My kids cheer for one another and all that stuff – I instill that. I’m taking my kids to the amusement park and we’re all going to have a blast. That’s something you have to be able to do long before the meaningful matches and the big moments come around. And if you are a team that way, you’ll stay a team after there’s some sorrow and some hardship. And so that has to come from the parents and from the home program. If it doesn’t, then people are just going to think selfishly and behave individually, and that’s where tennis is really not always the best.
But still, even in college it is an individual point that you’re playing, and if you do well in your individual point, that accrues for the team point. So there is a coach that’s always going to want the kid that dares to be different, not afraid to go out and be a swashbuckler, and that is not afraid to gladiate, roll up their sleeves, and get dirty to win a match for themselves; which ultimately, that character trait does translate back for the team because you’re still playing independently -- it’s not like everybody’s playing and you’re subbing and trading out. You really are still functioning as an individual in tennis but you still have to learn how to be roommates and van-mates with guys for 4 years. So I think coaches are okay with one kid on their team that’s a little bit more selfish and “me” but I don’t think a lot of coaches want that as the actual culture on their team because that would really erode what defines team and would make it difficult to get through the normal days.
Sylvain Guichard is a national coach for the USTA. He has been working on the men’s side for about 4 years. Before that he worked for 4 years at an academy in Chicago, and before that he was men’s tennis head coach at Mississippi State. For the past two years, he’s been working with the 1999’s – boys born in 1999 who are 16-year-olds now.
Q: Talk about the transition process for juniors from 14 through, say, 17 years old.
SG: The idea is that from 14 on, the game becomes a bit more difficult physically and mentally. Physically, there are lots of changes in a kid’s body, growth spurts. Some get stuck, some get stronger, some get slower. There are a lot of moving parts at that correspond to the game becoming more physical for the top players. It’s kind of a delicate process at that age. Basically, it's a transition age; before 14 you worry so much about the technical parts of the game, making sure they build a strong foundation over all. From 14 to 17, you make the transition from junior to adult tennis, start to try to get to a place to understand how much more physical the training is going to be.
As far as the mental part, understanding they need to get better at being more disciplined, with the emotions they go through, making the right decisions. Before that, they tend to be less disciplined; given the disparity of skill sets at a younger age, you can make a lot of mistakes emotionally and still win a lot of matches and be a top player. As they get older, decision-making has to be more accurate, they need to control their emotions a bit better, also be more resilient to adversity.
With regard to training, understanding that when you’re young it’s easy to improve your skills; after that there are diminishing returns. The reward is more difficult compared to the amount of work. You need to work a lot more. They're not finished products physically, so you need to monitor that. And of course they also hit the ball harder. By 16, 17 they’re able to hit the ball as hard as anyone else, although maybe not absorb others’ pace.
Q: What about the decision coming up for many of these kids between going pro or going to college? What part do you play in that?
SG: We tell the players not to worry about "am I going to go to college or go pro?” It's too early for these kids to worry about these things. Typically it's a natural decision; you usually make it within a year of going to college. There are a few kids who are pretty good, but usually it's a pretty natural decision. We'll see where you are, I can help advise you -- are you ready for this, this, this and this? We don't tell them one way or the other.
Q. How is that different for juniors in the USA vs your home country of France?
SG: In France and other countries, typically, there's no college tennis. When you turn 18, basically you can enter college whenever you want, you can decide "I want to try to play couple of years on tour” but by 20 if they realize it's not going to work, they enter college. College is free for the most part. They don't miss anything. Other kids decide they'll keep playing. In France, there are programs where you can do your basic 2-4 years of course work while playing pro tennis, so you can do both. You schedule your studying and testing around your tournaments. So there's flexibility.
In the US, because of NCAA rules, once you graduate from high school you have pretty much 6 months to enter college. If you decide to turn pro, play for a year or so, you don't make much money but you're allowed to go back, if you sit out for a year. In a perfect world, the NCAA would change that, but there's a reason why they do this. It definitely makes the decision harder -- as a parent, if your son or daughter is at a pretty good level in tennis, and you want your son or daughter to play pro, it's a $200,000 scholarship for 4 years dangling over your head, do you take it? But college tennis is a place you can develop these players, and if you want to further your development, then it's a great place. The college programs are pretty good at developing players.
I won't say it's an easy decision. If he’s really good, the money part, it's hard to say no for many families. Flexibility on the part of the NCAA would make things easier.
Q: What do the 1999s think when they look at the hugely successful 1997s and 1998s?
SG: Part of the problem is that a kid might think “Oh I'll never be as good as that guy.” But 1997s are a good example for the 99s -- they were pretty good but they were not great by any means. We have 2 years, the 1999s can become as good as those guys. The 1998s were a different monster, kind of an exceptional generation, so good so young. There’s a huge gap, but not as big as it used to be. But it's like everything, I tell kids not to compare themselves. Just because you're good at 16/15/14 doesn't mean you're going to be great at 20. I would say originally the 1999s had a little bit of a complex. They looked up to those guys like they were gods. It didn't hurt them, they just did their things. We tell them, “You are who you are, they are who they are, just try to work hard, become as good or maybe better in a few years.” You can't just try to compare yourself with them, or you lose faith in your ability. I was young once -- it's natural to look up to the next age group and be like "wow, these guys are good."
So many matches are won or lost before you go on court. There’s a pecking order.
Q: Some have said the issue with American men’s tennis comes down to a cultural problem: it’s tough to get kids to invest in tennis as much as they need to.
SG: I travel to other countries, and there seems to be the same problem in other countries. We talk about it more here, because of the success we used to have, but I don't think we have a cultural problem. It is what it is right now. We seem to be doing great in other sports … with tennis culture, there are lots of people working hard, and it's a big country. Mostly the competition is way way way more difficult now than it was in the past. [At the USTA] we don't spend too much time worrying about why we're not as good as we were -- that's what other people do. We're aware of what the other successful countries are doing, but in the end we just try to do as well as we can ... be on top of the training. We don't do things that much different than other countries.
With the sheer number of tennis players in this country, overall it's going in the right direction in terms of the way we train. We can only worry about the process. If we worry too much about the results, we might as well quit. We used to have 30-40 guys out of college making the ATP top 100. It’s just a different level now.
We have to reach out to private coaches, make sure we involve the private world. 25 years ago you could have one great shot and be top 10. Then you had to have 2 shots. Now you can't anymore. It's the development of the game. Those guys at the top, they put the bar very high. It’s another standard: you can't get away with a flaw in your game. They hit the ball so hard, they can't get to the net anymore.