Junior Tennis Coaching: Advice from Champion Johan Kriek.
As a teenager Johan Kriek followed his coach from South Africa to Austria. In need of money for travel and tournament entry fees he became a coach at age 17. After a successful professional career Kriek returned to coaching and likes to emphasize the mental part of the game.
Kriek says that he achieved success as a player and coach because of tremendous drive and desire to win. He prefers students that have a great work ethic to those that are incredibly talented but less dedicated. Regardless of a players size, there are ways to make a player who works hard competitive. Kriek also understands the many different influences on a young person’s life.
He calls being a coach a part time psychologist job. In addition to the time on the court with a player, and beyond working on strategy and mental parts of the game, a coach needs to understand the student’s relationship with their family, peers, school, and everything else going on and influencing their lives.
Read Johan’s thoughts on junior tennis parenting and coaching:
How do I know if my child’s coach is getting the very best tennis out of my son or daughter?
Oh boy that’s a loaded question. Tennis is such a one-on one-sport and it’s such an individualistic approach except for maybe some doubles. You don’t have 15 guys on a field. It’s a very one dimensional sport where you just focus on yourself. When you talk about the relationship that has to be established between a child and a coach it’s extremely important. Only a really really good coach that understands the psychology of the game, like I told my wife when I started the academy, you have to have many degrees, forget about me being a former top player and knowing the game so well and coaching it and being able to do almost anything, you have to be a psychologist, you have to understand family dynamics, the background of the child, maybe the school he is in. It’s so many factors that really effects whether there is something that gets pulled out of your child that is the best and makes progress. Think about the whole being and not just hitting a tennis ball. It’s a very varied subject. It’s a bit of a nightmare when dealing with some parents who are little league parents. Talented kids, or in some instances when they think they have talented kids. It’s a tough subject I think it’s really a relationship that needs to be established and credentials have to be there. Unfortunately in this country there is a lot of accreditation that happens that is very wishy-washy. I’m operating outside of that. I’m more of an elite coach and helping kids from a very young age and trying to get them to a different level. I also work with kids that are about to get to college and trying to pump them up so that they can get to a better school. It’s a really interesting question that you ask. It’s a multi-faceted, answer.
What are the biggest mistakes you see parents making managing their child’s tennis career?
Oh boy. It really varies family to family. What seems to work the best are parents that are involved but not involved with daily coaching. They are supportive and are parents number one and let the coaching be done by somebody else. I’ve always thought that was the most efficient. Nevertheless the parents are an extremely important aspect of the success of the child. If I as the coach, for instance, approve of how the child is playing during tournament play, and suddenly the parents show up and are very nit-picky and disapproving of certain aspects of the game, then there is a clash. I’ve seen that happen often especially with parents that are in the know about the game. As they say, a little knowledge is a little dangerous sometimes. You have to deal with the parents too and that’s an integral part of what I do. Most of my parents are really great. Some are really involved but don’t coach and are there to support. And some people drop their kids and go off just like they do kids at school
What percent of tennis success at the junior levels is talent? work ethic? coaching?
I would rather have a kid with 50 percent talent and 100 work ethic than someone with 50 percent work ethic and 100 percent talent. Let’s put it that way, simple. It’s very rare you find a guy like Federer or one of these top guys as a junior. In fact, even Federer was a late bloomer. I’ve seen guys on the pro tour with major flaws in their game because they didn’t have it fixed at a young age. Maybe there was just not a lot of excellence in terms of technical coaching. They had a drive. Similar to what I had. To become number seven in the world, and win grand slams, and playing at the highest level and beating the best of the best at the time, was driven by absolute desire and hunger to excel. That is a massive part of why a tennis player is good. Now look, if you’re 5’6” and you think you’ll serve like John Isner who’s 6’10”, forget about it. You have to find other aspects of your game that will augment and let you be competitive with the 6’10” guy. We’ve seen that, like David Ferrer for instance. So, it’s a very interesting game this tennis game. It is an unbelievable intricate web of things that come together to make a great tennis player. Have I seen absolute great talents that never made it? They’re a dime a dozen. It comes down to the desire and hunger. That’s why we see kids from other countries, the Eastern European block for the last 10-15 years, they’ve made a huge push in tennis, they’ve caught up to America and the world. The next big push is going to come from China and it might be the biggest push you’ve ever seen. They may dominate in the next 10 or 20 years.
How do I prepare my junior to be mentally tougher on court?
That is the most lacking part of coaching in today’s junior tennis world and America suffers acutely from it. I wrote an article about this a week ago. My concept of winning is process driven vs. results driven. Unfortunately American society as a whole suffers from this. It’s a blight on our kids and it’s a blight in our sport as well. We have become a society of instant gratification. So we are always looking at the result to be achieved right away and it actually makes us unprepared for the realities of how to get to a certain level of something like a tennis serve. The problem with junior tennis is everyone is chasing ranking points and trying to be seen and have a voice and be seen on tennisrecruiting.net and you got to have coaches see you. So everything is skewed at a very young age towards looking professional but nobody learns how to be a professional. It’s almost like skipping by the process of how to hit a ball properly. Hitting a tennis ball in tennis to become a great tennis player, even if you’re really a talented kid, maybe nationally ranked, top 50 in the U.S. or something, there is a heck of a lot more than goes into that to be a great player at 16 or 17 or 18, which is when the cream rises to the top. Unfortunately for whatever reason, be it be money driven or the organizations that are just behemoths that are pushing directional changes and mandates and all sorts of stuff, it affects a lot of us, and juniors sometimes lack the mental skills to go out and compete properly. People are looking at results not process. And the process that it takes to become a great tennis player takes many many years and lots of effort and lots of ups and downs. They system is skewed toward very early results for juniors that is hurting some of them in the long run.
How can I help my child learn more from his or her losses?
I insist as a concrete method of understanding what happened that you learn more about your hardships. If you lose a very tough match, don’t throw it out as a terrible day. You learn a lot more from your loses than your wins. I have my kids that are teenagers write who they play, what was that players strengths and weaknesses, what was the score, did I win or lose, and I insist on that. When I go to tournaments and watch kids play we have a wrap-up the following week and talk about it. Sometimes we talk in an academy setting where everybody talks. Other times we talk individually when you want to pinpoint certain things. You don’t want to embarrass a child in front of everybody else. There are so many aspects to it. It’s a concrete effort. The mental side of tennis training is very very lacking. It’s almost like people think you need to stand on a tennis court six hours a day and that’s how you’re going to get good. I’d rather spend two and a half hours a day on the court and give it my all and spend an hour a day on mental training and understanding how to construct points, when are pressure points coming, and understanding how to compete. There are so many aspects to it. That’s why it takes so long to get good. Not only do you have to be physically fit, but you have to be quick, understand how to compete, flexible in your head to understand body language on the other side of the net, when you have people under pressure, some are really good at hiding it, there are so many things you need to teach kids. People get so wrapped up in winning and losing that they don’t really recognize so many other things that they could have spotted. It’s my job to teach them how to think on the court and what to look for.
Any tips for helping my kid secure a college scholarship?
It seems like a lot of guys come to me and say they have six months or are taking a year off and really want to work hard to try to get to the next level. Getting into college is a lot more difficult for guys than girls because of Title IX. There are a lot more scholarships available for females and we’ve had quite a few. A lot of players come to us, but you need to look at what the NCAA allows in terms of time off, and then you can really pump your tennis up in six months. That’s one of the things we see, 16 and 17 year olds come to us and want to improve their tennis so that they can get into college. It’s something we focus on.
Obviously you need to get your name out so coaches see you. They have college showcases where coaches get together and guys play and they have rankings and tennisrecruiting.net, you can make videos, and most people who are looking for scholarships are well versed in how to get names out there. If they come to my academy, and say they want to go to Vanderbilt, or UCLA, I know so many coaches, and if I call and say take a look at this kid usually coaches do. Lots of coaches come to me and say if you have any great kids please let me know. By default, in the academy business we’re also in the college recruiting business. There are a lot of coaches that go to the major tournaments. Some college guys go to Wimbledon and watch juniors. They know what to look for. They’re former pros.
When should a parent evaluate their kids’ abilities and “let go” of the idea of a professional career?
I think that people who have been in this arena know the difference between a kid that is going to be great and a kid whose parents want him to be great. It becomes really apparent quickly. It’s hard to just walk into a tennis tournament and see what’s going on everywhere with lots of talented kids. A lot goes into it. You have to go to academies and get involved with coaches who have great knowledge of the game and know what it takes to get into college and let the kids be evaluated. Tennis showcases where you can go and play tournaments with lots of coaches around, you can find them on the web, and they’re in all parts of the country, you’ve got to go there and the squeaky wheel gets the oil. That’s how America operates. The world isn’t perfect and neither is our sport. You got to be seen. You got to go do things. Push yourself out there. That’s the nature of the beast.