5 rules for teaching kids tennis in a Covid-19 world
1. Get them moving (or else)
In 2020, kids now aren't tired from running around all day - they're tired from doing not very much at all. But somehow mentally drained, and physically too. A bit like walking around a golf course for 3 hours and feeling totally spent from the prolongued inactivity. And with an uneasy sense of permanency.
That means the first five minutes of a lesson are the most critical ones.
Keep the instructional genius to a minimum and remind kids and parents of the real value of sport - that is it is an outlet for energy, but that it can also give you energy. And energy is a new currency in itself.
It's pretty much accepted that kids who play sport actually do better academically too, but there's a whole lot of research out there that exercise improves brain cognition, fixes neurotransmitters, helps memory and even mood through the release of chemicals like dopamine, seratonin and noreniphipren. So if you're not moving, there's a lot more at stake than there used to be.
Try it yourself - before you go do anything, run 2 kilometres. It works.
2. Don't tell - just show and explain
Never before has the ability to quickly explain a concept to someone, been so important. It's not enough to stand there and lecture about technique - you the coach have to explain a forehand or backhand quickly and preferably as you are doing it - in other words reinforcing the message you are trying to send with a visual reminder that will stick. Without banging on about the technique.
Doing homework, playing fortnight, checking your phone and zooming at the same time - it's the age of multi-tasking like never before - a lot of information that can hamper the message from the medium.
A coaches instruction needs to be direct, clever and taking into account the students learning style, capabilities and expectations - not to mention their ability to handle success and failure.
Using open-ended questions, not talking unnecessarily, asking for feedback directly, finding the right way to say something without it sounding negative, or overtly positive to the point it becomes unnecessary or worse - condescending noise.
Finding out what works, and what doesn't work, and constantly evaluating, and re-evaluating - yep this is the coaches lot of today.
3. Adapt, adapt, adapt
Like working from home, coaching sport with the new restrictions has meant that, as a coach, the old coaching world and ideology is long gone (and only in the space of a few short months). So it's adapt or be left behind - which was also the case pre-2020, but without the urgency of today's climate.
"‘If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less.’ General Eric Shinseski
Remember, the tennis lesson that a child has now takes on significantly more importance in that child's life. Kids aren't doing 3 or 4 activities a week like they were, and they may never again.
4. Keep the tactical as simple as possible (but no simpler)
Teaching tactical progressions really means having an understanding of how to construct and win points against an opponent - which is a tough skill to teach anyway. How do you prepare for a match where you have no control over what your opponent is going to do?
The best strategy is probably to be able to improvise as you go, think on your feet, don't do anything crazy like end up beating yourself, and run every tennis ball down like you just stole something.
It was the boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, who said that he went out every night like each show would be his last. But with enough wisdom to also know that, at the end of it, "it's only rock'n'roll".
If that's not mental toughness in a nutshell, what is?
The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic. Peter Drucker
5. Challenge, not placate.
Ok not to get too preachy about it, but the sporting world is littered with examples of what sport can teach you, or learn from. That pugilist-of-note Michael Gerald Tyson put it succintly, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face".
No tournaments, no competition, but what is that you can do? On your own? The role of a coach is to push, challenge and get a player out of their comfort zone - the place where a player starts to ask themselves some tough questions. Where the coach focuses on what the player really needs to hear. Positive encouragement, but in a way that's challenging every player to get the most out of every session. Every time.
Let's focus on what we can do, because no-one saw this punch coming, did they?