By Tom Allsopp
Correcting errors seems like the primary job of the coach, or an involved parent. However, in this article I put forth the reasons why we should often refrain from providing instant advice to help correct mistakes, while I offer alternative methods that allow the player to learn faster and on a deeper level.
As coaches and parents we strive to help players develop their mental and physical skills, with the goal being that they will be able to execute these skills when faced with difficult situations and inevitable setbacks.
Managing errors and poor periods of play in competitive situations is a constant challenge, and therefore particularly difficult for children. The scoring system alone makes tennis mentally challenging, as unlike soccer, American football, basketball, hockey and baseball, when a shot is missed you don’t just fail to put a point on the scoreboard, your opponent actually receives the point.
Emotionally handling errors and effectively evaluating performance in the heat of the moment is key to managing difficult situations. Unfortunately, your typical lesson often consists of the player missing a shot and the coach telling the player what they did wrong (and often a parent) in the hopes that the player can make the necessary corrections.
Obviously there is some value in this command style coaching. I myself use this standard method of teaching periodically. However, I believe as coaches and parents we can do more to involve the player in their development, improve their problem solving skills, and ultimately give them the key to their own success.
Holding back from providing the player with all the answers may be the most powerful coaching tool available, and it’s almost always underused. Maybe this is because of what our roles as coaches have been deemed as; the player makes an error, the coach gives professional advice on how to fix the error.
Imagine that the player hits a backhand poorly. By the coach and/or parent refraining from providing instant advice, rather allowing the player to attempt a similar shot again, we naturally allow the following scenario to play out:
- The player has to try to effectively evaluate the situation. Is the error a one-off-miss not worth overthinking, or do they make a technical or mental adjustment as to how the shot should have been played, and should be played next time?
- The coach/parent gets to see how the player mentally and emotionally deals with correcting the next shot.
- The coach/parent get to see the technical adjustments, if any, that the player decides and attempts to make.
- The player naturally develops their problem solving skills.
- The coach/parent get to see and understand the player’s problem solving methods and skills and is able offer advice on this area of the game.
- With more information now available the coach/parent can provide better advice to help the player improve both their mental and physical skills.
Letting the session unfold without providing immediate advice will always allow both the player and coach to learn on a deeper level. Success doesn’t always need to happen before we begin teaching; if the player continues to struggle we can intervene and provide advice when we see fit. However, simply by allowing the player the opportunity to problem solve we have added more value to the session and our learning.
Problems & Pitfalls
The problem coaches will run into, as I often do, is the expectation that parents and players put on the teacher to improve the player’s game instantly. A text I received recently from a parent said:
“For future semi-private sessions it would be good if after each point you could explain right away in detail why she lost the point and what could have been done better.”
I believe the player’s on-court issues were directly linked to this mindset and style of teaching. Her underperforming (at times) wasn’t because she hadn’t received enough advice, rather too much. Her noticeable panicking, anxiousness, over thinking, being tight, lack of problem solving skills and game management are directly linked to the ‘someone please fix this for me’ mindset.
Obviously the coach should also stop and analyze the point with the player quite regularly, preferably asking for the player’s opinion first before providing their own thoughts. When advice is constantly and instantly thrown their way the player can become far too dependent on the coach and struggle in match play situations when they are competing without this safety net.
When I have a new client and an on-looking parent I often fall into the trap of talking too much in order to give them what I know they want and expect. When an error occurs I come to the rescue, analyzing it in detail and providing advice. I am basically saying to the parent; ‘look at how much I know about tennis and your child’s weaknesses, aren’t I a great coach…’
From the parent’s perspective, they have paid a coach and they have no idea what the coach is thinking or their knowledge. They would like some evidence of coaching expertise, and silence doesn’t always help the coach to portray professionalism. I can try to explain my methods to the parent but both parties want the session to be spent focusing on the child’s tennis. Therefore, with first lessons I use my silence methodology sparingly, obviously and with much enthusiasm…
Silence doesn’t have to be actual silence, more non advice. For example, the coach can say such things as “ok, see if you can learn from that last shot…”, “I’d love to see if you can put it right…”, “that’s fantastic, you came back with a great shot.” We can then discuss what they noticed about the better shot and learn from their success.
I think this is valuable advice, especially for inexperienced coaches without a proven track record to hang their hat on.
Learning from Success
From my experience it appears that learning from success is not valued or focused on nearly as much as learning from failure. Although we should all learn from our failures there is definitely more value in players learning from their successes.
When a shot is missed the failures can be numerous and wide spread. So many things could have happened from a mental and/or physical perceptive. Pinning down the error and why that error occurred is a black hole; there’s always something to talk about that went wrong.
Alternatively, the shot effectively executed provides the blueprint. If the player is able to feel the shot and retain the information about the sensations and mindset that led to the desired outcome they can provide themselves with the key to their own success, potentially giving them the ability to tap into the same technical and mental qualities as they rally or compete.
A great article on “Why We Learn More From Success Than Failure” can be found here: http://www.businessinsider.com/we-learn-more-from-success-than-failure-2014-6
“It’s difficult to build this kind of feedback system based on past failures; the failure leaves nothing left over to modify in the new environment. Past successes, by contrast, become the raw materials — proven to work in a challenging past — that can be sculpted and adapted to work better in the future.
This is essentially what biological evolution has been doing to improve millions of species across billions of years of Earth history. Introducing small modifications to existing templates of success that lead to even greater successes in the future.
Imagine if you were able to compile all the relevant information in to two piles. One pile with all the information regarding every poorly executed shot and one pile with all the information regarding the successful shots. Which pile would have more information to filter through?
Information about missed shots would be infinite; ball too close, far away, off balance, poor coordination chain, rhythm, timing, technical flaws, receiving skills, poor decisions, lack of focus etc etc etc.
The pile containing successful shots will be smaller and the information likely more valuable with noticeable mental and technical patterns and characteristics that can be explored, learnt from, and used as the foundation to improve upon.
Making adjustments after the player has been successful, rather than after errors, creates the following situations:
- The player’s morale is high after a successful shot, and after problem solving effectively. This is a great time to offer advice.
- The coach can point to what the player did well, which is easier to illustrate and easier for the player to learn from.
- The player has had the opportunity to evaluate their error and execute a subsequent shot, developing their problem solving skills and confidence in this mental skill.
- Misses are less of an emotional problem when each error is not scrutinized. The player can learn from them rather than become effected by them.
When errors are constantly and instantly scrutinized we can create problems that need not be. Every miss isn’t an issue, but it can be if we choose to make it one. As a coach or parent I challenge you to let some errors pass without advice; this not only allows the player a chance to problem solve, it also trains the player not to carry mental baggage of each miss with them from point to point as they compete, helping them to manage the subsequent period of play.