How does one truly understand the development of a player? Is it just a result-oriented marker? Can it be explained visually? Can it be conveyed to a beginner, an intermediate, an advanced player or a baller?
In an age where heavy emphasis is put on winning and not development, it is very important for players, parents and instructors (i.e., coaches and teachers), to understand and have a certain realization of the term “development” or “improvement.” I feel most players concern themselves too much with winning and not enough on learning long-term (emotional, mental and physical) skills to help them sustain in an ever-expanding competitive (tennis) world. The great “Pistol Pete” Sampras spent two years developing and improving his one-handed backhand as a struggling junior who just wanted to get better, and 14 Grand Slams later, no one is complaining. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or any other accomplished players (even of the past), still talk about playing better in a current match than the match before—just listen to their post-match interviews.
So, how does one say, “Hey, how do I know I have improved on a stroke?” or “How do I know I got better?” or even, “Are these lessons paying off?”
There is one method I use—and it is based visually. It is relatively easy and instructors should help players understand this. Think of staircases. A staircase has a progression, which we can word it as “going up” and conversely, deterioration, which would be represented as “going down” the staircase.
When a student learns an aspect of a stroke, or a positive development of a stroke, think of it as a “step-up,” or in other words, progression. When, at the peak of this stage, the next stage of the staircase flattens, this is a “plateau” where the player is honing the aspect of that particular skill—the longer the plateau, the longer it will be to take the player to the next step-up phase. When a player does master that skill, the player steps-up. This progression is where you can see the development in the upward trajectory. The more the player learns and masters a skill or a particular aspect of a skill, the more upward the push is and they take another positive step in their development.
The deterioration is now very simple to identify because the student will realize the concept of progression—this concept can be visualized by everyone involved with the player, as well.
Now, a player can use that as a genuine marker for the concept of improvement and development. This “staircase” idea can be used at any level and at any skill. This also allows a player to focus more on detail and pay attention to growing and mastering a set of skills, as opposed to worrying about winning or losing. Believe me, if a player focuses on getting better, and puts their best effort forward, winning comes naturally without hesitation.
This is also a mentally accessible tool, where a player in a slump, uses it as a positive feedback method and to divert their attention away from the negative slump and convert the practice time to positive momentum. My recommendation to players, instructors and parents alike is to realize the importance of development in the long run as opposed to success in the short-term. To develop in the long run, one has to improve in stages and see an upward swing in the emotional, physical and mental growth of the player.