What makes a great coach? Pt. 2 – Details and the Big Picture

In Aaron Blog by aaron

I’m in the second stage of my TA Australia certification process (the Club Pro level) and I’m starting to see a theme with some of the less experienced coaches. It’s nothing to do with the effort or even the knowledge of tennis and strokes. It has to do with where a coach focuses their attention. Unfortunately as tennis coaches we don’t have infinite time with our students and therefore we need to work out a plan that maximises improvement and provides a steady progression of skills.

This is definitely something that I have had to learn as I’ve coached more and more. It’s very temping (and common as I’m finding out) to want to simply brain dump 500 things that aren’t right with a persons strokes. The problem with this is that nobody can retain all that information or focus on it all at the same time. So by seeing everything you end up fixing nothing.

The other issue is with telling a person what NOT to do. Unless we’re talking about something where there are only two options by telling what not to do you really don’t give your student any useful information. But it’s very difficult to change that habit. So in my course I will sometimes hear “No, no, yep, good, no, not like that, too much, no, yes, good, no, good…” and I think to myself “What has this student really learned?”. The good news is that the course I am doing really focuses on changing these habits into more productive ones and all of us have improved while doing the course.

Being able to look at the big picture is about working on things one at a time and knowing when and how they will fit together with all the other skills. There is no way to change everything all at once. It’s a progression.

Being able to see the small details is about noticing tiny differences and understanding the cause and effect. This can be the difference between a coach saying “No that’s not right” and a coach saying “Let’s do it more like this because…”

To give an example I once observed Kim doing a lesson (on top of being great learning it’s also very therapeutic!) with an older boy who was struggling on his backhand. I could see that there were quite a few things going wrong but I wasn’t 100%sure because sometimes he would hit the ball great and sometimes it was pretty average. A lot of times this is simply poor concentration or poor perception. But I didn’t think it was one of those things so I kept watching. Eventually I noticed Kim hitting different types of balls and then it became clear that the issue was only when he hit the ball off his front foot. I still wasn’t 100% sure about the fix and Kim had said nothing.

Eventually he said “Try pointing your toe towards the net post instead of the side fence so that you can finish with your hips facing the net.” Instantly there was an improvement in spin and power when he hit off the front foot. The problem (and you can try this for yourself) was that the angle of your foot determines the angles your hips can face. He was trying to finish with the hips to the net but his foot position wouldn’t let him. So he would tense up, finish short, and all sorts of problems would follow from that. As soon as that was improved he was able to swing freely.

And the big picture was that there is no point focusing on other things until his feet were changed. Had he looked at his follow through for example it would have taken an incorrect swing to finish in the correct spot because the hips weren’t doing their job. So in 5 minutes he was able to fix what some coaches would never even be aware of. And he said one sentence. This was a great lesson for me. We need to treat our players a bit more like high performance vehicles because simply saying “hit it harder” or “hit it with more spin” doesn’t work. If it was that easy the student would already be doing it. You need to get in an look at the whole body, the engine, the steering, everything and work out where things can be improved and where things can be made more efficient.

Stay tuned for more in this series and remember that it’s not just coaches that need to understand details and the big picture. Think about playing a match, and the details required to win a point as well at the overall picture of how you want to play the match to maximise the result. It takes some time to practice but it will always make you better.