Howard has been the Head of Strength and Conditioning (S&C) at USN Bolton Arena High Performance Tennis Academy for nine years. He’s experienced at preparing professional and junior players at WTA, ATP, ITF and Tennis Europe levels – most notably working with two world number one athletes, Ana Ivanovic and Laura Massaro (squash). He is a UKSCA Accredited S&C Coach, an iTPA Certified Tennis Performance Specialist and has a First Class Hons degree in Sports Coaching. He is also a director of RacketEdge – an education, consultancy and coaching company for tennis coaches and players. Prior to coaching, Howard spent six years in the Royal Marines Commandos, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
1)What has led you into youth sport?
My introduction to performance preparation started in the Royal Marine Commandos. I served for six years and completed two tours of Iraq and one in Afghanistan. After a short stint in Spain I headed back to the UK and back into education, 10 years after leaving school to study a degree in Sports Coaching.
My original journey into youth sport was going to be a rugby league development officer, as I was volunteering extensively at a local junior club. My introduction to tennis was through extra work-experience at Bolton Arena, this progressed from voluntary, to part-time work and before starting my third year at Uni, I was offered a full-time role, then being promoted to the role of Head of Strength and Conditioning (S&C). To bridge the gap from my degree to S&C, I completed first my Personal Training qualification and then my UKSCA Accreditation.
2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?
My biggest influence in my practice in youth sport has been a key Commando quality of being able to improvise, adapt and overcome. I entered the tennis role with little knowledge of the sport, and didn’t have vast S&C knowledge either, so I was learning daily. I was using my existing knowledge from rugby and the forces to find solutions to training problems. I found that at times this had its advantages, as I was viewing the problem without a biased eye and could bring fresh ideas to the issue. I have tried to maintain the open-mindedness within my coaching. Tennis is also a sport where you have to have a plan A, B, C and D.
3) What is your particular area of interest?
My particular area of interest is the continuum of general to sports-relevant training. Tennis is a sport that even by the U14 age group, there is a close correlation between their competitive level and progressing to becoming a professional player. We have many U14 athletes at our academy, who are already travelling internationally extensively, as well as representing Great Britain. Therefore, the amount of sports-relevant training we do, may be a little higher than in other sports.
In terms of a reference I would quote the work of Dr Anatoliy Bondarchuck. He was the Gold Medal winner at the 1972 Olympics in the hammer throw, and is one of the most successful Olympic coaches, with his athletes winning over a dozen medals and setting 12 world records. His system has had an influence on organisations such as British Athletics. His continuum ranges from very general training, to the competitive event itself:
- General Preparatory Exercises – all-purpose exercises used for coordination and recovery.
- Specific Preparatory Exercises – using the same muscle groups and endurance systems as the sport.
- Specific Development Exercises – training exercises similar to sport, but in separate parts to allow overload.
- Competitive Exercise – identical or almost identical training to the sport.
This system is similar to the Swiss Tennis system which is heavily influenced by Roger Federers’ physical trainer Pierre Paganini. Their training continuum also ranges from general to specific, which are as follows:
- General – developing an athlete via physical training
- Orientated – developing a tennis-athlete via physical training
- Integrated – working in combination with the technical coach simultaneously, for example combining a tennis hitting drill with medicine ball work, within the same session. In football this may be a goalkeeping combining lateral jumping exercises with penalty practice.
- Specific – technical work, with elements such as the work and rest periods prescribed by the physical coach, such as basket fed drills, with planned and unplanned movement patterns. In football these would be small sided games, where manipulation on pitch sizes and number of players on each side, will bring about different endurance demands.
4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes?
My goal is to understand how much these types of continuum fit with our long-term athlete development model and have an influence on the academy curriculum. This is an evolving process, with the goal of ensuring we balance the development of competency and capacity of fundamental movement skills, whilst at the same time developing tennis-specific aspects too.
These tennis-specific elements are around coordination development and training the components of tennis-specific movement patterns. With regard to my thoughts on coordination, I would direct you to an article I wrote on the topic – http://www.hgreentennisfit.com/blog/2018/10/26/coordination-training-context-is-king
5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
In terms of receiving advice from other coaches, a stand-out would be from an experienced tennis coach Jim Edgar, who has been in the game for 25 years. He once told me “The most you can ask of yourself as a coach, is to do the very best you can, with the person you have right now”. For me, it is not about wanting to climb the ladder and work with ‘better’ players, it’s about investing your time and energy into those around you, rather than looking to the horizon to spot the next opportunity or the next step on the ladder. I’ve been lucky enough to work with players at the top of their game and although it was a great experience, the fact that I may have the opportunity to work with a junior player for up to 10 years, is a much more rewarding and impactful project.
6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes?
With regards to giving advice to other coaches, the one key thing has been vital both in the military and in coaching is communication. Understanding that in different situations and with different members of the support team, you will likely need to use slightly different language.
An example for me would be identifying a player’s goals, the way this information will be discussed will be adjusted if I am talking with either the player, the technical coach or other sport science staff. The language and topic may alter as such:
Talking with the technical coach – we may talk more about how the goal may impact the player’s technique and the subsequent effect on tactical choices. So, if the player cannot efficiently run around their backhand to hit a forehand (a bigger shot), due to a lack of mobility and understanding of the footwork pattern – this will not be a key pattern of play the coach can suggest to expose an opponent’s weak backhand.
Talking with another S&C coach – here we may talk more about technique and the physical elements of the goal. What areas are tight? How can we create drills to work on the dynamic footwork required?
Talking with the player – we will explain the importance of the supporting physical work that underpins being able to add the shot into their toolbox (mobility, flexibility, strength, footwork). But the most important factor for me, is to positively get inside their head and highlight the psychological elements. By developing this shot, we are creating a weapon, but more specifically, we can create a mindset where the player has the belief that they can “out-hit the opponent”, “out-rally the opponent”, “knock the opponent off the court”, this has a huge impact on the confidence and mental state of the player.
This ability to apply this mental conditioning (as we were conditioned to go to war), is a major strength of knowing the sport you are working with inside-out. The ability to speak the ‘language’ of the sport; be able to link the physical limitations to specific situations or shots that will be affected on the match court; be able to get inside the players head so when they stand across the court, they know they have the physical capacity to outwork, out-hit and out-manoeuvre the opponent.
7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?
8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)
www.hgreentennisfit.com – I am looking to start writing more content on youth development, so please join the mailing list. I will also have some video content available – RacketEdge Youth Conference video and a speed & agility presentation.
Twitter – @hgreentennisfit
Facebook – HGreen Tennis Fit
A huge thanks to Howard for giving us his time, experiences and expertise in this interview! Definitely keep an eye out for the next RacketEdge event as they are very worthwhile attending!