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What Did You Say?

When you open your mouth on a tennis court what comes out?

It has been an interesting months reviewing lessons with coaches from around the world, sometimes via video and sometimes in real time. Reflecting on what we say and how that has an impact on our player(s) has always been an interest of mine.

It dates back to when I was a young coach. Without realizing it I got into the habit of saying “Basically” at the start of every explanation. After a few weeks the kids started messing with me by replying to every questions with the word “Basically” to start each response. It took me a while to understand why they were laughing so much but in the end I did, and managed to kick the habit, although some of my players from those days still give me a hard time! Being christened “Basic Mike” was not my finest hour.

Fast forward and here we are critiquing communication in lesson and trying to get to grips with the fact that some coaches seem to make great connections with their players, they engage and improve, while others deliver the same content and the lessons seems to be an uphill battle from the start.

Enter the diagram on the right! A kind of self evaluative pie that I have asked coaches to complete both on themselves and on others. The concept is pretty simple! How much of the noises that come from your mouth are based on

  • Giving Directions, organizing and keeping order
  • Giving Feedback around the performance of the skill
  • Building Relationships, taking to the player as a person

Of course there are cross overs here. If you give feedback in the right way then your relationship will develop with the player. But the quest is to draw your own pie and find out where you are with your approach to verbal communication.


The Director 

This was actually the role in which most coaches we observed thrived. Telling players where to go and what to do doesn’t seem to be a problem for most coaches. The challenge sometimes comes when this is done in a such a regimented way that players shut down on other elements like feedback and relationships, or, and this is the key when this was the only type of communication that was delivered. So the question is, how much of your time is spent giving in this role?

The Doctor

Giving feedback is a skill in itself. Most of us as coaches feel validated when someone does something wrong. It’s what I call “Goalkeeper Syndrom”. Being a goalkeeping is an odd role in team sports. As a team you actually want the keeper to touch the ball as little as possible but if you are in goal you actually have a part of you that wants the other team to shoot so you can make a save! It’s an odd role. As coaches we can fall into this trap of looking for errors so that we can fix them and then “Yay!”we are useful.

Giving feedback means looking for positives and highlights as well as supporting players when they make faults or errors. In a future we will dive into this space much more, but for now one key observation was that there is a big difference between giving feedback like a “mailman”, giving a quick tip and leaving vs. actually staying to help the player to work with that feedback and seeing if they can implement it!

For now the question is how much of your pie is taken up by giving feedback around the performance of a skill?

The Bartender 

OK I know that this is an odd analogy for talking about working with kids but I am a child of the seventies and grew up watching the US TV Series “Cheers”. If you saw the series I don’t need to discuss this any more. If you didn’t you missed out! So the question here is how much of what you say shows a genuine interest in the players as a person? Their life outside tennis, their interests and understanding what motivates them! Kids don’t stay in programs if they don’t like the coach! Relationships are everything!

“An Exchange of Information”

I love this definition of communication. It’s simple but also covers a myriad of skills! Do you speak and listen? Do your ask questions? Are you genuinely interested in interacting or just getting your level of expertise across? In our diagram there is a higher level where all these three roles merge and can be separated! Where you don’t just give directions but involve your players in the decision making process, where you give feedback in a way that enhances relationships and your discussions blend across tennis and more.

A great UK based coach, Mandy Franks once said “We must create independent critical thinkers!” To make decisions then you must feel that you have some influence, some control over the situation! So the question is are we giving autonomy to our players so that we can foster this? Asking questions, listening to and accepting the answers even when they come from a different place than you were expecting! Do players make decisions in your teaching environment and feel empowered and respected for their answers?

It’s Your Call! 

So the challenge is to not just evaluate your skills in these three fields but also to consider what is needed when for each individual player, group or team.  With the coaches in the evolution network we are going to dive into developing these skills to much higher levels in future articles, always looking for ways to deliver a better place for kids to play! You may want to go as far as creating some notes so here is a PDF Sheet to make your observations!

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