Noah, the Tiebreaker Test, & Coyle’s Sweet Spot

Young tennis player holding trophy

Noah is an 8 year old player who loves tennis. He especially loves to compete. At a young age, he’s already had considerable success in USTA 10U tournaments. For Noah’s continued development, it’s important that we find new ways to keep challenging him. During a recent private lesson with Noah, I modified a classic exercise I learned from Steve Smith, to provide him with a new and attainable challenge. The exercise is something we call the “Tiebreaker Test,” which I tweaked slightly using rational from Daniel Coyle’s research. Coyle is a best selling author, widely recognized in coaching circles for his book, “The Talent Code.”

At Steve Smith’s Tennissmith School, we would put every new, incoming player through a comprehensive assessment. The most difficult of these assessments was called the “Tiebreaker Test.” This test required the player to execute a six shot sequence (forehand groundstroke, backhand groundstroke, approach shot, forehand volley, backhand volley, and overhead) to specific quadrants on the court off the coach’s feed. The difficulty of the feed is dependent on the player’s level. For high level players, the ball is fed harder, deeper, and with more topspin . If the player makes all six shots to the appropriate targets, they win the point. If they miss any one of the six, they lose the point. It’s first to seven points, just like your typical tiebreaker. This drill is designed to simulate a point against a solid defensive specialist; better known as a “pusher.” After putting hundreds of incoming players through this test, I rarely saw someone beat it on their first try. Needless to say, it’s pretty difficult.

As a coach, I view the tiebreaker test as an essential exercise for tennis players. I love how it gets players to “play the court” and teaches strategy (where to hit the ball and when). The simulation also forces players to bounce back from mistakes and execute shots under pressure (two concepts that are under taught, in my opinion). While the tiebreaker test has many benefits, implementing it in the traditional format with 8 year old Noah, would be wholly inappropriate. It would simply be too challenging, leading to frustration and a lack of development. This is where Coyle’s research and some 3rd grade math become quite useful.

One of my favorite coaching tips comes from Daniel Coyle’s, The Little Book of Talent. Tip #13 is called “Find the Sweet Spot.” Coyle explains the Sweet Spot as the place where you operate on the edge of your ability, where you learn the best and fastest. The Sweet Spot is when a student is achieving success 50-80 percent of the time. The two other zones are appropriately named the Comfort Zone (80 percent and above) and the Survival Zone (below 50 percent). When Noah played the traditional Tiebreaker Test, he won just 41% of the points. During this drill, Noah was exhibiting negative self-talk and not using his best technique; he felt like he was scratching and clawing for survival. Modification was needed, or else we’d be wasting our time. I told Noah if he made 4 out of 6 shots, he would get a point. Subsequently, Noah won 87% of the points, placing him in the Comfort Zone. 4 out of 6 was obviously too easy, so I instructed him to try for 5 out of 6. This lead to us finding Noah’s Sweet Spot, where he was successful 56% of the time. More significantly, he executed his shots with his most advanced technique throughout. He also dealt with his nerves in a more positive way. At 5 out of 6, he was challenged, but not overwhelmed. This arrangement kept him engaged while giving him the freedom to take risks. Undoubtably, if I had continued to challenge Noah with the traditional tiebreaker test, he would’ve stayed in the Survival Zone, where maximum frustration and minimum learning takes place. It’s not rocket science, but I find myself using this metric everyday to help design more efficient practices for our students.

As coaches, we must maximize our players’ time on the court, especially in this day and age. I hope this anecdote illustrates the importance of making modifications, shows how you can use basic math to help players’ find “The Sweet Spot,” and starts a larger conversation about junior development that isn’t primarily focused on technical nuance. 

I’d love to hear any feedback you might have. Thanks for reading!

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