Mark Gillett

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The Value of Experience

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I coached tennis for a large part of my career. In fact for around 30 years and during that time I or my programme worked with all levels of players, juniors, adults, starters and some low level international or US collegiate level.

This post has come about because of another thread I started on Facebook, partly out of curiosity to how other coaches might react and partly because the subject is one I feel very strongly about. Essentially I believe coaches should play the sport continuously to some level throughout their career and should also strive to remain fit, healthy and be the role model that many players look for.

There are currently a lot of coaches in the UK that have moved here from Eastern Europe and it was watching some of these at the weekend that also prompted my thoughts. Many of these are competitive players still, they look good on court, tend not to get wound up in the bulshit of making tennis fluffy and cuddly for kids but they get on with solid coaching, detail, and they seem to have presence. Now, I know I am generalising a bit here and could get into deep water, however, I do believe it to be true.

One of the last posts on the thread mentioned how he had not played competitively for 16 years. This shocked me in that I could not understand why someone would not wish to find out more about the sport they are coaching. He did not, however, state what level he was coaching but even at regular club level people want to understand how to do it better from someone who knows.

When I started out, I was only an ok player. I played county level but never made county week. I played tournaments around the country and enjoyed what tennis brought me, but I did not relish competition. In 1981 I was offered a job at the infamous Roger Taylor Tennis Centre in Vale Do Lobo. When I arrived, I was one of the stronger players at that particular time. This I could not really believe but I was. As coaches we then started to play each other regularly and it was here that I really began to enjoy competing. “Punters” would challenge us for money, others just because they thought they would beat us and so on.. It was fun to hustle and we could win quite a bit of money.. Even with our wrong hand!! We had a great role model too!

Following this I moved to the Gulf where competing was part of the package. We played for the clubs we coached at and were expected to win. In the Gulf at the time there were a lot of good competitive clubs with players from Asia and the US as well as the UK. It was hard but great fun. My ability to compete improved as did my coaching and my presence in the coaching arena. In 1993 I came back to the UK and started my own business and continued to compete… I competed until I was around 43 at National League, tournaments and some vets stuff. I then took 10 years out and have now started again. I probably played my best tennis in my late 30’s.

Throughout this time, I learned more on the court playing than I could ever have learned in a coaching exam.. The exams for me were how to work with kids, how best to get across your your coaching, biomechanics and current trends, and networking but not what the sport is all about. And that simply is winning and losing. In tennis those are the only two results you can get and learning how to do both is critical and best done on the court in matches. Learning how to coach winning and losing is pivotal in achieving good strong tennis playing individuals regardless of the later life professions they might choose. This I believe I have been very successful in. The overall benefit of tennis to an individual I believe outweighs all other sports in building solid life skills and so many of the students on my programmes have done so well later in life.

If you coach and never play, you are simply losing out on knowledge of the game that comes free except for the dent it might leave in your ego. But your junior players need to see that you know what it is to lose as well as win. They need to see that you speak from knowledge and also put yourself on the line, and when you talk about losing its from your heart not a book or a feeling. They might not know they need to know this, but I can assure you they do! I hear only to often coaches saying the same things as parents who don’t play.. “You should have won that match, Harry”; one of the most damaging comments anyone can make (especially if their name is not Harry, of course!). What does it mean? It means you are disappointed in Harry and that you think they did not do enough or play well. It means you think they are better than that when actually they are only as good as their worst day. It means you have not taken the time to find out how they thought they played. It means that you have immediately put them down. There really is no “should have…” in tennis. If you lost, its because the other player outplayed you. Beat you. Out thought you. Simply got more balls over the net than you at the right time and the quicker players learn this, the easier it is to adjust and improve. Another horrific thing I hear is “Well you got to deuce in every game, well done”. And the score? 6-1 6-3. That is a loss by a minimum of 66 points to 44 and losing all the important points as well.. Or realistically, a trashing. They don’t necessarily need to hear that but to say its a good result is wrong.

The things to say and questions to ask when someone loses are quite simple. “That was tough! What might you have done differently?” or say nothing immediately. Wait and talk later. Let the player start talking. Generally the player knows how crap it was so don’t highlight it. However, if you do not play as a coach or do not have the playing background, your understanding of what a young player has to deal with is limited. Expecting a 10 year old to attack everything when instinct tells him he’s going to lose that way is not effective. Losing will make them feel bad, no matter what. So learning to attack everything will only come with time, practice and good coaching with good feedback. Expectation is neither good coaching or good feedback.

So! Can you be a coach without playing? Of course you can and I am sure there are many effective coaches that don’t play. Maybe they have played a lot at some point. Maybe they bring skills from other arenas. Maybe life experiences and ability to connect and relate to their student.. There are many reasons why you might be a good coach, I just contest that competing and achieving even if its at other sports will always help you be a better coach, bring you knowledge and give you more credibility when it counts. Am I a better coach than someone who does not play? No not necessarily. I am just a better coach than I would have been if I had not played.

Written by markgillett

August 11, 2015 at 9:55 am

Posted in Coaching

Tagged with , , ,

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