Each week we like to highlight a coach or athlete from the Ubersense community (all articles can be found on the Coach of the Week page). This week we are talking to former tennis pro Christian Straka.
Please discuss your background as a Professional Athlete. How did you get started as a tennis player? What drove you to continue playing?
I grew up in a small town in Germany after my parents emigrated from the Czech Republic. My father is a very good athlete. When I was five years old, he took me to his tennis club and I started playing. From that moment, I was hooked. I completely threw myself into tennis, all I wanted to do was play, watch professional tournaments, and be around tennis and tennis players. I won my first tournament when I was seven years old, and it all happened very quickly after that. I was on the national team by the time I was 10, and I was also ranked in the top 10 in Germany for my age group. I continued playing on the national team through high school, until I moved to Spain at 17 years old to train full time.
In order to train and play at such a high level, it really needs to be the sole focus of your life. The desire to be number one in the world is what motivated me to continue to train so hard. It’s probably the same for many athletes- we desire to be the best. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury forced me to leave the tour when I was 22. My passion for tennis was still there, so I turned my energy to training others. I still absolutely love the game.
What is something you wish you had known when you started to enter the professional tennis world that you know now as a coach?
The idea of “staying in the moment” is something you hear all the time, but it is very hard to explain. The power your thoughts have over your performance is incredible; you can’t underestimate how much your state of mind matters. It’s the difference between ranking number one in the world and ranking number 10. Technically, the top 100 players in the world could be in the top 10, and even the top 500 players have basically the same technical and physical abilities that the top 100 players do. The difference between say the top five and everyone else is their mental strength. Players need to stay focused on what they need to do during each moment of their match, not what they “shouldn’t do”, or what they did the last few shots, or what they might do in the next game. It requires so much discipline and is learned through experience. You need to accept that it is natural to make some mistakes; you can’t become angry or be too hard on yourself during the match when you feel you’re not playing your best. When you are really able to stay in the moment, the thoughts that cause anxiety, pressure, fear, and nervousness are not present because you are completely focused on what you need to do in that moment.
This is something the great players understand and master when they reach the very top level of their game. Once you adopt this way of thinking, you realize how different it is from how your mind normally processes various situations.
What coaching strategy do you find is the most effective? Does it differ between professionals and young, developing athletes?
Of course, there isn’t only one coaching strategy that works- different methods are successful, as evidenced by the number of coaches who have developed great players. They employ strategies that are not only different than other coaches, but also different from student to student. I think that’s really the key- how much the coaching strategy changes depending upon the individual you are coaching. So yes, the coaching strategy is different for recreational players compared to professionals, and compared to young athletes. I consider what the goals are of the student are, and how to get the most out of that particular player. As a coach, you also realize that the students have to enjoy what they are doing, and even that enjoyment is experienced in different ways. For the pros, enjoyment can come from a grueling session with an unbelievable amount of running, which is not at all pleasant during the session, but is very rewarding afterwards.
I would say that the coaching strategy is always individualized in order to be aware of how the players are responding to that particular strategy. Some players need to be encouraged while others need to be reassured. There are as many different approaches to coaching as there are personalities; you just have to find the right one. It is necessary to always pay attention to the student and what they are doing- you can’t go on autopilot. Students can sense that and in turn they put in less effort and energy into the lesson. As a result, the session is much less effective.
As head pro at Hofsaess Academy, you were in charge of match and video analysis. What features on the app would have made this job easier?
Since many of my students are visual learners, I see fantastic results from video analysis and I have used it for years. Back then, I would tape a match or a practice, then load the video into my computer and it would be available for viewing the next time I saw my student. Of course, the technology we have now on Ubersense gives us the ability to review what has been recorded instantly, which is the best time to review (as the motion is fresh in the athletes mind). It helps the student work on technical aspects of their game because they can plainly see the difference between what they are doing and what they think they are doing. However, for match analysis, there are benefits to waiting a few hours or a day after the game to allow the player to review the material when they are a bit more detached from the emotions of the match.
What differentiates Ubersense from all the other apps I’ve tried is that I can share it with students so they have it available on their own device. I can give multiple pieces of video to my students, and everything is available as soon as they open the app. I’ve been surprised at how many students will go back and view the video segments multiple times, sometimes weeks later, and will come to me with questions.
The side-by-side tool makes it possible for the athlete to be very aware of the differences in their shot versus a pro’s shot, as well as track their improvement by comparing their own shots with each other. The coaches review tool is also incredibly helpful. I can record my comments in the video clip so when my students review it they can remember what my instruction or comments were to them at the time, and so we’re clear on what we’re trying to accomplish with each video segment.
You are currently working at the Toluca Lake Tennis Club. After spending years in training, playing, and coaching in Europe, what brought you to Los Angeles?
While playing the tour, I was in Los Angeles for some tournaments. As with most tour players, I was traveling the world, and there were some wonderful places I had the opportunity to see. Of all of them, Los Angeles was a place that I just loved, the vibe of the city itself, the individual neighborhoods, and especially all the variety that Southern California has to offer. So finally, my wife and I took a chance and came to L.A. without knowing anyone here. Thankfully, it’s worked out really well and we’re very happy here.
What is a piece of advice that you give to all your students?
I want all my students to enjoy what they are doing, first and foremost. Beyond that, decision making and shot selection are the biggest areas in which they can improve their game. We work so much on making the right choices in the right moments. If you are moving your feet as much as possible, then you are doing the most you can to put yourself in a situation where you have the most options available in terms of what shots you are able to make. What follows that is to know which one of those possible shots is the most strategic to choose in that moment. Even if you are moving your feet as much as possible, you can still find yourself in a bad position relative to the ball, and you have to recognize that and make the choice to hit, for example, a safe defensive shot rather than hitting the kind of fast or aggressive shot you would choose if the ball was in the comfort zone. I see this so much with players at all levels.
How has Ubersense helped you coach your students?
Fundamentally, Ubersense helps me present something very complicated to my students in a way they can understand it, which is what teaching is all about. We are making detailed biomechanical shot analyses and by looking at the movements frame by frame, or by comparing to another player, we are able to present the components of the movements to the students in a way that allows them to process what changes they need to make in a very simple and understandable way.
I feel so lucky to be able to earn a living doing something I love so much, and the fact that I get to share my enthusiasm with my students and see them improving is incredibly rewarding. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Special thank you to Christian for taking the time to answer these questions and supporting Ubersense.