What It's Like To Be...

A Tennis Coach

June 18, 2024 Dan Heath Season 1 Episode 21
A Tennis Coach
What It's Like To Be...
More Info
What It's Like To Be...
A Tennis Coach
Jun 18, 2024 Season 1 Episode 21
Dan Heath

Scouting for signs of greatness, bolstering players after heartbreaking losses, and fighting the "yips" with Vesa Ponkka, a veteran tennis coach. Why are tennis matches played in silence? And what's a "lucky loser”?

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  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?
Show Notes Transcript

Scouting for signs of greatness, bolstering players after heartbreaking losses, and fighting the "yips" with Vesa Ponkka, a veteran tennis coach. Why are tennis matches played in silence? And what's a "lucky loser”?

Follow us on Instagram!

Got a comment or suggestion for us? You can reach us via email at jobs@whatitslike.com

Want to be on the show? Leave a message on our voice mailbox at (919) 213-0456. We’ll ask you to answer two questions:

  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?

Dan Heath: Vesa Ponkka grew up on a farm in Finland. When he was eight years old, he and his dad built their own tennis court on the farm.

Vesa Ponkka: We built the cheapest tennis court in the world. It cost about a hundred dollars, and I started to hit the ball there. So I remember it like yesterday. I just loved how the ball felt on the strings. And in Finland, everybody plays hockey, but I like tennis because it was a individual sport. You kind of have to rely on yourself. You have to problem solve. You get all the glory, but you get also all the playing too.

Dan Heath: Vesa moved on from the farm court to play matches as a junior tennis player, and he got a scholarship to play at the University of Tennessee at Martin, where he became an all American.

Vesa Ponkka: And I played internationally, but never was able to make the big money and a big breakthrough. So in my mid 20s, I thought that playing tennis is the best thing in the world, but coaching tennis might be the second best thing. And so I went to coaching when I was about 25 years old, and now I can safely say that coaching is the best thing in the world

Dan Heath: For Vesa as you'll hear, coaching has become less about showing a kid how to crush a forehand down the line and more about how they feel after they've done it.

Vesa Ponkka: I remember it was a young girl, I think that the player was around 12 years old and had a very kind of low self-esteem and never looked at in eye when she communicated and always was looking at down. And this was years and years ago, but I still remember starting to see the change that her posture started to get better when we were talking and communicating she started to have an eye contact. And the way she walked on the court was a direct relationship about her confidence. And then in the deeper way, even the self-esteem. These are these absolutely fantastic moments and you can see it when you look at the right things. Now you know that something really great is happening.

Dan Heath: I'm Dan Heath, and this is "What It's Like To Be." In every episode we walk in the shoes of someone from a different profession, a stadium beer vendor, a cattle rancher, a high school principal. We wanna know what they do all day at work. Today, we'll ask Vesa Ponkka what it's like to be a tennis coach. We'll talk about the biggest mistake parents often make after their kid loses a match. Why tennis players need to be able to hear the ball hit the racket, and what happens when you start to choke in the middle of a match? Stay with us.

Dan Heath: So was it hard to transition from playing to coaching?

Vesa Ponkka: It wasn't hard, but it was different. When you are a player, you are trained to be very selfish and arrogant, and you are a taker. But when you are coach and a teacher, you have to be a giver, you have to be humble and you have to be unselfish. So that 180 degree mental shift that took some time to learn. And it sounds simple, but it's actually pretty difficult to do. You have to learn how to listen and you have to learn how to pay attention to all kind of clues that you get from the students. So it just takes a lifetime to learn to how to do it.

Dan Heath: Well, it reminds me, I was just learning about this story of an archery coach who taught at the Olympic level, and he talked about his journey from when he first started as a coach, he tended to be a micromanager.

Vesa Ponkka: Yeah.

Dan Heath: He would tell the archers what to do and move your tricep here and do this, and then eventually he learned like that doesn't work. I mean, especially at the highest levels, like you have to elicit not command. Did you go through a similar kind of evolution?

Vesa Ponkka: Absolutely. And I bet that it happens in all coaching and teaching professions. In my own case, I was fairly successful tennis player. So to be honest, my first 10 years of coaching, I was very ego-driven and wanted to get results and get them fast. And then when you grow up a little bit and get more mature, then hopefully you become a purpose driven. So many times, coaches and even teachers, we speak too much, we talk too much. Sometimes we try to impress other people how much we know and we just have to learn how to listen and see what this student needs.

Dan Heath: Vesa is President of the Junior Tennis Champions Center or JTCC in College Park, Maryland. It's one of the premier schools for junior tennis players. Over the years, they've trained kids who went on to become college champions and even pros. But actually one of the most impressive things Vesa has done with the JTCC is democratize tennis.

Vesa Ponkka: It's very unique here in the United States. So we all know that tennis is so incredibly expensive and only very few families can afford it. So we give financial aid for the families who cannot afford it. And so we try to give quality training for the kids who are coming from the underprivileged backgrounds.

Dan Heath: And you have a school on site, right? So players who are serious about turning pro can actually do their learning and they're playing on site.

Vesa Ponkka: Not maybe turning pro necessary, but they wanna get to the high D one schools and they practice four to six hours a day.

Dan Heath: Whoa.

Vesa Ponkka: So it's very difficult to be in the school so. And they travel internationally. Tennis is very global sport, so they need flexibility to travel and train a lot.

Dan Heath: Early on at JTCC, they came up with an idea that Vesa says was super important.

Vesa Ponkka: We kind of figured out that every youngster needs a driving force. All the successful people in different fields, they had this one driving force.

Dan Heath: So they created a mentorship program, but the mentors weren't just coaches.

Vesa Ponkka: We also learned that one of the best ways to do it is the peer mentoring when the older player teaches or mentors the younger player. And it has been a great success and not only the lot of learning is happening, but even the older player who has to teach younger ones, it's very rewarding. They learn again the life skills and they learn this mentality of giving back.

Dan Heath: Vesa gave an example of the player, Frances Tiafoe, one of the best players in the world. Francis was the son of a maintenance worker at JTCC. As a kid, he started hanging around the campus with his dad. He started playing tennis when he was four years old. The staff loved him and encouraged him. He had, as it turns out, an incredible knack for the sport. But when Vesa talks about him now it's obvious he's as proud of Tiafoe's character as he is of his tennis skill.

Vesa Ponkka: Frances was given a lot, but he has learned that now when he has a chance and a means now that there's a responsibility for him to give back. And that's how we are the most proud of him. Not that his top 10 player in the world, but he's a great human being who is giving back. And he learned to give back mentality here when he was growing up because he always had people who helped him and all the players helping him. And it's just a beautiful thing to see. Every kid here has to teach and mentor the younger one. Otherwise you cannot train here because it's really important. I almost think that the peer mentoring is even more important than the just the coach mentoring. But when we combine those two things, it's an exciting thing that happens.

Dan Heath: I know part of your job is scouting kids with lots of potential. When the kids are very young and you're watching them play, obviously they haven't mastered the techniques of the game. So what are the visible signs of potential that you're looking for?

Vesa Ponkka: Okay, the visible signs are actually the easy ones. Everybody can see the speed and it's very important. Then of course you can start to see the hand and eye coordination, but that's also kind of easy. The tricky part is what happens between the years and how fast they are learning and what is their decision making. And that's actually, in my mind, that is the biggest talent that the kid can have is ability to concentrate on being focused and then learning to make good decisions under the pressure. And that's difficult to see with the young kids, but I give you an example on the tennis court, let's say that the kid is eight years old and he's just playing a match. And if I see the kid, they hit a one ball to the bottom of the net, so they miss the ball, but then the next mistake that they make is now they hit it long over the baseline. So that's actually a good sign that they made a mental adjustment.

Dan Heath: Vesa talked a lot about the mental game of tennis. Tennis is obviously a demanding game physically, but the mental strain is often even harder for young players.

Vesa Ponkka: Sometimes the pressure of competing that it just gets to you and tennis is a sport that there are no draws. You either win or lose. And you lose a lot in tennis, even the best place in the world, they lose almost on weekly basis. So you have to learn how to handle the losing. And what happens is with young players, they don't have a perspective and experience yet. So every loss, it feels like the world is ending.

Dan Heath: For your younger players if they lose a really tough match, what is it that they need to hear from you?

Vesa Ponkka: You know what? The most important thing that they need to hear is what they hear from their parents, because that is the thing that calls wrong a lot of times. So I give you an example, and this is really, it sounds easy, but it's very difficult to do. The parents and coaches we have to treat the player after the mats exactly the same way. It doesn't matter if they won or they lost. So if they have a big win and everybody goes to the ice cream afterwards and celebrates, that's nice, but then you have to basically go to ice cream also after they lose. So the player will learn that win or lose, they are still cared as the kids and the human beings. And that doesn't change how the grownups feel about them. And it sounds easy, but it's very, very difficult. And I see it to go wrong so many times with the parents and the young coaches that everybody's so happy after the big win and then after the big loss, nobody talks to anybody for two days.

Dan Heath: Gosh, this is such a great point. I mean, this is great parenting advice just in general. I don't think there's anything specific to tennis, but I felt that tendency myself. Even I have young girls that play soccer. And if they lose a game, it's like I find that I'm having to like squash little criticisms and I'm like, why are you about to make some note about how they played? It's not about that.

Vesa Ponkka: And the other great tip is that no athlete, especially the young athlete, but even the top professionals, when they lose their maths, nobody wants to hear any feedback right away from the grownup. 

Dan Heath: Yeah, yeah.

Vesa Ponkka: And as a grownup, we think that this is a teaching moment now, and we couldn't be more wrong. The next couple of hours, of course, depending on the kid, but the at least couple of hours, I can promise you I have never seen a player who likes to hear any kind of feedback. They might have a good manners and they are polite and it looks like they listen, but it just goes in and out. And I just hate it when I see when the family goes to the car and then next 90 minutes when they are driving home, they get all the feedback in the world and it's just totally counterproductive because kids simply is totally tuned out and they have all the rights to be tuned out because nobody likes to lose.

Dan Heath: Hey everyone, Dan here. I just wanna say we love the emails you send us. Shout outs to some recent message senders including Julie R, Cynthia L, Tom W, Kathy I, Mandy T, Jackson M, if any of you have anything you wanna share, potential guest ideas or show feedback or just general warm fuzzies, send them our way anytime. I'm at dan@whatitslike.com. And if you ever forget this stuff, we always keep an email address and our voicemail box phone number in the show notes. Now back to the episode. I think partly because I write about psychology a lot, I've been fascinated by the phenomenon of the yips where an athlete suddenly kinda loses the ability to do something that used to be routine. Like there's a famous case of a baseball player that just something kind of shifted in their brain and all of a sudden, like a routine throw to first base is impossible or they just... Have you ever had a player struggle with something like that?

Vesa Ponkka: Not only players. I have been through it way too many times and it's just something that what the pressure does to you. When you on the tennis court, when you are in front of people, it can be such a lonely place. There's an old saying that it almost feels like you are naked in front of people. And in the past nobody could really help you. Nowadays, just the last couple of years on the professional tennis, the coaching is allowed nowadays, but the first hundred years of tennis, there was no coaching. You couldn't be coached during the competition and that made it very difficult and demanding. I personally still like that one because I think that it makes tennis very unique sport and it kind of highlights those attributes that you have to be able to problem solve under the pressure all by yourself.

Dan Heath: Tell me about when that happened to you as a player. Like, do you remember a moment where you were kind of struggling mentally or maybe even panicked because of what was happening?

Vesa Ponkka: I will be 60 in a couple of weeks, and this happened when I was 18. I had a big, big match and kind of the breakthrough match I played one of against a really high ranked player. And if I would have won the match, I think that my career might have looked a little bit different, but I remember I had eight match points and I choked every ball. If I was serving, I double folded. And if I was returning, I returning to the bottom of the net. I couldn't get the ball over the net eight times when I had a match point. And I still remember it 40. Long time ago but I still remember how it felt and it has happened to everybody, but it's not fun when it happens. There's no question about it.

Dan Heath: How do you keep that from becoming kind of a loop? Like the next time you're on the court, how do you keep your brain from popping back? Like what if that happens again? What if that happens again?

Vesa Ponkka: No, first of all, that thought will come to your mind then, but you hopefully have a discipline and you can trust your training in a sense that you can be an autopilot and kind of play and work through that feeling. But I can promise you that thought will come to your mind a lot. The better players, they kind of get rid of that thought very quickly and they are playing without thinking. So it's a learned skill, but it takes time and it takes good people around you so that you feel safe and you know that people are going to treat you the same way, even if there are some big disappointments. So that safe environment is very important to deal with these kind of things.

Dan Heath: For the elite players as a coach, where do you want their brains during the game? Like what do you want them thinking about and what do you want them not thinking about?

Vesa Ponkka: That's a great question. Of course people are a little different, but mostly the great players, there's very little thinking going on when they are hitting the ball and playing, they are totally on autopilot. And in tennis we have a saying that the less thinking, the better you play. Thinking can get on your way and can start to make you nervous. So there's a very little thinking when you are playing and the very best ones, they trust themselves so much that they are pretty much on autopilot.

Dan Heath: And the adjustments, like the student who hit it too low and then hit it a little higher the next time. Are they doing that stuff automatically or do you think they're consciously strategizing about what they're gonna do different in the next point or the next set?

Vesa Ponkka: Yes, it depends. I mean, the great example is that the younger player, let's say that the forehand is not working and some adjustment needs to be done, many times they cannot do it during the match. And then next time when they have a private lesson, then they try to fix it. The very good players, Nadals and Djokovic and Federers, they are actually making these adjustments when they are playing the point meaning that between even the strokes and they are not thinking about it comes by instincts, but they are making little adjustments during the point, which is very difficult to do because every ball that you are facing is always different. The ball you are facing is like a snowflake. They're all a little bit different and you have to be making this little adjustment. But if you try to think about it too much, then thinking is slow in tennis and if you think about it too much when you are doing it, then nothing could happen.

Dan Heath: As a coach, is it easier to build on a strength or is it easier to correct a weakness?

Vesa Ponkka: It really doesn't matter in a sense because if it's done right and it in a good balance, they both work well. But there is a danger if you only deal with the weaknesses that the game is not fun anymore and there's too much, you are failing too much. So to answer your question, it's not maybe easier, but it's better if you build on the strength because you can always go back and work with the weaknesses, but then you keep the game fun. And the kids and the beginner adults, they wanna be successful, they wanna be able to hit the ball over the net. And if you are just focusing on things that they are not doing well, it many cases the fun goes away. You have to keep it fun and there has to be certain success so they keep on coming back and hopefully fall in love with the game.

Dan Heath: Are there moments looking back where you maybe were just starting to train a kid and you saw something in them where you thought, "Oh wow, this kid could actually be a star someday"?

Vesa Ponkka: Absolutely. But I have to tell you, I have been around a long time and I have been wronged so many times. It's not even funny. So nowadays I tell people that I can tell the player who is not going to make it, and because that is the player who doesn't love the game and doesn't wanna work. So then I can make a prediction. He's not going to reach the high level, but trying to predict is a little bit dangerous.

Dan Heath: Why is that, do you think? I mean, you have such a mastery of the game. Like why do you think the predictions are so difficult?

Vesa Ponkka: It's just that there are so many things that can go wrong. And first of all, we are talking about a long journey. There's this concept of 10,000 hours to master the skill. And so we are talking about 10 plus years to reach a fairly high level and life happens and you can do 95% things right and then still something happens and there are just so many variables that we don't have a control over. And so give you an example, it's a little plain example, but you do everything right and then just boy meets the girl when they are 17 and then it all might be over. So it's just you just never know.

Dan Heath: Vesa also might not be too preoccupied with predicting who will be successful on the tennis court because as he is gotten older, he's often thinking more about a kid's success off the court.

Vesa Ponkka: I'm old enough that I have seen five, six player generation. So maybe my first young kids when I was taught, now they are in the late 30s and they have their own families. And I can see how they have learned great life skills through the sports. In our case it has been tennis. And when you look at it like that, there are no disappointments because the life skills that we can learn through the sports, they are priceless. I have always been very driven person and I learned the hard work values from the home and everything. But like I mentioned it earlier, there's no question when I was a younger coach, I was ego-driven and it was all about winning and winning a lot, winning everything, winning all the big championships. And now the time goes by and you can see the effect that you can have with the kids when they grow up. So it hopefully it has turned to be a purpose-driven. And there's no question that that has been the most rewarding mental shift that has happened. And this is actually what I do most nowadays. I will try to, I'm doing a fair amount of coaching education and I really want the young coaches to understand that it's really important what they do and they might not see it right away. They don't have a luxury of seeing the results 20 years forward. But knowing that what you do is very important is really, really a first step to become really good what you do.

Dan Heath: So Vesa, we usually wrap up our episodes with a quick lightning round of questions. Let me fire away here.

Vesa Ponkka: Okay, okay.

Dan Heath: What is a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?

Vesa Ponkka: Lucky loser.

Dan Heath: Lucky Loser.

Vesa Ponkka: Yeah, lucky loser means that in a tournament, if the player plays in the qualification rounds not in the main draw and they lose in the last round of the qualification and they don't get into the main draw, and then in the main throw somebody pulls out and there's a spot available and then that lucky loser will get that spot and they get into the main draw. It can be a big deal because for example, let's say in the Grand Slams, if you lose in a last round of the qualis, the first round in the U.S. Open, that's nowadays about $80,000. So if you get a lucky loser spot, even if you lose your first round match, that's about $80,000 price money right there.

Dan Heath: Wow.

Vesa Ponkka: So it can be a big deal.

Dan Heath: What's the most insulting thing you could say about a tennis coach's work?

Vesa Ponkka: Insulting, that's a tough word, but if a parent or player communicates or tells me or coach that you are not engaged, you are not giving your 100%. That's insulting in a sense that I take it like I'm not doing my job. I don't wanna hear that one ever. We always as teachers, we have to be engaged and we have to bring the energy. So if I hear that I'm not engaged, I will take that one to heart.

Dan Heath: What's a sound specific to your profession that you're likely to hear?

Vesa Ponkka: I love, and it's funny how a lot of young players, they actually love the sound of the perfect contact point when the ball hits the strings. It's actually very, very addictive sound and feeling. And that's one of the reasons some kids get, they fall in love with the game because they love not only how it feels, but the sound of the pop, how the perfect contact point and the perfect timing sounds when the ball hits the strings. It's beautiful sound. And that's why in tennis, if you noticed it's played in the silence. You cannot make sounds in the stadiums because the tennis players, we are not wimps that we cannot play when crowd is going crazy. There's a reason why stadium needs to be quiet when we play because we need to hear the ball hitting the strings. And that sound is it is always a different sound and that tells you a lot. But it's a one sound that is very special to the game of tennis.

Dan Heath: Vesa Ponkka is a tennis coach and President of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland. I was fascinated by how much Vesa talked about failure and then afterwards something fortuitous happened. Just as we were editing this episode, a commencement speech from the tennis legend, Roger Federer started making the rounds, and Federer made this incredible point that spoke exactly to this issue of failure. Let me play you a clip

Roger Federer: In tennis, perfection is impossible. In the 1,526 singles matches I played in my career, I won almost 80% of those matches. Now I have a question for you. What percentage of points do you think I won in those matches? Only 54%. In other words, even top ranked tennis players went barely more than half of the points they play. When you lose every second point on average, you learn not to dwell on every shot.

Dan Heath: And that's what Vesa is getting at that tennis is a game where you cannot escape failure. And when it comes, it's just you on the court to deal with it. No teammates, no coach, just you. And that means that how you respond mentally to failure is a critical part of the sport. You can't let failure disrupt you. You can't let it shake your confidence. And when you're in a match and you've just blown a shot and you're rattled, you need something to fall back on. And that anchor is your training. Vesa uses this quote like a mantra. Trust your training, all those hours with your coach, with your peers, trust your training. And also to know that win or lose, you're gonna be treated the same afterward, you're the same person, you're still loved, you're still supported. Providing that psychological safety net for athletes, fine tuning a young person's game, bolstering their confidence, teaching them lessons that transcend the sport, folks, that's what it's like to be a tennis coach. This episode was produced by Matt Purdy, a special shout out to Evan Nesterak, editor-in-chief of the Behavioral Scientist who suggested Vesa. Thank you Evan. I'm Dan Heath. Thanks so much for listening.