The principle of continuous improvement begins in every training session and it is the base to surpass the desired level of performance and reach optimal potential.
Coach John Wooden wrote in his book, “Always be progressing. You most never standstill. You’re either moving a little bit upward or you’re going the other way. You can’t expect to go upward quickly, but you can sure go down quickly. The slide down happens in a hurry. Progress comes slowly but steadily if you are patient and prepare diligently.”
Coaches and players have to work together never to stop learning and improving. Athletes improve step by step, and there are no short cuts or miracles. It is a systematic way to advance seeking incremental improvements over some time. Athletes never stop improving, and the concept of continual improvement is the base to reach the potential. Once the athlete reaches the top, the cycle starts all over again.
Improvements are based on small gains that are part of the periodization or planning. Having the player’s final goals in mind, his dream, and potential, we proceed to evaluate the existing skills and performance results as a point of reference. The team, including the athlete and parents, determines the short time and mid-term goals. These goals should be attainable inside a predicted period. This plan shows opportunities to improve. We advance with the project in a logical and sequential evolution.
Athletes have to improve the physical as well as cognitive skills, and it is of great importance not to rush the process to avoid loss of quality. But at the same time, if the process is too slow, it causes boredom in the athlete. So, there is a fine line to achieve continuous improvement in all areas of development. Growth is a cycle that starts with determining objectives. Evaluating the progress of the athlete is the second stage. The athlete has to master the little goals before he can move to the next one. The team can then determine the following steps to follow: always having the periodization plan of the individual as a reference are.
The ending is everything. To achieve those desired goals, we must pay attention to keep the athlete improving every second of every practice. Athletes most have specific, challenging goals for every practice. At the beginning of each practice, the student needs to set clear goals that will push him to the limit of his abilities. Constant honest evaluation is a part of the process. After each training session, the athlete has to evaluate the gap between the goal and the reach. Improving technical or physical skills is a slow process. The goal is to create perfect swing mechanics and correct movement patterns. Building correct muscle memory through repetition is essential. Once the habit is formed, it’s challenging to change. Whenever a player accomplishes a feat, the coach will add a layer of difficulty, ‘now faster, earlier, higher, deeper, heavier.’ Small accomplishments are stepping stones. Push the players and keep pushing them. Our job is to stretch them more every time without breaking them.
The second component for the player to keep moving forward is the abundant amount of situations, where the athlete is exposed to open skills. Most sports require endless adaptations, different opponents, conditions, and circumstances. The cognitive area is critical in the development of proper decision-making. The system results come from many hours and years of constant challenges. We are a game-based training program.
There are three learning zones, the comfort zone, where the student feels good, and he cruses easily during the training. The second is the learning zone. As coaches, our job is to stretch the athlete every time by asking them to perform almost impossible tasks. Always asking for more, it is a fine line not to brake them. The third is the panic zone, where we ask of the player to complete an impossible task. Our system is about keeping the athlete in the learning zone and continuous improvement.
We have some unwritten rules that everyone knows to improve open skills. The top players train on the front courts while the more novice play on the last courts, “the lake.” Age and gender are not taking into consideration, and it is all about the level of play. Students dream playing on the top courts, but it takes time to move up, usually one court at the time. Coaches consider developmental skills, such as strokes, consistency of the rally, ball quality, and attitude, on top competition results. This type of measurement could be counterproductive; basically, everyone knows where you are in your growth stage. It could be challenging for a mentally weak athlete, but our goal as coaches is to teach them to fight. It takes time to get out of the lake courts, but they have different parameters to help them in their quest to play in the front. Competition is fierce, and that is the long term goal, they have to love to compete. The ultimate purpose of continuous improvement is to obtain a high level of consistent performance. It is gain step by step. They have to earn it.
“The principle is competing against yourself. It’s about self-improvement about being better than you were the day before.”– Steve Young
From the start, we evaluated Kei. We knew his goals and aspirations, and we also saw his potential. He was only thirteen but very gifted. His forte was his speed, so we made sure to keep improving that asset until it would become a weapon. Kei’s deficiencies were the serve and the volley. His serve’s mechanics were a disaster, so every day we took deliberate time to improve it. When we teach mechanics, it’s a slow process, small chunks at the time, little by little until the stroke is correctly formed. It took four years for Kei to have a decent throwing mechanics and correct motion with no exaggeration. We filmed him every day comparing and assessing the progress. Kei would serve in slow motion, feeling the movement, then he would take shadow swings before serving the next ball. He always went back to where he thought he had made a mistake, then Kei would start the swing from there trying to correct it, he had to make the proper adjustments to be able to move to the next chunk. It takes time and persistence. Considering Kei’s speed and anticipation skills, it was essential to develop the game around those abilities. Based on taking time away from the opponent by hitting early. To accomplish this objective, he had to play closer to the line, not an easy task. I placed a barrier behind him to make him focus on hitting early. Using barriers is the best way to maximize results faster. These practices are deliberate, and players have to give one hundred percent effort, focused on eliminating mistakes. Kei had to concentrate on hitting early, shorter backswing, staying lower to the ground, and making his corrections. In the beginning, I would place the barrier five steps from the baseline. Only for thirty minutes during the warm-up, as Kei improved, I would move it four steps and keep it there for sixty minutes. The barrier was placed at three steps and for the entire two hours. When we started this barrier training, it was uncomfortable for Kei. I could see him from the corner of my eyes, kicking the barrier. I pretended not to see, and the barrier stayed. He got used to it, and he would play points and match with it. Our job is to stretch them more and more.
“What do do with a mistake: recognize it, admit it, learn from it, forget it.”– Dean Smith
Our job is to train our athletes to maximize their abilities. It all starts from the premises that they are already professionals, no matter the age or level of play. They are expected to come early, be fully prepared, and know before each practice the goals to be accomplished in that particular session. It could be one or more objectives, and they could be fundamentals of the swing motion combine with tactical decisions. Talented students have a responsibility to open every practice with total self-care. This is their full duty, not their parents, coaches, or anyone else. The more advance these athletes are, the more their involvement in the process, influencing the areas to train.
Continuous improvement requires advance progressively during training, starting with small details. As the student improves, more complicated skills and more profound concepts are incorporated. The evolution of the training program depends on the results of the athlete. Only once he has accomplished the training goals can we focus on result oriented-goals. The acceleration of the athlete’s program training is directly related to physical, mental, and cognitive development in tact-awareness. All these aspects have to be integrally continuously improved. Coaches and athletes’ interaction during planning and practices is highly recommended because they are the core behaviors that make them work together effectively. It is appropriate to incorporate the students in their learning process to make practices more effective. Letting them interact enhances their confidence, responding with enthusiasm, and openly communicating their feelings. Having the students and parents involved in the process builds loyalty and trust, which is crucial to create higher satisfaction and performance.
Paying attention to mistakes is probably one of the most critical areas of coaching. Coaches need to have a deep desire to optimize practices by concentrating on eliminating errors from the student. We have to target the mistakes, and this makes workouts more effective. The best way to develop solid skills that will not break down in a match is by paying attention to errors. Corrections are not an option, and they are a requirement to be able to improve. To develop optimal skills, students must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes. We, as coaches, need to teach our students to correct themselves.
Using reduced spaces with fast full of energy practices forces the students to concentrate, narrow their focus, and think faster. Mistakes are necessary, but they have to be corrected immediately. Push them to think more quickly if they make a mistake, fixed it, and keep going. When students make a mistake, it should bother the coach a lot. We need to pay attention, connect with the player, build that deep practice where errors are made and, correct it instantly. Explain clearly, demonstrate what you want, imitate the error and the correction, and make the student repeat the correct movement or shot. After each explanation, we ask the student, “tell me, show me.”Our goal is for the student to hit the ball effortlessly and automatically.
“It’s not the will to win that matters—everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”– Paul “Bear” Bryan
Practices are expected to be as close to perfect as they can get. Players need to know that the workouts are serious business. Coaches have to ensure that the students understand that we expect the practices not to be useful, but to be perfect. To attain in-depth training, the students have to be attentive, hungry, focused and have a sense of urgency. Our students have to keep their concentration, staying focused. They can not get frustrated or confused, and can’t have mental lapses; they have to find a way to think under pressure.
Achieving a constant high level of concentration during practices is done through reinforcement of routines and expected results. We want our players to be known for almost mechanical, error-free precision. We can achieve this by using Deep practices, where the students are fully concentrating, leaving them exhausted physically and mentally. Coaches most promote the engagement of the physical and cognitive areas of the athlete. The objective is to train so well, so consistently, that they can repeat it over and over during match play. Our students will be machines with mental density, capable of enduring extended concentration periods under pressure. The process begins in every training session.
Nonetheless, we have to make sure our students strive for perfection, but not to expect results, because perfectionism is detrimental to performance. When students are not able to reach that level of performance, they will hit the panic zone.
In every single practice session, we have to breed self-confidence; this creates belief and courage. We don’t want any doubts or fear in our athletes. “Pushers go no-where.” Encourage practices where the athletes select the right partners or opponents that can help them keep improving. It sounds easy, but it takes courage.
From the ages of 13 to 18, Mary Pierce increasingly questioned her desire to play professional tennis. Her entire existence was all about playing what she considered “a very lonely sport.” When she was 18, she fired her father as her coach and hired her coach. At that time, her brother, David, was very involved with her training. Mary continued to train at the academy, and she took complete ownership of her practices. She was very organized, and at the end of each workout, I would sit down with her and David and plan the practices for the next day. We were thorough and would discuss what hitting partners Mary needed, what drills to do, what court to use, and how long the practices were going to be. She was very demanding with the hitting partners as she expected them not to miss a ball, or she would ask me to change them. She didn’t allow her partners to hit softly (push), they had to be consistent, but at the same time, they needed to hit the ball with power and accuracy.
When Mary felt comfortable with the sparring partners, it was time to change them; they had to be more consistent, faster, and stronger. She was always pushing the envelope with the desire to improve. Mary trained with the boys exhibiting a fantastic work ethic and passion for Competition. Mary had an incredible sense of urgency when she practiced. She wanted to make it “big,” and she did not want to waste a second of her time. Every practice needed to be perfect, and every day she worked with clear, focused goals. Honestly, it was quite a show just watching her.
“If you are no hitting, you are no learning.”
Coaches demand fast pace practices, where the players are continually improving themselves. I don’t believe in the efficiency of slow-motion training sessions. I don’t accept a lot of talk and explanations.
Demonstrations should not take longer than a few seconds and are of such clarity that they leave an ingrained image, much like a picture in a textbook. The information can’t slow down the practice; to the contrary, it should enrich it by combining the coach’s demonstrations with the athlete’s physical and mental assimilation.
The information has to be given at a fast pace, make clear short but explicit comments, good shot because …, good play because…, not that, not there. Don’t make a comment that does not serve the student’s needs. By telling the student “good,” What is that mean? We have to have to be short and explicit.
If during practices, everything seems under control, and smooth, then you are not going fast enough. If the coach is content or happy with the training, it is the first sign of mediocrity. Coaches are very demanding, with short patience, especially for dom mistakes. All the practices have to be in a strict timetable, and the only way to achieve that time frame is in-depth trough preparation.
In general male players prefer fast, short, and precise information. They don’t like long speeches or sermons.
They can receive and process the information while practice goes on. Not long ago, we had a very prominent talent training with us, Bastian Malla, a thirteen-year-old from Chile, at the time number one in the world in his age division. On the court supervising his training session was Many Dominguez, a well and respected, older coach in his late fifties, from Portugal. Manny was the director of the academy at the time. During the practice, Bastian was missing his forehand, which was his best shot. Manny stopped the exercise a few times to explain to Bastian what to do to correct the error. I could see that Bastain was getting impatient with Manny; he just wanted to hit and feel the stroke. But Manny kept insisting on giving him verbal instruction by stopping the drill. After the third or fourth time Bastian lost his temper, telling Manny he didn’t want a sermon, his verbal abuse got to the point to call his coach a clown. That was Bastian’s last day at the academy.
It is of most importance for coaches to master verbal communication abilities. Speaking with confidence and demanding respect are keys for High-Performance coaches. The goal is for the students to continue improving. The way we deliver the message is going to impact the athlete, positively or negatively. Communication is probably one of the cornerstones of the profession. The speaker has to organize his concepts, starting with the proper information involving the athlete’s self-analysis. From this point forward, continuous improvement takes place. Coaches hate mistakes. We try any means necessary to have them corrected in the shortest time possible, hence the frustration of Many trying to make Bastian correct that swing as soon as possible. It is much more likely that the coach will be altered. In many cases, he expects those adjustments to be quickly fixed to advance in pursuit of the desired goals.
In a continuous improvement culture, it all starts with the challenging goals that the athlete sets daily. At the end of each training session, he sees himself measuring the progress achieved against his targets. This system is an efficient, effective way to implement and measure improvements based on ambitious goals. Another advantage is that the player takes ownership of his training and development.