The best case scenario is that we are expert coaches, or moving towards becoming an expert coach at a speedy rate. One of the earmarks of an expert coach is a well developed, concise coaching philosophy that translates into action. Better yet, is the coaching philosophy that closely reflects the values of the coach, and not necessarily the values of USATennisCoach’s template of four goals. Even so lets take a look at the application of these goals into the actual coaching of the players. We would like to assert that for every coach an aspect of doing your very best at all times is something to strive for.
Application is Everything
When we apply these principles, we can start to take a look at how we apply them on a team level, with individual players, and as a coach in the league or region. We can give our best by being active, and we can give our best by being very passive and that will be explained.
Lets start with the team. If we as coaches are going to give 100% effort, then we need at least a penciled in plan for the season. When we don’t take a look at the bigger picture of the full season, we may suffer from a missed opportunity to develop our players. Once we have an idea of what we want to accomplish in the season, then we need to look at how many practice days we have and how much time realistically can be devoted to what we want to achieve. From there we develop daily plans. Like a sea captain who must change course when a huge storm comes along, we must be ready to make changes to our plan and maybe abandon some of the less precious cargo in our schedule to make the ship lighter.
Always Keep the Essentials
Two essential aspects of a team’s training that should never be jettisoned are Fitness Training, and the 15-20 minute time of large group games at the end of practice. Those two things are the lynchpins of success for the team player. Why? Training players for speed on court and muscular endurance can be the largest factor in their success. Developing a team atmosphere that fun is important, creates a very strong morale between teammates, and helps keep them loose prior to competitions. Don’t sacrifice either of those aspects, but do have a plan on a daily basis that fits the phase of training you are in. Later, we will get into phases of training, but that could be a few weeks out, you might want to get a copy of The Art of Coaching High School Tennis, which covers this in a way that will really help a team coach to give 100% effort. So the planning really facilitates the ability to give our best. One of Bill’s best friends and mentors who recently passed, Al Bowlin who was a top flight basketball coach said often, “Piss Poor Planning Prevents Performance.”
If we zoom in a bit, and look at the coach’s interactions with each player, lets examine how well the coach divides their time. Ideally, the coach could have some type of stop watch or something to help them give exactly the same amount of time to each player. This is not at all realistic, but if we take a mindful approach, we can identify players who don’t need as much attention, and players who need a bit more. Some players have a very low tolerance for receiving a lot of information at one time, and others want very detailed explanations, and some have a crush on the coach, so you don’t want to spend too much attention with that player. Also, take good care of phases of attention.
Very early in the season I might spend more time with my top players to make sure they are getting dialed in fast with good timing, that might last a few days. I still make sure I have a contact with every player on the team each day. After working closely with my top 4, I would move into working with the next 6-8 players who comprise our doubles teams for a day or two, then move down the ladder until I have had some concentrated time with every player on the team in a smaller group setting. When a particular player is having a problem with a particular shot, working in a time to work with them at a natural time when the whole team is working on that shot is ideal, because it maintains the flow of practice. Bottom line, be mindful of communicating to players, “I tried to give as close to an equal amount of time to each of you as needed, but if you are feeling neglected, let me know and I will address that.”
One great aspect of working with smaller groups of players at one time is that it facilitates really observing what is happening. One of the more passive aspects of coaching is passively observing what the players are doing. You may notice that they are not performing a certain action the way it was taught. This is a great time to check for understanding. So often our educational system resembles people with power tools. The teacher drills a hole in the students head, uses a funnel and pours the information into the students head and uses a rag to control spills. Really the opposite is much more engaging.
Engage Prior Knowledge
We can start everything by asking the student what they know already. Checking for prior knowledge and understanding is vitally important to doing our best job. Imagine how much you hate to be told what you already know. What a huge waste of time, and frustration, plus in some cases it can have you wondering if the person talking to you thinks you are stupid. Now turn that around. Do you want your players to show their smarts, save time and be empowered? Yes! So ask them, “What do you know about getting to the net?” When they give their answers, they teach the less experience players, they become experts, you save time and energy, and you can refine their thinking on the topic at hand. You develop a more collaborative culture on your team. Continue to ask questions until they prove to have a thorough enough understanding, and stop when they have no answer. When you ask a question that the players do not know the answer to, then you tap into their curiosity, and their minds may be more open to what you have to say. If you just give them another lecture, ‘good luck with that’, as SpongeBob would say to Plankton.
Our Engagement of Attention
Another aspect of our coaching is the level of engagement we bring to it. When we are having a conversation with a player are we mainly focused on listening to them, and ready to respond, or do we maintain an internal dialogue thinking of what we are going to say next? Moment to moment when we fully engage, our players appreciate that and are drawn out by it, because real listening is becoming a bit more scarce in this age of competition for our attention. It’s also important to be kind and firm about times that we are not available. Sometimes teenagers want to conduct a difficult conversation at the worst possible time. As gracefully as we can, we need to put a time on it, and allow our players to know that we want to hear them, but this moment is not the best time for that. Still other moments require stopping on a dime, all activity will cease, and a team meeting called because of something said or done. It could be a safety issue, it could be a conflict between teammates, or something destructive or informative that was said. Sometimes there is a major positive breakthrough that warrants a quick meeting. When we seize on their opportunities to engage with a problem even when it breaks up our routines, we communicate that we are athlete focused. So when we give 100% effort to our players sometimes that means more in the quality and wisdom of how we approach it, rather than the volume or amount of time.
Consider that teenagers can be fairly impulsive. Quite often they may have a thought that they have been suppressing for nearly a full day, and finally the day comes that they are thinking about it at the same time that they are present with you the coach. Some teenagers have no filter in the way they express themselves, while others may have no one that really listens to them, so they act out because of that. Of course, they will feel an urge to act on it right now, because they have forgotten so many times in the past. We can facilitate this by making sure we prove in every instance that we are listening and available to our players at the appropriate times. When managing players in regard to communicating at the appropriate time and in the best way, sometimes calling a parent for some insight on what works at home. Another benefit of calling to talk to parents is building a collaborative culture on the team. Also, you can expect word to get out among the players, ‘Coach called my house’, and the resulting accountability that comes with that. In order to give 100% effort we should exhaust every avenue to work with our players and build the lines of communication.
Rarely, there are times when addition by subtraction, and the best we as coaches can do is remove a player from the team. We will cover more on that when we get into team discipline.
Giving 100% effort can also run counterintuitively. It can be that the moments you do or say nothing can be the most important. There are times the players are building their own relationships, proactively and independently from the coach. Sometimes players long for negative attention, and they will do whatever they can to get a rise out of us. In many other instances there are situations where a certain flow or student centered problem solving effort is taking place. The coach engaging with these situations can work to mitigate the initiative of players, can give the wrong kind of attention, or simply break up the flow of problem solving among the players or the whole team. Sometimes the giving 100% effort is holding back from addressing something and waiting for a better time. One of the most pivotal moments in my team coach career came when I was coaching a team that had a few players that were out of control. A few of the girls would come late or skip practice, they would make up stories about why they had to miss a practice, and generally did not give a full effort on court. After numerous interventions without a dramatic improvement, I asked the team captains if they could handle the situation. These two proved to be among the very best captains that I have ever had on a team. “Ask them if they want to win and be champions at a higher level, if they do, then act like it. If they don’t, it’s ok, I will back off from expecting so much, but I don’t think a lot of you will like how that looks.” The captains emphatically agreed to run a team only meeting, for which I was not present. The story goes that many of the girls expressed how disappointed they were in the bad girls, and that they really wanted to win. There was crying, forgiveness, and a commitment to excellence. From that point on every player was all in. That team really came together, and as a #10 seed in sectional playoffs won a hard fought upset of the #7 seeded team. This for the right to play the #2 seeds. The #2 seeds beat us routinely in the regular season, and many of their players simply looked too strong for our girls. The improvement that came, and the trust in each other and the coach that came from the meeting helped us tremendously as we beat that #2 seeded team with the final match coming down to a third set tiebreaker. Perhaps I could be more ego involved as a coach if I made that happen by running that meeting. I am actually more satisfied and happy to have suggested and allowed the meeting to take place without me. The next year the girls won the sectional title without me as their coach. The head coach of that team reached out saying, “The girls wanted to express their gratitude to you for teaching them the work ethic that set the tone for winning NCS (a collection of 145 schools in Northern California).”
So 100% effort is mostly about full engagement, but it’s also about giving full effort to disengaging when the time is right to allow players to step up and take control of their own destiny.