I always see October as the start of Autumn and when most junior performance coaching programmes across the country have now settled into a rhythm for the rest of the year. Players have moved up, down and around, and coaches are beginning to breathe a little easier as the September market stall trading for the best possible squad training opportunities has quietened.
Which brings me to the point, 'what are the ingredients to best squad training opportunities? Certainly a number of these would come into it:
- environment - inspirational, disciplined, fun, structured, challenging
- motivational coaching (causing you to 'take action')
- strong underpinning programme/organisational values
- well organised and planned sessions with strength and conditioning and mental skills integration
- like-minded and similar ability players to spar & train with, and relate to
- facilities/indoor court provision during winter
- travel distance, cost (or should we be taking 'value' over cost?), timing (workable logistics)
Notice that number 5 doesn't say, 'stronger players to spar and train and relate to' but 'like-minded and similar ability players'.
Look, let's cut to the chase shall we? The opportunity to 'hit up' can be helpful. It shows us a new next best level and provides strong extrinsic and external motivation to work hard and keep up and I certainly advocate that this should be built in to a player programme at appropriate and opportune times, but not as a governing factor as to whether a player decides to train in a particular squad or programme.
Somebody has to be the strongest player, and generally that player has got to that position because other stronger players have been prepared to fulfil that role before them. It's an ecosystem by which squad training works and which holds junior development programmes together. If everyone only hit up, the whole house of cards collapses, so rather than see it as a negative, parents and players could embrace the fact that there is so much to be gained by being the stronger/strongest player in a squad environment.
- Leadership - now is the time to practice and show leadership through role modelling best effort and attitude. Be the standard bearer for the group, especially if there are younger players involved who are looking up to you. Embrace developing this 'life-skill', you'll need it later, no matter what you do!
- Develop your offence - this is a great opportunity to develop your attacking game, build your confidence in 'winning points' as opposed to your opponents 'losing points'
- Develop your unique game style - you can't practice being an aggressive baseliner for example if your sparring partner is more aggressive/hits a bigger ball than you. You'll struggle to get your game onto the court and lay down your best patterns
- Develop your intrinsic motivation and sense of 'personal responsibility' for your own levels and effort, a key skill in moving your game forward at any level in the future
- Practice beating 'weaker players' - yes, you'll play players with a 'worse' rating or ranking in tournaments when the pressure is now on you. Have you practiced this enough, are you prepared to embrace being the 'hunted' instead of the 'hunter'. This was a unique feature of the top players at the recent junior Davis and Fed Cup finals. Top players were consistently prepared to put themselves 'on the line'
- With a little more 'time' on the ball this is a great opportunity to develop finer technical points whether that's improved body coordination, racket rhythm, contact point, swing path, variance in grip change etc, and certainly more time on the ball means your footwork will be challenged in different ways as well as your ability to generate speed off a slower ball, one of the most challenging things to do on a tennis court!
The key word is balance and understanding that a commitment to a programme involves for various periods of times being the hunted as well as the hunter and that both are beneficial to a players long-term development. In addition to this, the 'pizza topping' approach where players access a range of different clubs/centres to make-up their training programme has merits and sometimes is a logistical requirement, but is unlikely to include building trust, loyalty and the very important motivational concept of contributing to something greater than yourself.