“I made it to the final of my tournament last week!”
“I got a baby puppy this week!”
“My AP History class is killing me!”
These are just a few of the phrases I hear on a weekly basis from students during lessons/programs, and it’s easy to assume they are being talkative or only desire attention. From my experience and observation, there is so much more to it. Why do students feel the need to tell me (or really, any of their coaches) these random, mostly unrelated thoughts? Are their fellow classmates not giving them enough attention? Maybe—but when these instances occur, I feel I am succeeding as a coach.
Too often coaches go through the motions, repeat the same drills, yell thoughtless feedback (“bend your legs” or “hit out in front!”) from across the net; these things are not necessarily bad. But I believe, for juniors especially, coaching is about being a role model and a positive influence in their life. I think back to how Jaime Marsella, my coach as a junior, made tennis an enjoyable and safe space, genuinely cared about me and wanted to see me succeed both on and off the court. I believe this to be the true meaning of a coach, in any sport. Even if students don’t show improvement, and there will be those that don’t, the most important thing is creating a fun, safe environment for them.
A student recently told me, “I was looking forward all week to playing today!” I did not understand the weight his words held at the time, but his comment stuck in my mind. We, I and the other coaches, have created and maintained an environment such that the student spent his whole week looking forward to this 90-minute class. I remind myself that I have no idea what a student is going through during the times when I’m not coaching him. The very least we can do is have a positive impact on their life.
Another thing I find particularly important is maintaining a level of honesty and level-headedness with students. Of course, we are all human and will sometimes get frustrated when a student isn’t following instructions well enough. These times will happen, and it is important to apologize to the student when they do. It feels strange to have to put this idea into words. I’ve seen and been on the receiving end of when I was a junior player, coaches who yell at students for unimportant reasons and not think twice about it (I believe yelling is rarely ever appropriate). When I’ve lost my composure with students, I always make sure to explain what happened and apologize; they’re human too, after all! Additionally, a coach should never show frustration or impatience with a student who is not improving or isn’t “getting” a new technique right away.
Having a student succeed on the court by winning a tournament, beating a top seed, improving a stroke is definitely a satisfying reward for the many hours of hard work. What is equally as rewarding is knowing that you made a positive impact on the life of a student. Tennis is so much more than winning or losing; life skills are developed through the sport and it’s our job as coaches to initiate and guide that process.
Michael Forte is a certified USPTA Professional and USPTR 10 & Under professional who currently works at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. He is a journalism/philosophy double major at CUNY Lehman College where he plays #1 singles for the men’s team.