More coaching ancedotes

Coaching tennis is weird. It's an individual sport, but team tennis is the act of playing a "position" against someone ostensibly of similar ability levels to see which teams wins head-to-head. Much of this exercise is really figuring out how to position kids -- singles & doubles teams -- into successful scenarios that ultimately help them, but mostly make them more confident in their own abilities and themselves.

You can coach players during changeovers (odd numbered total games in a match) and during set breaks. These are very brief 30-60 seconds where you lend motivation, a parable or tell them something you're seeing that might help. Some kids, you might never talk to in a match because they're not playing anyone that difficult. Other kids, they really need you to check in on them after every break. 

When I first started coaching, I was a little tentative because not every kids wants you to stay much to them. Other times, coaches are very insistent on giving kids a ton of information and almost trying to teach them how to play in real time. I never opt to do this, because it's pretty unhelpful and kids can't really do anything with it. It's also bad because it makes them doubt themselves, and my job as a coach is to give them the confidence to think they can always pull off the unthinkable.

If they're losing, the changeover advice becomes more realistic. I don't lie to a player about their situation if they're outgunned. But then advice then is to become frustrating, not to submit to the beating and find ways to force the opponent into playing or doing things they might not want to be doing. Just because you're going to lose doesn't mean you have to make it easy. This advice is a lot easier said than done, though.

The most rewarding memories I have as a coach -- even dating back to my JV coaching days -- are when the light switch goes on and kids start to metabolize your advice from practice into matches. I remember these two JV girls I had once who were down 5-1 in a match once, with 6 being the score you need to win a set. I remember telling them some variation of "ignore the score. Focus on winning point by point, then winning game by game." 

I checked in on them and every few minutes, it'd be closer. 2-5, 3-5, 4-5, and they ultimately won the set and that match. Their faces were so fun to see, because I remember one of them saying something like "it's just like you told us. to be patient and just have fun and not worry about the score. Then I noticed they were messing up and so we just kept playing better." 

Years later, I have fun stories of upsets and some sad ones where there's literally nothing I can do to bail a team out of an upset because their mental makeup isn't there. Tournaments are especially like this, because it's one and done. Some kids are built for the moment, others are just kind of having a hard time knowing how to execute when they're faced with adversity. 

Last year en route to a state title, I'd hoped my top doubles team -- who were undefeated -- would be able to win a state title. Our school on the girls side has a bit of a drought on winning state doubles titles, it only happened once in 1996 and never again. Our singles players have won 7 individual state titles (though two women account for 6 of those 7) but the doubles "curse" I've been calling it (only a girls problem, the boys win them a lot) still persists.

My doubles team were upset by a scrappy group of kids from a public school. We just failed to adjust, we took them lightly and fell into a hole we couldn't get out of. When the kids lose, I lose too. I reflect on what I could've done different to help them, in practices, to be prepared for whatever they'll face. Unlike basketball, there's no calling a timeout in tennis -- except for injury -- and so you have to just let things play out sometimes. 

A compendium of stuff I don't want to forget