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Tennis Business #102 Empathy Is Sticky

Be Empathetic

When that student first enters the gate, and maybe for the last few hours up to the beginning the lesson, they often are having a problem with anxiety. They may be going to a place they have never been, to meet a stranger they have never met, to participate in an activity that they have no idea how it’s going to go. Put yourself in their place, and imagine how you like to be greeted under the same type of circumstance. Do you like to take lessons? Maybe even imagine a trip to the doctor or dentist, think on a professional you don’t really want to see. The first moment that you calm, reassure and welcome the player along with your attending body language, the better that experience will be.

It could be that you are feeling nervous. If you are dealing with your own anxiety, as we all do, it’s important for you to learn to manage that. Learning to breathe properly, and doing the inner work of finding strategies that make you the one who calms others can’t be emphasized enough as a life skill. I can attest to the feelings of wanting to impress my students with how much I know in the first lesson. Nowadays, I do a much better job of going by a template in the first lesson that is largely predicated on what the student wants.

When the student arrives late for any lesson, and especially the first lesson, they are worried about what you might think of them. In fact, this reminds me of a particular student who never seemed to arrive on time for her lessons, and it became a running joke, but I did encourage her to change her habits so that she can get more out of her lessons and life in general. Strangely enough, when I tell the student that “Attendance is optional, but payment is mandatory” with a sly grin, they laugh and are reassured that as long as I am getting paid, I’m happy. Depending on how that landed, I may even say, “It doesn’t matter to me if you come or not, as long as you pay. Now let’s make the most of the remaining time.”

As they are coming into the court the next order of business is to check in with them. I try to take a very close look at their facial expression, and try to detect where they are emotionally. They could be very excited, having a tough day, but they have an appointment they must keep, or they might have just received some very good or bad news. I try to identify that immediately, and let them respond. There have been times that I have actually cancelled the lesson on the spot, and not charged them because their has been some trauma, or they are injured. It’s amazing what people will put themselves through because of society’s messages about obligations and so-called professional behavior. Keep your internal timer going, because that whole interaction may be less than a minute, but if it goes longer, the lesson may spin out of control. The same client who would come late, would also begin our lessons with a comedy routine, and we then began to ping pong with funny things, and it more or less wrecked the learning environment, so we had to forge an agreement that we would limit the fun stuff for the sake of learning how to play tennis. Even so, it’s important to meet players where they are, even if it’s our job to gently redirect them to the learning.

One time I had a player who wanted to cancel the lesson, and something struck me as a little off, so I asked her why. She told me that she had just had an experience where her mother was showing the first signs of dementia, and did not recognize her as her daughter. That was hard. Even so, I encouraged her to come to the lesson, because it was probably better for her to be outside getting some exercise, than going home feeling sad and grieving alone. This is where my training in death and bereavement comes in handy. The point here being that understanding human beings and the processes they go through in life and listening with empathy, trying to see it through their eyes can gain you a very strong bond with the client. Some of my lessons have turned into mental health sessions.

Trust me all of these things happen very quickly, but when you are actually at the net on different sides of the court, you want to ask, “What will make this an awesome lesson for you?” They may not have an answer, but you have clearly communicated that you are in the business of their awesome experience. You then are more likely to get an awesome review for the lesson.


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