Getting the Attention of Serena and Andre

To be an effective speaker, you first have to win the confidence of your audience. In my case, I’m usually working with very talented young tennis players, often teenagers. My goal is to help them to develop into world-class competitors. To achieve this, they need to view me as a benevolent dictator. I have to persuade them that I know what I’m talking about and that they should listen to me, but I also need them to understand that I care about them, as players and people.

Serena Williams needed to learn to play each point as if it were match point at Wimbledon.

Establishing your authority or expertise is not a matter of bravado. It depends on the needs of individual players and what they respond to best. Jim Courier was a player who responded to toughness, and I’d use a firm voice to kick him into gear. When I was trying to teach Serena Williams that she had to play every shot as if it were match point at Wimbledon, we were often in each other’s faces, just short of body contact, when we exchanged our thoughts about a rally or point. With Monica Seles, by contrast, I was always sure to use kid gloves.

Sometimes you show that you know your stuff by saying nothing. In the late ’90s, I was asked to be the coach of Boris Becker, who had already achieved greatness as the youngest player ever to win Wimbledon. I went to Munich with the goal of getting Boris back into physical shape and reviewing every aspect of his game. I watched and watched for two weeks, and never said a word. Boris finally turned to me and said “Mr. B, can you talk?” My answer, “When I talk to you, I better know what to say.” His answer: “Mr. B, we will get along real well.”

You can’t remake someone’s game all at once, so my brand of instruction has always been to give simple words of advice. When I focused on footwork with Yuki Bhambri (currently the No. 1 junior men’s player in the world), I let him know that the recovery step is crucial to any level of play, especially if you hit from a neutral stance. Yuki would respond to these simple verbal tips, and then I’d demonstrate to him exactly what I meant.

At the beginning of my career, I found it very difficult to listen to anyone, but you can’t imagine how much more persuasive you become when you listen well. In today’s world, young people expect to be heard, and their input very often helps you to work with them.

As a student at my academy 25 years ago, Andre Agassi was always testing the boundaries, especially with the dress code. His hair was long and dyed, he wore nail polish, he wouldn’t wear regular tennis clothes. My first instinct was to make him conform, but I still remember one year when he stopped by my office, before going home for Christmas. “Nick,” he said, “the head of the school wants me to cut my hair and dress a little different. Can you please change his mind?” I listened, and we decided to let him be himself.

With a player like Andre, as with anyone you’re trying to motivate, you have to get a sense of their individual spirit and try to harness it to develop top talent. Benevolence was not enough with Andre, but it had to be part of the mix.

Nick Bollettieri founded Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in 1978 and is the president of IMG Academies.


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