As the old saying goes, “You should always learn from your mistakes.” I add to that you should also learn from other people's mistakes.
Throughout my coaching career, I have tried to learn from my mistakes and just like everyone else, I certainly made lots of them over the years. The trick is to not repeat those mistakes and as you reduce the number of those mistakes, you become a better coach.
Being a former player, I remember some of the mistakes that my coaches used to make, and I try not to repeat them. Here is a list of the top five most common mistakes that coaches make. I have been guilty of these mistakes early in my coaching career, and I try to avoid repeating them every time I step onto the court.
1. Pointing out technical or strategic mistakes of students by telling them what they did wrong
As a young coach, I would let my students know that they “didn't bend their knees,” or “should have hit a ball cross-court.” But as you evolve as a coach, you realize that a better way of teaching is by asking the student, "Why do you think you missed that ball in the net?" or "If you could play this point again, where would you hit that running forehand you just missed"? By asking the student questions such as these, you instill the ability to analyze their mistakes and for them to come up with a solution on their own. Most of the time, they will know what they did wrong right away. When they come up with an answer on their own, they internalize the instructions better than if I told them.
2. Getting emotional or confrontational with students
As a young coach who went straight from the pro tour into teaching, I was very intense, competitive and sometimes, emotional with students. I was passionate about the game, and I would take it personally if the student didn't perform well or was not committed enough. Over the years, I have learned that there is only so much a coach can do and that it is not productive or professional for a coach to show anger of any kind. The kids look up to the coach and expect them to always be in control. Over the years, I have learned to absorb unpleasant situations and react accordingly. Sometimes, I will create "fake anger" in practice just to shake up things if I see the students are lethargic, but that "anger" is controlled and calculated, never personal. The main thing is to finish the session with a smile and a handshake.
3. Over coaching
As a young player, I used to hate it when my coach would talk to me too much during practice. Most of the times when I missed, I knew it and I didn't need to hear what I did wrong every time I missed a ball. As a young coach, I was often guilty of that mistake myself. Over the years, I have learned that sometimes, less is more. It is one thing to hear the same instructions over and over while performing repetition drills, but during match play, the student needs to develop their own character and deal with different situations on their own, so I instruct the pros in my program to say very little during point play and let the kids play it out. Tennis is an individual sport and players need to be at peace when they play. I find that when you talk to students less, the meaning of the words increases and the students listen better. It is better to sum up the match at the end of the set.
4. Getting stuck on a certain dogmatic system of coaching
I grew up being taught the sport of tennis by people who played with wood rackets and hit groundstrokes with a Continental Grip. I had great coaches and mentors, and I still believe in many of the "old school" ways of teaching … most of them still work. However, the game has evolved so much … the rackets, the grips, the style of play, and certainly the way people practice. As a young coach, I was very rigid in the way I taught. My thinking was that the methods worked for me so, it will work on my students. But I quickly realized that a coach should keep evolving with the game and make constant adjustments to their style of coaching. The ever-changing game and the characteristics of the new generation requires the coaches to be on their toes constantly and to be able to come up with new fresh drills. In fact, as a tennis coach, you have to constantly re-invent yourself.
5. Teaching everyone the same way
As a former pro on the tour who turned coach, I knew a thing or two about playing the game, but coaching is a different game altogether. Early on in my career, I used to put all of my students through the same "grinder," but I soon found out that due to the individuality of the game, each player is different. The challenge as a coach is to find the right key to each player's brain and to give each student what they need. Some students need an "Iron Fist" approach and like to get pushed to the limit. Some students need a "softer" approach. Most kids need a combination of the two. The coach really needs to be aware and show some sensitivity and act as a sports psychologist to figure out the best way to teach each student and it can get even more tricky when teaching a group of kids that are inevitably different from each other. That is what makes the job of a tennis coach so interesting!
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.