| By Lonnie Mitchel

Ivan Lendl coaches Andy Murray. Lendl, while watching Murray, remains stoic and focused on his pupil’s athletic performance … all the way to the Wimbledon Championship. Coaching is not allowed by rule during a match, but does it really help? Ivan Lendl was physically present for support, but Murray won Wimbledon on his own. Lendl prepared him for battle and did everything that needed to be done to prepare his pupil for competition.

I understand how hard it is to sit and watch matches where I really want “my player” to win. It can be a roller coaster of emotions. The player can perform brilliantly, executing every shot. The other side of the equation is that you can also see the player struggle with basic shots, double fault all day long and end up losing to a player unworthy of victory.

Taking over a collegiate tennis program two years ago, I was going down the wrong path to prove just how much I know. I would speak to players during changeovers, going against my instinct and was too verbose and it made little difference. I was also battling my urge to help the players on court all the time, thereby succumbing to the needless chit-chat and false belief that if I say something in particular, it will get them to win. In looking back at a variety of matches, anything I said or did not say during match play ended in the proper result.

To communicate in a match during changeovers is usually a distraction to both players. Tennis is like boxing in that it pits the wits and skill of individuals directly against each other. When I watch, I see a product of whatever thinking (or lack of thinking) is going on inside a player’s head. I have come to this conclusion that I do not have any way of knowing the process the player is going through to arrive at their solution. To blurt out some random suggestion, no matter how well-intended or truthful, it could do more harm than good. What if the player seems to always be hitting to the opponent’s strength instead of their weakness? That might seem stupid to you, but what if your player has a logical reason for doing so? Hitting to strength, if successful, can give a much needed boost of confidence at a time when perhaps it is most needed. If a shot is hit to the opponent’s strength over and over, it might mean they can make any shot and win! Likewise, from the opponent’s perspective, “If a player loses a point even when hitting the best shot, they might be in trouble.” As coaches we just don’t know. Some of my players know now that if they are in a zone and I succumb to the over-coaching urge, they have permission to say something to me. Get to know your players and predict that you cannot be everything to everybody all the time … let them battle and learn. A coach should observe and work on what needs attention in practices. To coach players is to figure out what they need and communicate to them in different ways; to realize which players you can relate to better during competition and to accept them as an individual person with their own needs.

Repetition upon repetition is another reason we shouldn’t say anything why tennis is a game of muscle memory and instinct. Have you ever competed and played tennis in discomfort from an ailment? The competition has now progressed deep into the third set, and you really have not thought about the discomfort because you’re focused on the ball and next point. That’s called “The Zone,” and a difficult place mentally to reach.  Now, I am screaming “bend those knees, don’t swing at those volleys,” while the players are in the zone. That’s going to snap the player right out If I did not prepare my players properly there is very little that can be said to change the outcome of the match. Rather, I can suggest to a player to bring notes on the court with them as little reminders that can be read in their own voice in the sanctuary of a court change.

A player has their own ways of dealing with pressure. Some people become silent and introspective when faced with a challenge. Others get animated and aggressive. On a tennis court in the middle of a match when the pressure is really on, there is not a player in the world who doesn’t have a completely unique thought process to manage all of it. It changes on a daily basis, your backhand is great one day and not so good the second day. The mental approach is practiced much like a stroke and you get better at it in time. However, like a stroke, it cannot be great every day. 

Like life, tennis ranges from euphoria-inducing highs to crushing lows. You get hit, you hit back, and in the end you might have learned something about yourself, your opponent and what you can and cannot control. Tennis is awesome in that you usually get a second chance to hit a shot or perhaps get another crack at an opponent. As a player, remember you get out what you put into it. With the right coach and mentor at your side, you can be a better player. However, tennis has had the most success with the players competing on their own with the support of the right coach before and after matches.

Lonnie Mitchel

Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail lonniemitchel@yahoo.com.