In the first article in this series, I identified two genius coaches who have influenced my own development, although they are probably less well known than many of the famous coaches on Tennisplayer. (Click Here.)
The first is Gilad Bloom, former tour player and Israeli Davis Cup player and coach. The second is Pato Alvarez, also a former tour player, a National Coach for Spain, and the architect of the Sanchez-Casal Academy training system.
In that article I outlined their opposite approaches: Gilad’s aggressive, uncompromising hard court attacking style, and contrasted that to Pato’s more defensive Spanish clay court approach.
Now in this second article, I want to go into more specifics about their training programs and outline a series of drills from both schools. These drills that are fantastic for aspiring junior players but will tremendously benefit serious players at all levels.
In my opinion, one of the biggest problems for all players regardless of level is the lack of footwork training. Most coaches in this country focus on racket work not footwork. But footwork and movement are a prerequisite to success whether in club tennis or on the tour.
So this article presents a range of footwork drills used by elite coaches from these differing schools. I do not believe it is an either/or decision when it comes to training court movement. I believe players should be trained in both styles to maximize their physical, technical and mental development.
Players may eventually gravitate more toward one approach as they evolve, but the more variety and options they have, the greater their chance of success. I believe that elements of the Spanish approach can help players on faster courts. Conversely, playing attacking style can at times be a tremendous asset on slower surfaces.
The Spanish style teaches perpetual balance, supreme defense, the feeling of hitting from a strong base anywhere on the court, rhythm, and mental endurance. The Israeli style teaches how to attack the ball with your feet, hit on the rise, force your opponent on time, and come forward to the net. As I also said in the first article, the fusion of the two styles produces the ultimate all-court player, a player who can succeed on the slowest clay and the fastest hard court, and everything in between.
Intensity and Work Ethic
The Spanish are known for their work ethic. It is true that the Spanish work very hard, but I must say that Israelis may train even harder. And I would submit that the Russians and Eastern Europeans may work the hardest of all.
Gilad Bloom was very proud to have an “Eastern European mentality.” To me that means a coach has incredible intensity, a tough, strict disciplinarian style, and a willingness to push kids to their absolute physical and mental limits and beyond. It is a drill sergeant style, a militaristic philosophy.
The Spanish are intense, but they are not militaristic in their approach. In Spain, they train hard and then relax or “play” hard off the court—I could sum up their philosophy that way. But the coaches are just not gruff or curt the way some Eastern Europeans or Israelis are. The Spanish tend to be very friendly people.
In my opinion, Spanish coaches tend to kill you with a smile—this is the way I observed Pato Alvarez operating--not by yelling or screaming that much. By contrast, Israeli training is like joining a boot camp, where fear and intimidation may be part of the normal academy operation. Heaven forbid you crossed my coach Gilad or didn’t work up to his standards—you would get an earful from him.
Interestingly, this difference in mentality is reflected in the footwork patterns taught in the two approaches, and also, in the types and durations of the drills they use.
The basis of Spanish movement is rhythm slide stepping both to the ball and in the recovery movement, with long slow paced drill. The attacking style is based on explosive movements, small steps around the ball and crossover step recovery, usually taught in bursts of much shorter duration.
The salient takeaway about Spanish training is that it breeds perseverance. In an interview I did with him last summer, former top Spanish professional player and Bruguera Academy Head Coach Fernando Luna explained to me that: “Spanish players are not afraid to suffer. In fact, many love to suffer, to persevere.”
Luna stated that this was in direct counterpoint to the French, for example, whom he said did not have the same willingness to endure pain in a tough match. It was a profound observation--and perhaps the reason why Spanish players have won so many more Grand Slam championships than the French, with Yannick Noah as the last Frenchman to win a major, serving and volleying in Paris in 1983.
The Spanish inculcate the willingness to suffer through a very unique style of drilling, something I have never seen anywhere else. Spanish drills are based on rhythm. But the drills often last 60, 80, 100 balls, or even more. Some of the Spanish professional players can drill for up to 15 minutes continuously without a rest.
On my arrival at Pato’s court in Barcelona, I witnessed the legendary coach pushing a player continuously for several minutes, draining two huge 80 ball buckets in the process. For me, witnessing this type of approach to drilling was a profound experience.
In Spain, every exercise is linked to all others with the purpose of maintaining balance at all times, and creating a continuous rhythm. The drills tend to be fed with a slow tempo, but go on for amazing durations. I’ve never seen a Spanish coach feed double time or triple time as many American coaches learn to do.
Perhaps this is because most top Spanish academies limit the student-court ratio to 2 or 3 to 1 per court rather than the typical 4 per court at most academies around the world. So there is less waiting around and consequently little need to speed up the drilling tempo.
Because Spanish drills tend to be continuous and last a long time, they build tremendous stamina. They also build great concentration. I am very confident that this type of drilling style is a major contributor to the patience and focus that Spanish players tend to possess in spades.
These arduous tests teach the mind to persevere, and over time, the Spanish players become accustom to suffering. It is no surprise that in the fifth set at Roland Garros, the Spanish player often has that little bit extra in the tank, both mentally and physically. They have been trained to have those qualities since they were little kids.
By comparison, Israeli style drilling seems based on a much shorter attention span. But still, this has some tremendous merits. My Israeli mentor, Gilad, always used short sets of drills focusing on explosive movements, generally consisting of around 8-10 balls. Gilad might make you do only 8 balls, but let me tell you, those were the highest intensity 8 balls you ever chased in your life.
Put another way, in the Israeli system, players are trained more anaerobically with short explosive bursts, while in the Spanish system, players are trained aerobically with long rhythmic drills. Both types of drilling are incredibly grueling and mentally taxing, but in different ways.
The bottom line is that both styles of training will kill the player—metaphorically speaking. Israeli training will kill you by taxing your nervous system with quick jolts. Spanish training will kill you by attrition, gradually wearing down your will.
I have seen many of Gilad’s and Pato’s student crawling off the court after a lesson (literally). In fact most great coaches I have studied with provide this kind of tough workout for their students who are trying to be top professionals. Indeed, the philosophy of both coaches is that if a student is not dead tired after a lesson, it probably wasn’t a great lesson.
The Hand Feed
I would like to add that almost every great coach I have ever studied with does a lot of feeding from the hand, on the same side of the court as the player—not from the other side of the net. This is true of both the Israeli and Spanish approach.
Here in the US, it is a rare sight to see a coach on the same side of the net as the student. But feeding from the hand in close proximity to the student provides some tremendous advantages for the coach.
By being up close, the coach can get a better view of the technique and footwork. When doing tough drilling, the coach can also read the player’s mental state more easily and gauge player fatigue level more accurately.
The coach can speak directly to the player to give them verbal reinforcement without shouting from across the net; also, the coach can quickly answer the student’s questions, which saves valuable lesson time.
In short, by working up-close to the player, the coach can spot and correct flaws more easily and efficiently, stay in sharper tune with a player’s psychological and physical status, and improve the overall teacher-student flow of communication.
The bottom line is that great coaches know that communication is the key to coaching. By being close to the player without the obstruction of the net, communication is enhanced and the coach can better interact and correct a players’ technique or tactics.
I would encourage all coaches and parents who are working with juniors to consider feeding some drills from the same side of the court as the player, by hand or by racket. You will see the communication improve and your eyes will be opened to new technical and tactical clues.
There is an endless variety of feeding drills you can create to work on movment in both styles: moving to one side, or both, moving up, moving back—and combination drills with movement in all directions. In addition to the examples so far, however, let me add one more classic drill from each school.
First, from the Spanish approach, the classic double rhythm drill, in which the player moves backward and forward on both sides following the pattern of an inverted V. And from the attacking style, a drill called “holding the line,” which forces players to step up inside the baseline and take every ball on the rise as early as possible.
By learning to defend the court as well as how to attack and take the ball on the rise, as a player you will be more versatile. Nadal has improved his fast court play by stepping up to the baseline more, moving more explosively, and attacking when given the opportunity. Nadal is a classic example of a player who can move effectively in either style. In this way he has become a threat on all surfaces, not just red clay.
Linear and Rotational
There are also technical correlations between the two types of drilling. Attacking style drilling is based on earlier timing, less rotation, flatter hitting and more neutral stances. Rhythm drilling on the other hand utilizes open stances, more body rotation, and heavier spin.
By encouraging your students to do both, you give them the tools to play creative all-court tennis. The goal should be able to move both gracefully in rhythm and with explosiveness in sprinting.
Federer is a good example of a player who exhibits a combination of classic, flatter linear-style shots and rotational heavy spin drives. Federer also displays a wonderful ability to play effective defense and then quickly jump on short balls and take them on the rise. If you study him in the Stroke Archive, you will see him use both rhythm style and attacking style movement patterns depending on the situation, and transition seamlessly between them. (Click Here.)
Training and Recovery
The bottom line is that we need to instill the work ethic, the discipline, and even the willingness to suffer, if we want to have our juniors reach their full potential. Those qualities pay off to an even larger extent in club tennis.
Use both Israeli and Spanish style drilling to keep workouts fresh and interesting and to vary the intensity level. I like to mix the two, limiting the aggressive sprint style drills to 3 or 4 days a week, even with my most elite players. And when players are sore or recovering from match play, the more rhythmic Spanish drills are usually a better choice.
But remember though that no matter how hard players work in both styles, recovery is an equally critical part of the development process. Players must also be able to relax and decompress like the Spanish do, Mediterranean style. All work and no play can lead to burnout and injuries.
The methods I am presenting here are not, of course, the only way to develop champions. But studying with these brilliant coaches, Gilad and Pato, has profoundly influenced my high performance coaching, and I hope this article inspires you as well.
And, once again, special thanks to my student Hannah Shteyn for the awesome job doing the demonstrations!
This article is dedicated in memoriam to Valentina Shteyn.
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