Christian: Today I’m joined by Matt Little. Matt is Andy Murray’s Strength and Conditioning Coach for 12-plus years now. During this time, Matt has supported Andy Murray to win 2 Olympic gold medals, 2 Wimbledon titles, 1 US Open title, the ATP Tour Final and becoming the number 1 of the world.
Matt has worked as the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the British Davis Cup team, and he is also the former Strength and Conditioning Manager of the British Lawn Tennis Association.
Matt: Thanks Christian and thanks for your having me on. It is much appreciated.
How he got into Strength & Conditioning
Christian: Matt how did you get into strength and conditioning?
Matt: Well I always played tennis as a kid, I loved sports and I love tennis. But I knew from a pretty early age that I was not going to be of any kind of level to make a living out of playing sports, particularly tennis. But I loved the physical aspects of the game and I loved training for the game.
I loved the physical aspects of the game and I loved training for the game.
I actually knew at a very young age, around 16, what I wanted to do for a living. This was specifically to not only be a Strength and Conditioning Coach, but to be a Strength and Conditioning Coach who specializes in tennis.
So I kind of set out about doing that from then, in terms of all of the qualifications I took, the University qualifications, everything, was all specifically aimed at the very job I’m doing right now. I then basically set about doing lots and lots of years of voluntary work, volunteering with different athletes.
I did lots of observing and there are lots of people I’m sure would have done this already themselves and then finally getting breaks to work with athletes. Because I wasn’t learning enough in the UK, I decided to go to Australia for a year and volunteer for many organizations out there as well. Getting some experience out there really helped me.
And finally enough, as soon as I returned to the UK, one of the coaches that I met in Australia, helped me to get my first proper job in tennis working for the Lawn Tennis Association. That was back in 2002, I think.
Everything I did, all of the qualifications I took, doing lots and lots of years of voluntary work with different athletes. was all specifically aimed at the very job I’m doing right now.
Christian: You’ve started out in the regional training center Loughborough, and then you went to the National Training Center later on. Is that correct?
Matt: Absolutely, yes. I’ve worked with other juniors in another sort of private academies before then, but my first, what I would call proper job working with elite level athletes on a daily basis, was at the LTA in Loughborough. We had a Junior Academy there, working with 12 to 16-year-olds. The likes of Dan Evans who’s now playing in the ATP Tour Top 100 was one of our players.
I first met him when he was 10 years of age. One of the first things he did was to make fun of my surname at 10 years of age, so I wasn’t too impressed with him at first, but it was clearly a pretty talented kid. So I put up with him for the next four or five years at the academy.
Christian: I’ve worked with Dan for some time as well. He was a special character, isn’t he?
Matt: Yes, you won’t forget Dan in a hurry, that’s for sure, Christian. But it was a good time.
His darkest moment
Christian: If you look at your S & C journey, what was your darkest moment as an S & C coach?
Matt: I think that my toughest times actually was when I first began my first job out of Loughborough. I’d chosen to go there specifically because the coaches there were very edgy and very kind of hard-hitting coaches. I arrived there thinking that I knew a thing or two about the job and what to do in tennis and I knew all about the game.
I found out very quickly that I knew very little. Actually it’s the best thing that could have happened to me because it really made me think about how I was going to behave for the next few years. So yes, it was like a kick up the backside that I needed really.
I was thinking that I knew all about the game. However, I found out very quickly that I knew very little. It was the best thing that could have happened to me because it really made me think about how I was going to behave for the next few years.
When you’re young and you’re first qualified, you’re quite confident in yourself and you think that you’ve got it all figured out. It’s a cliché, but the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know and certainly, realize what you didn’t know when you’re younger.
So I learned a lot of lessons from those coaches in the early days. I spent many sleepless nights after a tough conversation with one of those coaches or a bad meeting or a mistake that I’d made with one of the athletes. It was kind of very steep learning curve really, but it was the making of me really, in so many aspects.
I look back at that experience with gratitude, rather than with negative feelings. If those coaches hadn’t knocked me into shape and if they hadn’t told me that I still had lots to learn, I would not have developed enough to be a good enough coach.
When I did get my opportunity to work with senior athletes, I would have been even less prepared than I was when I first turned up at the National Tennis Center on day one working with our best senior athletes.
I spent many sleepless nights after a tough conversation with one of those coaches or a mistake that I’d made with one of the athletes. It was kind of very steep learning curve, but it was the making of me really, in so many aspects.
Christian: And how did you get through these tough times? Did you not feel like throwing in the towel at some point?
Matt: Yes, I definitely did. I was living away from home and had no friends in Loughborough at all really, other than the very coaches I was working with. I didn’t really have any mentors from a strength and conditioning perspective.
I was pretty isolated really, and the only solution was to just keep getting up the next day and going in and trying to not make the same mistakes again, frankly. After a while, I managed to grow some teeth and fight back a little bit for some of the battles I was losing.
The only solution was to just keep getting up the next day and going in and trying to not make the same mistakes again.
But it was only really through literally just going in the next day with as good an attitude as possible, which got me through it. Just persevering and being persistent really was probably my only way of getting through that.
There was no one that I could pick the phone up to at home or none of my friends really could relate to what I was going through as an experience. So I had to figure it out for myself and just get on with it.
His best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Matt: That is a tricky one. Obviously being associated with a player as successful as Andy Murray, there are many that I could say are highlights of his career. He’s won Wimbledon twice and the list of accolades goes on.
But actually, I guess some of my most gratifying moments were when I used to do a lot of speed testing with him and things like that. Then one year when we were doing the speed testing, he really broke all of his records for his speed on the court and that was after a particular block of physical work.
That was a really great day for me to see those results come in and recognize that hopefully some of the interventions that I’ve made, helped him get faster and better. That really was a great day in the office for me from a strength and conditioning perspective.
Some of my most gratifying moments were when some of the interventions that I’ve made, helped him get faster and better.
Obviously, there were lots of other times. When he got through his first Best of Five set matches at Wimbledon, when he was playing against Richard Gasquet, he came back from two sets to love down.
That was when I was working alongside Jez Green and I guess we got a real kind of acknowledgement that Andy’s physical program was really starting to have an impact on his tennis. So that was also a very good day in the office when he got through some longer, tougher matches.
From all the Grand Slams Andy Murray won, which one was the sweetest one
Christian: From all the Slams, which one was the sweetest one?
Matt: I think for me, his last Wimbledon in 2016 was particularly good, just from a personal perspective. He’d been through a lot of physical challenges up until that point. We’d had a lot of changes in the team in the years gone by, up to that point as well.
So I felt like he’d come through a lot of adversity to get through and win that tournament and he was on a real roll by then and again we were really seeing a lot of the fruits of a lot of the work that he put in up till that point.
So yes, I think that was probably the best for me personally. I think as a team, his first Wimbledon will always be incredibly memorable. But yes, from a personal perspective walking up out of the court, I think his last Wimbledon was pretty gratifying.
He’d been through a lot of physical challenges up until that point, he’d come through a lot of adversity to get through and win that tournament was pretty gratifying.
Christian: That I think was also his best year, right? He came to the final of the French then won Wimbledon Olympics and then also, I think, the tour final was also 2016, right?
Matt: Yes, and he finished that year as number one, having been about 8,000 points behind Novak Djokovic in the summer. So the turnaround points were quite remarkable at the back end of the year.
Again, to do that at the end of a competitive cycle, for me, showed the benefits of a lot of the work that he had put in previously to that because actually during that time he wasn’t doing much physical work during that competition block.
His advice to a younger Matt Little
Christian: If you could go back in time 10, 15, maybe even 20 years, what advice would you give a younger Matt?
Matt: The very first message that I was talking about in Loughborough was you know nothing at this stage and that’s okay. Don’t worry, no one expects you to know everything at this stage. Do more listening than talking, especially in your first three or four years. Those would be the first two points really.
Expect that this journey is going to take an incredibly long time. It’ll be a good 10 years before you get to work with someone who’s a genuine top-level performer. And that journey, it’s something that I’m starting to write about.
No one expects you to know everything. Do more listening than talking. Expect that this journey is going to take an incredibly long time.
I’m writing a book about the journey. It’s a little bit like the hare and the tortoise that a lot of the younger Strength and Conditioning Coaches I meet these days, the very first question they ask me is, “How do I get to work with an Andy Murray?”
I think their hopes are that once they’ve qualified, that they will very quickly begin to work with someone who’s that level. Some people do sort of leapfrog into that level, particularly on the tennis to young fitness trainers can be very cheap to travel with. Therefore, they get to work with some very good players at quite an early stage in their career.
I think this is the wrong thing to do from a player’s perspective. But also from a career development perspective, from a young coach because you just haven’t learned to make the mistakes yet. You haven’t learned how to be, how to behave, how to handle pressure, how to handle failure and success and how to handle a high net worth individual.
All of those lessons I learned in that 10-year period before you get that job. You need to give yourself time and space to develop first. And so, these are things I’m thinking a lot about now in my career.
You need to give yourself time and space to develop first, how to behave, how to handle pressure, how to handle failure and success and how to handle a high net worth individual.
An advice that I’m giving to a lot of younger coaches is “Don’t take the fantastic job too early in your career” is my opinion because I believe you need that time and space to develop. I’m sure you’ve done the same Christian, at your level of success. Still, I know you’re very successful Strength and Conditioning Coach and that didn’t come overnight.
Christian: Yes, thanks for that. Yes, I guess it’s a balancing act. If you are young and you get offered an interesting job, it’s hard to turn it down. But I fully agree with you because if we think about excellence needing 10,000 hours or 10 years, you’re probably right with what you’re saying. Another quote that illustrates what you just said is “You need to learn before you earn.”, right?
Matt: Yes, that’s a good quote. I like that. Like I say, I have conversations so often not just in strength and conditioning, but also with people who are looking to go into business or start any new career path. It’s like they see the Instagram posts and they see people working at the very cutting edge of their industry and they’re like, “How do I get there as quickly as possible?”
And in some respects I would say it should be how do you get there as slowly as possible, so that when you get there you’re so ready for that situation that you can actually deliver in that situation. Again, we’ve heard this phrase of “fake it before you make it”, all of those things.
I have conversations so often with people who ask “How do I get there as quickly as possible?” And in some respects I would say it should be how do you get there as slowly as possible, so that when you get there you’re ready for that situation and you can actually deliver in that situation.
I especially believe in our job that you can do harm to somebody if you don’t actually know what you’re doing at that level and that’s also a serious concern really, as well, in terms of your career. If you hurt an elite performer, that’s a difficult one to come back from.
His advice to young aspiring S & C Coaches
Christian: That leads perfectly into the next question, what advice would you give young aspiring S & C coaches?
Matt: Seeking out a mentor is important. I’ve had some coaching mentors, probably, that haven’t been formal mentors, but I’ve just watched them a lot. But if I was a young Strength and Conditioning Coach, I would seek out mentors. Like I say, they don’t have to be someone who you approach and ask to mentor you.
If I was a young Strength and Conditioning Coach, I would seek out mentors.
But it’s just someone who is within your working space who you watch from a distance. You listen to how they communicate and how they make decisions in their decision-making process. You just watch how they carry themselves and how they behave.
Because one of my big things at the moment is not so much about the actual hard skills or the program writing which I’m sure we may speak about later on. My belief is that we don’t teach enough about the soft skills and the how-to be around people and in situations.
That’s what I believe makes the difference between being able to last for 11 or 12 years with someone like an Andy Murray and only lasting a couple of months. It’s actually your communication with them, your behaviors, the way you deal with situations that I think makes the difference between you being employable and not employable.
It’s not so much about the actual hard skills or the program writing, I think there are some rules that are worth knowing before you really kick on and that makes the difference between you being employable and not employable.
Many of those things are learned in experience by making mistakes that we’ve just talked about. I also think there’s some rules really, in terms of what you should and shouldn’t be doing in certain situations, especially when you are nearly qualified and starting out in the industry. I think there are some rules that are worth knowing before you really kick on, if that makes sense.
The un-written behavior rule he believes in
Christian: It does make a lot of sense. What would be an example or two of these rules?
Matt: Let’s not necessarily talk about strength and conditioning, but in any job, when you walk into a meeting with colleagues. It’s certain that you’re going to be the least experienced person in the room when you are first starting out in your career. Therefore, in my opinion, you should be the least heard person in that meeting.
I think that if you’re the person who’s doing the most talking in that meeting, those that are around you with significantly more experience will be thinking, “Why is this person contributing so much to this meeting?” I’m not suggesting that you should be completely silent and not contribute anything.
But like I say, I believe having an awareness of where you are at compared to the other people in the room is important in the first few years of your career. So that would be just one example of a rule that I would say for someone who’s just starting out.
I believe having an awareness of where you are at compared to the other people in the room is important.
Whenever you go into meetings, really, unless someone asks you a specific question or they go around the table asking for everyone’s opinion on a specific subject, actually your main thing is that you’re going to listen to what everyone else is saying. If you have a point which really is going to hit the mark, then you say that point.
But if not, it’s okay to just be humble and just listen. So that would be one example of a rule that I would say for those people.
His motivation to heavily invest in his own development early in his career
Christian: You mentioned a little bit of that before, but people now see the glamorous life. You are at the Grand Slams and you are with one of the best players in the world. But a lot of people don’t really know that you volunteered for a year early in your career.
You went abroad to Australia, you invested your own resources in terms of time and financials to become an S & C coach. I know you wanted to be an S & C coach, but what was your motivation going abroad so far away? What was your thought process?
Matt: It was really several things. Firstly, it was to get a foot in the door, in the industry really. At the time, I was working with some national level juniors, I would say, and so I was thinking that if I just kept working with national-level juniors, it was going to be quite difficult for me to kick on to the next level.
I was wondering how I was going to take myself doing the job I was doing to getting the job that I eventually want. That job for me was about gaining experience by being in and around the very best in the world.
So the only way I was going to get that experience was by turning up and watching people. That’s quite an important part about this because I was quite successful when I went to Australia in managing to get in the room with those people. The reason why I was successful was because I was emailing them quite regularly.
For me it was about gaining experience by being in and around the very best in the world. So the only way I was going to get that experience was by turning up and watching people.
But my point was that I was going along to watch and I told them that they were not even going to notice that I was in the room. I would stay completely out of their way and not ask them hundreds of questions. I would not be interrupting their session in any way.
I would just stand in the corner and watch them and perhaps if they’re polite enough after the session is finished, I could ask them maybe one question. But even if that was not possible I was more than happy to just go along and watch.
That way, I knew that I wasn’t going to be a hindrance or a burden to those people in that environment and I think that’s important because I think many people who are in top jobs now, probably get quite a lot of emails from people asking if they can come along and watch.
I think their initial feeling is that it’s actually not conducive to an elite-level environment having other people standing around watching sessions. A lot of top players don’t really want that distraction.
But actually, if you promise them that you won’t get in their way, that you will literally be standing in the corner and they won’t even know you’re there, I think you have more chance of being allowed in. Again, listening rather than speaking, is by far the most important aspects, especially at this stage.
I know this sounds very harsh to say, but saying to yourself that compared to these people, you know nothing. That’s okay. But accepting that in that environment and then being humble when you go in there, I think is a really important part of it.
Christian: Just out of curiosity, how many emails did you send out and how many positive responses did you get?
Matt: The first round of emails, I probably sent 15 to 20 and got maybe one or two replies. The second round of emails got more replies. The third round of emails I got pretty much replies from everybody because I let them know that I wasn’t going away and they better at least reply.
So there was some persistence and slightly being a bit of a pain in reaching out to people, but again, kind of acknowledging that and saying, “Look, I’m really sorry to bother you. I know you’re a busy person, but just a yes or no, can I come along, even if it’s for 20 minutes in and out, no hassle to you?”
And being as minimal an inconvenience to those people as possible and then, believe it or not, once you actually get your foot in the door. That’s the keyword here, you just need to get your foot in the door.
Once people know you’re not a pain in the butt and you turn up, actually, they become more and more comfortable with you in that environment and then they will start inviting you along. Before long, they’re saying, “Ah, Matt, can you go and just pick that weight up and give that to the athlete? Or I’m just going to pop out for five minutes. Would you mind just supervising this session for five minutes?”
Before you know it, you’ve gained trust and respect and there’s every chance you might even get an opportunity afforded to you when there’s one that arises in that environment. That’s always been my belief.
That is how to break into any job role is to sneak your way in by being convenient and easy to have around. Very quickly you get trusted and then before long if there’s a job that comes up in that environment, your resume goes to the top of the pile.
Christian: Matt, the answer to that question is almost a book in itself. That’s the blueprint for every S & C intern to be successful.
Matt: Absolutely, and like I say, it doesn’t even have to be S & C. It could be any job in life, even if you want to be working in banks or whatever. It is to get your foot in the door by being as easy to have around as possible.
Don’t try and prove to them how much you think you know by making lots of insightful points and suggesting alternatives because that’s not what people need from you at that point in time. What they need for you to do is just be in the background and be humble.
Your time will come to be the person who’s suggesting exercises and coming up with fantastic ideas. Your time’s going to come but wait for that time.
His core values
Christian: What are your core values?
Matt: My core values. Well, this is going to sound really basic, unfortunately. But I watch a lot of strength and conditioning programs these days and they do look great. They look really sexy. Lots of very sports specific exercises happening, lots of circuit-based things, explosive work being done, power work being done.
There’s lots of this kind of thing being done and I’m not saying that’s wrong, for one moment. But actually, I think a lot of my training is actually quite boring and quite basic and quite simple. I never feel like we can get too far away from basic key lifts and foundation strength work, especially in the sport I work in.
I think a lot of my training is actually quite boring, quite basic and quite simple. I never feel like we can get too far away from basic key lifts and foundation strength work.
Because there’s a year-round competition calendar, I feel like we can never get too far away from just doing basic strength work. Then topping up that with some explosive work over and above that basic strength work. I feel like the player gets a lot of their reactive speed work on court in sessions.
Actually, these days I feel like the player gets a lot of their conditioning work done in their on-court sessions as well. Therefore, a lot of my philosophy is based around what do I actually need to do off of the court because a lot of the work I feel can be done on the court if I’m communicating with the coach correctly.
Because I think obviously, the tennis coach who I’m working with, also needs some education in what actually is speed work in tennis and what actually is quickness. That is what is conditioning work. A lot of their drills take a lot of those boxes and they might not necessarily even realize it.
We’re using the GPS (Global Positioning System) a reasonable amount now. There are coaches that think they’re doing a lot of speed work on the court. When I show them what the GPS tells me at the end of the session which is zero high-speed, high-velocity zones, I tell them that they haven’t actually worked a great deal of speed in that session because the player hasn’t been fast in the session.
They’ve done no fast meters. Therefore, we might have done a lot of fast footwork and that kind of thing, so let’s call that something different because it isn’t speed work. A lot of the drills that the coaches do would be your volume and pattern drills and getting the ball cross-court.
Actually, if you stick a heart rate monitor on the player, they’re actually doing quite high heart rate conditioning in a lot of those drills. Therefore, if I can just manipulate those variables to tell the coach to actually do that drill for three minutes, then have a one-minute rest and go again, actually, I can get a lot of my conditioning work done too.
So I’ve gone quite a long way around answering that question, but those would be some of the values that I hold. A lot of my work is off the court getting the player basically strong and it’s really quite a simple program. Then trying to be clever in the on-court sessions because that’s where they spend three-quarters of their week, in terms of time and then getting as much physical gains on the court as I can.
The other thing I’m quite passionate about is how they split the year up because again, in our sport, there is a year-round competition. You could play a competition every single week in tennis if you wanted to.
Therefore, forcing the player to put their rackets down for certain periods in the year and actually getting stronger and focusing on the physical work, without the fatigue of tennis being present is something that I feel every athlete needs to do. But particularly in a sport where competition is so prevalent, actually tennis players really need to force themselves to have an offseason.
That’s something I’m pretty passionate about with every player that I work with. They should dedicate weeks to the physical development rather than the tennis development.
Check out how Matt has implemented physical training blocks at the National Tennis Center
The character trait that allowed him to stay with Andy Murray for so many years
Christian: People have come and left the support team of Andy Murray, but you’ve always been there. Why do you think it is?
Matt: I think fortitude is one of them, the ability for me to hang on in there, no matter how difficult the situation might be and how stressful the situation might be. For example, Andy’s been injured for the last two-and-a-half years almost.
The ability to not quit and not walk away, I think has been one of my biggest achievements actually. I’m very loyal to him and that’s not to say that the people who have left aren’t loyal, but my loyalty overrides any feelings of wanting to walk away from the job.
I’m very loyal to him and my loyalty overrides any feelings of wanting to walk away from the job.
I think those two things really are the fortitude of hanging in there, no matter how bad things may get or may seem, and loyalty. Like I said, in thinking my relationship with him is more important than walking away right now and looking after myself, I suppose.
So those would be the two character traits I think that or I’d like to hope that I’ve shown with Andy down the years. I believe that we should have a lot of fun in doing what we do and again, I think that probably sounds cheesy.
But I think being an easy person to be around and I’ve talked about that in terms of interns, but even in terms of being someone who’s quite experienced. I think being an easy person to be around and a fun person to be around and someone who he enjoys working with is something I believe that Andy would rather have working with him rather than someone who might perhaps be able to even write a better program than me.
And again, when I come back to that hare and tortoise aspect of life, there are some people that go shooting straight to the top of professions because they are so incredibly good at what they do. It doesn’t really matter how well they interact with other people. The skills that they have are so worthwhile having that people will put up with having them around because they’re just so good at their job.
I believe that that is true. But I believe that for other people that perhaps don’t have that incredible set of skills, I think they’re the people that need to take longer to get to where they get to. That’s why I think it’s important that you’re personable and someone that other people want to have around because then you get the chance to be successful if that makes sense.
You get that given the time to develop and be successful in that job because you’re a pleasure to have around. So I think that’s an overlooked skill really. We don’t talk about that much in training courses or in formal training of what we do or accreditation of what we do, but I think that skill is so massively important.
When I see other Strength and Condition Coaches that have been around top athletes for a long time, a lot of the skill is how they are and one of those things, I think, is about taking your job very seriously, but not taking yourself very seriously if that makes sense.
Strength & Condition Coaches that have been around top athletes for a long time, a lot of the skill is how they are, is about taking your job very seriously, but not taking yourself very seriously.
Why he went out to seek special expertise to help Andy Murray
Christian: Yes, and correct me if I’m wrong. I followed you and Andy from the outside in the last few years. I also noticed or I think I have noticed then, whenever there was a certain expertise needed that you went out and searched for it or at least you’ve gotten Bill Knowles in for the rehab and stuff like that, right? You can also get certain expertise occasionally in if you need it?
Matt: Absolutely. This job challenges you in so many different ways. One of the things is you’ve really got to check your ego at the door very often and acknowledge things that you’re not good at. You should accept those things and accept the fact that there’s someone else out there in the world that’s better at it than you are.
You’ve really got to check your ego at the door and acknowledge things that you’re not good at. You should accept those things and accept the fact that there’s someone else out there in the world that’s better at it than you are.
That’s a very difficult thing to do, I believe, and it takes some guts. The other thing that I would say that it takes is for that expert to have “feel”, and this is one of the things I haven’t talked about much is having “feel”.
But for that expert coming in to have a “feel” for the situation and again, to gain trust with the incumbent team to tell them that you’re not there to steal their jobs. You’re there to just offer the piece of the puzzle that they currently don’t have.
So that would be something, I would say, is advice for people, perhaps who are more experienced to listen to this. They will probably, at some stage in their lives, be asked to go in to help a team out. I think that’s a very important role because I’ve been asked to do that several times as well.
The way you behave when you’re given that responsibility is very important. People like Bill and the guys that we interacted with were fantastic at that. It’s coming in, slotting into the team really well and working alongside and with us that encourages you to do that more.
You go out to people more and let them know that you acknowledge that you’re not great in this particular area. In reality, people employ you for what you know, not what you don’t know. Therefore, they need to accept that there are certain things you may not know or may not be an expert in and therefore it’s okay to go out and ask somebody else for help.
But like I say, that person who is picking that person is very important to make sure that you can trust them, give them that responsibility and they’re not actually going to do any harm with that responsibility. They’re going to add to the team, not take away if that makes sense.
Christian: Yes, it does. I also like your point of checking the ego because in the end it’s us S & C Coaches, we have to be there for the athlete and not ourselves and whatever it takes, we have to sometimes leave our ego at the door or I don’t know how nicely you phrased it.
Matt: Yes, I think especially in rehab. In my experience in rehab, I’m not a rehab expert. I am an expert in getting people stronger, fitter, faster and the rest of it, but yes, you do have to go back to the drawing board and ask for help. But everybody has to check their ego at the door.
The tennis coach has to listen to expertise from us, we have to listen to the tennis coaches’ opinion, the player has to accept opinions and we have to accept the players’ opinion. Everybody in that process has to check their ego at the door, not just you.
And so again, if you’re in a team environment and you’re saying that you’re accepting things and areas that you’re not an expert in, I think everybody has to be a part of that process. Because if you’ve got some people in the team who are saying that they won’t be taking other people’s advice and they won’t be bringing anyone else in, then that situation is going to breakdown.
So it needs everybody in the entire team to buy into that process and not be egotistical and cling on to their area of expertise. It is a very difficult thing to do even though it is an easy thing to say.
For me, who’s worked with Andy for 11 years, to stand there and watch someone else implement their program with him was a very difficult thing to do. I won’t say that it was easy, but I knew it was the right thing for Andy to do.
For me, who’s worked with Andy for 11 years, to stand there and watch someone else implement their program with him was a very difficult thing to do. I won’t say that it was easy, but I knew it was the right thing for Andy to do.
I knew that someone like Bill or the other experts that we got in over the last few years, were bringing specific skill sets to the table that Andy would benefit from. As you rightly say, it’s about the athletes, it’s not about me. But that wasn’t an easy thing to do. It’s not going to be easy, but you absolutely have to be prepared to do it.
Christian: I believe that. That leads perfectly again into the second next question.
How to deal with decisions you don’t agree with
Christian: So in a team of coaches and support staff, everyone is wearing his own hat and sometimes there is disagreement. How do you, Matt Little specifically as an S & C coach deal if this disagreement comes up between different disciplines?
Matt: That’s a great question. I think a lot of it depends on how good a bond there is between the team and how much trust there is between the team. that’s the first thing you need to work on in any team. Obviously, it is trusting each other, trusting each other’s expertise and being aware when you are crossing over with each other.
Respecting each other is very difficult if you don’t have a connection first and if you don’t all get on as a team. Now you don’t all have to be best friends, but I believe there has to be respect there.
If you all respect each other in the very first place, then those conversations and disagreements are very easy to have. But if there is a break in the team, if there are two people that don’t like each other, therefore don’t respect each other’s opinions, then that’s when the problems come.
If you all respect each other in the very first place, then those conversations and disagreements are very easy to have.
So managing these disagreements and these issues it seems starts long before that discussion first happens. Actually, teams have got to put a lot of work in and a lot of effort into connecting and forming trust and building trust with each other first. In my experience, the only way to do that is to forcibly spend time with each other.
One of the areas that I see that doesn’t happen very often is the Strength and Conditioning Coach going into the Tennis Coach’s environment. You don’t see them standing on the court, watching the tennis session, having discussions with the coach, listening to the coach and just being in their environment. Then inviting the Tennis Coach into the gym to be in the Strength and Conditioning Coach’s environment.
When you forcibly spend time together, you create and build a bond. Then you build trust and then it’s very easy to have those discussions where there may be disagreements.
If you never go on the tennis court and listen to the tennis coach and the coach never comes into the gym, and listens to you in your environment, then when you have a disagreement as a team, the only way that’s going is it’s going to blow up because people don’t have that bond and that trust, so everyone is defending themselves in that situation.
They’re not open to feedback. So I think the hard work of all those meetings are done months and months beforehand if you have the time in the building of relationships first.
Working with high-profile coaches
Christian: You have worked alongside many high profile coaches now. What do you think are the similarities between them and what were the biggest challenges for you over the years?
Matt: They’ve all been very different in their styles. Some have been more autocratic and dictatorial in their styles and others have been more democratic in their styles. Some are prepared to listen and ask questions and others would rather tell you their views.
Therefore, you have to spend more time with those coaches, again, doing listening, doing what they’re asking you to do so that you build trust. You have to set aside a period of time where you are going to build that relationship with that coach and accept the fact that you’re not going to get everything you want in those first few months while you’re building trust.
You have to spend time with those coaches, doing listening, doing what they’re asking you to do so that you build trust. You have to set aside a period of time where you are going to build that relationship with the coach.
Then once you’ve hopefully established that relationship you can manage them from below. You can make suggestions to them that then perhaps in two or three months’ time, they might come up with that as an idea and they will then think that it’s their idea if that makes sense.
Christian: It does make a lot of sense.
Matt: For me, the way to work with a coach that has very strong views on things, is you have to take a long-term approach to building a trust and connection and a relationship with that coach. Then you start to suggest things, ideas and then just walk away and leave them to think about that idea.
The one thing you’re never going to be able to do with a coach who’s like that is to tell them what they are going to be doing. Tell them what you are going to be doing and that’s that. That’s never ever going to work and so some people would take that approach and that’s fine.
That’s maybe their personalities, but they can’t expect to last long in that job or to have a successful outcome. So what you need to do is be pragmatic and think about what the best way is to get a successful outcome.
It’s probably doing a couple of months’ worth of exercises that I don’t necessarily believe in, in order to build trust and change the program over time. I’m going to have a better result there than if I try and smash through my program, right now at the start and things probably blow up and the relationship fails and probably be out of the door quite quickly.
I think if you are already the incumbent Strength and Conditioning Coach and a new coach starts, I think that’s a very important first conversation. Jez Green was fantastic at doing this. Whenever a new coach would begin, Jez would go and have a coffee with that coach and talk to them about the plan that was currently in place for the physical side of the program.
He would tell them about what they are doing, what they’ve been doing for years and what they are now doing with the strength and conditioning program. He would talk about the plan and the direction they’re taking the program in.
Then he would tell them that if they have some ideas about how they can contribute to that program, it would be great because he’d love to listen to them. He would let them know that what they really don’t want to do at this stage is rip the program up and start again with whatever their ideas are.
I think you’re able to have that conversation if you are in post when someone new comes in. But I think if you’re starting a new job and you have no training history with that person or that team and there are coaches already in place, like I say, I think you’re going to have to swallow a good few months of doing perhaps other exercises or other people’s exercises first while you build that trust and that relationship.
Christian: That’s a very good answer. I think that’s very valuable.
Working with Ivan Lendl
Christian: Talking about coaches, of course, no discussion is complete without talking about Ivan Lendl. From the outside, it appears he has brought the biggest change. What I’m interested in because you have been there before the Lendl coaching time and after.
Matt: Yes, Ivan is obviously, a legend of the game. It goes without saying. Everybody knows who he is and what he’s done and there aren’t words to put into how much you would respect him as a player that he has been.
What he brought to the table in terms of his coaching was almost a brutal mentality of winning in many respects. Only someone who is as successful as Ivan has been could bring a mentality as brutal as he does in terms of he’d be saying, “Look go out there and enjoy torturing this player today. Don’t just beat them, but torture them in the process.”
He brought an almost brutal mentality of winning in many respects. Only someone who is as successful as Ivan has been could bring a mentality as brutal as he does.
Now if I’m standing there saying that to Andy, that carries absolutely no weight whatsoever. But with Ivan Lendl standing there saying that to Andy or a player, that is incredibly impactful for that player’s performance and that’s what he brings to the table.
So for me, the best moments of working with Ivan was those little chats that he would have with Andy before he’d go out for matches and you’re thinking, “Wow! Someone as successful as Ivan Lendl saying those words can break through any barrier”, in my opinion, because he is who he is.
Even someone who is successful but not quite as successful as Ivan saying those words, it still isn’t as impactful as someone like Ivan saying it if that makes sense. So that was one side of it.
Ivan was fiercely loyal to everybody in the team. No matter what was happening, he would always defend the team with Andy. He would be sitting down with Andy telling him that he’s really got to respect the guys, the coaches and the physical trainers and the physio.
Ivan was fiercely loyal to everybody in the team. No matter what was happening, he would always defend the team.
Not that Andy ever disrespected us, but he would always be backing us in our opinions and what needed to be done. Even if he didn’t agree with it, he’d be speaking to us privately about that. But actually, to Andy and to the media, he was fiercely loyal and I’ll never ever forget that and I will always appreciate that.
Again, from someone like him who’s been as successful as he has been, I found that quite astonishing. I thought he’d be more cutthroat and brutal about that aspect of life and actually, he was incredibly impressive in that aspect as well.
Obviously, his expertise in tennis and the things he would be working on with Andy were all fantastic. His knowledge of the game was incredible. But those were the things that from my perspective, impacted me the most as part of the support team if that makes sense.
Christian: Yes, interesting.
How to design a training program
Christian: How do you design a training program? Just take us through your thought process.
Matt: That has changed a lot. I probably alluded to it a little bit earlier. I’m now looking at the sessions that the player is doing on the court and what the coach is trying to achieve in those sessions before I write my physical program.
I’m now looking at the sessions that the player is doing on the court and what the coach is trying to achieve in those sessions before I write my physical program.
So often in the past, I’ve had my plan for the physical program, of strength, power and speed work and all those things, only for it to be completely negated by the player walking into the gym having just done a three and a half, four-hour tennis session and they can barely walk.
So for me, it almost starts with the on-court program of what the coach is trying to achieve. Then trying to have an influence on that by deciding that if the player needs to move better, how are we going to structure the week so that week is really conducive to that happening?
When are we going to do the movement work and the speed work? When are we going to do the explosive work in the gym that’s going to help with that and kind of starting that way around in many respects? So that would be my start point.
Again, if I was starting with a younger player, then the usual aspects of their training history and their stage in growth and maturation and their goals, their playing style, their testing results, all of those things would play a part. But now my training programs are written probably more pragmatically and more practically around what’s actually going to happen on the court this week and the next few weeks.
What are we really trying to improve and that usually can only be one thing at a time, maybe two things. I think that’s one of the mistakes we make often in our jobs, is we’re trying to improve so many things at once. In reality, we can probably only genuinely influence one or two physical characteristics at once.
The mistakes we make often in our jobs, is we’re trying to improve so many things at once. In reality, we can probably only genuinely influence one or two physical characteristics at once.
Unless you’re working with someone who’s in poor shape or poor condition, then I’m sure there are many things that can improve at once. But actually, yes, it’s kind of focus on one thing and then try and get the week structured so that we can actually genuinely get improvements in that one thing, based on all of the technical and tactical training they’re doing as well.
It’s a pretty simplistic answer I suppose. Not going into the technicalities of what lifts, but to be perfectly honest, Christian I think you’d be quite surprised, well, maybe you wouldn’t be surprised, but some of the people listening would be surprised at how simple Andy’s training program often is.
Because for me, we very rarely get away from those meat and potatoes lifts and exercises because tennis players generally rarely get so strong that you can forget about that stuff. They don’t do enough off-court work that you can say, “You don’t need to deadlift anymore and you don’t need to squat or lunge anymore. You can move on to more advanced things.” They’re not strong enough and never get strong enough to move on to more advanced things if that makes sense.
Check out some of the strength training impressions from the GB Davis Cup team lead by Matt
Christian: Yes, and there is a quote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, so I think that fits very well here.
Matt: I like that one. I didn’t know that one.
Using technology to determine and monitoring training load
Christian: I know you have started working with monitoring training load. You use GPS units and also the match analysis to optimize the strength and conditioning. Can you just talk us through what you did?
Matt: Yes. I’m kind of obsessed with GPS and I think that tennis is way behind the curve as a sport in using wearable technology. Soccer and rugby and field sports have been using this stuff for decades now and tennis you hardly see at all.
I think that tennis is way behind the curve as a sport in using wearable technology.
Especially in terms of player load, where I think that tennis players massively overdo the player load in comparison to the load that they would achieve in matches. In a weekly practice, I think they could do up to double the player load that they would experience in matches throughout the training week.
So that’s a massive thing that needs to change in our industry in tennis is that monitoring player load. Whatever your technology is that you use, there has to be a measure of load and that needs to be applied to matches and practice and then see the difference. You measure the difference because in tennis I think we overload players way too much on the courts.
But you can’t have that conversation until you’ve got some metrics. So in tennis we usually prescribe sessions by minutes, which is useless because one hour of really difficult physical work, will be completely different to one hour of light technical work. I believe that really, in tennis we do a bad job of that.
The thing is I know that GPS units aren’t necessary as accurate as they could be. But to me that doesn’t matter because usually with tennis, you’re comparing them with an N of 1, which is you’re working with one player using the same unit day-in-day-out. You still get noticeable measurements and things that you can rely on and compare one day to the other.
Essentially, you’re just asking yourself if one day is harder than the next. If the coach is saying that we want to work really hard today and we’re going to measure how hard we work. Then if we’re going to work less hard tomorrow, we should make sure that tomorrow is light.
I’ve done it with the coaches before where we’ve said that we’ll do three hours on court on Monday and then we’ll do light on Tuesday doing an hour. So what the coach then does is they make that hour as tough as they possibly can because they’ve got to cram in as much work as they can into an hour.
That one-hour session ends up being more difficult than the three hour one because they spend loads of breaks and chats in the three hour one. So we’ve got to stop this in tennis. We know better now. The technology is there and is readily available now.
We need to start programming and planning weeks based on objective markers, like player load and stop doing it on minutes. Minutes is a useless metric, in my opinion, in tennis.
It doesn’t mean to say everyone needs to rush out and buy a GPS unit, but you can even just categorize your training into difficult aspects of the training, light, technical aspects of the training and just blocking sessions into how much time you spend doing difficult stuff versus how much time you spend doing easy stuff.
Even that in itself is a good way to start. I just think like I say, I don’t think we do that well enough in our sport and I think that lots and lots of players down the years have suffered as a result of that situation. I think that’s not acceptable anymore because we know better than that now.
We also use the Hawkeye data in matches because Hawkeye, the camera-based system we have in tennis, can also track the player as well as the ball. Therefore, we’re starting to try and figure out player loads from matches, as well and trying to figure out the real genuine demands of a match.
This is what we thought it was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. So I think with the wearable technology and with the use of camera-based technology, there’s not much we’re not going to know about the performance pretty soon. I think it’s pretty exciting.
It makes our jobs infinitely more easy because we can actually train what needs to be trained rather than what we thought needed to be trained. Let’s take speed, for example, I did an article on LinkedIn about the need for speed in tennis. I don’t think we need max speed very often in tennis and GPS confirms that.
You spend very, very few meters in terms of the amount of meters you would use on a court, being at max speed. So, therefore, how often do we need to train that off the court?
Whereas actually, in terms of acceleration and deceleration, we do hundreds and hundreds of those in a match; could be up to potentially 800 of those in a match. Therefore, how much acceleration and deceleration training are we doing versus max speed would be one example I’d give.
The importance of physical training blocks and how to implement them
Christian: Yes. I know you’re very passionate about training blocks and implementing training periods for professional tennis players where they have time to improve physically. Just a rough outline. How do you do that?
Matt: Well, like I say, when they compete all year round, you have to force them to take a training block. You have to force them to put their rackets down and prioritize the physical work. So it’s really sitting down with the coach and the player and asking what part of the year are they going to say is not a priority for them on the court.
You have to force them to put their rackets down and prioritize the physical work.
Like I say, they could pick any time of the year. They could pick a whole bunch of tournaments to play. So it’s making sure you sit down with the player at the start of the year and figuring out a four to six-week period in that year where they’re not going to play tournaments.
Then also trying to pick out two or three-week blocks, maybe twice more in the year, a game where the physical development is going to take priority. Because if you don’t do that at the start of the year, you certainly won’t be doing it halfway through the year.
The other message to say to players is that just doing this once, for one year is not going to get you the benefits that you want. You need to be doing this for three, four, five, six years of physical training blocks to get you to where you want to be, which is the tennis-playing athlete that can put up with the rigors of the Senior Tour in either men’s or women’s tennis.
So yes, you’ve got to be organized with that. You’ve got to make sure that you get there in plenty of time before the block to make sure these things are planned in and that time is set aside in the year. My advice to coaches would be to find out when they think their players should do the block? When do you think is your player’s least priority time of the year on the court?
Start pushing for that as soon as possible and as far away from that block as possible so that you get that written in stone and committed to. Then you get a chance to get your hands on the player without the fatigue of matches and without the fatigue of on-court work.
You can get some genuine gains and make some leaps with that player in their off-court training. I feel like without doing that, without setting that time aside, it’s virtually impossible to get the games that they require to play at the top level in my opinion.
Just doing this once, for one year is not going to get you the benefits that you want. You need to be doing this for three, four, five, six years of physical training blocks to get you to where you want to be, which is the tennis-playing athlete that can put up with the rigors of the Senior Tour
How to plan the training blocks
Christian: I’m pretty sure you have heard that question before. I just want to hear your opinion. Probably people will say that it’s relatively easy if you have a top 10 or top 5 player to do that because you can pick the Masters, you can pick the Slams and ATP one thousand.
So what would you recommend for a player whose top 50 or top hundred, where planning has to be a little bit more flexible and it depends on a week that may be a bad week so you have to go for another two tournaments instead of resting.
What’s your take on that?
Matt: Yes, I just think that they’ve got to bite the bullet. I think they’ve got to just know that there’s a time of the year where they’re going to need to recover and they have to try to do that. Even though I know that these players, obviously, their income is based on playing week in week out, they have to just commit to that process and trust that process of physical development.
I’ve worked with lower-ranked players who have been telling me whilst we’ve been doing blocks that they could be out there earning money and competing at that moment. And the answer usually is that there is no guarantee, but we’re hoping that by making physical leaps they’re going to be winning those tournaments soon and they’re going to be making leaps in their ranking.
The practice planning is going to be easier for them one day. But the only way to get there from a physical perspective, not necessarily your game, is to commit to those blocks and take that time out of the competitive schedule to make those leaps. You will not make physical leaps without doing those blocks.
They’ve got to bite the bullet. You will not make physical leaps without doing those blocks.
So I think for those guys and girls, they just have to find a time of the year. Like you say, there are features on every week. So just pick a time in the year when they’re least likely to want to compete and commit to taking out, let’s say four weeks and work physically.
But the other aspect that they need to know is that probably the first week or two or the first tournament or two after that training block, they might not feel great in terms of their on-court, the way they’re playing, potentially even the way they’re feeling depending on what they’ve worked on.
If you’ve worked on cardiovascular conditioning, in that block and they’ve done lots of that kind of work, they might not be feeling fantastic in their first tournament back. What they will get is benefits from that block throughout the next four to six months from that work.
Like I talked about when Andy made world number one, it was the physical blocks that he’d done just before that carried him through those months. So I passionately believe that getting that work done will pay dividends for them in the end.
When Andy made world number 1, it was the physical blocks that he’d done just before that carried him through those months.
But if they think they’re going to do one four-week block and then go on their best run ever. While I hope they do, I think in reality, it’s years and years of doing four-week blocks which is going to get them to where they want to be.
I’m sure Jez working with that Alex Zverev is doing exactly that. Those blocks that he’s putting in now are definitely going to pay off in the course of time. But the process that Jez is now putting in place with the physical blocks and making sure that he’s improving physically all the time so that he has a long-lasting career of success. He’s built that base of physical strength and conditioning to carry him through these long tough years on the tour.
A day in the life of Andy Murray’s Strength & Conditioning Coach
Christian: How does a day in the life of an S & C coach for professional tennis players look like?
Matt: Yes, it’s long. Let’s say a typical day for Andy because his day is my day, I’m there for all of it, other than commercial stuff. We will meet typically two hours before practice. There’ll be an hour with the physio and an hour with me.
So yes, he does two hours before he even steps on the court and that is stuff on the couch with various treatment and activation on the couch. Then there’s a whole process of getting him warm and then getting him activated with me. We take plenty of time doing that.
You don’t necessarily need two hours. That sounds like a long time, but we don’t rush it. There’s always stuff that gets talked about, so you need to allow wiggle room in these sessions. If I allow just thirty minutes for a warm-up, there’s not much wiggle room there.
So yes, we meet two hours before practice. His practice will be anything from an hour to three hours and that’s pretty typical for a tour-level player. Then there’s generally some food for an hour or so and then we’ll do the strength and conditioning program in the afternoon.
That’s another, let’s say between an hour and two hours. I’m almost never in the gym with him much longer than an hour to 75 minutes frankly. I think that you get diminishing returns. I’m sure many people would have experienced that the quality drops much after that.
So that’s his physical program and then it’s the recovery with the physio after that and again, I’m there for that because I could very easily say at the end of the gym session that I’m leaving. But the conversation that happens on that physio couch for the last hour of treatment of the day could be a really important coaching moment for me.
That’s why you never want to miss any of the conversations. That’s why I think the S & C coach should be on the court too because you never know when that door is going to open for you to say that they need to take a six-week block to improve their situation and do less on-court work that week to focus more on movement or conditioning or whatever applies. It’s important to be around all the time in my view.
You never want to miss any of the conversations. That’s why I think the S & C coach should be on the court too. It’s important to be around all the time.
We have a great job, travelling around lots of cities, nice places in the world. Look there are far worse professions in this world in terms of the glamour and things.
I’m very lucky to do what I do and I love what I do. But as you know Christian, it’s generally a hotel room, a gym and a tennis court. I’m going to say in my 11 years travelling with Andy, I’ve seen probably two tourist attractions.
I went to the Great Wall of China for about half an hour and I went to the Eiffel Tower for about 20 minutes and that’s pretty much it in 11 years. So don’t expect to be seeing a lot of the world, other than hotels and tennis courts.
Christian: It’s still working. It’s not tourism is it?
Matt: Exactly. The number of people that I know that don’t work that say to me, “Oh, you’re going to Miami! Oh, fantastic! Wow!” And I’m like, “You know what? That’s one of the most difficult three weeks of the year because we’re brutalizing him physically, he’s brutalizing us mentally and it’s just one great big fight for a few months in Miami.” So it’s not this chilling on the beach vibe at all.
The person that has influenced him most
Christian: Which person has influenced and impacted you most and why?
Matt: It’s definitely Andy. He’s even influenced my coaching. His demand every day for answers about what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, his demand for high standards, both in the sessions I give to him, but also in how I am and how I behave and how I manage my own life is huge. His commitment to excellence in his own life have made me commit to excellence in my own.
It’s definitely Andy. He’s even influenced my coaching. His demand for high standards, and his commitment to excellence in his own life have made me commit to excellence in my own.
So those things I think are lessons and just being around him not even talking to him about this stuff, but just letting his behaviors absorb into my own have been lessons for life, which I hope I carry on for many, many years after I finish working with him. I hope I don’t lose those lessons and forget those things because yes, I think that it’s been incredibly valuable.
His interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Matt: Speedo would be great a guy to interview. I think Jez Green would be a great guy to interview as well. I think Bill [Knowles] is fantastic as well. He’s a fantastic speaker.
So those three guys get my nod for the guys you should be speaking to next. Jill Myburgh as well, to add a girl into the mix because we don’t talk about girls in our professional enough in terms of practitioners. She does a fantastic job.
His upcoming book
Christian: Cool and you said you’re writing a book. When is it going to come out?
Matt: That’s a great question. I’m still searching for a publisher. I thought I had one and then didn’t. So yes, I’m hoping that it’ll come out perhaps spring or autumn next year. So yes, got plenty of work still to be done.
Christian: Really cool.
Where can you find Matt Little
Christian: Where can people find you, Matt?
Matt: I am on Twitter, Matt Little S &C on Twitter, but I don’t do much social media. I should do a lot more and I don’t do much social media. I’m on LinkedIn as well. So Twitter and LinkedIn, I’m sure I’ll be easy enough to find and those two to me idioms. I need to be better at that. This is the modern world and I need to get on board with it.
Matt Little’s social profiles
Christian: Hey Matt, thanks so much for your time, for the open words. It was great. Thanks a lot.
Matt: My pleasure. Christian. For you mate, you’re a high-level guy and it’s a pleasure to do it for you, so I wish you all the best with the work you’re doing.
Christian: Thanks a lot, Matt.
Matt: You’re welcome anytime mate.