In 2008 the WTA finally gave in to the increasing difficulty to police the words that come from the players box, and introduced on court coaching. The trouble was mainly because of the of the many languages used, with some English speaking players claiming it was unfair that a Russian player is free to have a full conversation with their box just because the umpire can’t understand them, but they get pulled up on it. The language barrier has always been tricky to figure out as I have played many opponents who have almost certainly been swearing loudly enough for everyone to hear, but the umpire can’t be sure so nothing is done. English speaking players can’t be so careless with their words, I remember one umpire at a challenger in the States giving a code violation for audible obscenity because the player said “damn it!”. This was swiftly taken away by the tournament referee after the match, but it did cause some distress to the player at the time as it brings with it a fine, which few can afford at challenger level.
I have been commentating for a year now and I have listened in to a good amount of on court coaching sessions. Some are brilliant and give a fabulous insight to the coach as well as the player, some are uninspiring and demonstrate how little control a coach has in a match situation, and others are frankly painful to witness.
It seems that the vast majority of on court visits from the coach are mainly about reassurance. The words “you’re doing great” come out in almost every situation, regardless of score line and how well they are playing, and it really is amazing to see how much impact that has on the more nervous players. It is almost like these players just need to hear “you’re doing great, ‘x’ is working and ‘y’ isn’t” and they are right back on track. This won’t be new information to them as it is pretty basic stuff, as well as being all the things they should be saying to themselves during a match, but it seems that they can’t access that information and self reassurance through the nerves. If you took on court coaching away they would be forced to stop concentrating on the nerves, dig out their own positive reinforcement and tactical assessment which may help with their nerves in the first place.
Then we have the sulkers. They often get thrown the same “you’re doing great” which can be met with, tears, tantrums or worst of all… the blank stare. I don’t see why they bother calling their coach on, because they are clearly in no state to take on any information or engage with their coach at all. Respect flies out the window and unless they are asking their coach to help calm them down, nothing is gained.
“Tell me something I don’t know” Muguruza snapped at her coach Sam Sumyk in the middle of a match. Muguruza, a Grand Slam champion is looking for answers from her coach and not from herself, and she’s not the only one. What new information are players expecting? If you don’t know you are making too many unforced errors in the first 3 shots, or your first serve percentage is low, or your opponent has hit a purple patch you aren’t paying attention. Just allowing yourself to indulge in your own emotional stress and panic is not helpful, and we can see that players such as Muguruza and Halep are just getting more and more upset on court.
I actually think that the majority of players would benefit from being left to get on with it so they are forced to focus more on the game rather than their emotions. Often junior players are too reliant on a parent during a match, plenty of players look at them after every point and I have even seen some look at Dad middle of a point to check if what they are doing is right! The simple solution to this is to let the player get on with it with the parent out of sight, they will soon drag their attention back to the court and start figuring it out for themselves.
There are a few players that use the on court coaching well, most notably Jo Konta, and I am always fascinated to listen to the conversation with coach Wim Fisette, even if the detail of it is in code which I can only guess at. They are both calm, referring back to the pre match tactics, how they have evolved and whether Jo has adapted in the right way. It is simple, planned and rarely full of emotion. Jo has had her fair share of anxiety, we all have, but she dealt with it by analysing a match full of emotion in a calm and reflective way rather than in the heat of the moment.
On the whole, I see players getting more and more distressed on the court, expecting coaches to bring a magic formula, and sulking when the answer is that they need to change their attitude or work harder. Don’t get me wrong it really isn’t easy to change your attitude and I cannot imagine the immense pressure that Muguruza and Halep are feeling, but even though the words of Darren Cahill and Sam Sumyk are on the money, on court coaching is not helping in the big picture.
At the top level tennis is a decision making based sport, and when players find themselves unable to make those decisions in a rational way, asking someone else to do it for them is not an effective way to deal with the overwhelming anxiety. As fascinating as on court coaching is for me as a coach and commentator, for the sake of the players we should let them get on with it themselves.