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Success Quality #2: Fast Learner

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

In Part 1 of the Success Qualities, I discussed the importance of being a hard worker. I chose to put it first because I believe it is the most important, but it by no means is the only quality required. Tennis is a complex sport, and while it is important to be physically fit and to be able to grind out ball after ball, there are also times when it is important to learn new skills, whether they be technical, tactical, mental, or physical. How quickly a player assimilates new information and makes it automatic is a measure of how fast a learner they are.

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on the qualities I look to develop in my players to help them reach their full potential. For the intro to this series, click here. For Part 1, click here.

There are five indicators of a fast learner. I’ll define them briefly, but I’ll also talk about how we can develop these qualities in our players. Remember: I’m not using this list to identify talent – I’m using it to remember what “big picture” skills we have to teach.

2.1 I don’t need to be given the same feedback more than once

No coach wants to have to repeat themselves. It’s a waste of time for everyone, it’s frustrating for both player and coach, it teaches the player to tune out feedback, and it shows that no progress is being made. However, simply uttering the phrase “Don’t make me repeat myself!” won’t do the trick. There are a few keys to developing this quality:

1. Be clear with your language One can only do what one understands. Make sure that you are describing to players what they should do, not what they shouldn’t do, and make sure that it is in clear, unambiguous terms. For example, “that’s too big of a backswing” isn’t as clear as “shorten your backswing on faster balls,” which still isn’t as specific as “prepare with your hand in front of the baseline on faster balls.” (For more, I recommend reading up on the “What to Do” technique by Doug Lemov. A good synopsis is here.)

2. Try, not necessarily Do Make sure players understand that the expectation is that they try, even if they can’t do it. You should be able to see, through some sort of change in their behaviour, that they’re trying. Make sure they know this. Athletes also need to understand that trying will most likely involve stepping outside their comfort zone. By definition, this is uncomfortable, so if you want them to do it regularly, you will have to praise them for it.

3. Be clear on timeframes We want our athletes to hear a piece of feedback once, and then implement it immediately. But what if it’s new to them, and as discussed, takes some trying and figuring out? How long should they try it for? Should it always be their #1 focus, or just for this drill? Be clear on timeframes. For example: “Jack, any time we’re hitting forehand rally balls over the next week, make sure you’re getting your outside foot behind the ball.” Notice how I’ve given Jack both a context (only when hitting forehand rally balls) and a timeframe (over the next week). The intention here is that in a week, I can review with him and either tell him to keep working on it, or give him a new teaching point.

4. Communicate The vast majority of kids want to focus and learn – they just don’t know how. We have to be cognizant of the fact that there are numerous complicating factors, and we can only understand those factors if we communicate with our players. If an athlete doesn’t seem to be taking the feedback, it could be for a number of reasons:

  • The athlete doesn’t trust you

  • The athlete doesn’t believe in the feedback

  • The athlete is trying, but is afraid to step out of their comfort zone

  • The athlete is afraid of making changes that may temporarily reduce their ability

  • The athlete has lost focus

  • The athlete is having a bad day/has other extenuating circumstances

  • The athlete doesn’t understand the feedback

As you can see, the list is long. Trying to guess which reason is the primary cause is likely to be a crapshoot. Communication is key.

2.2 I ask questions

Remember that questioning can only come after reflection, so it’s important that players be taught to self-reflect. One of the best ways is through journaling. Make your players keep a journal, and if they’re below a certain age, give them a specific format to follow. If they have to follow certain prompts, rather than write whatever comes to mind, they will be forced to reflect. Over time, and with a little prodding, reflection will lead to deeper thought and interrogation.

I would also recommend role-modeling good questioning. Your questions can be both tennis related and not, but set a good example of digesting information, reflecting on it, and asking follow-up questions.

2.3 I follow instructions

An off-task student may be learning, but they won’t be learning the right things!

2.4 I’m always looking to get better, not just win the drill

This is a big one, especially for the more competitive players out there. Take, for example, a drill where the player has to hit past the service line. Hopefully, along with the outcome goal (hit past the service line), the coach will also set a process goal (eg. use your legs). The difference between looking to get better and trying to win the drill is in which of those goals you focus on. It can be quite tempting for the more competitive players out there, especially in drills that match them up against teammates, to only focus on the outcome goal at the expense of their development. A fast learner must understand how to focus on the process without losing sight of the outcome.

There are two ways to tackle this problem, and I would recommend both. First, make sure that players understand this distinction. Remind them of it regularly and, like I discussed in Part 1, work to make it a belief (there’s a reason why these indicators are phrased the way they are!). Moreover, praise those who demonstrate a commitment to the process.

Second, try to make your process and outcome goals as closely aligned as possible. In other words, try to make it impossible to achieve the outcome goal without also achieving the process goal. You may have to tweak the rules, or adjust the court size/shape, and it certainly won’t always be possible, but when done correctly, you will be able to channel your players’ competitiveness into their development.

2.5 I receive feedback intellectually, not emotionally

This one is last, but not least – certainly for the more sensitive athletes out there. Depending on their personality or the different environments they’ve been in (home, school, other training environments), a player may have been conditioned into believing that any feedback is criticism. These players often run the risk of taking it personally. It goes without saying that this is very dangerous, as it can not only sabotage the learning process but also the coach-player relationship.

Once again, there are two courses of action, and I would suggest taking both concurrently. The first is to communicate with your player, to help them understand the role of feedback in learning, and how important feedback is to your role as coach. Make sure you express very clearly to them that you are not judging them, and that who they are as an athlete is different than who they are as a person. The second and more important method is to communicate all of the above through your words and actions. What is the tone of your feedback? Do you act differently around your player when they are not doing well? Do you do anything else to strengthen the coach-player relationship (eg. ask them about their life outside of tennis, go watch them play matches, show compassion when they are having a rough day)? Ironically, for a player to receive feedback intellectually, not emotionally, they need to believe that you are there for them emotionally more than intellectually. It is something they need to feel, not know, and that can only be achieved through walking the walk.

For an assessment sheet that covers all the Success Qualities and their indicators, click here.


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