Coaches Corner with Gary Kushnirovich
One day at the 2014 US Open Playoffs, I just won my first round against Clemson's Difazio and I was walking by the courts at the USTA National Center in Flushing Meadows, when I saw a guy who was locked in the battle fighting like I have never seen anyone fight before. Little did I know, but I would then follow to play this guy for 3 hours 7/6 in the third in the semis. This match started a long New York rivalry and friendship. Gary is one of the hardest working people I know, and has a unique perspective that I am grateful to share with all of you. You can find Gary at https://www.tenniswithgary.com/
Tell me about your unique path of junior tennis and playing at West Point and at St. John's what were your biggest lessons learned along the way?
As a junior I played locally, we never really had the funds to travel much, maybe once a year for a distant national event but that was it really. I was taught by my parents and my dad remained my primary coach until college. I spent countless hours working on my game with him, recording and watching film of myself and pro players who I wanted to emulate. So I had a lot of input into my own game and this helped me become a student of the sport which has largely impacted my passion for coaching.
Going into college, I didn’t know anything about the college recruiting process, as a result, I didn’t research or spend time reaching out to universities as one should. I waited to “be recruited” which the military academy did so well. I had a successful two seasons at the military academy winning our Patriot League conference. One of the biggest lessons I learned that I didn't really have as a junior was discipline. This translates not just on the court but to everything we did at the military academy, from making your bed, to how we dressed, to how we ate meals. Even though I did not flourish at the academy I learned a great deal about myself as an individual as well. One of the eye-opening things I learned was that I did not do well being told what to do (working for people is not in the cards for me). In terms of on-court learning at the academy, I learned that individual attention was far greater importance than group play. I had to overcome two wrist surgeries during my time there and both times the head coach spent countless hours with me doing individual work until I was ready to rejoin team practices.
I transferred to St John's University after I failed organic chem at West Point. At St. John’s I did not perform well honestly, I was burnt out from tennis and wanted to just get my degree and move on. I had to redshirt a year so I wasn’t allowed to participate in training for a season and as most college kids do I spent my time partying. I managed to find my love for the game again after I started coaching some high-performance kids working at a local club and realized how incredible tennis really was. With a renewed passion for the sport, I started training and keying into my game again. We went on to win our Big East conference when I was a senior. One of the major lessons I learned was how valuable off-court training was to your on-court performance. I became a workhorse, running stairs at 10/11pm at night at the end of a long day of classes, team training, coaching at the club. Getting in extra reps when I could. This helped me a lot with bringing my game back to an adequate level.
What was it like basically backpacking it on the futures tour?
It is so interesting that many people think playing pro is glamorous. I had no outside funding, so I would work as a coach for a month, then travel for a month. It was far from glamorous. I picked countries where the US dollar would go a long way so I could afford to stay out and compete. For instance, I lived in Thailand for about 15$ a day including food and boarding. It was an incredible experience. I had never traveled outside the United States before (other than to Canada) so traveling to Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, South Africa, etc. was an incredible life experience. Seeing the different cultures, seeing how grateful people are when they have so little is truly eye-opening and perspective-shifting. I highly recommend that people, regardless of sport, get out and see the world (hopefully once our current pandemic subsidies this will be possible again).
On the tennis side of things, the reality was that my training environment at the time was not conducive to my mental health on the road. I was training at a small academy but the coaches would demean and belittle us to motivate us during training. As a result that is how I talked to myself when I was on the road. I found this was my biggest lesson. The quality of your self-talk is largely influenced by your environment. I spent years after leaving their training working on that for myself and it massively impacts how I communicate to players now as a coach.
You have a great presence online with a vast library of resources that you share for free, how do you commit yourself to do that and how does it aid your coaching?
I appreciate that. It is not easy to consistently upload content but a big drive I have behind doing it comes down to the fact that I taught myself how to play with my father as my coach. When I was learning there wasn’t the same access to content as there is now. I feel that by providing quality content I can help other players who maybe cannot afford high-level coaching, the opportunity to learn, and become better players.
-in terms of aiding my coaching, it does a lot. Primarily by constantly using video to create content, I in turn am always analyzing my own game and the games of the players I work with to find better drills and exercises to help them achieve their optimal potential. Another major aid to my business is that it brings in clients. Half of my current players came to me from Instagram.
A big question about coaching here to someone that I know is a very tough competitor and person: do you think the new generation of players lacks resiliency?
That's a great question for sure. I believe that the vast majority lack perseverance. We as a society are spoiled with instant gratification. As a result, we are inclined to only want to do things that bring instant gratification. Things that are a process and have paid off months or years down the line are not appealing. But this isn’t just the new generation of players. This is something that is deeply seeded in us as human beings over thousands of years. Every “older” generation thinks the “younger” generation is lazy. Our grandparents who fought in WWI or WWII absolutely thought our parents were spoiled and lazy and our parents who were immigrants or had to live through other hardships think that we are lazy, etc. It is the nature of human development.
Is it our fault as coaches?
We are at fault to a degree because we allow parents and players at a young age to value “winning” over development. If we emphasize development and communicate the timeline of that development to parents and players I think we could see a shift towards process-oriented drive vs results. OR we can choose to feed into it during our training, focusing on point play only and only rewarding players for “winning”.
-A huge part of this comes down to a player's environment at home. Do they get anything they want without having to work very hard for it as kids? Or do they have to do chores to earn a reward? Things that teach young kids the value of work ethic will not just pay off on court but for the rest of their lives.
What is something that you think coaches can do better?
As I mentioned, having parents and players be process-oriented takes a lot of work. A simple way to do it is to provide detailed periodization plans for the development of a player's game. This way they can see what is being done week to week, month to month, to help them achieve their eventual goals of winning events.
What is something that the players can take responsibility for and improve?
Fantastic question. At the end of the day, this is MASSIVELY important. The question is “who’s tennis are we working on?” If the player understands that the coach is simply an aid in their development rather than the individual who will win their matches for them, they should learn to take on more responsibility with their training. Be it becoming a student of the game by watching and analyzing more film of players, or organizing match play with friends, or asking the coach questions about why they are working on something right now, asking the coach the hard questions of what is your plan for my tennis.
What role did your parents play in your tennis development?
My parents definitely shaped who I am as an individual, both on and off the court. With regards to tennis, they started my tennis. My mother was my first coach for tennis because my father didn’t have the patience early on. She would stand with me with my oversized (they didn’t have Quickstart racquets yet) and help me swing. We would go out and play as a family with my mother, father, older sister, and just hit the ball around. My father became my primary coach around 4 or 5 years old. We couldn’t afford consistent lessons and many places would take advantage of a young “talented” player so my parents did not trust my development to many coaches. I spent hours every day on the court with my dad. Meaning before school started to get reps in, after school to get reps in. We would train well into the winter, just bundle up and go outside to play. Sometimes clearing snow off the court to serve. They recorded a lot of my tennis and we used it to compare and analyze my strokes with those of the players I wanted to play like. It was an incredible level of support and dedication that they both gave me. Taking me all over the state to play tournaments and find good training partners. I cannot even express in words how grateful I am for the sacrifices they made in order for me to learn this sport.