Are unforced error statistics useful to anyone?

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Every time a professional tennis match finishes, a litany of statistics is proffered by either the TV company or the website of the tennis tour. Some of these could be argued to be useful for supporting technical or tactical development, such as the first serve percentage and the number of points won from it. Others give a picture of the pattern of the match, such as the number of winners each player has hit, which, if there is a significant imbalance, fairly unequivocally identifies the aggressor. There is one statistic, however, which is always present, yet which many feel is at best of limited use, and at worst misleading: ‘unforced errors’. Several coaches are sceptical about the accuracy and value of the unforced error count, and Roger Federer has described the distinction between forced and unforced errors as ‘extremely tricky’. So what exactly does constitute an unforced error?

It is generally accepted that if a player does not have time to set him or herself for a shot, any resulting error is forced. However, if they are in position to play the ball, an error is typically categorised as unforced. In the latter case, there is nothing to reflect the ferocity of the shot they are facing, the spin, or the movement of their opponent (who may, for example, be rushing to the net). It therefore will be classed as an unforced error if you miss from a balanced position, irrespective of whether you are trying to counter an aggressive topspin drive from Dominic Thiem on an uneven clay court, a vicious sliced approach on a grass court from an onrushing Federer, or a gentle moonball from an out-of-position Sara Errani on a smooth hard court! I would contend that only one of these errors would be in any sense unforced- but the statistics do not reflect the situation, just whether or not you made the ball. What this means is that the calculation of the number of unforced errors is reasonably objective- anyone trying to record it should get a fairly similar answer. The fact that a statistic can be calculated easily, however, does not automatically imply that it is helpful!

It is fairly obvious to any regular watcher of tennis that players with differing styles will routinely produce error counts of differing magnitudes. For example, Maria Sharapova will, even on a good day, produce quite a number of ‘unforced’ errors, due to the fact that she hits flat and hard and tries to hit winners. Her shots are risky, but if she makes enough of them she will generally win. On the other hand, smaller, more defensive players like Sara Errani or Simona Halep will generally appear to make low numbers of unforced errors because they try to hit a much smaller number of winners. Crucially, if they are playing Sharapova, they will have to make Maria ‘play the extra ball’ by making difficult defensive shots, in the hope that she will miss. What this means is, when they miss a ball, due to the type of shots Maria hits it will almost always be categorised as a forced error. On the other hand, Maria is faced with the pressure of someone retrieving for all they are worth, giving her a variety of paces and spins, and putting psychological pressure on her by making it very hard for her to finish the point off. Her errors are going to be categorised as unforced, but is this really a fair description? A typical example of this is seen in the statistics from Sharapova’s 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win over Halep at this year’s US Open. In 221 points, Maria is recorded as making 64 unforced errors, as opposed to Simona’s 14. So, it would appear that Maria is making an unforced error almost every 3 points, yet still winning, whilst Simona makes one approximately every 16 points. I would argue that neither player would be remotely interested in the unforced error count afterwards. Halep will know that she didn’t lose as a result of making roughly one unforced error every two games, just as Sharapova would have been happy to make 100 or more ‘unforced’ errors if she made enough winners to win the match. Similarly, when Federer plays Nadal, Roger knows beforehand that he is going to make more ‘unforced’ errors than Rafa, as his style is far more positive and adventurous. It is highly unlikely that, in the event of a defeat, Roger is going to worry about the ‘unforced error’ count.

So, why do unforced errors still feature so prominently on summaries of match statistics? One reason is that journalists like the idea of players losing for an easily identifiable reason, such as ‘he/she made too many mistakes’. For example, a number of articles attribute Sharapova’s loss to Anastasija Sevastova at the US Open to the number of unforced errors she made. However, this is misleading in many ways. You will recall that her match with Halep lasted 29 games, and she was recorded as making 64 unforced errors. The match with Sevastova was one game longer, although it contained 16% fewer points, and she made 51 unforced errors. It is clear that her error rate was almost identical, and for her, not untypical. It could perhaps be argued that the astute play of Sevastova on the big points made it difficult for Maria, and she was perhaps more likely than normal to miss on these. In any event, it would be very lazy to attribute her defeat to notionally unforced errors, and this would not give enough credit to Sevastova.

Given that the unforced error statistic is misleading, is it simply something that is of use to coaches? Again, I would argue that it is rarely useful even to professionals. Part of being a top player is having the courage to attempt difficult shots and take risks at the right time. These risks will show up as unforced errors if they do not come off- but this should not be used to discourage the player from trying things in future. In general, very few attacking players will benefit from worrying about making mistakes- so how helpful can it be to them, psychologically, to present them with an unforced error count?

Some have suggested that the error count during a match could be split into categories such as mental, technical, etc. This could be useful to coaches, as they would be interested in having a record of when their player was making errors and why. Whilst a player does need to be unafraid of missing shots, careless mistakes and technical flaws can be significant. However, it is questionable whether non-experts could make such a categorisation with any consistency, so this may be something a coach needed to do for their player, rather than something which could be provided in the official statistics.

In conclusion, the basic unforced error count provided in most official statistics is of little use. Furthermore, if coaches focus on this statistic, it could have a negative effect on players by discouraging them from attacking. In the limit, it could even have a negative impact from a spectator’s viewpoint, as players who worry about making mistakes do not produce the greatest spectacle! A more informative measure would look at the reason for the error, and categorise it accordingly- but this would require some techical input, and would be a lot less easy to produce. At junior level, I would suggest that a lot of psychological harm could be done by encouraging players to focus too much on limiting unforced errors. I once worked with a junior player with a Sharapova-like aggressive, flat-hitting style who had been led to think that the way to turn the game around when the momentum was against her was to tell herself to stop making (unforced) errors. Surprisingly, this only made things worse! Overall, I would suggest that positive thinking is a major weapon in a tennis player’s arsenal, and dwelling on unforced errors can only hinder this. Perhaps this statistic should no longer be produced as standard?


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The New Coach Effect in Tennis

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Anyone who follows tennis will be familiar with the ongoing soap opera surrounding coaching appointments with the top players. Andy Murray changes his coaches fairly frequently and the choices he makes seem to inspire a lot of debate- in particular the on-off relationship with Ivan Lendl and the fact that he had the temerity to employ a (grand-slam winning) woman in Amelie Mauresmo! Novak Djokovic has recently made major changes to his coaching team, having first dispensed with the services of Boris Becker, and then Marian Vajda, and begun working with Andre Agassi and Mario Ancic. This now appears to be the era of the ‘supercoach’, as the world’s best vie to employ the most illustrious former players.

The players who frequently change their coach obviously feel that this can give them a crucial short-term edge. Roger Federer chooses to work with coaches in relatively short bursts, seemingly feeling that they may have a small amount to teach the GOAT, but not enough to justify a longer-term appointment. Rafael Nadal on the other hand, appears happy, for the most part, to continue to work with Uncle Toni, although even he recently added former world number one Carlos Moya to his team. The question I want to look at here is, does employing a new coach have a genuine positive effect for a good player, or is the effect short-lived and/or minimal?

I am not aware of any scientific studies covering this exact topic, although the effect of changing coaches has been widely studied in football, basketball and the NFL. The studies in team sports have the drawback that in leagues, teams play different opposition at different stages of the season, and any short-term improvement in results can simply be a result of a coincidental easier run of games. This is also possible in tennis up to a point, but here the people one plays are far more random, so the order of play effect is lessened. Adler, Berry and Doherty (2012), found that, in college football, if a team was doing poorly, a change of coach would not make any difference, whereas for a mid-table team, it would make things worse on average! There are other studies which have found a positive new coach effect in team sports, but none that I am aware of where that effect could not be explained equally by order of play and the effect of the remaining staff and infrastructure. There is really very little scientific evidence to support the idea that a change of coach produces a positive effect in the short term. Perhaps someone should explain this to Steve Parish?!

In professional tennis, the job of the coach is to enhance the performance and ensure the well-being of an individual player. Depending upon the success and wealth of that player, they may be part of an entourage including fitness trainer, hitting partner, sport psychologist, and physiotherapist. For less wealthy players who can still afford to travel with a coach, the coach’s role is broader, encompassing as many as possible of the functions of the top player’s entourage. In addition, most professional tennis players have received many years of technical coaching, and are generally not looking for constant technical innovation and improvement. Whilst an occasional technical insight will be valued, this is most certainly not the role of the currently fashionable supercoaches. Do we really imagine that Djokovic employed Becker in the hope of improving his groundstrokes?

When a player changes their coach, they are almost certainly looking for a psychological boost more than anything else. For the top players, they are often hoping that they will benefit from the experience of a coach who has been at the very top of the game, and that this will help them to take the next step in their development, as Lendl seemed to do for Murray. The next tier of players will probably be looking for a coach with a track record of working with top players, and will again be hoping that their experience will be beneficial. Very few professionals will be looking for technical input beyond that which any good performance coach could provide.

The conclusion seems to be that tennis players change their coach for reasons which have little to do with coaching. Of course, a new coach can help to instigate medium and long-term changes if the player is motivated to achieve these, but such a degree of planning appears to be rare. Instead they are looking for an enhancement in their self-belief, or possibly a degree of intimidation of their opponents (‘How many grand slams did YOUR coach win as a player?’). Employing big name coaches is normally very expensive, so this begs the question of whether there is another way of achieving the desired effect. I would suggest that there is. If a tennis player has a competent, committed coach, there is not likely to be any short-term benefit in replacing him or her. Most players below the top level, however, spend only a limited time working with a sport psychologist. A sport psychologist can help a player to change their mindset and help them to deal better with what happens on court, and ultimately to become more confident. So, perhaps, a few more hours working with a sport psychologist could replace the boost offered by changing a coach, without the trauma of dismissing the current one- and it would be quite a bit cheaper than hiring Boris Becker! Just as an example, Johanna Konta transformed her career by improving her mental game in conjunction with sport psychologist Juan Coto. During training blocks she would spend 2 hours per day working with Coto on topics like visualisation, mindfulness and positive thinking. She reached the top 10 in the world due to her improved mentality- she did not need to hire Martina Navratilova!

In summary, a good coach matters, but a sport psychologist is equally important. Beware of changing coaches just because other players do, or because a well-meaning person says that you need someone with a particular level of playing experience- the evidence suggests that this is not likely to help. If you are looking for psychological benefits, go to a sport psychologist! 

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Spieth shows how to recover from a ‘choke’

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Many of you will have watched, fascinated, as Jordan Spieth’s golf fluctuated wildly on the final day of the 2017 Open Championship. In the end, he made the winning of his third major look almost comfortable, but for much of the final round it had been anything but! Unusually, this had very little to do with the performance of his competitors. Matt Kuchar was steady, but never threatened to pull away. Li Haotong put in a superb final round of 63, but he began it 12 behind Spieth, so any pressure he could apply was fairly minimal. No-one else was really able to make a move on Sunday. It is probably fair to say that what we were watching was Spieth grappling with his own self-doubt. The entertainment was not provided by a classic duel between two great players, as in 2016 when Stenson and Mickelson went head to head and produced a barrage of birdies. Instead it was basically Spieth versus Spieth, with the rest of the field simply looking on and hoping.

Spieth started the final round at Birkdale on 11 under par, three clear of Kuchar, and six ahead of the rest of the field. Matt Kuchar is the most successful (in terms of earnings) active player never to have won a major, and at 39 he must be starting to wonder if he will ever win one. Kuchar was therefore not a player whom Spieth will have been particularly intimidated to see as his closest challenger. Many will have expected the final day to take on the air of a procession, but such opinions needed to be quickly revised when Spieth bogeyed three of his first four holes. At this stage, his long game was unreliable and even his putting was not up to its usual high standard. Kuchar was not looking that threatening, but suddenly he was in a tie for the lead.

Whilst we cannot know exactly what was going through Spieth’s mind early in his final round, it might help to remember what happened at Augusta in 2016. Early in the final round, Spieth was relishing leading the Masters for the 7th successive round. He was playing well and had a 5 shot lead over Danny Willett. Bogeys at 10 and 11 saw his lead reduced, but still no-one can have expected what happened at the 12th. Two visits to the water later, a quadruple-bogey had pretty much destroyed his chances. This was a tough experience for a 22 year-old who had known little but success in his short career- especially in view of the number of times he must have subsequently been asked to talk about it by the media. There is no doubt that this experience was playing on Spieth’s mind during the early stages of the final round at Birkdale. He admitted that he was thinking about the 2016 Masters before the round started, and putting himself under pressure. This type of thought process can often lead to what is generally known as ‘choking’. Typically, choking happens when a player starts thinking too much about the mechanics of what they are doing, instead of relaxing and letting the shots, which they know they can execute, happen. Essentially, they are trying to force themselves to play well, in order to avoid a feared negative outcome (losing!) instead of relying on the many hours of practice they have put in.

There is little doubt that Spieth was exhibiting most of the signs of choking in the first 13 holes of his final round at Birkdale. He 3-putted 3 times in the first 9 holes, which is very rare for a man known as a great putter, and he looked uncertain, which clearly suggests he was over-analysing. When he teed off at the 13th, he was 3 over par for the day, and he hit as poor a drive as he had hit all week. As the ball veered wildly off line, his expression was easy to read: ‘Why can’t I execute the basic shots? What is going wrong?’. As we now know, everything was about to change. The drive was in an unplayable lie, but he and his caddie, Michael Greller, worked out that the best thing to do was to take a drop further away from the hole, as this would allow a drop on the nearby practice ground. Eventually, after a substantial delay, Spieth was able to hole an 8 foot putt for bogey. He must initially have feared a real catastrophe like that at the 2016 Masters, so when Greller suggested that this was a real momentum shift, Spieth was all too ready to believe him. A good tee shot at the par three 14th led to a birdie, and when he holed a 55 foot putt at the 15th for eagle you could almost see any remaining self-doubt leave his body. Birdies at 16 and 17 followed, and a steady par at 18 gave him victory. Over this spell, Spieth was playing the kind of solid golf which had put him in the lead in the first place, and it seemed that he knew exactly how to strike the putts. He was ‘in the zone’ rather than overthinking.

So, how did Spieth overcome what could have been another costly choke? Essentially, it seems that, encouraged by Michael Greller, he recognised that something hugely positive had happened on the 13th. Although he had lost his lead, he left the hole at least 2 shots better than he might have done. Instead of worrying about losing, he started to trust his game again and just focused on playing. This change to a positive mindset, and a determination to stay in the moment rather than looking back or too far ahead, led to his getting into the zone again, and consigning the early dramas to history. This is something that can be applied to many sports: a player whose mind is cluttered with worry, self-doubt, fear, or other negative feelings, will not be free to play the sport to the best of their ability. Spieth’s experience suggests that one way out of this is to find something positive to latch on to, and to tell yourself that the game starts here- from now on, you will simply play your sport the way you know you can without being hindered by unhelpful thoughts. This may be easier said than done at times, but mental skills training can help with the necessary control of your thought processes. 

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Sergio Garcia- No need for a Sport Psychologist?

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Any of you who enjoy golf will remember the scene vividly. It’s a little after midnight UK time on what is now Monday 10 April 2017. After an epic duel with Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, the brilliant Spaniard who has convinced us all that he will never win a major championship, is stood over a 10-foot putt on the 18th green at Augusta. He has two putts from here to win the Masters. He looks at the putt from every conceivable angle, carefully addresses the ball, and strikes it smoothly. The ball curls slightly from right to left: the pace is possibly a little quick, but the ball rolls around the left side of the hole and falls satisfyingly into the bottom of the cup. Sergio sinks to his haunches and begins to celebrate. The crowd chant his name and he gradually releases all of the emotion and frustration that has built up over 18 years of hurt. Eventually he leaves the green with his arm around his fiancee Angela Akins. There is a huge outpouring of joy from Sergio and from everyone who has supported him through the dark days when he looked thoroughly depressed, declaring that he was not good enough and would never win a major.

I thought that I would never write the words in the paragraph above. I am delighted to have been proven wrong (more words that I thought I would never write!). Sergio has been one of the very best golfers on the planet for nearly 20 years. He has no equal as a shotmaker. If conditions are particularly difficult, especially if the wind is making the course look unplayable, Sergio often seems to score almost as well as if it were a warm summer’s day. His only real golfing weakness has been his putting, which became increasingly tentative under pressure during the days when his confidence was shaky. So, why has it taken him so long to win a major? Many golf commentators have weighed in on this question over the years, but I think it boiled down to the fact that Sergo did not really believe he could do it. His infamous Augusta press conference of 2012 gives some insight into this. He lamented: ‘I’m not good enough and today I know it. I’ve been trying for 13 years and I don’t feel capable of winning. I don’t know what happened to me. Maybe it’s something psychological. After 13 years, my chances are over. I’m not good enough for the Majors. That’s it.’ Of course, Sergio was probably feeling particularly down when he said this, but it illustrates the fragility of his self-belief. It also shows that he realised that psychological issues were at the root of his problems. Despite this, he has consistently been quoted as saying that he would never work with a sport psychologist because he does not believe in them. He feels that he can handle the mental side of golf himself, without outside assistance.

Should we therefore simply applaud Sergio for his fortitude, and recognise that a determined person can overcome any psychological issues which might be holding them back without any help? Not necessarily! There were of course other factors which helped Sergio at this year’s Masters. Firstly, the windy conditions in the early part of the tournament certainly favoured a player with his skills, and he has been putting more solidly of late with his claw-grip technique. In addition, he had the memory of a superb singles performance in the last Ryder Cup under similarly extreme pressure relatively fresh in his mind- he had shown himself that he could stand up to the highest pressure and not crumble. But none of this would have been enough but for two words: Angela Akins. Sergio’s fiancee is a former college golfer who clearly understands the mental side of sport, and Sergio obviously trusts her more than he would any sport psychologist. Angela and her father Marty, a former successful college footballer, have by all accounts worked hard on keeping Sergio positive. During the Masters, Angela put inspiring quotes from figures as diverse as Audrey Hepburn and Buddha on post-it notes on the bathroom mirror in order to help Sergio to keep the appropriate mindset. He has also said that Angela and Marty have helped him to accept things that happen with more calmness than ever before, and have aided him in changing his approach to the game by telling him things that were perhaps difficult to hear. So, in essence, Angela has acted as a sport psychologist to Sergio- and the man who does not believe in sport psychologists has found himself doing the things that a psychologist would advise him to do!

Of course, this is not the end of Sergio’s story, and he will hopefuly go on to further success. However, the story to date is a clear illustration of the value of mental skills training. Sergio did not want to follow the orthodox route to get help, but he found it anyway, and now he has achieved his dream of winning a major championship. 

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Parents as tennis coaches- avoiding the downside

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In my last post, I talked about the reasons why a parent might want to act as the main coach to an aspiring tennis pro. I also discussed some examples of where this has been successful. However, this is not by any means the whole picture.

To begin with, there are many examples of the parent-child relationship disintegrating when faced with the pressure of attempting to succeed in elite sport. Of the ostensibly successful relationships, a number have ended with allegations of mental or physical abuse.

– Mary Pierce and her father Jim worked together during the early part of her career. She made good progress during this period, but it ended acrimoniously with a restraining order and Jim banned from attending tournaments.

– Jelena Dokic (pictured below with her parents) enjoyed the best years of her career when coached by her somewhat volatile father Damir (who was at one point imprisoned for threats made to the Australian ambassador to Serbia involving a grenade launcher!). The coaching relationship ended, and Jelena and Damir were estranged for several years.

– Andre Agassi was coached in his early years by his father Mike, who pushed Andre obsessively. This led to Andre, as he has often stated, hating tennis. This certainly cannot have helped their relationship, although Mike remains unrepentant about his methods.

There are many more examples of relationships between players and parent-coaches ending in controversy and distress. The players mentioned above were successful despite the issues they suffered, although the parent-child relationships were seriously damaged. Considering the fact that only a tiny percentage of tennis players end up making a good living from the game, there must be many more cases where irreparable harm has been done to family relationships without even the compensation of financial reward.

A lot has been said in the sport psychology literature about the nature of the coach-athlete relationship. During my Masters at Loughborough I was fortunate enough to be taught by one of the foremost experts in this area, Dr Sophia Jowett. In their various papers on the subject, Sophia and her colleagues have devised a way of assessing and categorising coach-athlete relationships. They define an effective coach-athlete relationship as one where the goal is to be the best that you can be, both for the coach and the athlete, with the emphasis on empathy, honesty and support. Ineffective relationships, in contrast, are characterised by such features as antagonism, exploitation and even abuse. The other way in which coach-athlete relationships are measured is by whether they are successful or unsuccessful, where success is an objective such as reaching the top 100 in the world rankings.

It is pretty clear that the relationships described above, for Pierce, Dokic and Agassi, were successful, but they were also, to use Sophia Jowett’s terminology, ineffective. This would explain why the relationships ultimately broke down. Sophia has stated that an optimal coach-athlete relationship is reflected in the maturity and growth of both parties. It would be fair to suggest that this was not evident in the examples discussed here.

So, can the relationship between a parent-coach and a child-athlete be truly effective and successful? I have seen many examples where the relationship has been effective but ultimately unsuccessful, leaving the desirable legacy of a healthy parent-child relationship. I would suggest that many of the successful relationships have been less effective in Sophia Jowett’s terms. The closest to truly successful and effective relationships in the present era would seem to be those between Richard Williams and his daughters, and between Alexander Zverev sr and his sons. In both cases there is clearly a strong bond between father and offspring, and the players continue to go from strength to strength. Admittedly, Serena and Venus have in recent years brought in other coaches to build on Richard’s work, but his innovative groundwork clearly contributed a great deal to their hugely successful careers.

The Williams and Zverev examples do have one distinct difference. Richard Williams was a non-tennis player who decided to make his daughters into tennis stars. Alexander Zverev was a former professional who claims that he did not push his sons into playing- he says that it was always their choice. So it does not seem to be crucial whether the children were pushed into playing or not. Perhaps what is more important is whether the environment created by the parent-coach is such that enjoyment and enthusiasm are maintained. Sophia Jowett emphasises the importance of communication, and this will be crucial in maintaining a good atmosphere.

I think all of this suggests that if you are a parent who wants to coach your tennis-playing child, you must try to make the coaching relationship effective. To do this, you must communicate well, and offer empathy, honesty and support, whilst avoiding antagonism and bullying as far as possible. The difference between a normal coach-athlete relationship and one involving a parent is that parents often feel that they know what is best for their child, and may, consciously or subconsciously, use the child to further their own ambitions. This can permanently skew the power dynamic in the coaching relationship and lead to ineffectiveness and resentment. If you can avoid this, this still does not mean that the coaching relationship will be successful- but at least your child will still be speaking to you when they have finished with tennis! If you cannot manage to fulfil the requirements for an effective relationship, it would probably be better to hire a professional coach. 

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Tennis Coaching- do parents know best?

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Tennis is an individual sport in which players who have professional aspirations travel nationally and internationally from an early age. Training at an academy can cost between £10,000 and £60,000 per year. It can cost over £1,000 per week to attend international tournaments- even at junior level, where the only income is likely to be any sponsorship that can be obtained. This situation means that there is a massive amount of parental involvement and commitment needed to give a player even the slightest chance of making it to the highest level. Some players train at large academies which will take some of the organisational stress away from the players’ parents- but these can be enormously expensive. Some governing bodies, such as the LTA in Britain, will provide partial financial support, but the extent of this depends on the political climate and their opinion of a player’s progress- which is very subjective and heavily influenced by a young player’s physical development and fitness. There is one way in which the costs of developing a young tennis player can be substantially reduced, without relying on the largesse of others: a parent can become the player’s main coach. This also gives the parent substantially greater control than they would otherwise have. Is this a good idea?

For a parent to be an effective coach of an elite player, they need to learn sufficient technical information about the game to be able to guide their child’s practice and technical development. Some tennis parents are already proficient coaches, which might be considered to offer them a significant advantage. A good example of this is the former Russian Davis Cup player Alexander Zverev, who coaches his two sons, Alexander jr and Mischa. After years of hard work, Alexander is currently ranked 20 in the world, and Mischa 33. However, this type of arrrangement is rare in the men’s game. There is only one other male top 50 player who is coached by a parent, namely Bernard Tomic who is coached by his father John. John Tomic was not a tennis player, but he learned as much about the game as he could, in order to guide Bernard and his sister Sara. He is a controversial figure, but he has had more success than many traditional coaches.

Interestingly, the situation on the women’s tour is more heavily biased in favour of parent-coaches. 6 of the current top 23 female players are coached by a parent. What is also noticeable is the fact that some of the most successful female players of recent times have been coached by their father- and most of these parent-coaches have not been former players. For example, Richard Williams coached his daughters Venus and Serena after learning about tennis from books: Piotr Wozniacki, who coaches Caroline, is a former footballer. Former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli was coached for most of her career by her father Walter, a doctor by profession. Richard Williams and Walter Bartoli in particular are noted for the innovative ideas which they brought to coaching and practice.

The evidence above suggests that parents are perfectly able to succeed as co aches of elite tennis players- and in fact may benefit from not having been immersed in the currently fashionable coaching and training ideas for many years. A new perspective can sometimes bring progress. Most parents have limited funds, so taking on this vital role themselves can allow their child to play more tournaments and possibly give them a better chance of success. Nonetheless, there are potential problems. In my next post, I will look at some of the possible downsides, and also consider the psychological implications of this type of arrangement.

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Paire shows how not to serve for the set…

In men’s tennis, the serve is a big weapon for many players. If you have broken your opponent’s serve, a key skill is to refocus effectively between games and between points, in order that they are given as little chance as possible to break back. Routines are crucial here, to stop your mind wandering onto unhelpful thoughts such as errors made on earlier points. This type of mental skill needs to be rehearsed regularly, just as the serve itself needs frequent practice.

On 22 March 2017 in the Masters 1000 event in Miami, Benoit Paire had attained a 5-4 lead in the first set against Martin Klizan. Paire is known to be a little unpredictable in his behaviour, and there had already been signs that he was on edge. Nonetheless, he has a good serve, and was looking a strong favourite for the set against an opponent who was also not at his best. The game progressed something like this:

– a rally ensues on the first point. Paire plays a high drop shot, giving Klizan plenty of time to hit a backhand pass which Paire cannot return.(0-15)

– double fault. (0-30)

– misses first serve, then energetically smashes his racquet on the court (umpire awards code violation-warning). After fetching a new racquet, makes a reasonable second serve. When the ball is returned, Paire plays a drop-shot from a poor position, which dies weakly in the net. (0-40)

– smashes another racquet, seemingly attempting to exceed the force he used the first time. The umpire gives a second code violation which, as Paire must have expected, results in a point penalty. (Game awarded to Klizan).

Paire therefore did a fantastic job of showing exactly what not to do. Each error he made compounded the previous one- there was no indication of his even attempting to clear his mind between points. However, this was not in this case an irredeemable situation. He pulled himself together sufficiently to win the first set in a tie-break, and eased steadily away from an injured and out of sorts Klizan to clinch a straight-sets victory. So he progressed in the tournament, but this incident emphasised the need for him to put in some work on his mental skills! 

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Marcelo Rios- a Misunderstood Genius

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If you ask most people about the great male tennis players of the late 1990s and early 2000s, they will undoubtedly mention Sampras and Agassi- some will remember a young Hewitt or Guga Kuerten, perhaps even Safin or Kafelnikov. Those who enjoy a big serve might recall Krajicek, Rusedski and Ivanisevic with affection. There is one man, however, whom I believe was truly one of the great tennis entertainers, and who spent several weeks ranked number 1 in 1998, whom I suspect would not be that widely remembered now. His name was Marcelo Rios.

Marcelo Rios was born in Chile in 1975. He took up tennis at the age of eleven, and by the time he was seventeen he was the number one junior in the world. In 1996, he entered the top 10 of the senior rankings for the first time. By 1998, he was world number 1 for a spell, and reached the final of the Australian Open, as well as winning 3 of what would ultimately be 5 Masters Series events. Sadly, by 1999 he started to suffer from injuries, and in subsequent years his physical struggles meant that he was rarely able to recapture his best form on a consistent basis. He finally retired in 2004, unable to regain the necessary level of fitness, at the age of just 28.

The brief summary of his career in the last paragraph should be enough to show that he was a genuine top player. However, the statistics really do not do justice to his talent. I’ve watched and played a huge amount of tennis, and I’ve never been more thoroughly entertained than I was when watching Marcelo Rios. He was not a particularly big man, being approximately 5’9″ in height. He moved extremely well in his heyday, and he had a useful left-handed serve, particularly for his height, as well as being solid off the ground. What made Marcelo really special was his control over the tennis ball. He could disguise all manner of changes of pace and angle, and could be incredibly creative. If he wanted to, he could destroy players of lesser talent with his skills. Sometimes, when watching Marcelo, you would simply have to marvel at the shot-making. If you have a chance, I would strongly recommend watching some of the clips of his tennis on YouTube. If you have a little more time, remind yourself of how the other players mentioned above played- if you don’t think Rios was more entertaining I will be very surprised. In fact, if anyone outside of the Sampras household thinks he was better to watch than Rios, I would be extremely interested to hear why!

So why isn’t Marcelo Rios generally regarded as a true legend of the game? Whilst watching him play was a genuine joy for anyone who loved tennis, Marcelo did not always seem to gain as much pleasure from it as he could have done. There were a few occasions when he did not really appear to be in the mood. He was also famous for his aversion to the media. In his younger days, he gave some very tetchy-sounding interviews, and he was not keen on spending his time signing autographs. This led to him being quite unpopular in many quarters. Yet there are plenty of examples of former players and tournament staff who actually knew Marcelo saying how pleasant and likeable they found him. What could have explained this contradiction? Perhaps part of the answer became clear in 2014 when Marcelo gave an interview in which he noted that he believed that he suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a condition on the autism spectrum which is normally characterised by obsessive behaviour, and difficulty in social interactions, especially due to a lack of empathy. Those with the condition often have difficulty ‘reading’ other people, and can appear insensitive- they may shy away from large groups and prefer their own company. Imagine how difficult someone with these characteristics would find the life of a top tennis player. They would probably feel that autograph hunters were crowding them, and would not really understand how to relate to the media, or indeed how people would perceive their behaviour. It certainly appears that Marcelo was unloved by the majority of the public due to factors that were entirely beyond his control. So maybe we should reassess things retrospectively and recognise him as a true great of the game?

From a psychological perspective, perhaps there was a role for more mental skills-related assistance in Marcelo’s career. He could perhaps have benefited from assistance with controlling his emotions on court, which could have made him even harder to beat. Equally importantly, a psychology consultant could perhaps have helped him with dealing with the off-court issues, and contributed to his feeling happier and more comfortable. If he had enjoyed himself more, he might have been even more successful, and could have left an even greater sporting legacy.

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Cliff Wilson- Snooker’s great entertainer

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Sometimes in sport, a player comes along whose story you could not make up- one whose career follows a very different path to the norm, and yet still makes it to the top echelon of their game. Cliff Wilson was such a player. It was not, however, just his back story that made Cliff Wilson’s relatively short career memorable- it was the free-spirited and brilliant way he played the game. If I knew Cliff was going to be on TV, I would cancel all other engagements, as I knew I would see something amazing, win or lose- and I think I also realised that he was not likely to be around for too long.

Cliff’s snooker story started in Tredegar in South Wales in the 1950’s. Snooker did not have a big professional circuit in those days, but in Tredegar they had two young amateurs who were as good as anyone in the country- Cliff and a certain Ray Reardon. Cliff was based at the gas-lit Lucania Billiard Hall, whereas Reardon played at the slightly more up-market Miners’ Institute. Each had plenty of supporters, and when they played it was always a big match. Reardon tended to win in the Welsh amateur championship, whilst Cliff generally emerged victorious in the Welsh qualifier for the English Amateur championships. These days, they would both have turned pro and enjoyed lucrative careers, but in the mid-50’s there was no such option. Cliff displayed a dynamic, fast-potting style which could have made him a legend and helped to popularise the game, but instead, a combination of factors pushed him away from snooker. Reardon moved away from the area as his family left for England. This, combined with the death of Cliff’s father, and the fact that he was newly-married, led to a change in Cliff’s priorities. At the age of 23 he put his cue away for 15 years.

Whilst he was away from the game, Cliff worked in the steel industry. His health was gradually worsening, and in later years he would have ongoing issues with knee, back and hip, as well as heart trouble and awful eyesight. Nonetheless, in the 1970s Cliff started to play again. His enthusiasm returned, and by 1978 he was good enough to win the World Amateur Championship. He finally turned professional the following year, aged 45. This was certainly not the same brilliant youngster who had entertained the people of Tredegar in the 1950s. His eyes were causing him all sorts of problems. He tried playing with an eye-patch, and used various types of glasses. The bright TV lighting made it very difficult for him to see the balls. He was also overweight and looked older than his years. He had had to change his technique to reflect his physical capabilities. All of this, at first sight, made you think that he was going to be a cautious, negative player. It took only a few minutes for you to realise how wrong that was!

There is unfortunately not too much video of Cliff on YouTube. What little there is does not portray how good he was. First of all, he was a very fast player still. Although he would have struggled to beat Bill Werbeniuk (younger readers may need to look Bill up, but a fairly large man!) in a foot race, he wasted no time in playing his shots. Secondly, he was a great potter- Neal Foulds has said that Cliff was the greatest potter he had seen when he was playing professionally in the 1980s. But there were other players who were quick and potted well: Cliff was different because he was almost completely fearless. If you ever watch snooker either live or on TV, you’ll realise that when you are watching a frame, the first question you ask yourself is: ‘Is there a ball they can pot?’ The second question, which the commentators will pontificate upon, is: ‘’Should they take the risk?’ Modern snooker players normally carry out a kind of cost-benefit analysis before they play a shot. Cliff never seemed to do this. Once he had theorised that a ball was pottable, however unlikely this might appear, no further questions were needed- he would inevitably attempt to prove his theory immediately! If there was a double on, he would go for it. However fine a cut-shot might appear, as long as the angle was over 90 degrees, he would attempt it- whatever the situation. A re-spotted black simply gave Cliff the opportunity to play more unlikely-looking shots until he either won or left an easy pot.

Why was Cliff able to play this way? Clearly he did want to win, but he stated very clearly that he regarded snooker as a game, not a sport, and that it should be enjoyed rather than taken too seriously. He did have success, breaking into the top 16 in 1988/9, and winning the World Seniors Championship in 1991. The weakness of the way he played was that he missed a lot of ‘routine’ pots- but then again he made more unbelievable shots than anyone before or since. The joy of watching him was that you would find yourself (normally more than once) saying: ‘Surely he won’t go for that?!’ He would then proceed to go for it, and often make it! Knowing Cliff’s story, and his health background, made it all the sweeter when he did beat some dour young professional. He played for enjoyment: he knew his professional career would probably be short: it was impossible not to want him to win, or to take your eyes off the game while he was playing.

Cliff was a likeable man- an affable, rotund figure, whom you could imagine as an old Welsh uncle regaling you with stories of his misspent youth. He said that by the time he turned professional, his eyes were so bad that he couldn’t see the far end of the table- he claimed that a good memory was what enabled him to play! Whatever the truth of this, his eyes were undoubtedly very poor, which makes the precision of some of his more ambitious shots all the more remarkable!

By 1994, Cliff’s health was deteriorating further, although he was still playing tournaments when he could. He died, aged 60, in May of that year. Snooker had lost its greatest entertainer.

Is there anything we can learn from Cliff in terms of sport psychology? His is a very unusual story, so few people will ever find themselves in a similar position. Nonetheless, he made more near-impossible shots than anyone I have ever seen, and had more success as a professional than many who turn pro 25 years younger, don’t have 15 years out of the game, and, indeed, can see the other end of the table! Of course he had natural ability, and he could be very careless with less difficult shots, but the real key point for me is that he played without fear. Despite all the disadvantages he was working under, Cliff was not afraid to take chances and was not afraid to lose- and often this enabled him to win. Learning to play with less fear can help many sportspeople, and this is where sport psychology can help.

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Herbie Hide- one of the great British heavyweights

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I was looking back at some old heavyweight boxing the other day when I came across a couple of videos of the great Herbie Hide in action. Some might quibble with the use of the word ‘great’, but let’s not forget that Herbie’s ‘natural’ weight was generally considered to be between 85 and 90kg, which in today’s terms makes him a cruiserweight. Even when Herbie was in his prime, and the cruiserweight limit was lower (around 86kg compared to 90.7kg today), he was more of a cruiserweight than a heavyweight. Despite this, Herbie was twice WBO heavyweight champion.

Why was Herbie special? He was fast- perhaps without the boxing skills of Ali, but still a decent technician. More importantly, from a spectator’s viewpoint, he could punch. His career record reads 49 wins, 43 by knockout, and 4 losses. When Herbie walked into the ring you knew that something was going to happen, and whatever that was, it was unlikely to be dull! He first won a world heavyweight title at the age of 22, knocking out Michael Bentt. His next fight was against Riddick Bowe, who was then in his prime, and at a very conservative estimate 13kg (2 stone) heavier- some suggested that Herbie’s weight was overstated for that fight. Now, just imagine that for a second- a 23 year-old British ‘cruiserweight’ taking on one of America’s top three heavyweights, a man 4 years older, and looking totally like he should be in a different weight division. It was only Herbie’s second fight outside Europe, and his first in America. Herbie was much quicker than Bowe, and landed some good shots- Bowe later admitted to being ‘out on his feet’ at one point, and told Boxing Insider that Herbie was the hardest puncher he ever faced. However, Bowe also had fast hands for a big man and eventually overpowered Herbie in 6 rounds. Herbie showed a lot of courage in that fight- he was down 6 times, but kept getting up and troubled Bowe to the end.

After the loss to Bowe, Herbie regrouped and a couple of fairly straightforward wins led to him fighting Tony Tucker, who had once gone the distance with Mike Tyson, and was a former IBF champion, for the by now vacant WBO title. Tucker proved to be little threat, and Herbie stopped him in 2 rounds. A couple of swift defences followed, before Herbie was dethroned by a fairly useful fighter from the Ukraine called Vitali Klitschko- another man who should clearly have been in a higher weight division!

There was no sporting reason for Herbie’s career to go into a decline at this point. He was 27 years old, and he had lost two fights, both of them to absolutely top rate fighters who were much bigger than him. However, in his book ‘Nothing but Trouble: My Story’, Herbie explains that the death of his young brother from leukaemia hit him hard, and he was never quite the same after this. He fought just 5 times in the next 7 years, including two losses against journeyman heavyweights (to be fair, he avenged the first of these, and the second was lost on a cut). In 2006, at the age of 35, he relaunched himself as a cruiserweight. 13 unbeaten fights followed, largely in Germany. He was talked about as a potential world title challenger again, but his last appearance was in Sky’s ‘Prizefighter’ series, in which he sustained a bad cut in winning his first fight and was forced to retire from the competition. This put paid to any talk of world title fights, and Herbie’s career seems to have ended there.

Since his glory days, Herbie’s personal life has been beset by controversy, culminating in his being imprisoned for a spell following a sting operation by the notorious ‘fake Sheikh’. However, I don’t want to talk too much about that here: instead, let’s consider Herbie Hide the boxer, and how the public regard him. People tend to say that Herbie could not take a punch- yet in his prime he was only beaten by Riddick Bowe and Vitali Klitschko. These men were vastly bigger and heavier than him. I think it’s interesting that Chris Eubank’s natural weight is similar to Herbie’s. Everyone believes that Chris had a great chin- and indeed he did- but no-one thought that it should be tested by fighting Riddick Bowe or Vitali Klitschko! Herbie did get knocked down a few times by huge opponents, but he never lacked heart and he was the most exciting fighter of his generation. If he had fought at cruiserweight he would almost certainly have been recognised as an all-time great. His only rival in that era would have been the staggeringly durable, technically sound, Evander Holyfield, but I know who I would have chosen to watch!

I think it’s a great shame that the British public never really took Herbie to their hearts. Frank Bruno was widely liked, yet he was nowhere near as exciting a fighter as Herbie, nor was he in many ways as good. If you don’t remember this era, try watching a few Bruno fights on YouTube, and then compare with a few of Herbie’s. Of course Lennox Lewis was around then, and he was Britain’s best ever heavyweight, but he was also much bigger than Herbie- his fights were exciting in their way, but this was mainly as a result of seeing a Briton dominate the division. Lewis was a patient, intelligent boxer with a decent punch, but never a natural entertainer. Herbie was on another level, entertainment-wise, but the public never really seemed to recognise this. There were no big pay-per-view nights for Herbie!

How can we analyse all of this psychologically? When Herbie fought Bowe he looked good enough to win, but Bowe was so much bigger that when Herbie was caught with awkward shots he was hurt to an extent he probably hadn’t felt before. That brought doubt, which seemed to cause him to back off a little when he could perhaps have beaten Bowe. Arguably, that is the problem in putting fighters in with much bigger opponents- eventually they start to lose that iron self-belief which is crucial in combat sports.

By the time Herbie fought Klitschko, he had lost his brother, and that fight and some subsequent performances tended to indicate a lack of focus in preparation. Many sportsmen understandably find it difficult to regain the necessary single-mindedness after suffering a traumatic event in their personal lives.

But why was Herbie never massively popular? I think he never really knew how to express himself to a mass audience outside of the ring. He had a speech impediment, and he always came across as somewhat spiky. As time went by, his personal difficulties resulted in him possibly losing a bit of perspective, and some of his interviews appeared a little eccentric, to say the least. People loved Bruno because he was a superficially straightforward man with a ready laugh- but this was also marketing at work: the interviews he did with Harry Carpenter did so much for his popularity. What would have happened if someone who understood Herbie had helped him to present an image that people had warmed to? Could he now be affectionately regarded as a legend? Many boxers have problems after their career finishes- look at Bruno and Hatton. Herbie is no exception to this, but wouldn’t it be great if people could actually give him the recognition he deserves? Perhaps this would help him in dealing with whatever happens to him in the rest of his life.

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