(here above is the lessons in video. Below in writing, more detailed.)
October 1991: I’m 14 years old, and it seems like finally I can be free. I’ve made a big decision and my coach has agreed to do it: I’m changing my backhand, from 2 hands to 1 hand!, big deal for me.
Why? Because I’ve admired Boris Becker then Pete Sampras, and I basically want to be like them.
As expected, my level on this side is quite average to start with. It doesn’t matter. I know that with hard work, I will be able to make it.
Years later I realized one of the (many) mistakes I made in my tennis career. By focusing on my weakest side, I became average on my strongest side! My forehand, which used to be a big weapon, became so and so. And I lost confidence with the rest of my game as well.
It took me years to be back on track. I was top 10 in France in my age group when I changed my backhand. The following years, I don’t think many people heard about me!
This article is for you to avoid some of the mistakes I made in training, both as a player and as a coach. Let’s dive in.
Questions: based on my story above and your own experience, do you believe it is a bad thing to work on our weaknesses then?
Aren’t we supposed to be excellent when we don’t have weaknesses anymore?
Or maybe a better question is when is it a good time to improve on our vulnerabilities?
And what about our strengths then?
To answer these questions, let’s do something we can all do in the different areas in our lives: study successful people.
What do top athletes do?
If you look at the number ones in the world, let’s stick to tennis and I bet it’s similar with any sport or any area in life, you’ll see they are absolutely AMAZING at something.
Yes, they have their own big weapons.
Sampras’s serve and relaxation under pressure were unmatched.
Agassi, like Djokovic these days, was unbeatable on the baseline.
Nadal has brought a level of intensity noone can follow, especially on clay court.
And Federer, well, let’s say he’s from another planet with his ability to hit seemingly effortlessly the ball exactly where he wants to, and so early, I’m still bluffed each time I watch him play!
Each of them brings something very special that, done as they know how to, makes them win.
If you think about having a tennis career, it’s essential you think with this vision in mind: How will I win when I’m at the top? What will be my strengths?
It’s really not enough to be good at something. Instead, you need to be excellent, even extraordinary!
This is what will make the difference in your future. Maybe not right now. When we are kids, just being able to put the ball back in the court more often than your opponent is enough. It won’t be later.
Think about returning the serve of Raonic and tell me: who cares if you’re able to do 10+ shots rallies when you’re smashed at the first or second shot!!!
And this is a mistake that many French players have made, me included. We’ve developed good techniques, that look good (well, elegance is important for French people, isn’t it?!)…and we’re not, for the most part, able to make big winners easily with one or two shots.
The end result is that we end up between 150 and 600 in the world, not able to make the difference when it is necessary.
Ben Haran, head coach at Reeds School, UK, has a saying:
“You win with YOUR strengths.”
You might argue that being in the top 600 in the world is already a good result because we are among the top 1% in the world. Sure, and why not going to the top, wouldn’t this be even more exciting and satisfying?
Mistake #1: Not Developing Your Strengths First and foremost
As a conclusion,place your attention on your strengths, right now!
- Make big mistakes by daring too much with your game, not by playing safe.
- Play with what you love to do. Go wild! Forget as much as you can about wining and losing when you are a kid. On the other hand, develop your game. This, my friend, is your priority.
- You love to do drop shots? Go for it.
- You enjoy hitting strong? Go for it.
- You see yourself as attacking in one way or another? Go for it.
This ONE THING you’d like to develop, is what will become your basis, your Confidence, in the future.
Your choice. We can build anything we focus on.
We willdevelop anything we focus on.
So, choose well and concentrate your efforts on this for a while.
The alternative for not building your strengths first, is doing either average, or good results (if you’re lucky). Both are not good enough. We aim for EXTRAORDINARY RESULTS!
Mistake #2: Working ONLY on your strengths
This strategy, working only on your strengths, actually could work if you are doing a sport that requires total dedication in one area.
Think powerlifting for example: you need to be good at Deadlift, Bench Press, and Squat. Who cares if you are not flexible, if you don’t have hand-eye coordination, or if you are not able to relax under pressure!
In tennis, it’s quite different. Dan John, famous strength coach, would say that tennis is a sport in the Quadrant 3 (read Easy Strength, fantastic bible for strength and conditioning in any sport). And as a consequence, we need to develop all the qualities in balance.
Now, imagine, because you’d like to look good, or because you believe it’s going to help your performances, you focus on Bench Press, Bench Press, and Bench press.
I made this mistake when I was 16, finding a program in a magazine. As a consequence, I became good at it, at least for a tennis player, able to bench 93kg while I was at 73kg body weight… and when I looked into the mirror, my pecs were bigger, while my back didn’t have any definition. Of course!
More important (yes, there are more important things than big pecs), for 2 years I got shoulders injuries because of the lack of balance in my shoulders! I told you, I made many mistakes!
Other related example I see in many tennis academies, they do a lot (A LOT) of the same drills all the time. Sure enough, they can hit the ball 50 times in a row, which, at times, is necessary.
Do they hit with quality? Not so much. At the same time, coaches would argue that players need to be able to hit the ball without thinking, even when they sleep! Ok then, enjoy your drills then.
With this repetitive method, the weapons developed become endurance and mental toughness, players knowing they can hit the ball for many hours. If you play against players with the same game style, this could be a tough fight.
On the other hand, I used to love to play against them, doing serve and volley, drop shots, return and volley and sometimes a rallye.
Soon or later, they were frustrated because they were not able to play with their strengths at all.
Their strengths became their weaknesses…
The conclusion of this mistake #2: by working only on your strengths, you end up being very vulnerable at something. It might be physical, technical, emotional, or all of them. Maybe not a good idea.
And last but not the least, if you train mindlessly for hours, you have trained your brain to being sharp, accurate, and quick. Is it really what you would like to train with modern tennis? Again, your call.
Mistake #3: Lack or Variability
There is no perfect training that works all the time.
From the mistake #2 and #3, you might think: “Ok then, I’ll work on my strengths 80% of the time, and on my weaknesses 20% of it.
This might be a fantastic solution… for a while.
Then we get used to it. Maybe even bored.
My friend Mircea, neuro-science specialist and kids educator, told me there is a rule in the brain: the path of least resistance.
Which means that whatever the training you have at the moment, soon or later, your brain is going to get used to it, and won’t make any new efforts to adapt and improve.
As a consequence, we need to make variations with the following:
– variation of the ratio strengths/ weaknesses training. Sometimes more of the former, sometimes more of the latter. Surprise your brain!
– variation of the intensity and volume of your training: if you train only for long hours and hitting balls again and again, you’ll end up being able to hit the ball for long hours without making maximum efforts on each ball. It’s just impossible to train both quality and quantity, at least not until you got a serious quality in place.
– variation of your goals: sometimes, bring a new goal, surprise! In the same manner, bringing FUN and PLAY will excite your brain in new ways, excite these dull neurones that were sleeping by doing the same training all the time.
The conclusion for this mistake #3: first find a good recipe, then mix it up, add spice with fun and surprise into it.
Training has to be interesting, otherwise you won’t get far.
Federer won’t be playing at 37 years old (and running) if he didn’t have so much fun in your training and life!
A Recent Good Example In Swimming
One of the boys I coach these days is Emeric, 13 years old, very motivated swimmer living in Hong Kong. Meaning he’s training at least 6 times a week, 2 of his trainings at 5am (whaaaat?!).
And what constitutes his typical weakly load?
He and his dad told me that most of the time he’s doing tons of laps. 70 times 100 meters in 1min 30 sec, this is what he does regularly. Yes, this seems brutal to me… and he loves it, ok then!
As a consequence, Emeric is an endurance beast. I think he might have a third lung or a nuclear powered heart by now. Go and jog with him, good luck!
So, when I started working with him, curiously for such and endurance athlete, at first I was concerned about his recovery and his breathing pattern: he was often sick and tired, and always breathing with his mouth.
And then about his strength: barely he could press a 12kb Kettlebell.
The former has been improved with breathing exercises and sleeping with a tape on his mouth (a technique used by Buteyko and Oxygen Advantage practitioners).
The latter, by working with Kettlebells, using Strongfirst principles.
– 2 weeks into the training, his energy level was already much higher. Sleeping with the tape made a big difference.
– One month later, no big results with his performance level. Ok, let’s keep going and trust the process.
– 2 months, hmm, not sure yet.
– 3 months, at training we can see he’s lifting more.
– 4 months later, he breaks his 100 m record by more than 4 sec, and now he’s under the minute for the 100m!!! The week later, he breaks his 200m record by 9 seconds!!
He’s still very endurant. Actually, this is something he told me he was concerned not to lose. Endurance will remain his weapon, what gives him confidence.
And while he still does most of his trainings to keep and improve this skill, he has added work on his weaknesses, breathing and strength. And big results came!
Now, the recipe for this moment will not work soon or later. Mistake #3 will pop up soon or later. At least we know. And we’ll figure out a strategy to keep the training interesting then. Meanwhile, let’s see how far we go with this successful training recipe!
A Tennis Example To Conclude
This week I’ve worked with Arthur on his first shot after serve. Sure enough, he’s already good at it. If you’re interested, you can watch the following video I made in order to understand what could be done better.
As I told him, the goal is NOT to be good. The goal is to go from Good to Extraordinary.
So that the first shot after his serve would be consistently amazing, accurate, and with creativity.
Will this be a good training strategy? Ask me in a few weeks!
In the end, remember what I said in the first part: whatever we choose to focus on, will improve. If Arthur remains motivated and committed for this improvement, it’s a done deal.
Otherwise, we’ll have to figuring out something more enticing for him to work on!
Step by step. Always.
CONCLUSION: What about you?
The take away from this article are:
1: know your strengths. The ones you have, and the ones you envision to build in the future.
2: be sure you invest most of your time building these weapons.
3: then and only then, look at your weaknesses,the things you are not so Confident about. And add some of your time training these skills you’d like to develop. Not most of your time. Just enough so that it gets better over time.
This will help you remaining Confident while you are also placing attention to your vulnerabilities. And if Confidence is something that needs to be developed, I’ll suggest you invest in my book The Confidence Journey,this will help to build good habits and skills for you to perform at your best, not randomly, but consistantly.
Benoit Foucher’s book to increase your Confidence in your sport
4: Mix it up!training has to be FUN, interesting for your brain, AND at the same time, you need repetition to get it to your automatic mode.
Let’s build this sport’s dream that you have, one training at a time, building these amazing strengths and not ignoring your weaknesses either!