All Sweat-Band but no Sweat - The Flawed Approach to Modern Coaching.

It's time to make a few New Year's resolutions! If you're looking for ideas and are going to use the holidays to do some planning, maybe we could start by talking about some of the questionable trends that have emerged in the field of tennis coaching over the last year or two?  

Before we dive in, it hopefully goes without saying that the world of coaching is of course filled with lots of incredibly committed and hard-working people. A career that focuses on improving others, is by its very definition, always likely to be populated by plenty of well-meaning and selfless individuals.

Recent years have however brought new avenues for coaches to explore. This has given rise to a few interesting trends (probably not unique to tennis in fairness). If these haven't yet appeared on your radar, let me outline some of the less-than-desirable characteristics of modern tennis coaching...

'Elite' Coaching Programmes

It's hard these days to find a coaching programme for juniors that doesn't involve titles like 'Performance' or 'Elite'. This creates a bizarre scenario in which coaches compete with each other to run 'performance' programmes, in areas where the number of coaches doing so probably outnumbers the amount of actual elite athletes in the local pool of players.

The drive for coaches to market themselves as 'high performance' creates a level of competition between them that is unsustainable, it removes any possibility of effective collaboration, and it builds a level of unrealistic expectation amongst players and parents (which is unfortunate at best and could in fact be seen as irresponsible or misleading at worst). Remember also that lots of the reasons players give for quitting tennis (too much time needed, too serious, stressful expectations, etc) are often the core characteristics of a 'High-Performance' environment.

The race to be seen to be working with top players is dividing the few aspirational athletes between competing coaches and runs the risk of undermining attempts to build consistent national player pathways. There are few other sports where the top athletes would be left in the hands of private contractors, with the feint hope that some genuine high-performance players will emerge.

Coaches play an incredibly important role in the development of tennis, primarily helping to build as wide a base as possible of novice and developing participants. For the vast majority of coaches therefore, the benchmark of success (and reward) should be the number of active players under their care, rather than the frequency of victories for a select few from their cohort.

Universal Congratulations

If like lots of others, you've been listening to coaching podcasts and joining webinars over recent months, you might have spotted that another interesting convention has emerged – Everyone telling each other how great they are.

It's hard to find a coaching podcast which doesn't seem to follow the same three elements:

1.The host introducing and telling listeners how great the guest is.

2. The guest telling the host how great the podcast is (and that they're a big fan).

3. The two sharing ideas / successes, and agreeing on almost everything.    

While this approach can make for a comfortable listening experience, it compares very poorly as a way of moving the coaching profession forward. Think of the medical, academic, or scientific communities for example, where ideas are challenged, tested, debated and refined, where progress is achieved by analysing and questioning the proposal, not by flattering the personality.

We need to be tougher on ourselves and expect more of each other. A climate where every opinion is “really good” or every conference presentation is “really useful”, does nothing to build progress. Our coaches deserve to participate in a dynamic and challenging environment and our players deserve to benefit from robust and well-tested information.

Talking the Talk

I was recently shown a draft of a new coach education manual (from another sport). The administrator proudly told me that one of the big aims for the coming year was to encourage coaches to use a less directive style of coaching (encouraging players to discover things for themselves through a guided learning model etc). This all made complete sense until I opened the coaching manual, only to find page after page of detailed and directed instruction for the coaches! In other words, while the authors were keen to be seen promoting a new (and highly effective) form of learning, they clearly had so little faith in this approach, that they themselves reverted to the same teaching methods they had been using for the last fifty years!

If we believe that coaches should be adopting a specific approach to their work, then this should be modelled in the way that coaches themselves are trained and taught. In many areas, this is not the case. It's one rule for how we encourage you to coach and another rule for how we'll teach you. The result is a complete undermining of any information coming from above and a fault in the very foundation of the profession.    

Believing the Hype

Social media brings a raft of useful possibilities, but it carries a requirement of intelligent scepticism on the part of the reader. When it comes to coaching at the higher level of performance, consider the social media presence (or rather non-presence) of several of the universally accepted best coaches in the world (Bill Belichick, Pep Guardiola, etc). Is it the case that these coaches devote all of their time to doing a great coaching job, while other coaches see some benefit in using a portion of their limited time to telling us that they're doing a great job?

There is of course a commercial reality that requires some coaches to try and build a personal brand, to stay connected with clients, etc, but it's critical for players, parents and governing bodies to remain aware that the best fit of a coach to a specific position is in absolutely no way related to the number of social media followers he/she has. Hype and marketing should not play a role in selecting the ideal coach to work with an athlete and if the example at the highest levels in many sports can provide any guidance, it would appear that those who are committed to giving everything they can to their players and teams, have little time or need to be involved in social media self-promotion.

Going Forward

So back to our New Year's resolutions... Would it be reasonable to hope that we could side-line some of the issues mentioned above and instead, make tennis coaching next year all about the three C's:

Collaboration: Coaches making any possible efforts to work together, to challenge each other and to raise the bar, for the benefit of all of their players.

Community: Everyone focusing on the primary goal of building as many opportunities as possible for players to learn, train and compete.

Commitment: National and Regional associations leading with purpose by developing (and believing in) exceptional coach education programmes, supports and materials.

Bring it on!