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In-Match Coaching

All coaching anecdotes should be taken with a grain or two of salt. In many cases, they're just an excuse for the coach to grab the credit. I'll try to take the blame as well (if I can ever remember any of those stories...). At any rate, here's a story from a recent match that I think conveys a pretty good performance, some of what was related to a conversation I had with the player during the match. Honestly, he deserves as much of the credit as a player can take for a win for the simple reason that he played the points and made the shots. But it is an interesting story...

          My player, let's call him Paul, had been battling what we'll call a wrist injury all season. As we prepared for the playoffs, Paul hadn't been able to practice full on in a month. He'd hit for 20 minutes or so, and then tell me his arm was hurting and was getting worse with each hit. The trainers told me there wasn't much we could do during the season, but that he shouldn't push it in practice because the damage would accumulate. Paul wasn't slacking (He would spend the rest of practice running, and then helping other players out, even hitting his two-handed backhand exclusively if he had to.), he just needed rest if he was going to play in the playoffs at all.

           As a tune-up for playoffs, we decided to have Paul play his customary #1 singles role in our last regluar-season match. He had to face a senior who was the best player on an average team. I found out later that the guy had not lost a singles match in college. He was good. Paul played well in doubles, and said his arm was a little sore, but he was ready to go in singles. After a few games, it was apparent that Paul's forehand (the shot that he really felt his injury on) did not have the power that he needed to finish points. He looked a little frustrated, but kept battling. After he dropped the first set 6-3, I had him talk with our trainer and they agreed he could continue.

           Paul fell behind a little in the second set, and I decided I was sick of him wandering around looking mopey. He said things to my like, "I just can't hit my forehand!" So here's what I said, "OK. I'm not talking to you about your wrist again. If it's bothering you and you can't play, you can talk to the trainer, or you can quit, but if you're playing this match, we're going to talk about beating this guy with everything you've got." He looked at me a little stunned, but after a second, he smiled and we 
got down to business. We figured out that what he did have going for him was that as long as he was moving well, he could play more consistently that his opponent, so he simplified and started taking fewer risks (For some injuries, it's better to go for broke, but here, it made more sense to take some pressure off his arm by playing with less power, especially because he only had so many hard shots he could hit before his arm fell apart.).

           The strategy started to work, and he took the second set 6-4. Because all the other matches had finished, and we had already won the overall match, it was agreed that they would play the now-ubiquitous Supertiebreaker (to 10) in lieu of a third set. As he was heading out to start the breaker, Paul was focused (He had mentioned a couple of games earlier that his arm wasn't hurting nearly as much!) and he raced out to a 6-3 lead in the breaker. As often happens though, momentum swung after he blew an easy forehand winner to the open court. Seizing the moment, his opponent ran off 6 points to go up 9-6.

           At this point, just out of curiosity, does what happened next matter? Paul had gone from lifeless to vibrant in the second set because he stopped thinking about a bunch of things that were beyond his control, and just took charge with what he had. I stopped playing into the side of him that wanted an excuse to lose, and he refocused on a new strategy. Great performance by him.

           OK, I promised you a story, so I guess I have to provide the ending. Paul looked extremely relaxed as he set up to receive the first of two serves from his opponent down match point. Then something miraculous happened: the guy double-faulted! (Immediate reaction in my head, He doesn't want it! Go take it from him, Paul!") Paul hit a groundstroke winner on the next point, then hit an unreturnable serve to save the third match point. They switched sides, and Paul again played a solid point to go up 10-9. Again he set up to receive, and the guy missed his first serve. In this instance, it is imperative as a returner to beg for the second serve to come in so you can crush it. But it wasn't to be: the serve was long and Paul had handed his opponent his only regular season loss in 4 years of college tennis (He also lost his first playoff match a few days later.). 

       The bottom line for me is this: it's not the situation, it's your reaction to it. I know Paul won't beat this guy every time, but I sure didn't think he was going to win half way through his match. The key was to shift attention only to the things that we could control. For me, that meant that I couldn't feed into a feeling of him being pitiable. I had probably nursed him a little too much, and it took me a while to realize what I needed to do. He also made a great discovery about how his consistency could be a weapon when his power wasn't available. When he shifted his attention to how he could break the guy down, he got himself back into the match. And he got lucky that his opponent blinked in the end. But win or lose, I would have been pleased and I think that the second set alone would have benefited him in the future.

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