The Stuff They Don’t Tell You: Setting the Tone!

Few Talk About Setting the Tone

What is it that no one tells you, when it comes to coaching a team? One of the most important topics, that can have a major impact on the outcomes, experiences, and development of your players, is how you deal with the first few days. Some of you started practice yesterday, many will start on Monday and in the next few weeks. There is time for you to make a few vital tweaks to dial this in, and improve the overall experience, for your players, by a large measure.

Ignoring the Fundamentals

Much of what counts as training for coaches ignores what is most important, and we seem to focus so much on the external outcomes, and not enough of stating and affirming the inner values of what we want to develop. Much lip service is given to starting strong, but no specifics are given. Even when there are specifics, many times we mentally ascent to concepts about which we have no real conviction. So those principles are jettisoned at the first sign of trouble. It’s odd how people are sometimes amazed when some coaches get certain outcomes, and they wonder why they are not producing the same outcomes, even when they perceive that they have the same playing ability, same knowledge of the game, and same level of players or even better level.

Establish, Affirm, Defend Basic Realistic Goals

When I am coaching, I want my players to know what we have four goals, and I have major objectives we will achieve in the areas of fitness, strategy, mental game, and team spirit. We are a team, and I want everyone to know that each one of them is not only expected to do well for themselves and what happens on their court, but also to play for each other. I set that tone on day one.
My goals for my program are 1. Give 100% effort at all times. 2. Enjoy the Competition. 3. Show Yourself Strong and Wise. 4. Learn from Every Situation.

Embrace and Mitigate Chaos

The first thing that will happen, and needs to be addressed immediately is chaos. It’s only normal that on the first day of meeting, old players are going to have a reunion type of feeling and newer players are not going to know where to stand or how things go. One of the best ways to set the tone for the first day is to start practice the same way you want practice to start, but not use any routines that new players will get lost in. So, going through a warm up of running so many laps, and doing a certain number of stretches will go a long way toward establishing that routine. It’s imperitive that you start at the same minute that practice is scheduled to begin, otherwise you send a message that in reality it does not start exactly at that time.
After the warm up having a brief meeting that outlines the teams goals for the year, what will happen and what you expect today, and team selection criteria will give players all they need to know for the moment. Expressing your coaching philosophy and what really matters to you at this time also helps set the tone.

Use Brief Meetings To Set Tone, Refine and Reaffirm

On the first few days of practice and tryouts I try to have 2 or 3 brief meetings in between activities. Next, the next phase of warming up on court can begin, which looks different for different teams. For me, 80% of the time, as we begin, I have my players playing games of Short Court, and sometimes with special rules. Some days we play ‘up the river, down the river’, sometimes not. On day one, I want to use the most basic form. Once the warm up is done, then everyone who is a lock to make the team can be sent to courts to begin practicing with a separate plan. There may be little or no direct supervision of that, so the expectation of what is to happen must be very clear. Invariably these players will begin to goof off a bit, so I go to them and get them back on track.

Communication of Expectations and Criteria as Tone Setter

It’s best if all new players have already been informed about the selection criteria ahead of tryouts. As I have stated before many times, one of my worst mistakes was selecting players simply because of their ability to beat players, today or this week. Of course, you want to select players who are good players, but some selections can do more harm than good.

Some items for your criteria that you may want to consider, and you may also want to weight them differently:

* Results of Tryout Matches 50%
* Attitude and Work Ethic 25%
* Integrity and Team Player 15%
* Raw Athletic Ability 10%

Just to name a few. You may want to have more criteria, but I would never reduce playing ability below a 50% level, and you might want it as high as 75%. I like to leave more room to explain why I cut a player who had poor work ethic and/or integrity. It’s good to have a quick chat with each prospective player, and observe them closely with their teammates. Ask them to help with something and look for their response. Take them through some athletic exercises and measure performance. Know what you are looking for and take a note, about ‘failed to help with ball pick up’ or something along those lines.

Be Courageous When Players Who Seem Good Enough Fail to Meet the Criteria

I have had some decent players who were solidly in the middle or near the top of the ability that did not make the team. One boy in particular lied to me about what his position had been on the team in the previous year. When he also lied to my assistant coach and his fellow team mates, I gave him a chance to confess and apologize, but he stood by his untruthfulness. I felt I was very patient with him over a few days, and finally I cut him from the team. This confused many people, because he was a good player, why would I not accept him? Players who lie, have been a major source of difficulty for their teammates, assistant coaches, and myself. This is an issue you may want to make a zero tolerance issue, because of the damage they can do to the team atmosphere. If you know a player to be dishonest about issues that can lead to major problems, consider how that can be a distraction to the team.

Reward Bold Proactive Behavior, it’s Contagious

I don’t think this will ever happen again, but I had a nice young man who was the last cut, simply because he lacked some of the fundamental ability that players ahead of him all had, and he was #25 when I planned to keep 24 players. It pained me to let him go. Strangely, he came to practice the next day, dressed ready to play. When practice started he went on court. I asked, “What are you doing here? I cut you yesterday.” He said, “I know”, then stood there and remained silent. I was dumbstruck. How could a young guy have the guts to come back and play after he had been cut. His attitude was very pleasant, there was nothing pushy about it, he just waited. In my mind, I went back and forth to decide what to do. I decided to keep him on the team, because I thought that was a great model of determination and hope to follow for the rest of the team. As it turned out, he climbed the ladder, because he had an ability to win that far outstripped his fundamental ability to hit a tennis ball.

Being a Pillar of Truth, Justice and Fair Play

One of the major issues that teenagers have with their entire high school experience with teachers, teams and coaches is a sense of unfairness. Enough coaches and teachers play favorites to a degree, that when another coach or teacher, is as even handed as possible with students and players, there can still be a healthy amount of skepticism. If you have coached for any length of time, you know how hard it is to balance your time, and figure out how much attention players want and need. I don’t think I have gone through an entire season without some kind of conflict or misunderstanding about how I promote players, select them, and/or spend time with them on their game.

Plan the Work, Communicate the Plan, Work the Plan

It’s important for coaches to lay out their plans to some degree. On the first day I may say this. “Today is the first day of tryouts, so I expect all returning players to settle into the basic routine of a standard practice as you remember from last year. As tryouts wind down, then I will focus heavily on working with team captains, and our top players until I feel they have been spurred on enough. I will work my way down the lineup so be patient, do your best and take advantage of each moment when I bring the group together for team instruction. Our primary focus with one coach for two teams is to prepare the varsity for competition, and then to develop JV players to be future varsity contributors. I believe what John Wooden said, “I treat everyone the same, differently.” I will try to discover who you are, and how you like to be treated, but I will also challenge you to become better than you are right now. Any Questions?” After a long pause to be sure there are no questions, then I move along with the next item. The tone has been set for the next few weeks, and I can refer back to this talk.

We Can and Will Assist You in Planning to Set the Tone

To conclude, your situation is unique to our situations. You know what tone you can set, or maybe you are unsure about doing that. Please contact me, I will gladly guide you through the process in time for your season.

Styrling and I are also available for one on one coaching to assist you in developing practice routines to be highly effective at supporting the mission, and maintaining the tone you have set.

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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