How Players Get Plugged Into Power: Developing Full Engagement

“The Most Dangerous Food to Eat is Wedding Cake.”  Anonymous

If we are going to achieve a major mental and emotional objective with our players, we first much achieve a level of engagement with them that gives us the mental and emotional capital to win their hearts and minds.  We also need to know that we are on target with creating the most important objective. Let’s starting with creating a better conduit for communication.

Engagement, how do we develop maximum engagement?  I picked the above quote, not because it fit the article, but because I searched on ‘Worst Engagement Quotes’, and that one came up. In contrast to the quote, we are not married to our players, but sometimes it feels like it, when they come out for four or more years to our program. So, it’s a different kind of engagement we want as coaches with players. When do people engage?  Is there a formula for engagement?  Will everyone engage equally? How do we create and capitalize on on engagement?

Did those questions engage you?  If so, then part of the equation is your curiosity. Asking open ended questions then listening On Purpose for Purpose, is a large part of the engagement solution. Another piece is what you already know, but we don’t have time for that now, so let’s turn it toward our players. Go back in your mind to the days of being a teenager and the feelings of being thrown into that prison ‘high school’, where teachers, using a drill, a funnel and a large amount of mostly useless information poured it into your head, then test you on your ability to remember and interpret it. Overall, it’s a pretty dull experience for the vast majority of our high school kids. Although, around 20% or maybe more of high school teachers, really know how to engage students and draw out the students learning.

As coaches, our teams will do much better if we become masterful educators.  The word ‘education’ comes from the root word educos which means to ‘draw from within’.  But what do we draw out?

In this article we will start with a universal success trait, focus on one more suited to coaches of female teams, then male teams, before going back to a very practical set of skills to help players manage their point play.

Engaging players mainly starts with drawing out their prior knowledge. For example, if I am starting a new year of coaching a team, I may ask all my doubles player candidates, “What do you know about doubles positions and/or strategy?” The players then share their ideas, which accomplishes a few different objectives: 1. Players who have good knowledge get to share and contribute. 2. Players are sometimes more interested in learning from their peers. 3. Those peers gain esteem amongst each other. 4. The ‘zone of proximal development’ means that sometimes peers explain in terms that their age group understands more easily. 5. The coach saves energy. 6. Players get to teach what they already know, instead of being taught what they already know. 7. The coach can praise, affirm, redirect, clarify, and debunk the notions taught. 8. When they player’s knowledge runs out, the coach can ask more questions about the missing essential information.  When players don’t know the answers, then you have achieved… curiosity.

Unless a coach is really in love with the sound of their own voice, they really should love to have players in a curious state of mind after their prior knowledge has played out. When players give what they know, a best practice is for the coach to praise players who give exceptionally clear and concise answers. Players readily accept a little redirection if they missed the mark by a bit, and will accept being told their wrong if the coach says, “I’m not sure I agree, but we can discuss it.”  There is bound to be something that needs clarification. When a coach proves to be a skillful listener, and not an overbearing corrector, players really blossom in their ability to give great answers.

Another way to engage players is to give them a short lecture on a topic, then challenge them with an activity that uses a skill in that range. While performing a challenge, take a break to ask a question that requires critical thinking. Today, I taught my girls for about three minutes on the concept of Stretch, Cage, Run, which is what we want the other players to do. I asked them what do those things mean on a tennis court.  After we discussed for another couple minutes I asked them which one they wanted to work on first? Most girls agreed on ‘Caging’ the other player, which essentially means restrict their freedom on court so that they can’t move. While working on hitting a deep drive up the middle of the court, I stopped the drill. “If you are playing someone and you are running them, and they are running you, and you are losing, what are you going to do?”  No one had the answer.  This is quite common. But I let them NOT know, I let them struggle. The context was confusing because we weren’t performing a ‘Run’ challenge. There was silence as they thought. Don’t be afraid of a little silence. I asked them to think harder.  Then I asked the question again and a little more slowly. More silence. I asked, “Do you need a hint?” They said yes.  But before I could give a hint, one player said, “Cage them?”  I said yes, cage them, because if you are losing to someone who is moving better than you or moves you better, take the movement away.  They got it! I ask these questions, when the answer is using the skill we are currently practicing, then their value of the drill goes up, because they see it as a potential solution to a major problem in a match. I also sometimes like to teach the girls to give an answer that is NOT in the form of question, so they can learn to give confident answers.  I am now fairly certain that If I ask them tomorrow what to do when they are losing a match with lots of running what they should do, and they will know the answer.

For teaching players about what they need mentally and emotionally, its best to ask them what they think they need, affirm them as much as possible then ask them about issues that they might not be aware of. A somewhat dated, but really great book is “Mental Toughness Training for Sports.” By Jim Loehr. There are two editions, but I like the first one better, because I like the test better, and I am referencing the first edition. In it he has a test for different capacities of the mental and emotional game. For a number of years I gave my players these tests and I got some interesting results.  Boy’s tested high in “Intensity, and Ability to Visualize Success”, but they tested low in “Negative Energy Management, and Attentional Control”.  Girl’s tested high in “Positive Energy Management, and Attentional Control”, but tested poorly in “Intensity, and Ability to Visualize Success.” So really we need to coach boy’s and girls differently.  It’s very important to realize that each team had outliers in the various capacities, and that we can’t ignore them, or try to force them into a stereotypical gender box. Nonetheless, coaching boy’s on having positive energy and concentration will help most players.  Coaching girls on visualization and maintaining high intensity will also help most players.  I try to make some spare moments for players who are outliers to discuss with them their individual areas for improvement.

I was talking to a coach recently whose players are already two weeks into their season, and were facing a dip in intensity.  So he really lit into them, to get them fired up. We discussed the different approaches to boy’s and girl’s. Boy’s generally have an expectation that training is going to be tough, and more readily sign up for the ‘torture’ of high intensity fitness, and almost take it as a badge of honor.  The girls have a tendency to avoid high intensity exercise in general, but the most competitive ones will embrace it.  What can be done?  I like to call it, ‘cooking frogs’.  I hear that if you put a frog into boiling water it will jump right out.  But, if you put a frog into lukewarm water, it will be quite content, and if you slowly increase the temperature, since they (frogs) are cold blooded creatures, they will stay until fully cooked. So when teaching our players who struggle with intensity, we have to start at the level where they are, and gently apply a bit more heat and increase slowly the intensity, until they are at a level that will lead to their best possible success. All along the way, you can begin to ask them questions about what they need in their physical performance to have a better chance of winning.  The #1 capacity is giving full effort, 100% effort.  Not 110% effort, because that does not exist. Explain to me how someone can give more than what they have! OK, you can’t. But when you begin to give much more of your 100% effort your body and mind makes adaptations to the new challenges.  The same girls who really dreaded the spider run, and wonder why I can be so cruel, then sing its praises a few weeks later when they are winning matches they used to lose.

For those who suffer from negative energy problems, its good to start with questions. Why do we do that?  Does it help?  Are their players who can play very angry and play well?  Do they play well match after match and for long periods of time?  One short burst of anger can be helpful in a match, but only if well directed, and then followed up with positive energy, ‘can do’ energy. Helping negative energy challenged players to discover the moment when they reacted with unproductive anger, disappointment, confusion, self blame, self pity or their negative emotion of choice, can help them to discover the turning point in an otherwise winnable match. My experience is that when they can identify the first time they go down that wrong emotional road, then in future matches they will have greater awareness and make a better choice, staying on track. Both of the scenarios above can be solved using Loehr’s ’16 second cure’.  It’s a great template that you can tailor to any player and what their personal objectives are during the moments between points.

During the 16 seconds, which is a misnomer, because it’s not a finite amount of time, there are four stages, and you might not need to go through all four stages between each point. With my most competitive players, I urge them to use each of the four stages in any key sequence in a match or if they are going through a tough or nervous stretch in a match. First, is the Decisive Stage, where for a moment, (2 seconds?) a player physically and mentally puts closure on the point before, they can pump their fist if it was a great shot, but they should turn their back on the point. Why?  It’s over, that point is complete and can’t bother me. That point is decided, and nothing can be done about it now. Second is the Relaxation Stage could be 5 or more seconds, where a player checks to see if they have tension, might take a deep breath, shake out their arms, do the limp legged ‘Federer Walk’, and simply let go physically for a moment.  The eyes can also ‘rest’ on the racquet a moment.  Next is the Preparation Stage, which sometimes can be the longest stage in terms of time, where a player might quickly recap what happened in the previous point, and give themselves a quick ‘do that again’, or ‘change that’, and move on to planning the next point. As a server, the kind of point you want to play, the corresponding serve type, and +1 contingency can be planned, thus increasing the chance of a performing well on the +1 ball (which will be explained in depth in a future post).  As a returner, reflecting on the serving tendencies of the opponent, along with the strategy for mitigating their strength, in addition to what kind of +1 ball you want to make, if you get a chance, also increases the chance of a better performance. For intermediate players it can be as simple as ‘serve wide and keep the ball cross court’, for more advanced and specialized style players it gets much more complicated.  After the planning is done, its time for the final stage, The Ritual Stage, which should only take a few seconds, where you do your ball bounces, and/or your special rocking motion that prepares you to return.  There is a wild set of idiosyncrasies that accompany the rituals, so keep it simple and enjoy them, we can’t discuss them here. The rituals are an important part of coping for players, as it gives them some ‘sameness’, familiarity with something in a match that is so unpredictable.

One of the key pieces in helping develop champion players is helping them to become mentally and emotionally stronger and more flexible. Many times we leave out the emotional part of sports.  For some reason, in the realm of what passes for mental training, the most common approach is to try to mitigate emotion in the player.  It seems to be clean and nice to try work with our players to be only rational, logical players, but when we do that we lose out on a powerful force for inspired play. Some of the most inspiring performances I have seen in my players were fraught with emotion. Desire, Passion, Anger, Fear, Vengeance, Grieving, and Humorous behavior and much more has been evident in some of the greatest wins, and fantastic moments on my teams, but only when managed well by the player.  Each new team, each player has it’s own personality, its up to you as a coach to find the group’s strengths and relative weaknesses, then devise a way to bolster them, helping players find strategies that work. The 16 second cure is one way for a player to check in with their responses and give themselves a pep talk during the preparation stage about managing their weakness, and/or capitalizing on their strength as a player.

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