How to Handle Informed Pushback

We are going to address how you as a coach can handle pushback from players and coaches, but we also want to open up the discussion so that you can tell us where you face pushback in your coaching. We define pushback as any time players or parents seemingly have a divergent view of mission, objectives, goals or activities of the team or coach. We say seemingly, because with listening and understanding, many times things that are misunderstood, twisted, undiscovered or otherwise unknown, can be discussed in a collaborative setting and become powerful bonding moments that bring greater cohesion to the program. We need those who have our blind spot!

Bring Your Personality 

This morning Styrling and I were having what is normally our Monday morning meeting, and in it we both expressed gratitude that we each have each other’s blind spot. Our nickname for us is “Fire and Ice”, because Styrling comes across a bit more passionate, and I come across more cold and calculating. Ah, but there is some overlap in the fire and ice as you will see. We together want to help cover what might be a possible blind spot in some reporting, and we trust that all tennis stakeholders will be happy to develop a greater understanding about the problems and opportunities in team coaching, especially in high school tennis.

Battling the Low Opinion of High School Tennis / Coaches

Recently an article came out that concerns us at USATennisCoach. When we heard the data that showed only 20% of high school matches are ‘competitive’, we know from experience, that people sometimes look at parents and players have misgivings about playing matches that they don’t see as valuable. We love data, and we are also inspired by it. We take data as a challenge to move the needle. Many times data can be misinterpreted, spun, or just plan not understood. Higher numbers are sometimes valued more than lower numbers, and what can be lost is an opportunity to thrive.
We think it a grave error if a player, parent, or private coach would seize on ‘80% of high school matches are not competitive’ and make decisions on that basis. We would like to know how a competitive match is defined. Also, we would like to propose that a small portion of non-competitive matches should not be played by elite players, but many others provide an opportunity for a player to gain valuable experience, and also give back to the game they love.

From Styrling:

This past week my high school team which is made up of state ranked junior players, played a team that was weaker at every position. I talked with my players, letting them know that they had a great opportunity to push themselves and experiment, to try different ways of winning, than they typically would be able to use with confidence. I challenged my #1 through #6 singles players to attack after the serve and the return. Some of them I challenged to come to the net more, finishing the point there.
I had a particularly interesting conversation with the parent of one of my top four players. She was just coming off a shoulder injury, so I decided to play her at #6 singles position to get her back in the groove. Her father came up to me before she took the court and asked if I was going to give her an opportunity to play more “competitive” matches? (He knew this team was a weaker team in our schedule, so his concern for his daughter playing a much weaker player was understandable), I calmly explained to him that I had spoken to her before the match about the strategy I’d like to see her use against her opponent. I encouraged her to play as if she was competing against a high level competitor. I wanted her to look for and attack every short ball, on the rise, to her opponent’s backhand side, with unrelenting force. I asked her to knock the cover off the ball and then approach and finish with a volley or smash. I told her I wanted her to end the point quickly and take every opportunity to do so within her confidence level, and even if she missed, go at the next ball with even more confidence. She finished the match in only twenty four minutes with a decisive win. Most importantly, she was excited about the way she played and had executed tactically and forcefully. So while parents may pushback, or give suggestions, really the coach should give the most weight to the player’s experience.

The father came up to me and was extremely pleased obviously at the way his daughter played so confident and finished the point decisively. I believe that I was able to open up his mindset to the other side of the coin, which is, a player can make something incredible out of any opportunity (even if that opportunity seems less than optimal at the time). Over the years I’ve realized that a coach can affect his players and parents in a positive way by first listening, then offer a perspective that reveals more of what is really there at first sight. It’s similar to a great painting that is covered partially by a sheet and you can only see just 1/2 of the picture and then someone comes over and pulls away the sheet to reveal the best part that was hidden, they removed the blind spot that revealed the complete masterpiece.

Five out of our six singles players finished that day in less than an hour, they actually showed mercy to the other team by playing all out and competing at their best, and finishing the match quickly, so that everyone could go home and do homework. My team learned a valuable less about competition, always give it your best and respect your opponent in this way.

Bill’s Advice:

Another instance of pushback involves the training for a high school team. I maximize my pre-competitive training, and it does continue through pre-season matches. In the shorter term, the teams results can be affected, easy matches might become more difficult as players who are sore and tired are competing. Its possible for the team to take a loss in the early going, instead of win if we had been fresh. Players and parents have complained to me questioning, “Why are we working out like this when we have a match tomorrow? If we lose tomorrow that will affect our seeding in playoffs.” To which I respond with, “What is more important, being seeded higher, or being more prepared for success at the end? Would you rather have a higher seed and feel the pressure and be undertrained, or be a lower seed primed to upset the higher rated team?” My teams seem to regularly pull major upsets. Most recently Amy Vu as a #3 seed beat the #2 and #1 seed in the same day to win the first ever tennis championship in the 60 year history of the school. She thanked me for the conditioning. In 18 months three consecutive playoff seasons, boys and girls, my #9 seeds beat #8 and #1, my #10 seeds beat #7 and #2, and my #3 seeds beat #2 and #1 in 97 degree heat to win a section title. I think it had something to do with being ready, and not early season results.

We believe that the results will prove the principles. Sometimes the result is not the score on the scorecard, but instead the feeling of accomplishment the player has inside them. Winning is easy to see on the outside, but if you look for it, its not hard to find on the inside also.  Listen to those who push back, really understand what they are saying, then reason with them to show the bigger picture.  Reassure them that you do have a plan, and if they give you a great idea, consider it.

Bill Patton, Executive Director is the Author of The Art of Coaching High School Tennis and Visual Training for Tennis.

Styrling Strother’s  Book    7 On Court Strategies to Enter Your Play State was released July, 2017

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