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What Makes a Great Coach?

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There are things we can learn from reading books. There are things we can learn from sitting in a class or seminar. But there are some things, some very important things, that we can only learn through observation. I believe great tennis coaching is one of them.

One of the first things I wrote when I started ParentingAces was a 3-part series on how to choose a coach for your child. I have learned so much since posting those pieces, mostly due to the many fantastic coaches I’ve had the opportunity to meet over the past 2 1/2 years.

One thing that jumps out at me in terms of the difference between a good coach and a great one is mentoring. Every single one of the coaches whom I classify as great have told me they had a mentor-coach, someone they watched and studied, someone who guided them not necessarily through words but through actions.

Think about it . . . teaching proper forehands and backhands is pretty standard stuff. I mean, there are different grips, different swing paths, etc. and each coach has his/her preferred methods of teaching those things, but that is all information that can be learned through reading books or watching YouTube videos – just ask any non tennis playing parent who has taught their kid how to play the game. Where a mentor comes into play is with the intangibles. If a student isn’t “getting it,” how can the coach teach it differently? If a student needs to know the why behind each instruction, how can the coach explain while keeping things moving forward? If a student is having a crisis of confidence, how can the coach bring to light the positive aspects of the student’s game while confidence is being rekindled? If a student is having an off day, how can the coach delve into the why behind it?

And, then, taking the instruction beyond the fundamentals to the x’s and o’s of the game. This, to me, is where the divide between “good” and “great” really happens. Some players naturally understand the geometry of a tennis court and naturally develop effective patterns of play. But for some players, that skill needs to be taught. So a coach who studies the game by repeatedly watching video of not only his/her own students but also the pros to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and then devises customized strategies for each student based on their personal strengths and weaknesses is a coach who can help those students achieve their highest potential. That skill set is usually learned from observing a mentor at work.

I recently asked several junior coaches how they learn about the tournament structure and keep up with the ever-changing rules imposed by USTA to guide their players when developing a tournament schedule. Not surprisingly, 99.9% of them told me they don’t! They rely on us parents to handle that aspect of the child’s tennis because there’s just not enough time in the day to keep up with it all. But one young coach told me he sits down with each of his players’ families at the beginning of the school year, he has them bring their school calendar while he pulls up the tournament calendar on his iPad, and he compares the two. If there’s a school dance or standardized testing right before or right after a certain tournament, the coach points that out and lets the family decide whether they want to sign up for that event or take a pass. He asks the player which high-level tournaments are a priority, and they schedule training around those events. He asks the player about development and performance goals for the year, and they devise a comprehensive plan to get there. I asked the coach how he came to hold these meetings with the families – was this something he came up with on his own or did he learn it from one of the certifying organizations or what? He told me he learned it from another coach, one whom he considered his mentor.

My son recently told me that he would like to be a coach after his playing days are done. I think he’s going to be one of the great ones. I say that mainly because he’s had the opportunity to work with some great ones and is learning to observe their methods and to ask questions of them about their own development in the coaching world. When we were in Los Angeles last month, my son spent quite a bit of time talking with Craig Cignarelli about how he got to be the head pro at the Malibu Racquet Club, and Craig was very forthcoming about his journey. Craig talked a lot about the coaches he learned from – and continues to learn from – and how that has helped him develop his personal style of coaching. Craig encouraged my son to spend time NOW working with younger players, serving as both a teacher and role model for them, to begin honing the skills that will best serve him later on.

Great coaches aren’t created in a weekend workshop. They are the result of years – maybe even decades – of playing, observing, trial-and-error teaching, studying, risking, screwing up, revamping, thinking outside the box. These great coaches are out there in the trenches working with kids all over the world. They are not, despite what our governing body would like us to believe, limited to the handful of elite training centers but are spread out across the country working in high-end country clubs, public parks, neighborhoods, and schools. It can be very difficult to find one of them because they are sparsely sprinkled among the vast number of mediocre coaches out there, but when you do spot one, you’ll know. The great coaches have an aura about them that’s clearly visible to those who look hard enough. My hope is that all of you have the profound luck to place your child in the hands of one of these special coaches at least once over the course of their junior development. The impact it will have on your child is immeasurable.




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