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Traits of Great Coaches (Part 2)

Here is Part 2 of a series written by contributor, Aleksey Zharinov. Click here for Part 1. Click here to listen to my 2018 podcast with Aleksey.

2. Precise error detection and effective methods of fixing it

“Everyone needs a coach. It doesn’t matter if you are basketball player, a tennis player, a gymnast or a bridge player.”
– Bill Gates

Being a good coach consists of many factors: extensive knowledge of technique, precise error detection and effective methods of fixing it, constant feedback, ability to transfer knowledge to a student, ability to structure practice with the most benefit to the student, motivation and support, creating a fun atmosphere without losing the effectiveness of training, knowledge of tactics and strategies, knowledge of off-court training, knowledge of tennis psychology, knowledge of recovery process, good people skills, etc. I guarantee you there are very few people who possess all of these, but that’s what you should be looking for as a parent. The more of these factors the coach possesses the higher his/her value goes and, consequently, the more benefit he/she will bring to your young Roger or Serena. Let’s continue looking at these factors one by one keeping in mind that we are talking about coaching for world-class level.

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”
 – Niels Bohr

This is the area where many coaches fall short. It stems from the technique knowledge deficit but also from not knowing how the body works and the reasons why a swing is designed the way it is. From my experience, I would even venture to say that very frequently the coach will tell you the result of the mistake and not the root of it. For example, if a student keeps hitting the ball low on his/her serve, the coach will frequently say, “You are catching it too low,” and stop there. Catching the ball low is a consequence of either low ball tossing or waiting too long and dropping the ball past the strike zone. In either case, hitting too low is a consequence, not the root cause of the problem. Stuff like that is absolutely epidemic among the pros I see teaching today, and yet, it’s absolutely essential to identify the root of the error in order to bring a lasting quality correction.

Methods of fixing errors should be very specific and designed to address that particular area of a swing. I like to simplify things and create a progression where the student concentrates on that particular area only, starting with the most easy and basic level. As they get better, I increase the difficulty of the situation while enforcing the highest quality (which they can already perform during easier stages). I have seen a lot of coaches try to teach their students’ technique or fix some particular flaws in their swing by going straight to rallying. To learn something new and advanced or correct an old bad habit while hitting like that is nearly impossible, really it’s a waste of time and money on a big scale! Rallying is fun but it involves tracking the ball, judging where it’s going to land, moving your feet precisely to the right spot, timing the swing, and hopefully producing the right swing. In doing all that, the pro is asking a student to do all of the above (which they can’t by definition) and work on a specific aspect of their swing at the same time. Impossible!

Just like in school, kids don’t start reading War and Peace in the first grade, instead they start with the alphabet and go on from there. I recommend starting with performing a stroke, starting slowly without a ball, and gradually going all the way to match play. Every student has their own level where they are at and it’s the coach’s job to place them just at the level where they are challenged, just far enough to be attainable. If the goal is too difficult, they might give up. If it’s too easy, they will not be pushed to get to the next level. The end goal in this area is, of course, to eliminate the problem but also to give the student the knowledge of the swing so they are able to know exactly where they went wrong during their mistakes, in effect making them better at self-coaching and able to work on it when you are not around.

In conclusion, precise error detection starts with a very good understanding of the proper technique and with the ability to see the root cause of the mistake rather than the consequence of it. Without this ability, chances are the student will never get to the bottom of their error and therefore will be stuck with it for a long time.

My recommendation to all tennis parents would be to learn the mechanics the best that you can and don’t be afraid to ask your child’s coach what they are working on and why. They should be able to tell you the exact aspect of the swing in which the error lies and tell you how it affects the swing. Always ask what your coach is working on with your kid! It should be something like a stroke or pattern your kid is NOT good at, otherwise he/she is leading the practice and only doing what they excel at, leaving their weakest areas weak and exposed for their opponent to take advantage of. Also, make sure your child has a good understanding of the overall concept of the swing that’s being taught, and ask the coach to explain it to them multiple times if necessary. It’s imperative that they understand the ins and outs of the technique because not only does it make them more effective while hitting in a group or a live ball setting, it also will make them a much better match player because they will be able to know their opponents’ weaknesses and limitations just based on their technique.


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