As a coach, have you ever caught yourself saying, “Good”, “Good shot”, “Nice” to your player or players during a training session or lesson? Encouraging words are important to let your player know they are on the right track when making improvements or adjustments. While this is certainly true, could certain words distract a player from improvement and mastery? Words like “Good”, “Good shot”, and “Nice” are words from a place of personal and subjective opinion, from a place of judgement. One shot may look or feel “Good” to one person and yet “Not so Good” to another. Words can be judgmental or they can stimulate awareness and observation. Here are three progressive ideas that can and will lead to improvement and mastery of your communication skills as a coach.
1. Open-ended questions stimulate Awareness
2. Awareness leads to Discovery
3. Discovery is the pathway to Change.
As you coach a player towards any area of improvement involving technique, tactics, and mental/emotional development, strive to use words that project a sense of awareness that can lead to powerful change.
It’s very important to keep a player positive when they are training to improve their game. Positive words are needed to develop a creative and powerful training culture, they offer hope to a player, give them courage to press forward when setbacks occur, and provide strength in the face of pressure. At the same time, saying “Good” or “Good shot”, or any other word that is repeated over and over again can and will become less impactful over time to a player. These positive words of encouragement that are used too often can begin to communicate judgement instead of observation. Positive words, although powerful, are only a small part of developing a creative, intelligent training culture for your players.
You may have heard the phrase, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say”. To become an exceptional coach, you have to create a dynamic training culture for your players by communicating words that provoke awareness and observation. Questions such as “Did you feel balanced or unbalanced after that shot?” , “Was that swing path smooth, or fast and jerky?”, “What did you feel when you contacted the ball?” “Where did the ball land?” “What kind of adjustment is needed to make a crosscourt shot from that position?” These types of questions will lead a player towards observation and then discovery instead of you or the player “judging” the shot to be good or bad. Saying a shot is “good” or “bad” is a nice gesture or deflating comment, however it rarely can lead to awareness and discovery.
When asking questions to a player, give them options, maybe multiple choice answers to choose. Young players and even adults sometimes have a difficult time expressing meaningful words back to you as a coach as to how they felt about a particular shot. After a made shot I may ask a player “How did that feel?”, their typical response is “Good”. If this is their response then I will ask them, “Describe “Good” to me, what do you mean?” That question will kindle their mind towards awareness and discovery which ultimately leads to change (improvement). Powerful “open-ended” questions that begin with “What, How, When, and Where” create intentional awareness in a player as well as you, the coach. Notice, I did not include “Why” because “Why” can spur on a defensive posture in a player. When you ask a question that begins with “Why”, a feeling of justification can arise within a player. The player then senses either consciously or unconsciously a need to defend themselves and offer explanations for their action(s). “Why” questions can put up a wall, this is definitely something you want to avoid when coaching. You want the teaching moment to remain open to explore options and discover solutions that lead to excellence of play.
Another vital element you want your words to develop is creative and intense FUN! A FUN environment or culture is one that is cheerful, jovial, filled with laughter, and enjoyable. How many of our players are experiencing this type of training? I wholly believe that we as coaches are the catalyst to creating such training cultures. It’s not up to the players to bring fun to our training environments, it’s up to us as coaches to develop a culture of fun. You can have a training environment that is filled with intensity and fun, the two can and must co-exist for players to excel in performance. Creating a fun and intensive culture also inspires players to keep coming back week after week as well as promote your training environment to other players. Take the fun out and you will eventually stray away from the real purpose of PLAY. We call our students “players”, the game is to be “played”, so all the more reason to balance the purpose of why we all go to the tennis court. We go to play a game. One of the biggest questions I hear as a coach is, “How do you teach fundamentally sound technique and keep it interesting, fun, and intense?”
Here are a few practical and creative ways to keep your training culture fun and intense.
1. Teach technique in the “context” of a game. Players hitting to targets while maintaining their technique, scoring points: 1,2,3, etc. Or 15-30,40-game. Individually competing with themselves or a benchmark score, or competing/cooperating with other players in a group setting. Use words that inspire intense and fun competition and personal excellence like “Great finish”, “Way to get into a balanced position to make that shot”, or “What’s another shot option in that situation?”
2. Teach technique in the “context” of tactical patterns. When training tactical patterns, sound technique can be rewarded in the drill or live ball point play. IE. Inside-Out Forehand, Crosscourt FH pattern can be rewarded with points if both shots are performed as a set while maintaining solid technique. You could score it 1,2,3,etc to a score like 7, 10, (tie-breaker etc. Or 15-30-40-game, play out a set to 6 games. If technique is not maintained throughout the pattern or the player misses before completing this particular 2-shot tactical pattern, the coach or opposing player gets the point. Again, use words that provoke independent thinking or encourage a player in a specific way such as, “solid hit”, “smooth take-back”, or “great balance on that shot”.
Communicating to a player that “performing” the shot with sound technique is crucial to getting the results they desire, such as executing a tactical pattern or finishing a point with good decision-making skills. This is where experience with players and using words to communicate awareness instead of too many “judgement” words is key to growth and exceptional play. Instead of giving a player the answer to their tactical setbacks and short-falls, ask them open-ended questions that will lead them towards discovery. IE. “What is another option there?” “How can you anticipate sooner when you find yourself out of position?” “Was that ball in your strike zone? Ok, where did you make contact with that ball?” “How do you need to move to make that kind of adjustment?
As coaches, we frequently and too often just give out the answers or attempt to solve the problems and struggles of our players. It’s a natural phenomenon because we are teachers through and through, we love to help and assist our players and see them improve. Resist the fact that you may only have them for a few hours a week, you are not speeding up the learning process by giving them the answers. You will find that allowing players to discover through powerful questions, they find solutions and learning becomes exponential and change inevitable. Players who are inspired to think independently discover solutions. I love to see my players “own” their game. When I assist players into discovery with intentional words and powerful questions, change and improvement occurs more often. In my experience, effective communication in this type of creative, intelligent and fun training environment encourages greatness in every player.