The word “consistent” is a phrase often used by tennis coaches and players. We often find ourselves as players repeating what our coaches have told us, “Be Consistent!” I’ve used this word for many years in describing the idea of hitting shots “in” the court over and over again. I was recently challenged by a colleague over my use of the word and at first became a little defensive toward the idea by saying “You know what I mean and my players know what I mean when I say, Be Consistent.” Shortly after my knee-jerk reaction, I settled into a place of research and meditation on this strange phrase used to communicate a simple and reasonable command.
In the context of teaching the game, there are frequently many assumptions we make as a coach and as I continued to use the word I became more and more disturbed by the notion that I really was not defining clearly what I wanted the player to do.
You see, the word “consistent” is an adjective not a noun, it is a word that describes “something else”. That “something else” like hitting the ball in the court successfully over and over again was something I assumed my players understood. What is interesting is I really wasn’t seeing the change of “being consistent” taking place. Even with the repetition of practicing strokes, there seemed to be a disconnect when the players started playing match points, or points where they kept score (point play).
I dug a little deeper in my research and found that just saying “Be Consistent” was not enough for the human brain to really understand or comprehend specifically the task to be accomplished while playing out points.
What was I really trying to communicate to my players? And as a player, what are you trying to communicate to yourself?
You can “consistently” miss shots just as much as you can “consistently” make shots. Yes, I know you’re probably thinking…. Styrling, it’s semantics, you are making something more of what it really should be. Well, I thought the same thing when I first received this cerebral challenge from my colleague. But the more I thought about how I communicate towards a player, towards myself as a player, what exactly was I communicating? Becoming an elite coach in my sport or becoming an elite player at any level, clear communication is vital to inspire and motivate exceptional performance.
How many times have we heard our players simply repeat “coaching cliches” right back to us? We have created these “coaching cliches” that have lost their real meaning because we fail to communicate with clear intent what we want our players to execute.
So, if the word “consistency” is an adjective and not a noun, then we must put something behind or in front of that word to really communicate effectively to our players or to ourselves. Are we going to “consistently” make shots or miss shots? Are we performing a shot that “consistently” passes 4ft. over the net? Are we “consistently” making shots to a particular zone or section of the court? As a coach, specifically defining what is the desired action is more important than we may have realized because the human brain is meticulous with respect to executing command tasks. Our brain processes millions of possible commands every second, and then only executes a hand-full of them at one time. We will execute the highest priority and/or the most clearly communicated tasks. Every coach and player will “interpret” the meaning of what is being communicated, better to leave little room for mis-interpretation and leave no room for doubt about what will be the specific task to be executed. What kind of specific command we give to a player is extremely important. So important because a tennis player is making micro-second decisions. They are predicting the path of the ball, adjusting their receiving position, and then executing the shot, all in just a fraction of a second. As coaches what we say to them matters, and it matters a great deal. When a player is clear with the language, the decision becomes more automatic. The art of effective communication must be simple, clear, and concise.
In light of this revelation that the word consistent is an adjective, I began to define exactly what I meant to players and give them a more clear command to execute on the court. “Make as many shots in a row”, or “I want you to consistently make as many shots as you can this next point”. As I became clear in my coaching language, I noticed my players “making” more shots, and they seemed to not be bothered as much when they missed. The goal became crystal clear, “make” shots instead of “be consistent”. Words mean things therefore I must communicate with clear intention and purpose to my players so they comprehend and understand their performance goal.
It’s fascinating to me that we frequently and automatically assume that others “know what we mean”. I’ve learned over the years this simply is not true. Communication that is simplistic and clear yields better performance for you and your players. It’s not enough to say “Be consistent” because that phrase by definition evokes another unspoken question, “How?” Usually when a question must be asked, there is a need for more clarification.
So the next time you find yourself saying, “Be Consistent” to your player. It’s helpful to understand that consistent is an adjective to describe something else and assuming your players know what you mean could actually be keeping them from actually performing at an optimal level. Mean what you say, and say what you mean. An elite coach finds a way to maximize meaningful word phrases to inspire and motivate players to perform at elite levels.