In developing US athletes, 1 size doesn’t fit all
Jack Sock’s run at the French Open was notable not only as the first time the 22-year-old reached a Grand Slam round of 16 in singles.
He also became the youngest American man since Pete Sampras in 1993 to advance that far at Roland Garros. Tennis may be an individual sport, but national pride still counts – as he and his countrymen are reminded with every early exit at the majors.
Seeking to reverse those slipping fortunes, the U.S. Tennis Association in 2008 hired Patrick McEnroe as its first general manager of player development. A more centralized model was the goal but also what proved to be the challenge in a nation that values individuality. McEnroe’s successor, Martin Blackman, inherits a modified approach that tries to respect individuality while still finding ways to use the centralized system to improve players.
It’s a balancing act facing federations in several sports as the U.S. tries to stay at or return to the top. The angst is even felt in basketball. In announcing a coaching standards initiative in February, USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo echoed earlier criticism from Kobe Bryant that some of the game’s fundamentals and nuances aren’t taught properly at the youth level.
The 45-year-old Blackman, who was hired in April, has had a front-row seat to these issues in tennis. As an elite junior, he trained alongside future Grand Slam champions Andre Agassi and Jim Courier under coaching great Nick Bollettieri. He played in college and on tour, and he has worked for the USTA, served as the director of a local training center, and founded his own tennis academy. The biggest reason the USTA must now step in, he said, is the soaring cost of developing a potential star.
”In the ’80s and even early ’90s, a good coach and a good program could take a player into the pros,” he said.
But to compete these days, that player also needs strength and conditioning, sports psychology, tournament coaching.
”It’s almost impossible for a private program or one coach to provide all those elements of training,” he said.
The obvious solution seemed to be bringing together all the country’s top juniors at a national training center. But the USTA’s initial attempts at that under McEnroe were a mixed bag. Local coaches resented the intrusion, and some players didn’t progress as hoped.
For tennis and other sports, the question isn’t as much how to develop top athletes as how to develop American athletes, that what may work in other countries simply may not work with youngsters here.
In figure skating, the U.S. produced great champions for generation after generation but comes off an Olympics in which it failed to win a medal in singles for the first time since 1936. The current top American man, Jason Brown, has reached that point by sticking with what works best for him as an individual, and that remains his approach as he tries to end the drought.
At March’s world championships, Brown did not attempt the quadruple jump that is all but a prerequisite for a medal. Until he could do the quad consistently in practice, the 20-year-old didn’t want the jump to disrupt his mental state for the rest of the program.
He was fourth at worlds – well out of bronze medal position but still the best finish by an American man since 2009.
His longtime coach, Kori Ade, will ask her skaters deep philosophical questions, explaining that, ”with American kids, if I didn’t know these kids, didn’t know how they tick, I wouldn’t be able to get the most out of them when it matters most.”
Still, she’d like to see figure skating become more like USA Gymnastics and what its president, Steve Penny, calls a ”semi-centralized system.”
That emerged from the soul-searching after a medal-less showing at the 2000 Olympics.
”It was very traditionally American,” Penny said of the old model, ”and quite frankly, it’s funny because you had a lot of capable people and a lot of talented athletes, but no one truly working together to help each other.”
Under women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, gymnasts stay with their personal coaches but regularly travel to Texas to be evaluated. Penny wants everyone to think of gymnastics as a team sport, not an individual one.
The result: three straight all-around Olympic gold medalists and team gold at the 2012 London Games. Leading the way are the Karolyis, coming from the regimented system in Romania.
What is more American, Penny said, than a ”melting pot”? The Karolyis have found the perfect formula of mixing the best of both cultures.
Blackman said the USTA has learned that for young American players, the bond with their personal coach is powerful. Ending that too abruptly is counterproductive, he said. The new model is to try to support that relationship as long as possible. Investing in training for coaches is a major part of that.
He hopes that more retired stars come back as coaches to help instill a culture. No American man has reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal since 2012, a streak extended when Sock lost to Rafael Nadal on Monday. None has won a major singles title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open.
Blackman doesn’t think it’s practical or desirable to encourage a common style of play. But he does remember that the Americans used to share a certain attitude, a noticeable toughness. He traces that back to a certain independence in how that generation of players came up through the ranks.
What the USTA can do now, he said, is to encourage parents to take a step back and allow coaches to be tough on players.
”That’s part of the American culture that we’re individuals,” Blackman said. ”We’re going to do things in a different way, different paths. It’s a not a cookie cutter approach for everybody, but at the end of the day, that is actually what’s going to make us great competitors.”