I would like to start my story with the words:
“first there was a word, then a thought”…
Indeed, when we travel through the history of mankind’s achievements, we realize that everything starts with a thought, or a dream. If we can visualize in exact details the path leading to our goal, it’s only normal that the specific goal is achieved. Visualizing all the tiny details of every single step towards that dream will make things happen. One might wonder: “what does this have to do with coaching?” My answer is: ”It is a very big part of success”. In order to develop this aspect of coaching, I’ll share with you some of my experiences in the world of tennis, a world in which I grew up since I was a toddler.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in the 70’s when the soviet era was still solidly established. At the age of three I started to play tennis following the footsteps of my elder sister who, at the time, was a very promising young player. In fact, tennis courts were already familiar to me as my mother used to bring me along when I was a toddler. Having started tennis at this early age could have had a negative effect on my development but today, looking back at those years, I know they were fulfilling and I never regretted them. With time, I ended up reaching the top spot as a junior in the USSR and was among the top 20 players in the ITF circuit.
When I was 18 the Soviet Union fell apart and as it happened to most of the players of my age in the country, we had no money and no direct contacts with the WTA circuit, so I decided to go and play club matches in Germany. My club couldn’t afford to help me out with the tournaments. Any prize money was used to pay for the next tournament which necessitated me imposing a strict discipline to make ends meet. One day I decided to complete my education as a coach and by the age of 21 I was on the other side of the fence. But becoming a coach didn’t stop me from playing prize-money tournaments. I would combine both as most of the tournaments were between Germany and France while I kept coaching in my German club. Many other contemporaries were in the same situation. I left Germany a few years later when I got a contract for coaching in Cyprus. I continued playing and entered the satellite tournaments in different countries, one of them being Egypt. I’m mentioning this country because that’s where my coaching career really took off. The environment was not what I had expected and I felt I wasn’t part of it at all. Nonetheless, on the second day of my arrival at the club, I noticed a fair-haired teenager who was hitting balls on a wall. She was quite young and very tall for her age. After a while she turned to her mother who was watching her from the stands and asked her in Russian: “mama, I forgot how exactly I should hold the racket on my forehand and I have tournament tomorrow!” I was surprised to see Russians in Cairo but I also felt good and suddenly more secure. I approached them and asked them if I could help. I also asked them what brought them to Egypt. The mother said that she and her husband were working there and their daughter lived with them, trying to keep up with her tennis as in Russia coaching had become too expensive. From then on, we would meet on the courts every single day and I got quite close to the family. I decided to help the young teenager as much as possible. When I moved to Cyprus, we decided that she should come with me where she would have other opportunities to play different kinds of tournaments and develop a few techniques. That’s how, at the age of 14, she won her first ITF tournament without losing a single set! That year she finished the season playing in “The Orange Bowl” – under 14 – positioning herself in the top 16. The following year saw her results improve in such a way that at the end of it she was the top junior player. Her name was Nadia Petrova.
I’m telling this story because this was the first time in my professional career that I could sense the magic of thought or a dream. I was very excited to do the job in spite of all the difficulties I had to face at the time, including financial ones. I lived this dream every single day thinking all the time how to improve her performance and imagining the techniques and work-outs in the slightest details. One day during practice I asked her to remember the good serves she was hitting when she would play in Roland-Garros. I was thinking “Junior level” as she was still very young and Ladies level seemed far away. It was a mistake not to think ‘bigger’ – one should always ‘think big’. When she turned 16 she was playing the Rolland Garros Juniors which she won!
By this time Nadia was working with different coaches who broadened her technique and abilities but she also faced difficulties in winning WTA tournaments. It took me a while to understand what was wrong and one day after joining her team at Rolland Garros 2005 I started to realize exactly how I could help. I created positive images of her success in my mind and encouraged her to focus on them – recreating her early junior triumphs and building on them. The rest I’m happy to say is history still in the making.
This belief of a dream turning to reality was verified by another event in January Australian Open 2006. In August 1996, whilst still playing professionally as well as coaching in Cyprus, I went to Troodos for a tournament with my players and it was at this time that I was approached by one of the men from the tournament, Marinos Baghdatis, who asked me if I would practice with him every morning. We became friends and in one of our many discussions he confided to me about his younger brother, eleven at the time, who he believed had an amazing talent. However, his father disenchanted with the tennis scene in Cyprus had decided that he should concentrate on his equally promising football career, as he considered it to be a more viable option. After telling me this story, he pointed to his brother who was nearby, we called him over and I saw someone with a huge smile and something special emanating from him, very pure and with a huge passion for life. I asked him “do you want to continue to play tennis?” and he looked straight into my eyes and with all his passion nodded Yes. His name was Marcos Baghdatis.
After the tournament I returned to Nicosia and agreed to practice with both brothers. On one of our journeys between Limassol and Nicosia me and Marinos stoped at Stavrovouni where there is a very old monastery. We sat at the bottom of the hill and began to imagine in clear detail, how Marcos would become a great player – it seemed like a dream but at the same time, so real.
Some time later, Marcos’s father arrived unexpectedly at my home in Nicosia and did not appear to be in the best of moods. He questioned my involvement and motives about Marcos. I apologized, saying that I was wrong to coach Marcos without seeking his permission but invited him to come and watch his son play. He left without further comment but later that same day I spotted him from afar watching Marcos practice. By the end of the session he had approached the court and couldn’t contain his excitement over his son’s performance. As well as forgiving my ‘interference’ he was however worried about what would happen if I were to leave Cyprus (his initial reservations about his son’s tennis career were due to the lack of professional coaches in the country), I reassured him that I would not leave without securing a good coach for Marcos.
Shortly afterwards I had to return to Egypt with Nadia, not before securing a good Romanian coach and supervision of his father.
At the age of 13 Marcos was given sponsorship and a place in Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy.
Both these stories demonstrate the power of pure thought and dreams – harness the power of these and you will be able to build up an infallible image in your mind – really see your future success. The coach and the player need to work together on a shared vision and it is essential that the player completely trusts the coach’s belief in him and his ability to guide him. To work in synergy and focus on this vision is invaluable and can create the miracle of raising a champion.
Of course it doesn’t stop there, once the player begins to have success then different tests will come – one of these many tests is parents.
Most tennis player’s parents have never played the game or maybe have simply played recreationally. Therefore, the chances that they can help their child’s professional development are slim. Naturally they want to be a part of their child’s career and it’s great if they can be part of the team and provide the necessary emotional support. However, some parents feel that they are losing control of their child and quite often are threatened by the relationship that inevitably develops between coach and child.
It’s a delicate situation at a very delicate age – ideally a coach will bring out the best in a child, developing their personality as well as their technique and selfconfidence – this might be difficult for a parent to take on board but it results in tournament wins which is the reason why the parents sign the child up with the coach. So I ask all parents to please bear with us coaches as we too want the best for your child.
Another key test is money – once the player starts to be successful money starts to be a major consideration. Contracts become necessary and it’s essential that all parties feel that they are being properly and fairly looked after – so good relationships and communication are essential in this process.
Another common test is that of other professionals on the circuit trying to interfere, giving ‘better’ advice etc – it’s human nature and of course there are very few absolutes in life, however this can be very confusing for a young player but on the positive side, it also provides them with an opportunity to show their education and demonstrate the lack of doubt that they will need throughout their career, on and off the court.
Amongst other things a good coach will imbue the player with enough education that the player will become his own coach and know what is best for them – sometimes that might eventually result in them realizing that it’s the right time to move on to a new coach. By the same token a good coach should also come to the right conclusion about the player and will know when it’s the right time to let the player move on and continue to develop their potential.
Unfortunately it’s all too common for a coach to hold on for too long, especially on the women’s circuit. Some coaches can be too controlling which is not healthy – don’t forget the age group we are dealing with, these are very formative years. There are countless stories of players who become overly dependent on their coaches to the point that they don’t believe they can even play without their coach being there. This combination is not a winning one – a shared vision is essential but a co-dependency is not a route to success – ultimately, the PLAYER is the one who has to go out there and win.
It’s a delicate balance – when to sign a contract and who with, when a parent should be protective and when they should take a back seat, when to commit to a coach and when to change and let’s not even start the debate about boyfriends and girlfriends!
The sporting landscape of 30 years ago bears little resemblance to today’s highly competitive and commercial one. The gains have been huge, not just in terms of finance but in terms of knowledge gained over the many ways to maximize performance (equipment, diet and psychology to name just 3 massive advances) and of course the sponsorship which has enabled a much wider group to join the circuit. Sadly however, one of the things we seem to have lost over the years is respect.
Another very important aspect for a coach is creating a team. Naturally the size of a team is a personal matter but I believe that even 2 players, practicing at the same place, having common ideas are already a team. Of course they can be the same age, playing in the same tournaments but it would be great to create a school centre, with its own history, giving younger players access to role models.
In my opinion, the success of Eastern European players, especially Russian, started years back. As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union I benefited first hand from the system that was implemented in the clubs. The reason that the world didn’t hear much about the wealth of talent within the Soviet Union was that the vast majority of players were unable to travel. Even when players did start to travel again only one or two players from each age group had a chance to play international events – imagine the vast amount of players who never had a chance to develop internationally despite their many achievements within their own country. So when the Soviet Union fell apart the world began to see a lot more players coming through and because Russia developed much faster than other ex Soviet republics, we saw many more Russian players on tour than players from other Soviet republics. The culture of tennis was not lost and the younger players still had a chance to see their older role models play internationally.
I would like to expand upon the Soviet Union club system – it was at its zenith in the 70’s and 80’s – almost every coach had played to a high level and had graduated from the Institute of Physical Culture. There was a head-coach who was generally older and had experience in raising good players. One of the important qualities of a head coach was the ability to maintain good relationships between the younger coaches and to keep a close eye on developing the progress of the players. At the same time he ran a program for the best players of the club. The younger players or even beginners had a chance to benefit from this by watching and hearing the coaching techniques and observing the behavior of the ‘masters’, as we used to refer to them.
Due to an annual process that included coaches going to schools there was always a large group of beginners to draw from – up to 50. By the following year they had less players left in that group and each year the most devoted and talented stayed. There was not really an attitude of ‘free time, tennis for fun’, everybody who survived wanted to be a champion.
Once a coach proved himself by the number of good players in their group, his salary was increased, with the head coach commanding the highest salary of all.
I believe this system was successful as the coaches had a chance to develop a player all the way through and at the same time developing themselves. A very close bond was allowed to develop between coach and player.
Nowadays this system couldn’t work as there isn’t the political landscape to support it, however it is possible to take the best out of various structures, past and present and make them work in today’s world.
Most professional coaches have a desire to create their dream centre – a place where players and coaches can go to between tournaments or just to go to recover and rest.
In my dream centre I would divide coaches and players across 3 levels, creating a centre which nurtures beginners, enthusiasts and professionals as well as finding and supporting talented kids who don’t necessarily have the money or backing needed for sporting excellence; in other words, a centre which encourages aspirations and excellence. The 3 levels would comprise one group with players who don’t really have the drive or level to play professionally but who have the enthusiasm to play to the best of their ability and really enjoy it, The second group would see coaches working with the less advantaged but genuinely talented kids – any centre wanting to be taken seriously has to find and nurture raw talent. The third group would include the players who have made it onto the circuit. The younger players would have a chance to watch and practice with them and each group would have fitness coaches.
I would implement the salary structure which the Soviet clubs used for the coaches and the centre would function as a boarding school – players should have a chance to develop into well educated, balanced personalities whose lives can continue to develop after they stop playing tennis professionally. Access and involvement in the arts, music and languages as well as the basic sciences are essential to keep a balanced mind. It’s also imperative to have a healthy diet according to each athlete’s needs.
The centre would also attract the top sports health professionals including physiotherapists and massage therapists and would cover all aspects of rehabilitation.
The fitness coaches for each of the 3 levels would specialize according to the needs of each group, age-specific exercises to develop the correct physical abilities for each age and the coaches working in the top group would spot any individual deficiencies and work on them.
As well as a well equipped gym it would be great to have a complete track surrounding the centre and a room conducive to mental development – sports history and psychology etc.
Recovery in the centre would be as important as training – complete and active rest would be a key program.
My current goal is to summarize my experience as ex-player, coach, human being and together with my colleagues, who are sharing same views, to create a Tennis Center with the new vision of tennis.