It recently hit me that I have been teaching tennis for more than 20 years. I have now taught tennis for more years than I have played the sport competitively, and I had a relatively long career. I am a totally different coach than I was 20 years ago.
I did go through the ATP University and got various other certifications over the years, but it is clear to me that the most important asset of a coach, experience, can’t be taught. Instructing hundreds of kids and adults over the years has taught me more than any course or article would have taught me. Each student I worked with added another layer to my body of work and made me a better coach. By now, I have developed a style of teaching that is a summation of all the experiences that I have had.
Over the next two editions, I will attempt to put into words the top 10 things that I learned as a coach in the past 20 years.
1. Don’t try to compare your students to you
When I left the pro tour and went into coaching, I was very intense and tried to project that intensity onto my students. When they didn’t meet my expectations, I was often frustrated and disappointed. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t work as hard as I used to work or progress at the same pace I did. I also would not tolerate a lack of total commitment. In time, I realized that each kid has their own path of improvement. Some are more talented than others and not all kids have the desire to be number one in the world like I did when I was a kid. Some kids just want to learn the game, enjoy it and do other things as well. I learned to adjust my expectations according to the student’s level of intensity and talent. Doing this helped me achieve better results, and more importantly, forge a better relationship with the student.
2. Develop a personal relationship with students
This can get difficult if you are running a big program, but I always tried to have a personal relationship with the student. I always ask them about their hobbies or talk to them about other sports or what type of music they like, etc. I am a pretty strict coach during lessons, but other than that, I am pretty relaxed and find that when they see the lighter side of me, it helps them relate to me as a human. As a result, they feel comfortable when I push them to the limit during drills because it can get pretty intense on the practice courts. By engaging with the kids on a personal level, I give them a feeling that I am not just a coach, but also a friend and someone who cares.
3. Don’t get dogmatic in your style of teaching
When I was growing up, my coaches were using the Continental Grip and playing with wood rackets. The strategy of the game was totally different back then, and so was the approach and technique. When I became a coach, I started teaching kids the way that I was brought up, which was an all-court game, waiting patiently for the short ball and coming to the net a lot. But the game changed quickly and when my students started to travel and compete in Europe, I realized that with the advent of the sport’s new equipment, the style of game has completely changed. Kids at the ages of 12 and 14 are blasting winners from all areas of the court. They play very aggressively and nobody comes to the net. I had to make some major adjustments to the way that I coached. Some things are still the same, but reality dictated that I had to prioritize certain shots over others. To keep up with the constant changes in the game, I make sure that I follow the pro game, read relevant articles and attend the U.S. Open every year so I can see with my own eyes what the top players are doing. I often go the U.S. Open just to watch the practice courts rather than the actual matches in hope to “steal” some new drills from the pros on tour. I also keep a strong dialogue open with other coaches in the U.S. and worldwide.
4. Ask questions and always say things in a positive manner
The old school teaching methods of terrorizing students and turning the sessions into a mini “boot camp” are a thing of the past. Today’s generation is much more responsive to an interactive way of teaching. When I want to make a correction, instead of telling the kid, “You should have hit this shot down the line,” I’ll ask them, “What would you do differently if you had to play the same shot again?” By asking a question, I am making the student use their brain to come up with the right answer and to understand their mistake.
Furthermore, when kids underperform, I will make an effort to analyze them in a constructive manner rather than put them down. If a kid is being lazy, I would simply ask them to rate their own effort and see if simple reverse psychology works. If the student is still not putting up the effort they are capable of, I will simply say, “You can do better than that.” I always try to send kids home with a smile on their face, no matter how bad the lesson may have been. After all, it is just a game and there is no reason to lose perspective. They are kids and deserve the right to not be perfect all the time. I appeal to their sense of self-respect and they come back with a better attitude the next time.
5. Stick to your own principles
This is one of the hardest things to do as a coach because we need to pay bills and most of us don’t want to and cannot afford to lose students. However, I found that if you stick to your guns, you will create a reputation that will bring you more students. I’m talking about parents who try to be overinvolved in the lessons, or kids who are spoiled, disrespectful and undisciplined.
We have all experienced these situations as pros, but how do we handle it? With me, it is very clear … I don’t tolerate parents dictating lessons. Why are they paying me if they are telling me how to coach their kid? Of course the parents deserve a full report and transparency, I don’t even mind if they sit on the court. But as a coach, I should have autonomy to teach the child the way I see fit to do so. I feel that it is the role of the pro to find a way to bring the kid to make an effort and push themselves. I try to adjust myself to the child’s mental and physical ability. I find that most kids like to be treated with respect and challenged. I challenge my students to improve by giving them achievable goals and gradually increasing the work load. Once the student sees the correlation between effort and improved results, my job as a coach becomes much easier. The trick is to bring it out of them without them even noticing it.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.