What makes a great coach? Pt.1

In Aaron Blog by aaron

This might be a long post but for anyone willing to stick through it, I’m glad to have you along for the ride.

“What makes a great coach?” – This is a question that has always fascinated me. Even before I was a coach. When I was growing up it was pretty clear that my dad was not just a good coach, but one of the BEST coaches. At the time my criteria was simple. A great coach was someone who could teach people to beat other people. Not just one or two students, but many students of different skill. I was a good junior but I wasn’t even on the top court at our centre. We simply had too many good kids that were better than me. And they were all produced (not recruited) by my dad. As I grew up I realised that was too simplistic a mindset and doesn’t take into account things like motivation and enjoyment, but for the most part it holds true.

When I started coaching it became pretty clear to me that I couldn’t just mimic my dad if I wanted to be a great coach. There were too many subtle things that I would have to learn. What if some players don’t learn the same way I did? What if I struggled in areas that some kids don’t. Focus in those areas might be wasted. Much like a great player needs to learn a bunch of skills rather than just watching Federer and then copying, I needed to learn the basic skills and subtleties. So in my quest for the answer I’ve spoken to many of Australia’s best players and coaches to try to piece together what works and what doesn’t.

But before I get into what I think a great coach does I think it’s important to talk about what a great player does. Because after all, a great coach produces great players…

We can break tennis down in to it’s most basic rule which is “The last player to hit the ball in wins the point.” – That’s tennis. It really is that simple. So a great player is more often the last player to hit the ball in. This can be expanded into 4 fundamental skills that must be used each and every shot:

Perception – Our ability to see what is happening, decipher patterns of play, observe subtleties that give us hints as to what our opponent is trying to do, see various spins and understand their effects, etc…

Decision Making – This is simply applied strategy. Once we know what is happening or is likely to happen we can implement a strategy to win the point. Strategy can be broken down into a series of components too (such as Time, Position, Expectations, etc…) but I’ll save that for another post.

Movement – Our ability to get to the ball and get back to our recovery position effectively and efficiently.

Striking – This encompasses all aspects of how we hit the ball. Weight transfer, rotation, spin, power, contact point, accuracy, etc…

Once I became aware of the complexities of the game I had a better understanding of what I was looking for when searching for what makes a coach great. After all, if a player needs to excel in those 4 categories then a coach needs to be able to transpose knowledge of those skills into their players. And that becomes tricky, because there are many different types of learner in the world. Some are visual (such as me), others are aural, reading, or kinaesthetic. A great coach understands the different types of learners and caters their lessons to each person. (For example, if you ever want to teach me anything don’t just tell me about it. Show me. Others need to do it for themselves. Some people prefer to read the manual)

Once I knew this, I needed to understand that the skill level of your student matters. It’s a delicate balance that must be achieved when creating drills and activities for your students. Too hard, and they get despondent. Too easy and there is no challenge. Designing “Goldilocks” drills can be difficult. Especially if you’re not 100% sure what level the student is at when it comes to that skill. You have to design something that is adaptable so that you can increase or decrease the challenge as required while still teaching the same fundamental skill.

And a great coach is still not done, because even after all that you still have to prioritise the student’s learning. It’s no good increasing a students ball striking to exceptional levels  if they have poor perception skills. Likewise if you’re winning matches at a young age because you’ve got great movement but you’re tactics are underdeveloped you’ll get found out when you get older. This can be a very tough one because as coaches we are always mindful of players and parents and making sure they are happy with our coaching. To an outsider it might be easier to see improvements in striking skills. It comes as a shock to some parents when we start to work on perception skills because sometimes they aren’t seen as ‘vital’ to tennis. A big forehand or serve might be seen as a more worthwhile goal. But it’s important for parents to understand that each skill is a link in a chain. The question ‘which is the most important skill?’ doesn’t even make sense. If any of the skills break down, the point is over anyway. They are all different yet equally important.

A great coach will make sure that all those areas are covered, usually in a single lesson, but it depends on the strengths and the weaknesses of the student. And a great coach can do it for anywhere from 25-45 hours a week. And that doesn’t even take into account the time it takes prioritise the learning of each student, analyse their technique, journal what you’ve worked on previously, and use that information to prepare the lesson. And they have to do it all with energy and enthusiasm while staying firm and positive.

I’m not there yet but I can feel myself getting closer every week. Only time will tell if I get there. But I appreciate each and every student who joins me on my journey.

To be continued… (I have no idea how long this series will be but I’d like to delve a little deeper into each of the skills and that will take some time. I’d also love to get feedback on anything anyone wants me to cover. Please leave your comments below)