If you were to poll 100 athletes on the top quality that a great coach must have, what would the top answer be? I suspect that 90 percent of the answers would involve a relational quality, rather than technical aptitude. Coaching is so much more than teaching young athletes how to properly hit a forehand, it’s about building meaningful relationships with each and every player. Nonetheless, relationship building is a skill often neglected in the coaching certification process.

WTCA CEO Sarah Stone recently experienced this problem firsthand when recently got back on court in Brentwood California. Shawna Barasch Wilson asked Stone to work with one of her junior coaches at the SBW Tennis Academy. The junior coach had just come out of playing college tennis and had finished the coaching certification process, but simply did not know how best to interact and relate with the young juniors she was coaching.

“I showed her how to work the class, run the group. It’s not just about knowing the game. It’s about how you communicate with kids, how you build those relationships,” said Stone. “Coaching is so much more than just completing a certification. You need to have the little things to be a good coach. The art of coaching is not learned in the certification process.”

After this experience, Stone began thinking of all the ways new coaches could gain the soft skills required to be a successful tennis coach. First and foremost, they must attend conferences and networking events to develop their own skills. It’s all about asking questions and seeking raw, honest feedback from likeminded coaches, which is something many young coaches are hesitant to do. However, without pushing outside the comfort zone, it is virtually impossible to grow into one’s full potential.

“The art of coaching is really important, and that comes from building relationships with other coaches, finding out why other coaches are so successful and how you can implement those tactics into your own career,” explained Stone.

One of the major issues within the tennis coaching certification process is that a former player can become a certified coach without receiving any guidance from more senior coaches who have had a history of success. According to Stone, this is the exact reason why seeking mentors within the profession is so vital.

“Go shadow respected coaches and learn from their lessons,” urged Stone. “Learn why that coach is so successful. What are they saying to the players? How are they communicating? How are they building those relationships with their players? Those skills are not being taught during the certification process, whether it’s an online version or a three month face to face course. There’s not enough time spent learning from other coaches about how to successfully build relationships with players.”

“It would be great for head coaches to sit in on their junior coach’s lessons and look for ways to help them grow,” said Stone. “I really want to encourage younger coaches to seek mentors and sit in on a more experienced coach’s lesson. I urge young coaches to spend just 15 minutes per week shadowing a successful coach and ask them questions about how to engage the kids. Particularly for young girls, it’s all about building relationships. Shadowing someone could help become a much better coach.”

However, many times younger coaches lack the confidence to seek out a mentor to help them grow within the profession. In this case, Stone believes it would be pertinent for head coaches to pave the way for their younger coaches by teaching them how to build a coaching philosophy and how to build relationships with their players, rather than waiting for the younger coaches to come seeking mentorship.

According to Stone, time is of the essence in these types of situations, which is why young coaches must receive proper guidance as soon as possible. “Often times, if young kids don’t feel connected with their coach, they will drop out. It’s not the coach’s fault and it’s not the kids’ fault, but the coach just doesn’t know how to build the relationships because they haven’t had the experience of working underneath someone,” she said.

“If you don’t build those relationships, the kids often are not as motivated. Sometimes they push harder because they love the coach and they really want to make the coach proud,” explained Stone.

As Stone likes to put it, “Young tennis coaches are thrown to the wolves when they enter the profession.” This is a stark difference to other sports, take swimming for example. I swam competitively for 11 years, including four years as a collegiate swimmer. Through those 11 years, I’ve come to understand the importance of the mentorship process within swimming coaching.

Swimming coaches also complete an online certification process before they can begin working with young athletes. However, coaches will then work side-by-side with a more senior coach to learn how to properly work with and form relationships with the swimmers before leading their own practices without assistance.

In the opinion of Stone, this process might be something worth looking into for tennis coaches. “Tennis coaches may have coached for years but never had anyone sit in on their lesson and help them with the process,” she said.

So, how can tennis academies work a mentorship program into their busy coaching schedules? “Split one court and run two drills side-by-side to get the senior coach and junior coach together,” suggested Stone. “It’s a great way for coaches to shadow one another, even if just for warmup. This really helps the younger coach find their way and gain confidence. They might want to build relationships but they lack confidence, so they don’t even know where to start.”

“A lot of times new coaches might be a bit nervous, but if they see someone else demonstrating these relationship building skills, they may be more inclined to adopt them as well,” said Stone. “Knowing how to hit a big serve doesn’t mean you know how to run a class or how to engage a student in a one-on-one lesson. The student may never want to play tennis again if the coach isn’t able to make a personal connection with them.”

In summation, it is imperative that coaches take the time to invest in their young talent. Not only does helping new coaches impact their own personal growth, but it also heightens the overall quality of a tennis academy.

Who knows, just 15 minutes per week may positively change the entire course of a young coach’s career.

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