Anya is in the middle of her high school season, so I don’t expect to see her much until she is done. A major reason for that is one of my key philosophies is I try to make sure my private lesson students feel free to give their all to their team. That philosophy came prior to the athlete centered approach. I believe in team play!
On a certain Saturday, our normal small group training was cancelled because of illness and lack of availability of the others in that small group, that comes for high intensity training. So I offered Anya and her parents a private lesson slot, which she does not often take, because she mainly wants to play other players her age, and not a broken down 53 year old guy. I can completely understand that. That is also another program philosophy issue, I mainly want my players to play in the most realistic setting to the level at which they play. But Saturday was an exception, Anya chose the private lesson.
Communication and Decision Making
In a text I asked her ahead of time what she wanted to work on in her game. Our relationship is now at a place where I know what her intentions are, when she wants a private lesson, there is usually a certain skill she wants to develop. Saturday, it was all about her hitting backhands deep to the other players backhand. This was a wise decision on her part. And that is another cog in the philosophy, ‘Players are the decision makers’. That’s not the sexiest shot to learn, but a very important cog in beating another player and not being beaten. It would be like asking for an extra helping of vegetables at the dinner table, even when dessert is ready.
Understand and Confirm
When she arrived we warmed up a bit, and I probed a bit more to try to really understand what she meant when she said deep backhands. She confirmed that she wants to be able to take deep backhand shots to her and return them deep to the backhand of the opponent. We didn’t have to talk long about the why’s and wherefores because we have gone down that road before. That’s another piece of my coaching philosophy, ‘Trust a player’s prior knowledge’. Of course, this is much easier after it’s been tested some. As you can see, my previously developed and refined coaching philosophy has already had a major effect on the player’s work, and we had not really done anything yet on court. And then, we got to work!
Defining the Task
We warmed up a few backhands, then started working on defining and then hitting the target area. If the player does not know how to define a deep shot, how can they hit it? My definition for deep is anything in the second half of the big rectangle. So we tried this for 10 minutes. I trust the genius of the player. Sometimes they simply perform exactly like they want to, and I say, “Yes, do it like that.” So then we look for some keep indicators of how that happened and move onto a higher level of challenge.
Saturday however, Anya was hitting almost everything five to ten feet short of the target and spraying occasional shots wide. I asked her, “Do you see the target?” She indicated that she did. You might be surprised, but many times that question can trigger something in the player to perform better, see better, focus better, I am not sure of the function, but it sometimes pushes the right button. Not this Saturday. She continued to spray. Over a few more reps I noticed that not only was she stopping her racquet in its path, but also had varying swing paths that were not along the ‘figure 8’ swing shape, more on that another time. So I asked her to feel if she was stopping her racquet and to keep it in motion even if very slowly in preparation for an incoming ball. Her accuracy improved.
Anya could now hit a few balls in the target area. I asked her, ‘What else do you need to get more balls in the target area?’. Many times students have the answer. This tunes into the part of my coaching philosophy that says I don’t want to often, ‘tell’ players what to do, I want to ‘ask’ them if they know what to do. This empowers them to take ownership. When their answers run out, their curiosity kicks in. Anya did not know what to do, so I brought her to the net for a quick talk. I showed her the ball and asked her where she thought she should meet the ball for a deep crosscourt backhand. She pointed to the exact back of the ball, so I redirected her. I said, if you hit it there, it’s going in he middle of the court and short. Why not hit it lower on the ball and a little more to the left? She said ok.
Within a few minutes she was hitting the target area more regularly, but didn’t seem able to hit two in a row. She would hit the target, miss the next shot and I would ask, “Don’t you like to hit the target?” in a bit of a fun sarcastic probing tone. This happened a few times. But then something very interesting happened.
Anya hit the target area, then hit the next ball 20 feet away, low to the forehand. I gave her some grief, and she did better. Then she hit the target area and another ball low to the forehand. I stopped everything and asked, “Stop. What’s going on here?”. There was a long pause, as I thought for a moment. “Are you hitting shot combinations? Are you ‘winning the point’?” It was an aha moment, because Anya was so well trained on hitting deep/short, short/deep combinations, that she automatically follows up a deep shot to the backhand with a short, low angled forehand shot for the opponent. Where many coaches might simply drill and kill, and demand that they hit the target area, I was able to understand, affirm her previous training, and then say ‘ok, now shut that program off for a few minutes. We are simply working on this one shot.” She said ok, and she then hit a few shots in a row into the target area. So, it was an athlete centered moment, but only because I myself had done the work of developing my principles that allowed it to happen in a way that would also function to empower, affirm, and also redirect the player to the task at hand. At no time did Anya take over the lesson completely, and I was not subject to her whims. Instead, she created the agenda for the day, and then I managed it using principles that work.
Three Days Later
Today I was honored when she asked me to write her a letter of recommendation. This is one of the highest compliments you can receive as a coach, because that means the player trusts you to convey them in a positive light, and that you know who they are to a better degree than the other adults around them.