Being a tennis coach for 20-plus years has taught me much about the game and about life. It is an ongoing learning experience … one that never ends as each new student is different and teaches you something new about the game. The coach will face difficult and challenging situations when dealing with developing players, and there are different ways of approaching the same situation. I have often found myself asking the question, “What exactly do I do as a coach and how do I act in a way that will be most beneficial to the student?”
Here are some typical situations that I’ve experienced with my students and how I would approach those situations.
1. What should a coach do when the child puts too much pressure on himself/herself to achieve good results and is too concerned with ranking?
The pressure often comes from the parents which is not healthy, of course. However it is the child who is the one who is results-oriented. Children are simple and sometimes they think that if they lose, they are bad. My job as a coach is to make the student aware that there is a “big picture,” and that you need to believe in the process and focus on improving elements of your game.
You cannot go into a tournament thinking: “I’m going to win the tournament.” You need to prepare for the tournament the best you can and play it one match at a time. Try to do everything right between matches, and if the child does their work on the practice courts in the weeks leading up to the tournament, you will end up lifting a trophy every once in a while.
As a player who played competitively for 20 years, I found that when you work methodically and stick to your plan, it helps you achieve consistent results in the long run. When you have a long-term mission, you know that there will be some bad losses along the way, but the trick is to not let bad matches bring you down.
Winning is always nice, but when you are a junior, you need to think beyond just winning matches. Playing the right way and having the right attitude is more important than adding a trophy to your shelf. The main thing is to learn from every match and figure out what you need to do to improve and work towards that goal relentlessly … the results will come.
2. What should a coach do when a student is in a slump and feels like they have hit a plateau?
Almost every player will suffer some periods when things don’t go their way and they are not seeing any improvement. This can happen for various reasons: Injuries, too much schoolwork, burnout, a technical flaw, personal problems at home, or simply the player is in a bad patch. As a coach, it is one of the biggest challenges to get the player out of this downward spiral.
The first thing I would do is bring up the love of the game and remind the player that tennis is just a game. Keeping it fun and positive is a must because tennis players can get pretty morbid at times.
When you lose your game, it is best to go back to basics. Confidence is probably the most important thing for a player and to regain confidence, one must need to go back to simple old-school repetition drills, with thousands of basic cross-court shots down the line in live ball drills.
But drills and good hitting don’t mean much if you cannot put together wins in official matches. It doesn’t have to be pretty or even at the highest level, but you need to get wins to rediscover your identity as a player.
For that reason, I usually advise my players who are in a slump to play a few lower level tournaments to regain that winning feeling. You’d be surprised what a few wins under one’s belt will do to one’s confidence, even if it is against second tier players.
3. What should a coach do when a child is lazy, unmotivated, slow and uncoordinated?
This is a tough one because no coach likes to lose a student. On the other hand, some students are not that much fun to work with. Some coaches give up on this type of student and just let them play points and keep it recreational and social, hoping that this will motivate the student. I find that playing points and sugar-coating is actually going to make a child quit sooner since they will soon hit a wall and stop playing at some point. Let’s face it … it’s pretty boring to play bad tennis!
So how do you turn those tennis bums into tennis buffs? Patience is key. A sense of humor is very helpful as well, and lots of psychology and reverse psychology should be utilized. Ultimately, I will try to appeal to their self-respect and get the competitiveness out of them by outlining some achievable goals. When they start meeting simple goals like hitting 20 balls in a row in the court, they will start to enjoy the game more and have longer rallies. One day, they might wake up, look in the mirror and see a tennis player staring back at them. The trick is to get those kids to work hard without them even noticing. I learned that even lazy and talented kids like to improve and win. Some of those lazy, untalented kids might turn out to be not-so-lazy and untalented after all. They just need someone to get the “killer instinct” out of them, someone to take the lazy out of them.
4. What should a coach do when a student is very good, but has repeated tantrums during lessons?
This happens quite a lot with the high-performance players. Sometimes the reason is over motivation. Other times, it could be a case of self-control, discipline and anger management. Other times, it’s just the hormones of a teenager talking.
Some players expect so much of themselves and when they don’t meet their expectations, they tend to get angry at themselves. This is counterproductive. As a coach, it is impossible to effectively coach a kid who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown every time they have one bad drill.
The key is for the coach to keep calm and calculated, while the student is in stress. I would explain to the child that their emotions and drama makes them very difficult to coach. I would literally stop the lesson for a couple of minutes and sit on the bench until the player calms down.
With the exception of John McEnroe, I’ve never met or seen a player that is better when very emotional and temperamental.
I actually like it when players show passion and some (positive) emotions during practice and matches, but there is a line that should never be crossed. A player should never start a point with any baggage from previous shots, being a good player is the art of forgetting, the most important point is the next point.
The player needs to know that whatever horrible shot they may have just hit is ancient history the second the point is over. That is the only way to train if you want to give yourself a chance to succeed in this game, there are so many tankers and quitters out there who will break down the second something goes wrong, you don’t want to become one of them.
In every match, there will inevitably be some points and games when you play below your level. Everyone has those spells, the top players can manage themselves through these spells and continue to play one point at a time. This is why tennis will always remain such a mental sport.