If I were advising a person who was taking a bath for the first time, I would recommend that they step into a tub of warm water, after all, if the water is ice cold, it would be very uncomfortable and if it is scalding hot, then it could be downright dangerous. If they check the water from the faucet and it’s very cold, then they would adjust the temperature to make it warmer. Superficially, this action of cause and effect makes sense, but in practice, it could be a burning mistake because if the water in the tub is already too hot, then the water from the faucet would need to be cold to correct the existing temperature mistake.
Too often, tennis instruction mimics this same faulty cause and effect logic because some mistake are desirable especially in the short run. Play must be viewed from a greater perspective to be understood clearly since some mistakes offset other mistakes, and therefore, are not mistakes at all, but rather, compensations. I often see instruction, especially on stroke production, which corrects the player’s compensations, rather than addresses the root mechanical issues that underlay these correcting mistakes.
I had an experience instructing a highly-ranked young girl in The City Parks Reebok Academy recently that illustrates this observation. This player explained to me that several pros had told her that her forehand elbow was "too bent at contact." I looked at her stroke and agreed completely with this analysis. I did not agree, however, with the correction which she said was to "try to straighten her arm." As I view it, she did not generate a strong push from her rear leg, and as a result, she did not get a fluid link to her torso rotation on the stroke. Her arm was on its own to create racket speed, and as a good athlete, she did an admirable job of muscling the racket through impact. Straightening her arm without first correcting her underlying lower body mistake would be counterproductive to the stroke and ineffective to the goal to achieving arm extension. With a strong rear leg creating the momentum to carry the stroke up the kinetic chain, this player was able to create an effortless swing without over-bending, flexing and torquing her arm. As an athlete, she could and would correct her arm compensation when it felt natural to do so. After several minutes she succeeded.
Compensations are not just limited to mechanics however, they can also be stylistic and tactical … case in point:
I was coaching a 12-year-old player who was very competitive, very coordinated and very high ranked. He was also very small. The head coach of a very large, well know U.S. tennis organization criticized his game as too dependent on "touch and feel" since the sport was heading toward a trend of power. I saw him differently. From my perspective, he is a great problem-solver who recognized what it would take to win given his limited size and he adapted well in order to achieve his goal. Ten years and 100 pounds later, this same player serves in the 120s mph. Early "touch and feel" tendencies don't seem to have inhibited his ultimate development of enormous power.
Similarly, when players go for "stupid" low percentage shots, that shot choice needs to be understood in the context by which it was chosen. What I mean is that a bad shot choice for an athlete, as well-conditioned as Rafael Nadal might be a well intended choice for a poorly-conditioned young player gasping for oxygen. Escaping a point by going for a winner is not as sound a tactic as working the court with high percentage shots, unless of course, your lungs are about to collapse and your legs feel like concrete.
Great tennis players are great problem solvers, and therefore, skillful compensators. As coaches, it is important that we don't instruct based on the superficial observations as to whether a player’s mechanics, style or tactics conform to our preconceived notions of "correctness," but rather, on careful and thoughtful analysis which factors in both cause and context. Anything less will undermine, rather than encourage, the talent.
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation, and executive director and founder of Serve &Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally- ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.