Ask the Expert: Alistair Murphy (Tennis Australia)

Alistair Murphy is the Lead Physical Performance Coach for Tennis Australia (Sydney Academy). He has a wealth of knowledge in developing youth tennis athletes. Within Tennis Australia, he is responsible for coordinating Physical Performance, Sports Science and Sports Medicine in Sydney; The Athlete Wellbeing Program; as well as the National Wheelchair/Intellectual Disability Tennis program.

1)What has led you into youth sport?

I grew up in a very small Australian town, where sporting success was engrained in the culture. We were brought up to play as many sports as possible, and per capita we always punched well above our weight across a lot of sports. From very early on in my sporting background, during high school, a very close mentor (the sports coordinator and National level coach) instilled the value of good quality coaches and the impact they can have on changing the lives of kids. As well as her ability to take us away for competition, her classes focused almost solely on practical skill and coaching development. In one of her final classes of the year when I was 16, she offered me the opportunity to spend the holidays running multi-sport coaching for rural disadvantaged children in remote towns – which I found extremely rewarding. I progressed my coaching qualifications the following year to swimming coaching and spent the next summer leading ‘learn to swim’ classes through to junior competitive squads. This experience grew my passion of coaching, as well as helping me pay for University where I studied Exercise Science.

I coached swimming all through University, whilst learning the research and models behind quality coaching. Many of my subjects also had practical requirements, which allowed me to take on the challenge of working as a Strength and Conditioning (S&C) assistant at a regional academy of sport for the triathlon program. I also developed a love for the research side of sport and exercise science. I completed an applied Honours research year in Rugby League, having completed that it allowed me to take on a PhD in sports research.

This is where my tennis journey began. In 2011 I was offered to coach and study at Tennis Australia, within the Physical Performance and Sport Science Department as an intern physical performance coach. In 2014, after 3 years at the Melbourne National Tennis Academy, I was offered a full time position at the National Tennis Centre – Adelaide as lead physical performance coach. There we were responsible for directly coaching over 20 athletes, and 85 indirectly across statewide programs from under 12’s through to professional and wheelchair athletes. In 2017 I moved from Adelaide to Sydney to take on the same role at the Sydney National Academy. Here with many more athletes and coaches to liaise with I coordinate multiple Physical Performance Coaches, Physio’s, Nutritionists, Doctors, Athlete Wellbeing, and Sports Psychologists.

2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?

Many mentors have shaped my philosophy around the way I coach and think about youth athlete development. I’d say the biggest influences came during my internship at Tennis Australia in Melbourne. During the 3-year period I was fortunate enough to work with some very experienced physical performance coaches (Aaron Kellett, Narelle Sibte, Dee Jennings and Stefano Barsacchi). I was able to see how each of these experts coached and then trial and test my coaching philosophies during brief caretaker periods. The other major influence to my practice was completing a PhD. I learnt how to learn, and take in information at a level that I had never done before. It made me understand the importance of questioning things, thinking big and outside the box, and seeking out new questions and solutions.

3) What is your particular area of interest?

From a research side I have a broad range of interests across youth athlete development. Training load management and holistic athlete development probably summarize them best. In tennis, there is a very fine line between the amount of training required to develop technically, and the negative over-training repercussions that are commonly observed within the sport. Areas that examine developing well rounded, mentally resilient, competitive athletes are particularly interesting for me.

A second interest, specific to tennis, is coordination of movement. In tennis movement efficiency and capacity on court is one of the biggest indicators elite youth athletes, so I’m constantly driving better processes and thinking around movement coaching. We need to develop tennis athletes who are fast, efficient, and read the game extremely well. While balancing the development of movement strength, endurance, coordination, differentiation (upper and lower body), multi-directional agility and balance.

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes? 

Load management impacts youth development in tennis directly. To keep kids healthy, eager to compete at high levels, continuing to love and cherish sport/exercise, and to treasure their time in our programs should be the ultimate goal. Whilst I don’t necessarily classify tennis as an early specialization sport like gymnastics, there is definitely a need for early dedication to the technical, volume of hitting, and competition. Not only from a technical and tactical view, but the long-term skeletal adaptations required to remain robust and be athletically competitive internationally for 15-20 years are critical. In this sense, I see the physical performance coach during the youth developmental stages as a key stakeholder to not only develop fundamental movement and tennis specifics, but to balance the tennis specific volume with other skills (i.e., kicking, catching, chasing, teamwork, socializing etc.).

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

“Fail to plan, and you plan to fail”. This advice was critical in my development as a coach and today still is one of my biggest values. For me, there is an even bigger importance of thoroughness in long term athlete development. Where have we been, where are we going and how are we going to get there – without a plan or reflection, we’re not developing athletes, they’re just exercising.

This is not to say that sessions don’t vary from plans ever. I’d say that the ability to think on your feet and vary sessions in the moment based on feedback and experience, are key skills of a good coach. Even more so in tennis, with frequent tournament travel to unfamiliar environments and ever changing unpredictable schedules. However, planning and constant reflection on those alterations provide better future planning and on-going learnings about individual athletes.

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes? 

Don’t be in a hurry! This applies for;

  • Your development as a coach, and everything aligned with that (i.e., technical knowledge, people skills, difficult athletes etc.);
  • Your view on developing youth athletes, it should be a long thought out process, there are so many aspects to nurturing champion athletes/people, it simply can’t be fast-tracked;
  • Don’t rush through jobs and burn relationships trying to get ahead. Being polite and a good person will get you further in the long run as a coach. So often I see young coaches put other coaches offside, only to later miss out on jobs and opportunities.

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?To keep it specific to tennis, I can recommend some great movement resources for young sports coaches. Not only for tennis physical performance coaches, but other youth sport coaches in general. I think the way movement is critically analysed and trained in tennis has many benefits for other sports. Tennis Australia has an online portal (Bounce) for coaches with a specific physical performance and movement section. Other international online resources include MultiSkillz, Kovacs Institute, and Mattspoint Blog. Other good practitioners in the youth tennis development field who frequently post to Instagram include Damian Prasad @damianprasad, Howard Green @hgreentennisfit, and Ruben Neyens @ruben.neyens.

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

If you’d like to connect with me, you can find me on LinkedIn, or at conferences, I’m always keen for a chat. Our National Academy in Sydney also has an Instagram page @bluewalltennis which celebrates the successes and team culture we look to inspire in such an individual sport.

Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.

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