5 Signs of a Great Coach

A great lesson is worth infinitely more than a bad one.

And I mean that literally. It isn’t worth double, or triple, or quadruple its less effective counterpart. No, the difference in value is infinite.

With a great lesson you improve. With a bad lesson, you don’t.

That might sound harsh, but the truth is it’s not uncommon to take a tennis lesson and actually get worse. Unfortunately, some of the common advice given by your typical club coach makes you more likely to miss, more likely to stagnate, and more likely to injure yourself than if you’d just hopped on YouTube and researched the strokes yourself.

With that in mind, it’s up to you to judge the quality of your lessons and ensure you’re getting the value you paid for.

Here are 5 signs your coach is worth keeping.

1. Great Coaches Cause Cross-Pollination

One of the strongest positive indicators of coaching prowess is cross-pollination – the coach’s advice for one part of your game improves another part you didn’t even discuss. This happens when your coach understands the fundamentals behind what they are teaching and instructs based on that. These fundamentals often apply widely across the entire sport, not just to whatever stroke you happened to be working on, and thus when you understand them, you’ll frequently see benefits in your entire game, not just that one stroke.

This result falls in stark contrast to the coach who just regurgitates joint angle corrections that he learned when he was taking lessons growing up – sure, sometimes those corrections will be accurate, and they might improve one particular issue you’re having with one particular stroke, but because none of the reasoning behind the joint angle correction is communicated, cross-pollination of that improvement is extremely unlikely.

This brings us to sign #2, which is usually necessary for cross-pollination to occur.

2. Great Coaches Explains Things

Adequate but not great coaches will typically give solid advice, but they often fail to communicate why you should be following it. Great coaches, on the other hand, will ensure that you understand the reasoning behind their instruction – learning the “why” will be an essential part of the lesson. The “why” is what sticks with you, it’s what allows you to coach yourself when the lesson is over, and it’s the vehicle by which good advice cross-pollinates to the rest of your game.

Let’s look at three levels of coaching for a particular problem – you’re struggling with the low forehand. Note that there’s more to coaching than just giving correct advice, as clearly the third coach is superior to the second.

Bad – Incorrect and Useless

Get that racket under the ball! – This encourages straightening the wrist, a movement which will absolutely ruin the stroke’s fault tolerance.

Gotta get under it! – Unhelpful and unspecific.

Pick it up! – Encourages opening the string angle through contact in order to get the ball to go up – also ruins fault tolerance.

Better – Good Advice but Unfounded

Bend your knees! – Getting better; the student should be adjusting with their legs, but “bend your knees” is both unspecific and often misunderstood.

Get your body lower! – Correct, but unspecific as to how.

Don’t straighten your wrist! – Again, correct, but how? If the student is straightening their wrist, they might not understand how to lower the racket without doing so.

Best – Conceptual and Technical Instruction

The low forehand is a very similar movement pattern to the waist height forehand, but executed from a different starting point.

First, a broad explanation of how the stroke should be understood.

Get the racket lower by adjusting with with the larger parts of your body – the legs and trunk. This allows the hand, arm, and racket to do the same thing they do on a regular height forehand.

A broad explanation of how to adjust, and why to adjust that way.

To lower the racket, sit down, widen your legs, and tilt your torso – don’t pull the arm in unless you have to, and only straighten the wrist as a last resort. Once you adjust with the core movers, just relax and rotate your trunk to initiate the swing the same way you would on a waist height forehand.

Specific explanation of how to adjust, and why to adjust that way.

This one is long. Longer explanations are typically necessary when a student is consistently mishitting a particular kind of shot.

If a student misses just a single low ball, a simple “tilt your torso” can definitely remind them of what they already know, but if they are consistently missing every low ball, it indicates a more fundamental gap in their understanding; they probably don’t know how to correctly execute the shot they’re attempting. The step that’s required here is instruction, not cuing.

Taking a minute to stop and explain something thoroughly isn’t something a coach should shy away from. Great coaches leave their students with an improved understanding of their strokes, not just with cues to remember.

3. Great Coaches Talk a Lot

If you’ve paid $90 for a 60 min tennis lesson, that’s $1.50/minute. You’re already wasting some of that time for ball pick up, so that’s a lot of money for someone to silently feed balls at you.

Fundamentally, a lesson is about telling the student what they’re doing wrong and how to fix it, which isn’t a positive experience in a vacuum.

Even when there’s nothing too important to say, great coaches are engaged on a personal level. Small encouragements like “great job,” “doing great,” and “keep it up,” do wonders for the emotional atmosphere of the lesson. Encouragements to negative events – the “you got this” and “no worries” of the world – further this supportive, instructive atmosphere.

Remember, fundamentally, a lesson is about telling the student what they’re doing wrong and how to fix it, which isn’t a positive experience in a vacuum. A friendly spigot of verbal of positive reinforcement helps alleviate this.

Speech and encouragement is especially necessary during physically exhausting, conditioning related training, and even more important when these activities are done with kids. Kids need to learn that training is supposed to be hard; if it’s not harder than a match, it’s not helping that much, so the coach, as the authority, must clearly and unambiguously communicate that it is good that they’re uncomfortable.

4. But Great Coaches Don’t Correct Too Much

While lots of talking is almost universally helpful, too much correction is not. Though the lesson experience as a whole will be positive, a correction is inherently negative, and as such corrections should only be used when necessary. Overloading a student with corrections is both annoying and counter-productive.

It doesn’t matter if a student presents with, say, four major flaws in their forehand. A quality coach will pick whichever one they think will be the most impactful to fix and just correct that one. When the student executes that fix correctly, even if they miss the shot itself, it’s “great attempt” and “I know you missed, but that’s what I want,” that are far more productive than a correction.

Great coaches are essentialists in their correction – they only correct when it appears the student is unaware of what they’re doing wrong.

The worst thing a coach can do is try to correct all the student’s flaws at once. To the student, that feels like an endless barrage of confusing and unrelated corrections, and as they go to swing, they have no idea what to actually focus on.

Even when a student is only working on a single correction, it’s still not appropriate to correct them every time they mess it up. They’re going to mess it up a lot – it is a novel tweak to their stroke, after all. Great coaches are essentialists in their correction – they only correct when it appears the student is unaware of what they’re doing wrong, not when they’ve simply failed to execute something.

There’s no reason to berate a student with the same correction over and over, even if they’ve missed a string of balls. Sometimes, a rephrase of the correction is necessary, but not always. As long as the student is still clearly attempting the right thing, a great coach will break the silence with a simple “you got this” instead.

5. Great Coaches Prioritize Static Positions and Movement Patterns

Static positions are positions that an athlete stops, or effectively stops in. These are great positions to coach, because they are almost always entered totally volitionally. The trophy position and the end of the forehand backswing are two examples of static positions.

Most strokes are best understood as a static position, and then a movement pattern out of that static position.

  • The serve is the trophy pose, followed by a throw of the racket.
  • The forehand is the end of the backswing position, followed by a twist of the trunk.

Teaching strokes in this way improves the student’s proprioceptive awareness of their actions as they learn. Most humans can’t feel their exact joint angles and limb orientations in space during an explosive movement, but they can feel them in a static position like the trophy pose. And once the explosive movement starts, they don’t know what it feels like to “create 60 degrees of external shoulder rotation,” but they do know what it feels like to “twist,” to “throw,” to “sit down,” or to “jump.”

Coaching based on static positions and movement patterns, instead of dynamic positions and joint angles, gives the student the gift of feedback. Not from you, but from their own senses. If they know what it feels like when it’s right, they can use their own proprioceptive observations to correct their strokes on their own.

In the End, Great Coaches Help You Win

If you want to simplify the evaluation process, evaluate your lessons on one simple criteria – are you winning more than before you started working with your coach? The classic “I play great in my lessons, but bad in matches” is a misnomer – all this really means is that your lessons aren’t very useful.

What does it mean to “play great” in a lesson if that “greatness” wasn’t transferable to a competitive setting? Is your goal to hit the same slow, flat, feed over the net 20 times in a row, or is it to win tennis matches?

Great coaches will provide you instruction that will improve your game, and your understanding of the game, at a fundamental level, and with them week-by-week, and month-by-month, you’ll see yourself improve faster than you ever thought possible.

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