As coaches and teaching professionals, we are constantly trying to help our players develop good habits, but how often do we look at our own habits as teachers? This article will portray simple actions and behaviors that can make us better professionals.
As someone who spends most of my working hours on-court, it is of utmost importance that my teaching skills are highly-developed and adaptable to the player(s) I have. Here are some characteristics that have a big impact on the quality of a lesson …
►Have you identified the main aspect that you want to highlight for that moment or day? Everything starts there. Once you pinpoint your theme, then creating a series of progressive drills becomes simpler. It should be clear to you and the player what the main elements being worked on are.
►Creating a progression that ranges from hand-feeding, to racket-feeding, then to live ball, is often a great way for players to build their skills and be able to focus on one aspect at a time, before opening the scenario to more variables (like in rallies or points). When using any of the methods mentioned above, it’s important to consider the following:
1. Am I giving a realistic ball trajectory on my feeds?
2. Am I feeding at a speed that challenges the player, but still allows him/her to maintain proper technique?
3. Am I providing a sequence of shots that is realistic and appropriate for the player?
►There’s a fine line between being a demanding coach and a negative one. While some players may react well to harsher coaches, I try to err on the side of positivity. This is where the art of coaching comes into play … how can a coach be demanding, but still positive? This can vary greatly depending on the age group and commitment level of the player, but here are some guidelines I like to use:
1. Create a 3:1 ratio in terms of reinforcement of positives versus correcting “problems.” We often forget that players learn just as much, if not more, by copying the good things they already do, rather than by trying to “fix” the ones they struggle with. Ask yourself, how often do we see players hitting 10 good shots in a row with no feedback, to then have the pro “jump” on the player after a bad one? I’d recommend reversing that and make a big deal out of the good ones, while still pointing out areas of improvement on the mistakes.
2. Be very specific with the feedback. Tips like “great shot.” and other similar ones, can still be used, but can be more powerful if they pack more content. For example: “Great extension on that last shot,” “I like that cross-over step!” Adding more specificity to your comments will allow players to learn more as they’ll be more certain of skills being looked for and they’ll know once they actually do it the way you want it!
Developing a connection with your player
It’s been said that kids don’t learn as well from people they don’t like, and I believe that is applicable to all ages. Developing a positive relationship with your players is a key skill that pros need to nurture. This doesn’t only boost the learning curve, but also improves the pro’s retention rate. Here are some simple concepts that I try to incorporate into my teaching style to develop a real connection with the player:
►What are the appropriate topics that you can engage with the player during some small breaks? These can be important to get the player to relax and sometimes forget a less than ideal performance. Show curiosity for that interest and that can create a stronger bond. While this is helpful, it’s important to keep it under control so a significant portion of the lesson is not dedicated to side topics.
►While we want our players to continue to develop and become as good as they can, it’s just as important to make tennis a tool to develop the individual as a whole. Character traits such as work ethic, sportsmanship, team work and discipline are concepts that should be part of your lesson plans. Using creative ways to incorporate these elements into your teaching can make your classes and programs more robust and attractive. Knowing that you helped someone to develop a better backhand is rewarding, but impacting someone’s self-image or work ethic are much stronger contributions.
With the recent technological advancements, tracking one’s progress is easier than ever before. From apps that provide daily feedback, to others that empower you to utilize video analysis to track technical development, it’s important to find the right mix for your players. Here are some methods I use:
►We often hear many stories that can lead us to think that “parents are difficult.” While this can be true in some instances, from my experience, most parents are fine, but simply don’t understand the complete journey of developing a competitive player. Unless they were a competitive player themselves or went through the journey with another child, they won’t know what it takes and the ups-and-downs involved with the process. It’s our job to be a facilitator in this process. Over the past two years, I’ve probably held more than 50 parent sessions. Given that most parents take information from other parents, often who are not knowledgeable, I often start my meetings with a series of questions, including:
1. Who has played professional or NCAA DI tennis?
2. Who is a certified pro and who teaches for a living?
3. Who has had a child go on to play competitively at the national level?
As you can imagine, in a room with 40-50 parents, I often get one hand up for such questions. The feedback from these parent sessions has been positive and has led to less issues and requests to their child being “moved up.”
►Based on the player’s level, develop a series of competencies in order evaluate them at the end of the session. These should be pretty specific and it’s important to practice with your staff on how to “grade” them to minimize inconsistencies. Net Generation has a nice framework of competencies, and I use them as a base for mine, adjusting the content to fit my player’s level.
►If you have players who you work with as a primary coach, doing privates on a regular basis, I recommend adding video analysis and individual parent meetings to your mix. The frequency of it should be based on your ability to use that analysis, as well as the player’s needs. Doing a full recording of all strokes using an app like Coaches’ Eye twice a year is sufficient to capture major technical changes. For higher-level players, I conduct individual meetings with parents at least twice a year, quick 15- to 20-minute conversations to ensure that we are all on the same page.
Developing good habits should start with us as coaches. We have to use these good habits on a daily basis in order to become more effective teachers, develop a strong bond with the player, and ensure that strong communication with the parents and players is maintained. While there were many other important habits to develop, this simple list can serve as a good starting point. Incorporating some of these tips occasionally is fairly easy, though it’s the long-term application of these positive actions that will have the biggest impact on your players’ journey and your teaching career.
Joao Pinho is the Head Professional of 10U and High-Performance at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. He is a USPTA Elite Professional, a former NCAA DI coach and player, and has specialized in developing competitive junior players over the past decade. Currently, he is the private coach of three national champions and a WTA touring pro.