The selection of a coach is one of the most important decisions a young player can make and can be the difference between tournament success or disappointment. While there may be variations in the skill level of coaches, there is no perfect coach or coaching style, as each relationship is unique and must be a strong fit that encourages athletic and personal growth.
I have listed 10 categories to consider when evaluating the suitability of a coach, but of course, each of these factors will be weighted differently by each player and their family. Choose carefully and wisely.
1. Core values
Coaches spend a great deal of time with their students and leave a profound impression that extends beyond the tennis court. It's not the coach's job to impart values, but rather, to reinforce the values that are important to the player and their family. Coaches will have values that are important to them and should not attempt to undermine the values they disagree with. They should, however, not compromise stressing what they hold dear, like hard work, diligence, fitness, preparation, cooperation, intellect and critical thinking. One of the first tasks I perform before coaching a player is to try to understand what matters most to them and their family, and I encourage them to understand my values as well. If we are not on the same page, our relationship will not be productive or sustainable.
Some players have a strong need and willingness for mechanical focus. They want to understand the minute details of how to produce a stroke. They understand and accept that when changing stroking patterns, it is often necessary to take one short-term step backwards to progress two long-term steps forward. Others prefer a coach who will just "shut up and hit." It's a function of personality, stage of development, age and gender. Find a coach both willing and able to provide the mechanics, tools, focus and style that you need and want.
3. Underlying development philosophy
Some coaches see a fluid tactical paradigm as the pathway for development. They believe that it’s best to first understand which skills are most important for a player's given abilities, interest, goals, personality, body type and functional limitations before choosing a development focus and teaching style. Other coaches like to progress a player in a more rigid, systematic style that is less dependent on the individual and more driven by a formula. For example, I strongly believe that the common so-called "mistake" of an “Eastern” Grip results from poor ground to upper body energy transfer and inadequate core stability. I view a “bad” serving grip as often a good, temporary correcting compensation and changing to a conventional Continental Grip before first addressing and correcting the underlying functional issues will hinder the player's progress and even lead to injury. Many coaches do not share this view and will seek to correct a serving grip issue as soon as they can. It's worthwhile to understand and choose a coach who shares your philosophy.
Often choosing a coach is a practical issue. How far do they live from you? What do they cost? Do they go above and beyond your time on the court to ensure success? Do they have other players who you can practice with? Can they provide extra court time? Do they have a network to help you train off the court? Do they have the know-how and credibility to help you with the college process? Do they have the skills and contacts to help you avoid and overcome injuries? Can they help you with performing community service or even help find you a job?
A few words of caution. I have not seen, at any time in my 36-plus years of coaching, a time in which coaching choices are dictated less by the quality of the relationship and more by the offer of a discounted “deal.” I understand how expensive the sport can be in the local area and the limitations of the economic challenge. However, I also see that all too often, these “deals” are not based on economic need, but marketing opportunism. If you frequently get offers for “free Disney vacations” that you turn down because you know that “you get what you pay for” and “if it's too good to be true, it probably isn't,” then maybe it's worthwhile to consider that when it comes to tennis education. What may seem like a good deal at first may not turn out to be a good value. Remember, you cannot ever get back the critical formative years where the greatest development is possible.
5. Fitness and injury prevention
Power and endurance have become increasingly more important in tennis. As physical demands increase in athletes at younger ages, the potential for injury and the need to train to avoid long-term consequences of subjecting an undeveloped body to enormous stress grows. I spoke at The New York Tennis Expo two years ago about the need for coaches to work alongside trainers to perform assessments of young athlete’s functional movements before starting hardcore training. I think this need has grown, as I see way too many injuries in young tennis players that could have been avoided with careful and thoughtful preparation and planning. Protecting the physical health and well-being of a developing player should be a coaching priority, and finding a coach willing and prepared to do so is a wise choice.
Steve Kaplan is the owner of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as the director of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation. Over the last 34 years, Steve has been the longtime coach of more than 600 nationally-ranked junior players, 15 state high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous touring professionals and prominent coaches. Steve's students have been awarded in excess of $8 million in college scholarship money. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.