Becoming A Better Coach

Part of what sets the tone for a team program is when the coach proves themselves to be a life long learner. Players often respond better to a coach who is eager for new information, and wants to learn about his players. Many players love the sense of being discovered and known well enough by the coach that they respond in kind.

Styrling and I have had the honor of sitting at the feet of some of the best tennis coaches in the United States and around the world.  Robert Lansdorp, Craig O’Shannessy, Frank Giampaolo, Ken DeHart, and Martin Baroch to name a few. It’s exciting and humbling to learn from these great guys.

Now that I have finished ‘The Eyes Have It: 28 Essays on Vision Training in Tennis‘ (Which is only $0.99 for a short while), I turn my focus to helping Robert Lansdorp to publish his, long-awaited book, ‘Building a Champion’. Which is the inspiration for this blog post today.

I feel incredibly honored and honestly a little frightened to be helping in the writing and editing much of Robert’s material. What he writes is so challenging, because there are no real true deep mysteries about what he’s saying, but the depth and of challenge to the reader is so strong, his voice is so firm, that it really causes me to consider my own work. In a section that addresses what coaches expect from players, Robert goes very deeply into the player’s responsibility for learning. Players not only need to make a commitment to practicing, and playing enough to do well on court but, also make a commitment to learning all that they can.

Mr. Lansdorp wants players to realize that they have three different teachers. Their first teacher is their coach. It then behooves coaches to be the best teachers that they can be, even so, Robert places the responsibility on the student to do the learning. Second, he urges his players to learn from their opponents, either in a win or loss. Even when you have won, your opponent successfully found ways to win points against you, so learn from that. Finally, players should learn from themselves taking time to reflect, on their relative strengths and weaknesses, mind fully playing from a position of strength and learning to erase their weaknesses.

Robert’s comments were an affirmation for me about the player as decision-maker. Our player’s need to own their game. Because I want players who will be able to play without hesitation, I want them to learn a style that is their game, so they get to make the decisions about how they will play.  Of course, I offer guidance and help with the necessary skill sets for the player to succeed.

I set the tone on day one. For about two years now, I have a new routine when I meet a player for the first time. I tell them that there are three different kinds of people, parents coaches and players. Then I ask them which of the three is the decision-maker. Very few young players immediately arrive at the conclusion, that they are the decision-maker. Their first answer of “Who is the decision maker?” is about 99% of the time, “Parent or Coach”. When they realize that they are the decision-maker, it’s amazing the change on their face as they come to the realization that they have been empowered to decide.

The next question as I ask them, ‘Among the three who is the expert consultant?’, and with very little hesitation they identify that the coach, I am their expert consultant. What should seem to be process of elimination, is surprisingly not so, when we come to the question of ‘Who gives final approval?’. The player will many times say that it is themselves or me who gives final approval. When I remind them that it’s their parents that get final approval, sometimes they give a look of resignation. At the end of the lesson the litmus test for the player parent/coach/relationship comes, when I share with the parent that we decided, that the child is the decision-maker, and that I am the expert consultant. I can see on the parent’s faces at that time either approval, concern, or offense. When the parent is offended, then there is a good chance it’s going to be our last lesson. Parent’s are generally reassured when we all agree, “If the parents don’t like what’s happening, then it’s over!”. When parents want to assume all three roles, then coaches and players are not truly empowered to do all that they can do. Unlike you and I, Robert Lansdorp reports that the parents who bring their children to him are nearly 100% supportive. Most likely, the level of control he has over the environment, has a lot to do with that.  For the rest of us, ideally parents wield their final approval with enough authority, that they can readily accept their child as the decision-maker, when appropriate, and the coach as expert consultant with the necessary communication. Coaches should communicate with parents about the challenges, capacities, and progress of the student.

Now to translate this to a high school setting, I want my players to know that they are the decision-maker in how to play their game.  I am there to guide them, helping them discover their best style to achieve their best outcomes. In the high school setting, it’s less likely that parents will become heavily involved in their student’s tennis, however coaches should be ready to give answers to Parents in regard to the methods of the program at any time. Coaches should always be reminded that parents continue to give final approval in the activities of their young people, even through high school.

I had a player named Evan, who was a high ranked junior, and he had a private coach. His coach is someone I admire, and could easily talk with at almost any time. As a freshman, Evan did not want to take any feedback during practice, or any coaching during his match. This became a problem, because he was not playing as well as he could. First, he was missing out on vital coaching. Second, the conflict created by him trying to shut me out did not help his play. One night, I called his house to talk with his parents and Evan after an episode of stubborn behavior. I let him know that I know his coach, can talk with him, but that Evan is the decision maker, that I offer suggestions to help him win.  It is fully his decision accept the advice. Things got better Evan and I.  However, in 2008, in a sectional playoff match, he decided to ignore my advice and he lost his match as direct result, I am very confident about that. I teased him about that some. By the end of the next season, he began to trust me more and more as I proved that I had learned his game, and what he could do and might want to do in a match. In the 2009 Sectional Championship Match, akin to a state championship in many states, he won his first set easily, but lost then second when his opponent began to come to the net on almost everything. During the 10 minute break between second and third set, Evan and I worked out a new strategy, he went on to win what was the most important match for our team in winning a team title.

As you can see here, coaches can to model an attitude of learning to help their players to do the same, which opens the doors to some very exciting outcomes. Of course, this won’t always mean a title, but many times it will mean dramatic improvements for the player and team, which is the name of the game.

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