“I don’t know.”
As a coach, this is my least favorite answer when asking students something about their game, the drill we are doing, or any of the other litany of questions that come up during a normal tennis practice.
In some instances they may actually not know!
But more often it is the fear of being wrong, a lack of interest in the effort of critical thought, or a coach and program that are constantly dictating to the players. My goal is to develop players that are not only engaged in their personal development, and what they are learning on a short term basis, but who also have a desire to understand the entire process of their training.
Part of the lack of independent thinking has to do with the amount of structure in young children's lives. They move from one activity to the next with limited opportunities for free play or spending the day running around the neighborhood with their friends as I did as a child. That same structure is often the focus of sports practice as players are expected to show results at younger and younger ages. A summer day at the tennis courts challenging all comers has become summer camp with drills in the morning and controlled match play in the afternoon.
In my region of the Northeast, for a majority of the year, court time is at a premium due to needing to be indoors. Here are some ways to foster curiosity and desire to take ownership of their own games.
Beginning at the early stages of development in red and orange ball, take the time to ask players questions:
►What did that feel like?
►Did that feel different?
►Why do you think that happened?
As they progress and start to understand more about the game of tennis, the questions can become more pointed:
►Why did you make that decision?
►Do you think that was the right shot?
►What would you have done differently if you had that shot again?
By taking the route to ask the player, even though it may take more time than dictating straight to them, you will develop a flow of conversation that will not only get them actively involved in the learning process, but also become comfortable being vulnerable with you as a coach, and more likely to ask questions when they truly don’t know the answer.
An additional tool is to get your 10 & Under players actively involved in the development of the practice. Engage the players in creating their own drills, choosing the areas of their game to work on, and suggesting games and adding rules into games we normally play. This gives players an opportunity to feel like they are working on areas they need to work on the most without being told to do so. By creating rules and games, players flex their creative muscles and frequently hit on the same areas you want them to address as a coach.
Tennis is a sport where once the ball is in play there is no one who can talk to the players except themselves. Encouraging players to use critical thought on their own games will be as valuable in the long run as their forehands, backhands, and serves!
Ray Josephs is the Director of Coaching and Player Development at Tenafly Racquet Club. He has a tremendous wealth of training and knowledge under his belt and has been part of the CourtSense team since 2012. Ray maintained a high national ranking throughout the juniors as well as an impressive high school and college record. A few years ago, Ray spent his time training numerous highly ranked national and international juniors at the Rick Macci Tennis Academy in South Florida. Before that he was the primary coach for many top juniors, as well as players on the WTA tour.