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Business, Focus Edition Nicole Pratt

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By: Nicole Pratt •  4 years ago •  

I grew up on a sugar cane farm near Mackay and was introduced to tennis when my Dad bulldozed a court in the dirt next to the house and put up a wooden practice wall. My parents also played fixtures on the weekends so I was always around the tennis courts.

Dad (George Pratt) was a pretty good junior in Queensland and won the local championships for 20 years in a row. He went to one of the Harry Hopman camps with Rod Laver and Lew Hoad but decided to work rather than pursue tennis.

While everyone in the family valued the sport, I was the first in my family to really grab it with both hands winning state championships and nationals. I played until I was 34 and retired in 2008 and really just fell into coaching with Casey Dellacqua as my first player. I was working with the WTA on their new tour structure in Miami when Casey’s fitness trainer approached me. Casey was struggling a bit and needed some tennis input, so we started as a trial and before I knew it, I was a full-time coach.

Coaching was something I knew I always wanted to do after retiring. When I could, I would help my peers and often dive quite deep into the tactical side. I loved the finer details of strategy, game plan and management, so I was always offering advice to up-and- coming Australian players.

At 15, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship with the Australian Institute of Sport for four years. One of the first coaches I worked with was the infamous Ray Ruffels, who was really the first coach to head up the AIS program in Australia. Ray taught me to take a chance and give opportunity on talent rather than results alone.

My other main coaching influence, while I was living in America, was the Italian, Lorenzo Beltrame. He was always passionate and a real tactician of the game. I really gravitated towards these coaches and, on retirement as a player, wanted to give back to the sport that had given so much to me.

Staying Focused

When I was growing up, I would stay focused by setting lots of small process-oriented goals that would help me stay on track and in the moment. I think being in the moment is vitally important to focus. Not thinking about what has happened before or what will happen after.

For example, I would set a goal of seeing how many balls in a row I could hit against the practice wall without making a mistake. When you practice wall is made out of wood on a dirt court, that’s quite a challenge. Once I got tired of doing that, I would then see how many volleys I could do in a row.

On the court, I would focus on getting my first serve in or, if I had made too many mistakes, I would focus on hitting every ball cross court and if they hit a winner then so be it. There are many mini goals that I would use to stay focused every day.

To keep myself focused as a coach today, I still use these techniques and set mini goals for myself, my players and the organisation. I focus on what I want to achieve, what’s important to me and try to maintain balance.

Focus is critical to achieving success in any area or expertise, so I now pass these techniques onto my athletes. I get them to set mini-goals on and off the court. Even small discipline skills like keeping eye contact during a conversation. Not only are we trying to too be a tennis coach, we are trying to teach them life skills as well.

Social Media and Focus

As the head of Women’s Tennis, I still work with the younger players in a camps and one of the biggest factors for distraction and lack of focus for kids today is social media. According to a recent Nielson survey, teenage girls send over 4,000 text messages per month. I don’t think that is too dissimilar for the adults either. It’s a major distraction across the board in every different field.

With the players I am working with, we shut down all social media access for them one week prior to the event. We take it off the phone but we understand it is important to their brand, so we have strategies to ensure this is still happening.

After having social media removed, one athlete admitted that she felt addicted to it. So then we created ongoing strategies and boundaries around using social media. Tennis Australia are working towards simple guidelines like not checking social media after a match. It helps athletes stay on track and focus on what is important. They appear less distracted and have more mental energy for longer periods of time. On tours and development camps, there are no phones allowed at dinner or lunch. To have focus you have to have energy. After education about the boundaries, it’s about respect to your coach and sport.

Even at the club level, I would recommend putting down the phone at least an hour prior to a match. We also know that looking at a screen prior to bed affects the quality of the sleep which impacts recovery, energy levels and focus.

Technology and Focus

Not all technology is bad for focus though. Tennis in Australia now uses far more technology on and off the courts. Vision is really important to the younger players, so we record every training session. We have had a screen on court so the athlete can immediately see for themselves the thing they are trying to improve. There is even a mobile application for training monitoring which tracks a player’s workload and wellbeing to help guide the coach.

We also code every match so that we can quickly see all 30-0 points or all forehand error points at the touch of a button. Recording every match for the last 5 years, Tennis Australia now has a database with over 1,000 professional matches that we can draw on for role modelling.

Use of technology in tennis may still be a long way off other sports but in term of vision and analysis, coaching in Australia is leading the world.____________________________________________________________

Former Australian No.1, Nicole Pratt is Tennis Australia’s Fed Cup coach and head of women’s professional tennis. In 1991, she won the Australian Open Junior Championships and won her first WTA title in Hyderabad in 2004.

Contesting 18 Australian Opens, her best Grand Slam was in 2003 when she reached the fourth round. In 2002, she made the third round at Wimbledon and the US Open, achieved a career-high singles ranking of No.35 (June 2002) and won five ITF singles titles.

In doubles, she reached the semi-finals of the US Open and the last eight at the Australian and French Opens. Reaching a doubles ranking high of No.18 (September 2001), she captured nine WTA doubles titles and nine ITF.

Nicole represented Australia at the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Olympics where she reached the third round.

With over 10 years commentating for Fox Sports, she has developed a unique perspective on tennis coaching and is currently coaching Daria Gavrilova, currently ranked at 36 in the world.

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