A Coach’s Epiphany

A conversation this week recalled an epiphany from my early career, when I coached tennis.

As an academic at the time, I found it difficult at first to build physical skills in week-end hackers, hot-shot juniors, and pre-teens with their parents eyeing me from the bleachers. One break-through came when I learned to keep groups moving for an hour.

A more serious problem was individual instruction. I shouted, “Open your eyes as you strike the ball!” or “Bend your knees!” and then I puzzled why students couldn’t integrate my superb advice in one smooth stroke. I wondered, numbly, “Why is everyone so bloody frustrated?”

Finally, I thought, “How did my best coaches coach?” One thing they did was point out progress, no matter how slight. So I tried something different in my next lesson. Instead of correcting a jittery beginner, I called her attention to anything at all that she did right. To my youthful astonishment, she promptly started ripping cross-court forehands! I continued to refine this method: “I loved the way you punched through that volley!” “That was beautiful when you took short steps to the ball!” Eventually, I found myself praising every student for any hint of doing something right. I might say, “Your wrist looks firmer now!” even if only barely. And it all worked. Students gained more confidence, rallied more consistently, made more difficult shots, and laughed more often. Soon I had more students and raked in more money.

That career morphed into something else, but to this day problems of my own making often follow when I forget that early epiphany.

What approach works for you when you coach, or receive coaching? What epiphany can you share?

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