The Art of Coaching: Learning How to Learn

Tennis is actually a complex game requiring good eye-hand coordination, balance, spatial ability to set up to the ball properly, strength and speed and a great deal of “task” focus. Taking these demands into consideration, it is critical that the experience as student and coach be a collaborative one. Certainly, managing a player’s approach to the game and shot selection is both an art and a science.

But, if push comes to shove, I believe that being an exceptional coach and creating an optimal learning experience have actually less to do with content knowledge and even more to do with the psychology between people. As it turns out, the information is the easy part. Understanding each player, their personality, tendencies and learning style are what make coaching an art. As a coach, you could know the most cutting-edge strategies, techniques, drills, etc.. but what if you don’t have your player’s ear? Or, as a player, what if the information you’re being taught actually makes you think too much or has you focus on something technical when all you needed was a shift in perception. The kind of connection you have with your coach is fundamental to your learning process. What am I talking about? The relationship. Yes, this must come before the great insight they have about the game in general, how you could do even better. In Real Estate you’ve heard: location, location, location. In coaching it’s: Relationship, relationship, relationship.

The negative impact of a weak relationship between coach and player is significant–loss of self-confidence, lost opportunity of developing critical thinking skills, inability to self-coach, dependency, etc…And what I am talking about here is one major strategic error: OVER COACHING. What do I mean by over coaching? instructing too much, halting training too frequently, telling you what to do without engaging THEM in their own process, focusing excessively on what ISN”T working, and framing your issues as a “problem” to name a few.

I’ve just seen it far too often. The player misses a shot, the coach corrects. By itself, this is hardly a problem. But, if this dynamic is repeated over and over it can begin to undermine the players’ own process in a multitude of ways. After awhile I see the lights go out in the player’s eyes. They are taught to look to the coach for the answer. Their eyes drift up to the stands scanning for their coach–even if it is simply for a sign as to whether they should eat a banana now or later, as we saw a few years ago. It is imperative that you, as a player, tune into your own experience. Feel your feet, focus on your contact point, really pay attention. Don’t get overly reliant on the coach to fix your strokes. They have suggestions and see some things you may not, but you must become the ultimate judge of what your body just did on the last shot so you can correct it. Self-diagnosis becomes imperative and it’s all about being in your body. Having a coach who helps you enhance this ability and explores this with you is invaluable.

The 1-2 seconds after a mistake offers you an important opportunity to tune into your body, recognize your mistake and correct it intuitively. Coaches who can actually help you get more into your body and out of your head understand the importance of the learning process. Unfortunately, over coaching sabotages this moment-to-moment opportunity. It doesn’t mean the coach is asking questions all the time but they must begin to dance differently with you. And, it is incumbent on you, as a player, to ask yourself what you noticed. You, too, have a responsibility for your own experience, for your development.

The developmental path is long and challenging. Getting this template right is crucial if you are going to grow, mature and learn to think for yourself on the court. This is an art and act at the same time. Creating a collaborative dynamic and exploratory process allow both you and your coach to engage in this highly personal experience together.

When it comes to learning the expression, “Give someone a fish or teach them how” is certainly relevant.

It is believed that John Wooden was one of the best coaches of all time. In short, he got it. His enormous success aside, the fact that he never mentioned winning tells us all we need to know: He valued the “process” and held this up over everything. He treated each player differently and coached them based on their needs, not on his own.

I recently spoke with a coach of a former top 5 player in the world who said that the biggest problem on the pro tour is that as soon as players start doing well the coach can have the tendency to inject himself into their experience, making themselves a factor in their success. Immediately, that player, he told me, would often fall off a cliff. Similarly, if a player wasn’t doing well during a given month or two, the coach would again try to fix and say too much. What might have become just a blip along a naturally winding path became cemented as a “problem” to fix. He even went as far to say, “The moment a coach opens his mouth there is an increased chance that he will simultaneously undermine his player’s confidence. Certainly, it is wise to reflect on the impact of what we want to say.

Does this mean that a coach is handcuffed to share his observations? Absolutely not. But it would be fruitful to ask what you feel you need in a coach that is appropriate for you and your learning style. Personally, I am ecstatic when a player has an insight, observation or question. It tells me that they are within the learning zone that is so critical for long-term peak performance and improvement.