Three years ago, right before my annual High School Coaches Clinic I sat on the couch at my club and listened to Nick Bollettieri as he told me the first thing he does with a new student:
“I say nothing. I just listen and observe.”
I've followed this principle with new students my entire career by first assessing how each player learns because learning needs are unique and meeting these needs are vital to unlocking a student’s potential. While we can talk about how matching a student to a coach, “depends on the circumstances”, such conditions for a great match can be identified, categorized and used to coach most effectively. The goal is to lead by walking side-by-side with our students to increase collaboration and reduce interference.
How to discover how students learn?
Because the methods of how we deliver instruction to our students matters, sometimes as much as the content, it is vital to access and recognize the best way to communicate based on how a student best receives and internalizes information when starting with a new student. This allows us to then modify and adapt our teaching methods to match the student’s learning style. Sometimes, as Nick pointed out, this process is passive. We can just listen and observe.
If we wish to be more proactive, however, we can discover how to deliver the most effective message delivery method with some simple trial and error testing by explaining, demonstrating, prompting and then observing carefully. Students will almost always provide revealing feedback to well-executed testing with verbalization, eye contact, body language and attentiveness as to which style of learning they best enjoy and respond to most positively.
Some tips to make your teaching style the most effective
A visual learner might be a suitable match for a coach who can demonstrate movements adeptly. An auditory learner will progress with a coach highly verbally capable in explaining details, and a kinesthetic learner will enjoy a coach who is technically proficient in prompting tactile stimulation. The best coaches have the versatility to perform all three teaching methods at the highest level to ensure that we can communicate to serve our students needs.
When meeting the demands of a visual learner we need to ensure the student can see both our instruction and feedback, clearly and fully. When providing auditory instruction, we should be certain that the student hears and acknowledges, hearing us. When meeting the essential call of the kinesthetic learner, we need to make sure that the student is permitted to move with limited distractions, so that their right brain can translate a physical process into cognitive and neurological learning.
Males tend to be more visual, and females tend to be more auditory, while kinesthetic or tactile learning are seen in both genders, and is especially well-suited for young and high-energy students. Each student can defy these guideline expectations, however, so when evaluating it is necessary to be alert and open-minded to avoid confirmation bias and stereotyping. You can, of course, combine these teaching styles, but it is useful to have the knowledge and ability to know which style to emphasize at first, and later evolve methods of communication as the student learns how to learn. With good guidance most students will grow to better accommodate different learning styles by becoming more adaptable and more capable of integrating information and input.
Successful coaching, like successful playing, is enhanced by strong problem solving skills. We can teach and students can learn if we first solve the problem of how to communicate most effectively.
Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.