The Tennis Muse is connected to the game in various ways, and has extensive experience in both education senior leadership, and teaching and learning advisory work.
It is now accepted that resilience is one of the key ingredients for a successful life, through childhood and beyond. Given that we live in a world where child mental health problems are at an all-time high, what part do coaches play?
You are not just teaching tennis in that hour or two – you are part of that child’s life, who are they are and how they develop. DO NOT FORGET this is an amazing privilege. Its tough to get past your own ego; the child is not privileged to have you as a coach and regardless of career/expertise, coaches do not know it all! Showing you are a good learner, with lots to learn, is one of the most powerful things you can do for your pupils.
2.Be a role model
Don’t be hero; voice your own weaknesses (or invent some) to your pupils and OWN them
I really struggle to…
I find it really hard when…
I find it really frustrating when…
And I mean REALLY value it. Don’t comment on others’ valuable failures whilst not really allowing your pupil to fail themselves. Don’t be a hypocrite by allowing failure in lessons but not in a match.
Talk about the ‘successful failures’ in life: Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Kentucky Fried Chicken; it was perseverance that made them successful in the end.
4.Teach your pupils about the idea behind the Zone of Proximal Development
In a nutshell, unless you are in the practice phase of learning:
You are not learning if it’s easy and you are not learning if it’s too hard
If you are learning you are on the edge of your comfort zone; it might feel uncomfortable, and you are likely to make lots of mistakes.
If you are taking your pupils into new learning, openly voice this latter point before you start and refer to throughout. Give lots of praise for keeping going with the activity, regardless of success.
I like the way you kept going.
Yeah, you missed 9 out of 10, but we knew that was going to happen, didn’t we?
Impressed how you kept going, I know this is tough.
- Help the child to recognise their own feelings
Give opportunities for them to talk about their feelings and reflections. Do NOT assume that primary children can actually name and understand their full range of emotions; they may need this modelling to them with examples. Keep a set of cue cards on a key ring in your pocket as prompts for the child:
I feel frustrated because… I showed resilience when…
I am fed up because… I am proud because…
- Have realistic goals
In the development phase of new learning, including when put into a match context, create success criteria with your pupils based on these learning qualities, NOT winning/ playing a big serve/ hitting to the corners. You will need to be creative to work out how your pupil can do this in a match. Remember, lots of children will benefit from/ need these written or ideally with picture cues rather than just being talked about. Unfortunately, these can’t always be SMART targets, but we’re dealing with emotions here!
I am allowed to make mistakes
After the mistake I will try again
I am allowed to feel frustrated but will talk about it, even out loud, rather than throwing rackets!!
I will try to keep going
I will not say any self-criticism (note that vocalising feelings e.g. I am angry, is different to stating, you’re so rubbish!)
But when I kept trying at it…
I had to practice for a long while, and I didn’t get much better, then suddenly I did…
I lost so many matches, and felt like giving up, but eventually…
I keep telling myself when I fall I am going to fall forwards (for older children as it’s a metaphor)
‘Losing is research’… for the next match (taken from Billy Jean King)
Encourage self-praise again, as you need to aim for the child doing things for the internal reward, rather than for external rewards. Give starters for this:
One thing I was proud of was…
A time when I showed resilience was…
Praise Warning: don’t go too overboard on praise for success, unless they did something particularly noteworthy. A quite well done or nod, or thumbs up should be all that’s needed. Hype isn’t helpful and the child can come to rely on it. ‘Treat the two imposters the same’; (treat triumph and defeat), Kipling’s If.
- Encourage self-reflection
This helps the child see that feeling negative is NORMAL, and that reflection can help you see things differently,
How did you feel when you tried that new serve and did three double faults? (Scale of 1-10)
So let’s remember when we are doing something new we might be a bit rubbish for a while, and I notice your movement was good and you did keep going. And what might happen next time if we keep practising?
How do you feel now? (scale of 1-10)
Remember – Listen more than you speak
You will need some more starters for this:
So tell me… Why do you feel that? Tell me more…
If a child is down on themselves: ‘I am such a rubbish player’, the Hand of Options is also a good shout.
Use fingers for each option. ‘So let’s examine the evidence for the statement you made.’
- I am doing something new so I am going to get it wrong for a while
- The other player was better than me on the day
- I have a rubbish serve
4.I am completely rubbish at tennis
They usually have laugh at that, and will choose 1 or 2, which clearly feel a lot better (and are probably more accurate) than No 3 or 4!!
With 11s upwards you could talk about brain theory; when we are in a tough situation (i.e. it’s tough because we are trying to do something new, and under pressure in a match) the thinking brain is deactivated, and the emotional brain is activated, or even the reptilian (a fight/ flight mechanism) comes into play so we can’t think rationally. This helps them understand the importance of them getting themselves into a calmer emotional state. They also like the idea of being reptilian!
- Give balance to life
It’s really important for them to understand that although we might be really angry or fed up in the moment, it’s not likely to be an enduring emotion, once they are calmer and a little removed. Your job is to help them to get to that point. Little ones can’t do it for themselves, so you have to do it for them (but vocalise what you are doing). Do NOT expect under 11s, (and often MUCH older) to manage their feelings, particularly in a tough match, because it is unrealistic. Bigger ones can learn strategies for doing it themselves, such as imagine the anger is a balloon in your chest, breathe slowly to gradually let the air out of it. These techniques will need practice, and they will probably need prompting to use them.
The Big Tennis Dilemma
Young children need to learn ‘in the moment’, not reflecting after it, so post-match talk can be a waste of time. So, the challenge for all coaches is the dual carriageway tennis system; one road is about training on court, the other road is about competing and never the twain shall meet. This is rather like you learning to drive on an aerodrome and never on the road, but still being expected to take your test in the city!
Wouldn’t it be great to see a situation where the officials in the game make it mandatory for children to play a number of ‘training matches’, (with no win/loss recorded), so children don’t have the unnecessary pressure of winning for a rating/ ranking, but are allowed to experiment and learn ‘on the job’. This would also take some of the pressure off parents, who subsequently would put their child under less pressure to win. It should also be part of this process that each child could have an on-court coach, or at the least a mentor, on court for change of ends. The mentors could have some training on the understanding and managing of emotions. Wouldn’t being a tennis mentor be a great opportunity for older teenagers who are tennis leaders?
Until we recognise the power of learning ‘in the match’, you must set up match play opportunities, (which are not officially counted), for example take a couple of your players, and be active in taking it in turns to counsel each player DURING the match. Use TIME OUT to stop the match so you can have a discussion about feelings, and give a tip to manage this. You could ideally arrange this with other coaches you know, so that the children can widen their experience.
This clearly would also work to adjust technique and playing strategies, but ultimately, the reason they’re not applying your lesson point in a match is probably due to their emotions getting in the way; get smarter at working on this ‘in the moment’, and world is that child’s oyster, not just in terms of tennis, but for their whole life.