Coaching Take 1 – Avoid Information Overload
My first stint as a high school coach came when I took over a team of young men at a school with little tradition of success in tennis. I noticed that my players were good athletes so I felt I had a lot to mould as a coach even if their skill level was low. The second thing I noticed was that giving advice during a drill on technique was one thing, but doing it in a match was quite different. My players needed to remain confident during matches and only be handed something they could digest in that situation. I tried to limit any advice to one thing even if 20 things were going wrong on court. In the heat of a match, giving a player encyclopedic advice is a very bad idea. I found (along the lines of The Inner Game of Tennis) that if one thing improves and a player is confident many other issues can self-correct on court.
Approach 3 – Make Sure Advice is Focused
Coaching Take 2 – Know Your Players
This requires being attentive
I have coached both high school boys and high school girls. Many teenagers have issues with angst. The solitary nature of tennis makes the prospects of losing even worse as teammates and coaches can not shoulder much of the blame. I learned from my own struggles with nerves as a junior player to try to keep my advice light and to use humor to diffuse tension. However, some players are not as full of angst. I had a particular doubles team who would race to leads and then go on walk-about. I coached these young men differently than everyone else on the team. I would be a bit more like a stereotypically intense basketball coach exhorting them to finish their opponents when they were leading and to wake up when trailing. Other players would drop several levels of play if I was as direct in my critiques, but these two needed and even sought out that sort of coaching at changeovers.
Approach 4 – Generally avoid increasing stress during in-match coaching of teens
Approach 5 – Be flexible enough to abandon approach 4 if personalities call for a more direct approach
Coaching Take 3 – Pre- and Post-Match Thoughts
This is a bad idea for a pre-match talk as a tennis coach
No one plays a perfect match so my pre-match comments always focus on the long term aspect of a match so players avoid obsessing over a single point. I generally will tell a player, “Your opponent is likely to hit good shots and win games etc. You have to make up your mind to make him or her work hard and be prepared to work hard yourself. If you do that and ______________ (insert another single piece of advice for this player/match – see Approach 3), you will be fine.”
Post-match coaching is tricky. Sometimes a player wins, but did so in spite of a weak second serve or bad footwork. Sometimes a player loses and tears are a possibility. Neither of these moments are great for breaking down grip choices, a serve toss or even effort levels. I think the best thing to tell a player after a win is congratulations and just say, “We get back after it tomorrow.” Advice to a winner right after a match can seem like raining on a parade. In tournament play, advice should be kept very brief after a win so as to not hurt a positive mental outlook.
Tears are my biggest fear as a coach. No coach wants to see one of their players upset. Teens do not love hearing, “In my day, ….” Instead, I think the best thing to say is a brief appreciation of their effort and then to listen to whatever they have to say about the match no matter how irrational it may seem. High school players need to know their coach cares about them as people first and players second. I think if that fact is conveyed throughout the entire player development process dealing with individual losses is much easier for the player and the coach. So long as the losing player is displaying sportsmanship there is no need to force conversation. Everyone deals with losing differently.
Approach 6 – Keep pre- and post-match comments focused on a player’s well-being