Jan de Witt is quick to say hello and even quicker to say goodbye. He does not chit chat, have a Facebook profile or use WhatsApp. The German can be gruff, demanding and at times brutally honest. Yet, despite all that, it does not appear to have harmed the relationships with his players or colleagues over the many years he has been coaching on the ATP Tour. On the contrary, they seem to prosper because of his ‘take it or leave it’ attitude.
Corrado Tschabuschnig of Topseed Management, who has worked with De Witt since he brought Viktor Troicki to him 13 years ago, says, “If he feels that the player is trying, he will push him patiently. But, if he sees that the player is not trying, then he will not compromise in any way, not for his money nor for fame.”
“Jan is very honest and very clear,” says former World No. 13 Jarkko Nieminen. “He says things that you have to hear. You might not like it at the time, because sometimes it is negative. Sometimes, when I won a match, Jan would tell me that the way I played that day is not going to help me achieve my goals. And then sometimes, when I lost, he would be very pleased with what I was trying to do. I felt he was more interested in my long-term development and not just the moment. That made it very easy for me to trust him.”
Trust is a word that comes up a lot when players talk about De Witt. Nikoloz Basilashvili had never had a full-time tennis coach before working with De Witt. “Because I did not trust them,” admits Basilashvili. “A coach can destroy everything with just one sentence. But with Jan it is different. I trust him completely.”
De Witt insists, “There must be somebody who stops you from making a mistake. And, at other times, someone to push you to do the right thing. As the coach, you need to know when to do it.”
Nearing the end of his playing career in 2017, Dmitry Tursunov sought out De Witt for help. What happened on the first day would have wrecked most coach and player partnerships.
“I sent him (Tursunov) home on his very first practice here, because he was late,” remembers De Witt. “I told him to get the heck out of here. You are late.”
“What he said had an impact,” says former World No. 20 Tursunov. “He was very good at communicating his confidence, knowledge, and vision in what I needed to do to improve my game. That gave me the confidence to trust in the other decisions we made.”
“I don’t fear being fired,” adds De Witt. “If the player feels you are scared to lose your job, then you have lost already. I have a reputation that has been built up over 20 years. That is if I don’t feel like working with a player then I stop at that moment. I don’t care how much it is going to cost me.
“Dmitry (Tursunov) and Jarkko (Nieminen) are both very intelligent people, and very clever players. And they would both work like a dog. But we needed them to go all in and with no regrets to fail. I believe that if I had had the chance to work with them earlier in their careers, I could have helped them a lot more. And Gilles (Simon) was similar. He would do anything I asked if it made logical sense. Then you could get a lot out of him.
“When I started working with Gilles Simon, we had two goals; playing better in Davis Cup and better quality at the Grand Slams. In Davis Cup, he was 1-10. After we started, he only lost one match in Davis Cup. And that was to Andy Murray in a tie at The Queen’s Club.
“He (Simon) had done okay in Slams before we started. But his approach was not good. His attitude before was ‘I want to survive one match, then I want to survive another’. He would play forever against players he should have beaten quicker. If you look at the match duration once we started working together, it went significantly down especially in the best-of-five-sets matches. From four-plus hours to 2.5 hours.”
The result was that Gilles was fresher when he got to the later rounds. That did not mean he was going to win those matches, because you are playing against the best players, but at least you can bring your A-game.”
De Witt’s modus operandi of communication is email. His daily player updates are legendary. He never fails to include each member of the team; agent, coach, physio, mental coach, trainer and player.
“Jan is organisation to the fullest,” claims long-time player manager Tschabuschnig. “Nothing is left to fate or coincidence. Everything is discussed and all team members have a constant update from him, and he demands a constant update from the others.”
Jason Stacy, who worked as a strength and conditioning coach for Tursunov and Basilashvili, remembers, “Jan was very good communicating to me on all matters. Jan would send out, on a daily basis, an email with the plan of the day, the weekly plan and sometimes even the yearly plan. Everyone stayed connected. Even when I was not on-site, I would get copied on what was being worked on each day. Jan was always asking for specific feedback from each team member. What I remember most was how clear and precise those emails were. Everyone knew the priority on what the player needed most right now.”
De Witt, who is the director of the Breakpoint Academy in Halle, Germany, insists, “The coach needs a vision of how the player can play his best. You need to know which physical and technical abilities that he has and what kind of personality he has. And which channels you are going to transfer information to him. Is he a visual, tactical, or brain-orientated?”
“My coaching philosophy is very simple. For the player being in the present moment during the match. That is the only way. Action-oriented thinking. The only thing that works. What is my action that wins me the next point? If you are not thinking on the next action, you are always going end up thinking about the past or the future. The only thing that helps is what options do I have to win this present point or what options do I have to keep my opponent from winning this point.”
De Witt’s coaching success on the ATP Tour can be measured quantitatively. Here are just a few of the players De Witt has helped improve their performances and position in the FedEx ATP Rankings: Troicki, Tursunov, Nieminen, Simon, Vasek Pospisil, Gael Monfils, and currently Basilashvili, who rose to a career-high No. 16 in May 2019.
I first met De Witt back in 2003 at the airport in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. We both arrived late at night and we ended up sharing an old Lada taxi for the six-hour drive through the treacherous Tian Shan Mountains to where the tournament site was in Namangan. Back then, Jan was coaching the Uzbekistan national men’s team. Four years ago, he was conspicuously absent from the ATP Tour. It was not until he came back and we sat down during in Halle, that I found out what had happened.
“I took time off,” says De Witt. “I felt I needed a break to refresh my mind. I started as a consultant for a first division German football club, Werder Bremen. They were looking to restructure their club and wanted help with a new philosophy. One of the reasons that they hired me was to get the view of a coach from an individual sport to be in a team sport. To look at the athlete in a different way. Though I was confident that I could help them, I also figured out that I knew a lot less about football than I thought that I did.”
It was not the first time that De Witt had ventured outside the tennis box. He has also served as a consultant to the Australian volleyball team. Such is his dedication, that De Witt is constantly looking to other sports and disciplines to increase his education on how humans can maximise their physical and mental potential.
There are three things that we can learn from De Witt’s success as a coach on the ATP Tour:
Communication: While De Witt may seem excessive to some or a bit too honest to others, for those under his charge they like and seem to prefer his method of diligent preparation and honesty.
Attention To Detail: De Witt’s pays attention to every aspect of his player and his player’s opponents. From training blocks to future opponents, De Witt sees everything and by doing so he earns the trust of the entire team.
Education: De Witt shows great willingness to further his coaching education, even if it means taking time away from his job and losing immediate income.
The deeper you dig and the better you get to know De Witt, you realise that his motivation is very simple: he truly wants to help not hurt, heal not harm, each and every player that he makes a commitment too.