Coaching Girls and Women

After open heart surgery, two back surgeries and a hip replacement, I was beginning to get straightened out (2001).

My good friend and Athletic Director, Alan White, called me into his office, “Tom, you’re looking much better, and by the way you’re adding the Women’s team to your job next fall.”

Good friend, did I say? Actually I’ve taught women or girls all my career. The tennis boom (late ‘60s) hit when I first started teaching and in Wilson, NC alone I taught three generations of girls, women, mammas and grandmas. But…I’d never coached the college women’s team. Thirty-seven years of men’s tennis, now they let me coach the girls. What bothered me wasn’t all I’d observed about the women. (There are some “horror” stories out there). It was coaching two teams at once. I later said you had to have a M.W.A. degree to do it (Management While Wandering Around).

And there were other issues, mainly Title IX funding for two quality coaches was tough for smaller schools. Our men’s team had done well, and our women had good suc- cess too. The problem was turnover among women coaches, due mainly to “part time salaries” for the Women’s coach. This was Dr. White’s dilemma and one for many tennis programs. Many athletic directors took the tactic Dr. White was proposing: Hire one full time person for both jobs and give the Head Coach a part time assistant. Men and women thus have equal coaching.

After the initial shock I made two decisions.

  1. If Alan White asked me to do this I couldn’t turn him down. He’d done too much for me. Plus, I understood his situation.
  2. If I were to do this I’d do it to the best of my ability.

Never have I gotten more advice: “Run for the hills,” “You’ll be sorry,” “Can’t be done,” “You’re too old for this,” “They are different.” “They” are different. And I had a lot to learn. And I didn’t learn it all, and don’t know it all. But here are some things I did know and some I did learn.

I had watched our previous four women’s coaches enough to know they were good coaches; two were men, two women. Very good people and coaches, and I worked easily with all four. The job just didn’t pay much. So, I was somewhat surprised by the initial response of the returning girls team meeting. Before I said anything one young lady offered, “….we are so glad we now have a man coach.” They all shook their heads in agreement. I didn’t agree and told them so, in my first “coaching” of women. I offered, “You wouldn’t mind a good woman coach. What you don’t want is a poor coach, man or woman.” Many times I’ve heard women say, “I don’t want to work for a woman boss.” I’ve seen too many good women in leadership jobs not to object to this logic. Elon University itself has several fine women leaders and two thirds of its students are women. I have witnessed several problems along these lines.

It was tough to find adequate coaches in 1960, when there were no women’s collegiate sports. You have to remember women’s collegiate sports as we now know began, really, only in the ‘70s. How could women have the experience men coaches had? They had been denied the formal opportunity of learning by playing. Another overlooked factor was the “back yard” games boys played in childhood, but not so for young girls. It irked me to hear “girls can’t serve because they can’t throw.” They couldn’t throw as well as teenaged boys, who’d grown up with baseball and football free play experience. If you think women are anatomically limited in throwing, watch modern women’s tennis, or better still, collegiate women’s softball. Zing!

Perhaps a problem harder than experience for women coaches was society itself. Title IX may rule the gym, but not the home. Women who coached early on now had three jobs: Teaching, coaching and still running the home. Unless you had a husband willing to help at home it was extremely difficult for these young, often very capable, wives and mothers to coach very long. There was a period of time we lost a lot of potentially great women coaches. Many survived. Many men saw the light and began to share the load. All things being equal, women should coach women’s tennis. Until we get to “equal,” I’d rather my granddaughter play for a competent coach, male or female.

The next “myth” about women tennis players (often posed by men) was, “they should go to the net more.” The men coaches would corner me and tell me “…. about girls and the net.”

Once, during practice, I brought the girls over to observe the men in a drill designed for aggressive approaching and volleying. The girls were very courteous.

I then asked the men, “What would you change if this court were five feet wider and five feet longer?”

Immediately one of the guys said, “… We couldn’t go to the net as much.”

I ushered the girls back to the “girls side” and explained, “If you are a little smaller, not quite as quick and maybe not quite as strong, then the court is bigger for you, or for most girls. It makes sense not to want to go in as much and that’s okay.”

Later I asked the guys if they’d still go in on a larger count? “Yes, but with more caution.”

This answer and my answer to young women are: There is a situation where you can take a “percentage advantage”, by going to the net and pressuring the other girl. You have to design your skills at attacking and learn to identify the proper ball to go in on.

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus
How do you identify these differences as far as coaching goes? The best source for a “crash course” on the subject would be to consult Anson Dorrance’s book on the subject. Dorrance, legendary women’s soccer coach at UNC Chapel Hill, does a very clinical job in sharing his discoveries. I found one of his first suggestions to hold true immediately. You’ve got to give the girls about twenty minutes prior to practices start to discuss the day. Seriously. This is actually part of practice. And if you view this as a waste of time, you’ll prob- ably witness a lousy practice. Once they “air the day” they’re ready to go. Try it.

One personal idea that I tried was the theme: “Be your own choreographer” I tried to encourage our women to design their own practices, based on their needs. For some reason they have trouble with this. Once, my assistant Bob Owens had just been hitting ground strokes to one girl after another, corner to corner. Imre Kwast, a Dutch player, came close to me and said “..That’s what the gulls like!” And it’s true, they like to be directed. I batted my head against the wall, trying to encourage them to design their own practices, but “they are different” this way.

One day I asked Imre, “Do you have Easter in Holland?
“Why certainly” she said, surprised.
“Do you have the Easter Bunny?” I asked
“Sure,” she giggled, “We have the bunny too.”

I asked the team, “What’s the best thing that could happen to you in an Easter egg hunt?”
Where was this going was the look on their faces. Another “Dung Beetle” movie?

Finally one girl answered: “If you know where the eggs were hidden it would surely help!”
“Exactly” I replied. “I’ve watched teams for forty years, I know where the points are, and I’ll tell you.”

From then on they called me the Easter Bunny. When I’d see them execute a point I’d advised them on, I’d whisper “bunny point”. Other men coaches contended: “They’ll practice all week on something I’ve taught them, but come to match time they forget it.” I’d smile to myself every time I got to say “Bunny point.”

Some observations, suggestions, dilemmas and drills (on coaching women)

First the two big problems: Dress and Choosing Between Two

As for girls and dress? I only coached girls three years. I’m no closer to having any clue as to how to handle their clothing preferences.

Girls will force you into lose-lose situations. Mostly this centers around making you choose between the two players. I quickly found two solutions:

  1. Refer these questions or demands to my noble assistant, Bob Owens. Bob is real sweet and fatherly. I’m not.
  2. Coach Tom Morris pointed his “Lieutenant” out to me.

The Lieutenant was a girl on the team who didn’t put up with “that crap.” She understands, by nature, how to deal with these situations. Find your Lieutenant. The Lieutenant should help you convince them the team is not a “social club.” Team Rule: If anyone catches two girls standing at the net idly talking during challenge matches, they should drop racquets and run for a while. If this continues to be a problem, all girls are forced to join in (Running, not talking).

Girls don’t like you to single out one girl for high praise.

Girls really want to learn, and they are appreciative. And they will trust you, until you bull shoot them, or over coach.

My guess is most talented boys and girls have little trouble finding someone to take them “under their wing.” Most boys’ high school teams find coaches pretty easily. The “limited girl” has few “allies.” That’s why if you are a good coach and try to help them, you may be the first capable person they’ve confronted. That player drinks in everything you say. I usually liked coaching that person.

I never stopped the van when the boys didn’t get out of the van and go into the gas station and “buy something.” We could just leave a restaurant, stop immediately after feeding the team, and they go in to buy a bag of junk. The first road trip I took the girls on featured leaving the lot with little gas in the van. I stopped to fill up and was amazed when they sat patiently, no one hustling out to the candy. They also discussed subjects I hadn’t ever heard the boys mention: When will you marry? How many kids do you want? Boys? Girls? What will your bridesmaids wear? I was fascinated.

Jack Kramer once said, “…. the fundamental strategy of singles it to find out what your opponent can’t do, or doesn’t like to do, and make them do that.” That’s a fundamental violation of the number one rule of the women’s “secret code.” Number two is never asking why they can’t wear shorts (balls in the pockets make them look wider—-a no no). Number three, again, is never saying “waddle” in reference to women’s tennis.

But the number one rule (I suspect for many women) is…I won’t make you hit awkward balls (up and back movement) if you won’t make me. Deal, left and right only. This one puzzled me. And I tried to develop “Plan B.” Simply stated, “Plan A,” or rallying corner to corner, is okay as long as you can win this way. Once you realize she’s better at this, then we’d better modify.

A Southern veteran, Bob Cage, showed me his favorite “play.” Bob’s theory was that most people don’t have a very good backhand approach shot (this is of a lot of college men). This is true mainly because it is “different” and not practiced much at lower levels. Bob’s trick was to float up a “semi-disguised” weak shot on his opponent’s backhand, which “sucked him up to the net” on a weak shot. Then the “killer lob”, or passing shot. This play, a violation of the “silent code,” was the first I attempted. Moderate success. Women are loyal. The more you can make your opponent move up and back the more you’ll have a “Plan B” escape.

I noticed Mia Hamm and Nomar Garciapara had twin girls. Bet someone’s already recruiting them. They’ll be able to run. If I were a women’s basketball coach I’d recruit a skinny little girl with three older brothers. That girl can run and is tough. I’ve noticed more and more point guards that can run in women’s basketball. Once again, if American Junior Tennis is to succeed we’ve got to develop women who can move well, and that includes movement up and back. Many already can. Just as a junior girl has to learn to cope with the infamous “moon ball” to her backhand she needs to confront up and back. No ducking, do the work.

One segment in our handbook challenged our team with this statement:
“Drills- Coach hitting balls to you? (That’s what gulls like)”

  1. If the coach teaches you something that’s valuable, but you don’t ”like it.” Is that the coach’s fault?
  2. If the coach teaches you something valuable but you won’t practice it, is that the coach’s fault
  3. If the coach lets you do something “comfortable,” is that good coaching or a waste of practice time?
  4. If the coach shows you something that will work, but you can’t do it, is that the coach’s fault?
  5. The best girls teams in our league do the tough things in a match. We can try to learn these “tough things” or lose them in the spring. We may lose even if we try hard, but isn’t that what it’s about?

A few comments on groundstrokes and women: I was “pre-two hander,” in 1961. Pancho Segura showed the world how to hit one, but conventional wisdom said, “Two hand backhands are only for those who can’t hit a one hander.” No Evert, No Connors, Borg, Austin, etc. I’m glad many young ones didn’t listen. Pretty soon the tennis world realized not only can a lot of people hit it two handed, it’s often a better shot offensively. The two-hander gave many average players something they’d never had: Offense or topspin. Until the two-hander, college men followed this regimen: They’d practice like heck on hitting a one-handed top-spin backhand. Then, when the match was on the line they’d revert to their more trusted under-spin backhand ball. There were certainly exceptions, but by and large this statement is true: “Most average college men players can’t hit a reliable one handed topspin ball.”

Once the two-hander got “certified” you began to see average high school players who could “tattoo” a topspin two-hander and the game changed forever, for the better. However, a valuable tool was neglected for many. Coach Jim Verdieck of Redlands gave me one of his business cards. It had an interesting sentence on it: “I didn’t change anything, I gave you a new one.” I asked him what he meant. Essentially, he said the two-handers were so protective of their new found weapon, the under-spin one-hander was abandoned. The under-spin one-hander is a tool every truly complete player should possess. Too many awkward and or short shots (approaches, service returns, defensive cross courts) are best hit by one hand under spinners. Very often these balls are very difficult to handle with two handed top spin “full” or lengthy shots.

Like golfers, you have to have a lot of “tools” in your bag of tricks. The “chip” or “slice,” is truly a great tool to master. Think “wedges,” golfers. And slices are tough for little people, young girls, especially. And its tough to add it once you’ve neglected it in “formative years”. One reason it’s difficult is that people don’t understand the value of the “hit-spot” regarding two different backhands. The two handed backhand is much like a one handed forehand, and therefore works best when hit off the front foot. One-hander’s must be hit about the width of one’s shoulders in front of the front “balance” foot.

When teaching adult women a “hush” would come over the group. These “strugglers with the backhand” would grip the racket just as I; yet neglect movement to the “hit-spot.” Good backhands come from good grips and good “hit-spots.” I’d bark: “Good hit-spots make good shots. Lousy hit-spots make lousy shots. Lousy hit-spots make wristy shots, and wristy shots are lousy shots.”

The term “hit-spot” is a direct steal from Coach Verdieck. My guess is Dennis Van Deer’s early unique contribution to tennis instruction was teaching pupils to understand the pupil’s adjustment to the bouncing ball. Van Der Meer and Verdieck were friends. Once I became better at conveying “movement to the hit-spot” my players at all levels got better quickly. And the one handed slice may be the one most helped by proper “hit-spot.” I do think a lot of good college men had forehand trouble because of a subtle flaw in “hit-spot”. Whereas backhands are tougher to learn, my guess is many young boys could hit forehands with any number of “hit-spots.” Backhands, they internalized early on, must be hit “right there” or in the perfect backhand hit spot. Then as they advanced, a ball they tried to hit in a faulty forehand position let them down and caused a lot of frustration. Once I could convince them of this error and the principle of perfect “forehand hit spot,” they’d get better too. Keeping the ball in the perfect “hit-spot” is tennis magic.

I do think “miniaturizing’ the games helps particularly young girls. Mini-tennis, or even quarter-court tennis, teaches early understanding of movement’s worth. A basic pattern I’d used for young stars was essentially:

  1. Explain with demonstration
  2. Have them “mimic” or imitate, the shot (air stroke)
  3. Drop them the ball
  4. “Mini” toss them the ball
  5. Back up at their pace. If you lose it move back in.

Someone called it the “Graduated length method” (GLM). It works with youngsters. Rallying also benefits from this method. Start up close to the net and work back, controlling the ball. If you can lose control, move back in where you can control it.

Two other magic teaching spots for younger girls are:

  • Tossing the ball to the service hit-spot for them. Let them “cock” the racket and just hit. Once they understand and “feel” the proper “hit,” then they can add the other “first-part” of the serve (or the toss to the hit-spot)
  • I taught a lesson called “Learn the second serve first.” Simply stated, “a player is as strong as her weakest link, and the weakest link in tennis is the second serve.” The clue is Welby Van Horn’s balance technique. I call it the “hit-turn” serve and it came from limited foot movement. It’s also called a “ballistic” swing and baseballers, golfers and all “hitters” use this technique. Van Horn is worth studying, and I appreciated the personal help he gave me.

One phenomenal contrast I noticed coaching girls centered around two entirely different shots. I could hammer a groundstroke hard and wide and was amazed at them running this tough shot down. Seriously, watch them do this. Impressive ability. Then at the net in doubles, they’d “blow” a “sitter” overhead. Why I don’t know, but we practiced a lot on easy overhands in doubles, and closing on easy volleys. I taught, “volley with your legs” meaning to use quick movement to get the volley where you can pop it down. The girls got better here. And when they 1) limit your foot movement on easy overheads 2) keep the overhead in the “perfect service” hit-spot and watch it a little longer than you think is necessary.

I taught the girls there was not “a volley” but about seven (high forehand, low forehand, high backhand, low backhand, overheads on either side, and “instinct” volleys, or those hit fast and straight at your belly button). Once they understood movement could turn a low volley into a much more preferred high volley, they got better. Low volleys you hit straight and deep, and your opponent gets to hit it again. High volleys can be hit down and at an angle, aggressively.

Another odd ability girls have, centered around their overheads. I taught for years to “run around” the backhand overhead, and hit a forehand. Backhand overheads are tough. Most players should just bump them back, straight and deep. Badminton players and “some” talented tennis players can hit aggressive back- hand overhead winners. Most college men can’t. What college women can do that surprised me was to hit a shoulder high, two handed “semi-overhead”. They’d taught themselves this. It worked and I encouraged it.

All volleyers should keep the volley in one of the seven “hit-spots.” Only one male player I coached could stand and hit it “anyway it came”. He had a thousand “hit-spots” and could hit them all.

Volleyers are taught to “punch” or “block” the ball. I much preferred to teach them to “touch” the ball. Get it in a volley spot and “touch” it. The harder they hit it, the easier you swing. I also added, “tighten” to the instruction (“touch and tighten”). Volleyers can direct the ball out of “good hands”. Most of this action comes from a good volley spot and just “tightening” the hand muscles (or synergistic hand muscles). Two other volleying “buzz words” were 1) recoil and 2) churn and burn. Once you’ve hit the volley, get back (recoil) to the proper ready position. Hit, recoil, hit, and recoil. The better you get the faster it comes back, and more often. Churn and burn means moving your body to adjust to as awkward “volley spot” by churning and burning you can relocate a ball even slightly out of the hit-spot to the “perfect volley spot”. This really helps. On easy ones especially. “Bend to the proper posture”. Even if it’s slightly!

I used this sentence a lot in volley instructions:

“Easy shots are the hard shots at the net. Be ready quick, and watch the ball longer than you think is necessary.”

I taught the girls a shot in doubles called “ the crazy lady slap.” The theme was “…it doesn’t have to be pretty, just slap it.” In practice we’d serve up a high ball across the net and encourage the girls to make the ugliest shot they could. Lots of laughs in practice. Lost of “bunny points” in doubles. They’d giggle.

One of the things I learned watching Chris Evert at 15 years old in Winston-Salem, NC was that a good early backswing made one quicker. I don’t know why, but its true.

Let me repeat. There are some tough spots girls don’t like to practice. While I preferred they choreograph these tough practices on their own, trusty assistant Bob and I ran these particular drills a lot:

  • Crosscourt and back-up: If you are hit an awkward ball or purposeful drop shot, and you don’t want to come to the net, your best response is to cross court the ball and back up. We’d set this ball up, the player digs in and cross-courts the ball, and scamper back to the baseline. (Bend your back knee down to get the low ones)
  • Drop shot off a drop shot: Set up a good drop shot, have her respond with her own drop shot. (Mostly down the line)
  • Bump Volleys:There are a lot of passing shots that can be dealt with a very simple bump away from the passer. Teach your girls not to “panic” on this “easy” ball. Just “bump” or “touch” it away from this source.
  • Backhand Service Returns:The coach hits from the “T” or mid court. He/she directs the ball at the backhand of the player. Work on technique, quickness, and target. As they progress, pick up the pace in your serve, vary the types and direction of your practice serve. Encourage returning “on the rise” or aggressively moving in.
  • Hitting the Rise:The better the player, the more balls she’ll be able to take “on the rise.” Some don’t understand this tactic or technique. Some avoid it because “it’s hard to do.” Start with slower balls, adjust to their successes.

My wife was a great help in helping me with the women, though she’s much tougher than I was. I must admit that not having a daughter, I missed the true nature of young women. I’m convinced women are better people than men, by and large, and am grateful for the three years with some wonderful student athletes.

I have to add there are some “different” issues you have to be aware of. Eating disorders are serious and much more an issue for women. Don’t take these problems too lightly (no pun intended).

Sexuality in sports is a growing issue. Bigger, stronger, faster, tougher athletes win. Most of these are heterosexual in men’s tennis. There are a lot of great women’s athletes and people of all orientations.

While, at my 60 plus years, I found it a little difficult to have a twenty five year old woman tell me about tennis, they do view things differently as youngsters. One Athletic Director told me he’d never hire another coach under forty years old.

I fell into the category of being protective of my girls. Male coaches and “daddy’s” do this a lot. The girls exploit it! Forewarning!

When Elon replaced me they elected to go back to two head coaches. Elizabeth Perry and Michael Leonard have made me proud of this choice. I do believe each team deserves their own capable man or woman coach.

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