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The Role of the Coach: Teaching vs. Training

This is the third part in a series on the differences between teaching and training. Part one (The Distinction) is here. Part two (When to do What) is here.

Now that we understand the practical differences between teaching and training and know when to do one or the other, one question remains: how? As coaches, what is our role when altering a motor pattern? What should the athlete be doing? And how does this change when training a motor pattern? Even with the right intentions, if we aren’t executing in a way that helps us achieve our goals, our on-court work will not be as productive as possible. This post will deal with the role of the coach, and next week, we’ll look at the role of the player.

Roles when teaching

1. Eliminate fear (allow the player to step out of their comfort zone)

By definition, learning a new skill involves doing something that you are currently incapable of doing. For some players, this is exciting; for others, it can be nerve-wracking. The list of possible fears is extensive:

  • fear of missing

  • fear of losing

  • fear of being judged

  • fear of getting hurt

  • fear of getting worse

  • etc.

Eliminating these fears is crucial for a few reasons. First, a player who is fearful will not step out of their comfort zone, and therefore will not be able to make the necessary adjustments to learn the skill. Second, a player who feels “forced” out of their comfort zone may eventually resent or distrust the coach. Lastly, teaching athletes to overcome their fears and embrace novelty will serve them well in life.

In practice, these fears can be eliminated in a few ways. To ensure the player isn’t afraid of losing, any technical changes should be made weeks in advance of competition, and in a lesson environment where the athlete is not playing points. Similarly, to squash any fear of missing, so long as the motor pattern is still new, there shouldn’t be any kind of scoring or consequences for missing the shot. That way, the player can focus on learning without paying attention to the emotional implications of the outcome.

Many players also fear being judged, either for not being good enough or for not “getting it” quick enough. Positive body language and a encouraging tone of voice are indispensable. The athlete should feel supported, not challenged, by the coach’s choice of words, intonation, and general demeanor.

For players who are afraid they might either get worse or get injured, we move on to #2:

2. Explain the why

Some players won't be afraid, but they will be reluctant. Of course, reticence may simply be the mask worn by a scared athlete, but if they truly are hesitant to make any changes, it could well be that they don’t understand why they’re being asked to make them.

Especially with younger players or players who haven’t been with their coach for very long, explaining the rationale for any change is crucial. Athletes should be made to understand how this will make them better (your ball will be heavier), why it’s important (you’ll dominate the rally more often), how long it will take (you’ll be ready in 4 weeks for the next tournament), and what the challenges may be (you’ll find it awkward at first, but you’ll get past it). In other words, paint a picture.

In the world of psychology, there’s a formula that expresses this thought:

I’d encourage anyone unfamiliar with it to read more here, but briefly: D is dissatisfaction, V is vision, F is first steps, and R is resistance to change. In other words, someone’s dissatisfaction with their current situation, vision of where they want to go, and knowledge of the steps to get there must all be greater than their reluctance to change. That’s what good coaches are doing when they explain their rationale – they are explaining why the status quo is not good enough (building dissatisfaction), what they’re going to do about it (creating a vision), and how they'll do it (laying out first steps).

3. Get them to feel it

The gap between knowing and doing is massive. Don’t believe me? Just look at how many successful coaches were never successful players. And conversely, how many champion athletes cannot explain how they do what they do. The overlap between knowing and doing is minimal, which is why it’s more important as coaches that we get athletes to feel the skill. At the end of the day, we’re not teaching them to be coaches, we’re teaching them to play the game – execution, not knowledge, is what matters.

There are a couple of ways this can be done. First, by asking questions of the player, such as:

What did that feel like?

What do the good ones feel like?

What do the bad ones feel like?

What did you do there?

What do you have to focus on?

The purpose is to get the athlete to reflect on what they are feeling or doing with their body. The more aware they are of what they're doing, the higher the chance they will be able to replicate or change it.

Beyond that, the way the coach teaches can play a big role in getting the player to “feel it.” Simply explaining what to do is not enough – coaches need to make use of progressions, constraints, and other creative teaching tools to create a different sensory experience for the student.

4. Ensure appropriate challenge

Above, we mentioned comfort zones. Another learning model is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. I’ll butcher and bastardize it slightly, but the key (for us) is this: learning occurs in the space between things the student can do unassisted, and things the student cannot do at all. This may sound self-evident, but it has serious implications when we consider the organization of our drills when teaching – specifically, our targets and our scoring. Let’s imagine I’m working with a 10 year old boy on his attacking forehand. We test and find out that only 2 out of 10 are in the court and hard enough. I know that eventually, we want to get to 8 out of 10. However, I can’t make that the immediate goal. Why? Because it’s outside of his Zone of Proximal Development. At the current moment, there’s no way he can make 8 out of 10, with or without assistance. By setting an unrealistic goal, he will either lose motivation or, out of desperation, begin trying things that aren’t conducive to success.

Conversely, if I set the target at 3 out of 10, just 1 above what he’s currently able to do, he won’t be challenged enough. He won’t be motivated to make any real changes and will likely lose focus since the task is too easy.

5. Ensure appropriate reps

Hopefully this goes without saying, but the player must be given enough repetitions to master the skill. However, that’s not all. Studies have shown that after a certain point, too many repetitions yields minimal returns. Furthermore, it’s known that rest plays a large role in skill acquisition and retention. One can argue, therefore, that once the point of diminishing returns is reached, it’s better to move on to another skill or simply stop altogether rather than continue.

Not only does the number of repetitions matter, but so does the type. Too much has been written on the subject for me to include it here, but an understanding of block vs random practice and closed vs open drills is essential in tennis.

6. Feedback

Lastly, feedback. Feedback plays a more important role in teaching than it does in training since learning is an intellectual endeavour. Entire books could be written on the subject, but suffice it to say that there are a couple of key principles for giving feedback when teaching:

Be specific & process-oriented

If we follow Vygotsky’s ZPD model, in teaching, the player is at a stage where they cannot perform the skill without assistance. Feedback, therefore, should be given with the goal of offering guidance in other words, the feedback should be specific, since the athlete will not have the expertise or background knowledge necessary to decipher vague comments. At the same time, feedback in the learning stage should be process-oriented. Outcome-oriented feedback will only serve to cause stress, which will slow the learning process and encourage the player to make adaptations that will impede them in the long run.

Don’t be emotional

Along the same lines, and following from #1, feedback should seldom be emotional – never negative, and rarely overly positive. Overarousal in either direction can take focus away from the task at hand and impede learning.

Encourage reflection

As alluded to in #3, reflection is a key element of learning. Feedback when teaching should have as a primary goal to help the student discover something, whether that be intellectual or physical.

Roles when training:

1. Set the tone

It’s time to push yourself. We all adapt to match the people around us. It follows, therefore, that if we want our players to be intense, energetic, serious, and demanding, then we should be the same. Through body language and voice, the coach can set the tone and make it clear that it’s time to train.

2. Ensure the appropriate challenge and repetition

Training, by definition, occurs when a skill has already been acquired. For that reason, any improvements made during training will be minimal. The subtlety in training is knowing the athlete’s exact level so that the task can be set just challenging enough that it forces them to adapt, but not so challenging as to be impossible in the given time frame. Too easy, and the player will not improve. Too hard, and they will lose motivation.

Repetition, and lots of it, is also important when training. Because training is a process of adaptation to a stimulus, the brain requires a larger number of repetitions to make the adjustment. This is contrasted with teaching, where a single piece of appropriate feedback can bring about a great improvement very quickly.

3. Understand how to get the most out of them

Training, when done well, is an art. As the phrase “diminishing returns” suggests, squeezing a 2% improvement out of a player can take a lot of work. However, it can’t be done without the effort of the athlete. And that’s where the art comes in. As coaches, we have to know how to push our athletes’ buttons. How much can they take? How much is too much? What do they respond to? Each player is different – both in terms of their capacity and what motivates them. Understanding those differences and working within them is crucial.


Of course, this is not meant to be the be-all end-all — rather, some of the key principles I try to focus on in my coaching. What do you think? Did I miss something? How can you tell the difference between your teaching and training? Let me know.


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