The New Coach Effect in Tennis

Embed from Getty Images

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! 

Embed from Getty Images