You can't measure it, but this is what makes a great coach
Updated: Jul 17
Like a lot of sports, but especially in tennis, ultimately, it’s the stuff you can’t quantify which is most telling.
Watching a recent singles final between 2 highly ranked girls in a major Junior Tournament in Melbourne, I noticed one of the coaches sitting behind the court the entire match, complete with headphones and ipad.
Showing no emotion, completely expressionless, for about 2 1/2 hours. Entering match data AFTER EVERY SINGLE POINT.
The final came down to 2 critical points deep in the second set – had one of the girls made those returns without going for so much (and been able to break back), the entire complexion of the match would have changed. Suddenly injected with confidence after winning the set (and feeling reprieved) her opponent played inspired tennis to capture the 3rd set.
So it got me thinking – what is (and should be) the real benefit to a player of having a coach watch your match?
For me, after you’ve watched enough tennis matches, you know that you can’t get all the real information from technology. Or from first serve percentages, or even the number of unforced errors.
It's shot selection at critical moments, or the roller coaster of a player’s confidence level, or their level of concentration and focus in a match. Like a player really believing, serving at love 40, that yes I can really get dig myself out of this hole.
In the 1980’s Leo Ware was the mystery man of the Victorian junior tennis scene – a skinny, bearded schoolteacher with a habit of taking a break from a coaching session to have a filtered cigarette, half-joking that he needed a break to get his fitness back. But, as much as he would downplay his own playing ability, his positivity, enthusiasm and ability to dissect a tennis match, were powerful.
Once at the Australian Open on an outside court infiltrated by an army of “Swedes” complete with face paint and chants, Leo watched John Fitzgerald battle a Swedish top 50 player, who rather oddly, enjoyed a home ground advantage with the chants and noise and face paint. But every time Fitzy won a point, there was a slow, pointed, clap from some bearded guy in massive sunglasses in the stand. Leo had infuriated the Swede.
He only coached a few juniors (including myself) but one of them was Ian Peter-Budge, one of the smartest, fittest and mentally toughest players around. Armed with a rapier-like one-handed backhand “Budgie” once, embarrassingly for the AIS, beat all the top Australian juniors (including Woodbridge, Fromberg and Stoltenberg) at a satellite tournament in Warrandyte. Leo coached Budgie to the first round of the Australian Open before a back injury cut down his hopes of a professional playing career which, until then, seemed likely. Able to dissect matches and analyse players games and weaknesses, and explain it in a very simple way (I never heard him use the word “process”), Leo was also able to read the body language of an opponent, which I found fascinating. Knowing that your opponent might be feeling nervous, anxious or both, is a big help when you’re out on the court battling away. Standing at the back of the court in some of my junior matches, I knew that he knew I was a good player. And that meant a lot, particularly a competititve young tennis player prone to that common tendency of trying just a little too hard to win.
He was a coach who knew how to communicate and who knew that the way to make a player better was by SIMPLY STANDING THERE AND SHOWING CONFIDENCE in the player.
Very simple, and absolutely effective.
In a sporting environment where many parents are prone to unsuspectingly project anxiety onto their kids (and some coaches think that statistics is the best way to analyse a tennis match), that’s an important reminder.