Our Junior Days

A combined blog post with James Cluskey..

James Cluskey and I travelled to Izmir, Turkey last week to compete in a €64,000 Challenger event. We both had some good wins throughout the week and left Izmir with a lot more ATP points than when we arrived. Throughout the week, we spent our evenings chatting about our junior tennis days and about the sacrifices we had to make to get to where we are now. We talked about our training growing up, the environment we were in, the competition in our age group, our coaching and how it has all changed over the years.  We both felt we had an excellent training structure throughout our teens that was always fun, challenging and highly productive. James agreed to join me on this blog post to share with you some of those things that helped both of us play to a high level in juniors, U.S. College tennis and now in ATP Pro tennis.

Photo Courtesy of Kevin O’Brien

I hope this information will be beneficial to anyone in Irish tennis and I hope those of you who are interested in improving tennis in Ireland (players/coaches/parents) can take something away from this. Please share this blog post, retweet it or email it to people who you think would be interested! Also, please share a comment and let me know what you think. Thank you

Bio on Cluskey:

Let me just give you a quick background on James Cluskey before I go any further…

James Cluskey is currently Ireland’s #1 Doubles player with a doubles ranking of inside top 200 (currently #180) in the world. He’s been playing on the tour since January 2009 and prior to the tour, spent 4 years playing College Tennis in the U.S. (LSU University) reaching a national doubles ranking of #3 in America. He’s been a Fitzwilliam U18 Junior Champion, won numbers singles and doubles titles in Ireland over the years and has been on Ireland’s Davis Cup team since 2006. By the way, he’s a giant of a man! (6 foot 6)

James Cluskey

Myself and James have been friends for the past 12 years and have spent huge amounts of time training together, competing together and traveling together. We spent almost 5 years of our teenage years (13-17) training under the watchful eye of our coach Larry Jurovich in Westwood, Clontarf and we were part of a performance squad of top Irish players (all of whom went on to play a high level in US College). Larry had a massive impact in both our lives and to this day we both keep in regular contact with him. He is a mentor, coach and very good friend. Both James and I feel that we wouldn’t be where we are now if it wasn’t for Larry’s influence, we were both lucky to have met him at a crucial time in our lives. There are many things that need to come together to make a good tennis player and having a great coach is by far one of the most important.

Quick Bio on Larry Jurovich:

Larry Jurovich is an International Performance Coach Consultant. He has coached Davis Cup and Fed Cup players from Canada, Ireland, U.K. and China. He has developed the High Performance Coach Education Program in Canada and the U.K. and consulted to many of the world’s top junior academies. He has been a guest speaker at conferences and workshops in over a dozen countries on four continents.

James, Larry, Me ’06

Mental Lessons:

Tennis parents and juniors quite often ask me about my training growing up and how many hours I spent on the court, gym etc. Obviously I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for the thousands of hours I’ve put in up to this point but I’d prefer to focus on some of the mental lessons I learnt growing up instead. (Cluskey will spend the remainder of the blogpost talking about about the details of our training, how hard we had to work and what it was like for us as juniors.) I feel that the mental side of the game needs to be addressed first before the training even begins. I’m talking about things like the importance of having a good attitude, always giving 110%, having strong principles and values, having strong self-belief, developing a fighting spirit, being professional, taking responsibility, having perspective etc. If these areas aren’t addressed, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, you don’t stand a chance. Most of what I’ll write about is common sense but it can so easily be overseen.

Environment:

Our training environment was really a combination of 3 things: Fun, Competition and Hard Work. The fact that it was fun and enjoyable motivated everyone in our squad to train and compete as hard as they could each time we set foot on the court which meant the majority of our training sessions were extremely intense, focused and deliberate. Each of our sessions was carefully mapped out ahead of time and we used to go through the same drills every single day to make sure we had mastered some of the most basic and fundamental skills. Anyone who has looked into skill acquisition ( and read books like ”The Talent Code” written by Daniel Coyle) has read that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (”deliberate” being the key word) to become a master in any field. We were lucky enough to have a coach who understood this concept, taught it and constantly challenged us to improve bit by bit every single day.

Juniors and Mindset:

I’ve seen countless juniors over the years with a lot more natural talent than me suddenly give up the game for no apparent reason. Everyone has a story and a reason why they quit and over the years I’ve felt a lot of players quit due many of these ”mental” reasons-their heart wasn’t in it, they lacked the belief, they didn’t want to work hard, they couldn’t stay positive, they couldn’t take responsibility, they couldn’t control their emotions etc. etc. (The list goes on). I’ve struggled with all these things too and I feel I could have easily fallen into this group too if it wasn’t for Larry’s help and unwavoring belief in me. (Note: My parents supported me immensely too)

The message I want to get across to juniors out there that may be reading this is; put just as much attention into your mindset as you would into your training and find someone who can really help you develop your mentality. So many players get fixated on their training and put zero work into their mind. You need to work on both. It can be painful dealing with losses in an individual sport, especially at a young age but if you learn how to handle it correctly, it will help you for your entire life. You become less afraid of failure and start to take responsibility for your life. Things start to get exciting when you have the inner confidence to know that you can handle any situation.

Training:

Larry has a great understanding of the mental side of the game and sometimes we would spend my one hour private coaching lesson just sitting down together on a bench talking about the mental side of the game. We wouldn’t even hit one ball. We would just spend most of the session talking about my attitude, how I can improve as a person/player and generally just developing a vision of who I want to become. At first, I thought it was crazy that I was paying him just to sit down on a bench and talk to me but as time went by, I understood what he was doing. He was giving me belief and confidence. This was worth way more than analyzing my technique.

What made him such a fantastic coach was that he cared for us as people, not just players. I think that’s something to look for in any good coach. Time spent away from the court was just as important to Larry as the time spent on the court. Friday night movies and the odd evening eating pizza in a group setting became a ritual of ours. It might seem trivial but things like this really nurtured our relationship and built huge trust amongst us all.

One thing I really liked about Larry was the fact that you could always challenge him and question his coaching. Some coaches may have a problem with this as their ego might get in the way but Larry welcomed any challenge and more often than not he was able to give us a clear correct answer. This created a great atmosphere in the group as we all got in the habit of asking questions and were not afraid to speak up when we didn’t understand something. If Larry was ever wrong, we would just make fun of him and it led to even more fun in the group.

Raising Standards:

Larry used to challenge me to aim higher (more than just winning Fitzwilliam National Junior Championships), believe more in myself and to stop putting limits on how far I could go. When I was growing up, winning Fitzwilliam was the biggest thing you could do but in a way, it showed how shortsighted we were. We should have been focused on winning junior Grand Slam titles and turning pro. Why not? It’s so easy to aim too low, to set the bar low and reach your mark but it takes guts and courage to set the bar further than you and your friends think. Larry helped raise our expectations and our standards and this rubbed off on everyone.

Development:

You don’t need to be a child prodigy to become a pro tennis player!

I first met Larry when I was 13. Most top juniors around the world had been on full-time programs before they were 10! Nowadays, I see 7 years olds who are training the same amount I trained when I was 11/12. Larry took on players no matter what their age as he knew he could develop them into good players even though they may be way behind other players their age. I’ve seen coaches under rate and give up on other kids because they are not yet up to scratch in their age group. This is a disgrace and something I really hate to see. Different kids develop at different rates and though some might not appear to be ”talented”, there’s a lot to be said for someone who loves the game and works hard. Larry wasn’t too interested with talent as that’s just one part of the package. I distinctly remember 2 players who arrived to Larry in their early teens of a very low standard and he brought them up to a competitive level within a year. This was inspiring for everyone to see.

Positivity:

One area that really helped me was being introduced to positive reading material and inspirational figures like Michael Jordan, Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali.  This ignited a passion in me to study psychology in college and still today, I enjoy reading inspirational books, psychology and spiritual books. They’re fascinating subjects and explains a lot the way people behave the way they do.

I could write a book about what I learnt from Larry over the years but if I had to sum up the most important bits of information, here is what I’d say:

1. Aim higher than you think

2. Work harder than the guy next to you

3. Develop an appetite for self-improvement

4. Be around great people, not just good people (Remove yourself from negative people)

5. Keep things in perspective and always be grateful

6. 3 questions after every match: Did you try your best? Did you have fun? Did you learn something new?

7. Have fun and enjoy this great game

8. Make failure your fuel

9. Always give 100%

10. Be prepared to make huge sacrifices if you want to achieve big things

11. Put as much time into your character as you would your tennis

Ok, well that’s my part of the blog done!

Now onto the main event!

Enter the famous James ‘Jimmy’ Cluskey…

A few weeks ago when I came home from Segovia challenger, I decided to go to the Fitzwilliam Junior Finals, watch some matches and catch up with some friends. A coach made the point that James McGee is Irelands number 1 singles player and I’m Ireland’s number 1 doubles player and that we were both developed by the same coach, a Canadian Larry Jurovich. I was asked about our training through juniors and I want to give credit to the man who was responsible for developing our games.

People have often said that we had a great age group. I think we had a core group of players but were coached in an excellent training environment. For the record when Larry arrived in Ireland I was under 14 and didn’t make it in Leinster team to go for nationals. McGee wasn’t number 1 in his age group either.

First of all it wasn’t just James and I that went on to compete at a high level. Larry once told me that it’s unlikely that one of us would breakthrough and that it was more likely that a group would come through. So let me introduce you to the other members of the core squad.

Larry also coached Dara Mcloughlin privately. Dara was an excellent junior always around the top of our age group. He made the final of the Irish ITF and also won a play-off to be 5th man for the Davis Cup tie against the Ukraine. He also went on to play at University of Indiana, a top 40 school.

There were other players in the squad who had other private coaches. They were Daragh Rowan, Paul Foley and Rory Green all of whom went on to play Division 1 college and for Ireland at many different levels.

We were lucky that Westwood Clontarf opened and we had access to 7 indoor slow courts and a great gym. We all went to Belvedere College as well with the exception of Rowan so it made it very accessible for us to basically live in Westwood!

Let’s talk about the training. Now for the record let me say that Larry thought we weren’t putting enough hours in and needed to play more matches. He always complained about the Irish school system and how we “claimed” to have so much work to do.

Monday– Day off (note it was Monday and not a Sunday. This meant we were still up early for school but it meant we weren’t out late on Saturday nights as you will see from later in the week)

Tuesday– 6.30-8am- Tennis (squad with McGee, McLoughlin, Greener, Foley, Rowan and myself)

We were lucky that Dara McLoughlin’s dad (Ray) would usually give us a lift to school after practice. We owe him a lot!

4.30-6.30pm- Squad

6.30-7.30- Fitness with John Conor

Wednesday

6.30-8am- Squad

1.30- 3.30- private session with McGee. I would hit in the first hour while Larry coached him and then he would hit in my hour as Larry coached me.

Thursday

4-30- 6.30pm Squad

6.30-7.30pm fitness

Friday

6.30-8.00 am squad

4.30-6.30 matches

Saturday

9.00-11- Squad (big squad 7 courts full of players. Players would drive from the country for the squad. That was when I first met Daniel Glancy who is also on the tour now)

11.00-12- Fitness with John Connor

1-2.30 Matches

Sunday

9.00-11- Squad

11-12 Fitness

1-2.30 Matches

That was the set training but there was other practice on top of that. I know we used to try get some sets in on top of that and I had a private session with John Connor (who I still work with) http://www.isipersonaltraining.com/ during the week.

I also remember having conversions with Larry where he would specifically tell me and James that we weren’t working hard enough. I remember going to Westwood before squads and hitting serves and returns with James and Dara.

Larry changed my thought process and I’m very grateful to him for that. I remember at maybe 16 going to play an ETA in Czech Republic. I dropped into the conversation that it would be great if I could qualify. I remember Larry saying “you’re going over to win it”. Now he probably knew my game wasn’t ready for that but he raised my expectations about my game.

I think juniors get caught up on the Fitzwilliam thing. The whole year builds up to Fitzwilliam. Larry changed my mind set. Honestly Fitzwilliam was very important to me and a big honour for me to win the Under 18’s there but it wasn’t everything. I think I owe Larry a lot for this. I always tried to improve and set bigger goals. I think juniors should focus on playing as many matches as they can. You can train as much as you want but at the end of the day you need to prove it under pressure.

The group played a significant part in our development. I remember when McGee won both the Irish ITFs at 16. He was literally killing everyone. I remember going to practice with him one day where he beat me 2 and 0. I never worry about practice sets but this was different. I remember thinking to myself about how well he was playing and how I would have to step it up. I believe this the mentality that Larry instilled in all of us and back to the point about pushing each other. This pushed me to get better and to catch James. Also when McGee or Dara were doing well it made me look at myself and say I’m as good as they are and I can do it in a tournament. I think we all made each other better.

I think another factor was rivalry. Owen Casey coached Morgan Dunne, Eoin Heavey and Daragh Rowan who were also in our age group. They also pushed me to be a better player and I think there was a very healthy rivalry there.

People will say how did you do all those hours? It’s a good question and I look at it now and think it’s a lot. But the truth is we had a lot of fun. We loved it. I can also say that before every junior match I played when Larry was my coach he never once said “good luck” He made a point not to. He always said “have fun” I think that’s lost sometimes and I struggle with it now playing with very little money and worry about points and flights etc. The reason I started tennis was because I loved it and we had a lot of fun in those squads. Sure the early mornings were tough in winter but we enjoyed ourselves. We might have the odd game of football in the afternoon or something but I never felt like it was “training” it was more than that. It was fun and we worked hard together.

I hope this little piece gives an insight to me and James junior days. We couldn’t have done everything we did without the support of our parents and if Larry Jurovich had not moved to Ireland I can honestly say my tennis would not be at the level it is at today and I think James would agree. Larry laid the foundations for our work ethic and for our games to develop.

Please comment or message me on twitter and I will do my best to reply. Twitter: @jamescluskey

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About James Mc Gee

Professional Tennis Player on ATP World Tour and Irish Davis Cup Player
This entry was posted in Coaching, Development, Irish Tennis, Junior Tennis, Training and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Our Junior Days

  1. Alan Moore says:

    Needs a couple of reads but very good. If more parents could understand that you don’t need to kill your kid to be a “star” at 13, and coaches too, then tennis would be a far healthier place. Everyone matures at different times and you guys are showing that class will out. Keep it going, you do your country proud!

  2. Joe says:

    Great stuff lads. Hopefully it will motivate some upcoming juniors. Keep up the challenger tour too. ATP 250 is only a stones throw away.

  3. Garbhan o Nuallain says:

    Fabulous, wonderful for kids out there to get the benefit of your knowledge and experience .

    Garbhan

  4. Colm molloy says:

    Great piece lads. Tennis is about enjoying and putting the work in with a smile makes it what it is. Too many juniors now feel talent is enough without considering the outside influences. Best of luck in turkey. Moige

  5. Liam Cassidy says:

    Great piece guys…. and I’m sure it will serve to inspire many young players to set the bar higher for themselves. But more importantly from a coaches perspective. You both speak very highly of Larry and he clearly had a very positive impact not only on your tennis but on your lives. I hope this article also serves to highlight the importance a good coach in the development of a tennis player and perhaps pose some difficult questions for the Irish coaching community. Do we set the bar high enough for coaches and do they show the same drive for personal improvement as their players??? I would love to work this into a coaches workshop somehow, maybe with you guys and Larry involved…!

    Keep up the good work
    Liam

  6. Great stuff lads. Keep it going!!!

  7. John says:

    Great blog lads. I remember distinctively another age group with niland, nugent, oconnell, the Taylor’s, mcgahon, foley, lennon who were all accomplished tennis players. Obviously niland the one who stuck out getting close to top 100 . These guys were very motivated, and trained together very very hard to achieve what they did. Maybe if these guys had a better support system in place at that time they could of realized there full potential. But what got them to be such good players was hard work. Can u imagine How far they could of gotten with guidance and a support network behind them. I hope u guys can get the support u need to full fill ur potential.

    Good luck in ur up coming tournaments. Keep it going.

  8. brendan says:

    we all aggree on the same thing that courts need to be improved, coaches need to be better, better structures need to be put in place etc etc

    The first thing is to highlight the problem. The next stage is to take action. Are we taking action??

    Who’s responsiblity is it to take action??? who will stand up and take charge of the situation and do something about it???

  9. Will says:

    Only just spotted this.
    Good insight into the commitment required from an early age.
    Keep it up lads!

  10. PAWNY says:

    Hey James, Great blog!
    Very inspirational! That Jordan picture reminds me of my chess competitions…with my 300 rating …I spent so many years losing (probably 7 out of 9 years that I played) that eventually I figured out how not to lose! I would chase down and annoy my grandmaster teammates to play with me no matter how many times I lost to them or have them go over my games. I almost expected to lose everytime and all these conceited arrogant boys would look down on me and see an easy match, but I never gave up and I always took something good from it whether I realized it or not. But the best improvement I saw was when I played against myself. I would look at every piece, every possible combination, try and plan out the next ten moves, think about what I would do if I was in that position or not, even argue with myself about the moves I would make in the games I played against myself. I cannot say that I even worked hard, or even call myself dedicated, I just had a ton of fun and before I knew it, my skill shot up faster than my rating. I was a sandbagger with a 300 rating winning or drawing against 1600s and it was the best feeling in the world being underestimated and rising above everyone’s expectations. I really enjoyed reading this blog. Keep doing what your doing, James, you are a great inspiration to us all!

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