As a coach or a parent, it can be difficult to find the right words to say after your player has finished a match. Whether or not your player won or lost the match, there is a protocol for how to handle the post-match conversation. In either case, the most important guideline to keep in mind is to read the player’s body language and use that information to help you decide what you will say. The second most important guideline is to listen to what they have to say first. Let the player initiate the conversation whenever possible, and patiently listen to what they have to say before you try to interrupt.
Immediately after a match, the most productive thing a player can do is decompress from the stress of the match and allow themselves to process all of the events that just took place. A little quiet time to replay things and sort them out can be very beneficial after a match, no matter the outcome. Coaches and parents should respect this and give the player some time to themselves before they try to bombard them with their own match analysis. After allowing the player some time to think and cool down, try to let them initiate the conversation. Sometimes they might prefer to wait until a later time to discuss what took place so they can fully process it themselves.
At some point, if the player doesn’t initiate the conversation, try to get a better read on their body language to decide how you should proceed. For example: If they appear distracted, they might be in deep thought about the match and require some more time alone. In this case, it might be better to wait before you engage in conversation or talk about something other than tennis. If they appear to be visibly upset, then depending on the player, it might be time to offer consolation or some encouragement. Do your best to get a read on where that player’s mind is and then take it from there.
When you do finally engage in conversation, your first statement should be something simple and positive: “I think you really gave it your all out there, I’m proud of you.” This type of opener starts the dialogue off on a positive note and expresses both your care and admiration for their efforts. Once you get the conversation started, allow the player to express themselves and just listen patiently to what they have to say first. Their thoughts and feeling will be strong, and in most cases, they are probably talking to themselves as much as they are talking to you. Remember, they are trying to process what just happened as well.
The best way to get your player to talk more is to ask open-ended questions: “What do you think you did well today?” or “What could you have done differently to force more errors from your opponent?” Asking open-ended questions helps that player reach the answer for themselves. If they struggle to arrive at the answer, try to lead them with another more specific question. If the conversation turns negative at any point, remember these words: “Don’t criticize, hypothesize.” Instead of asking a player why they couldn’t keep their forehand in play, it might be better to ask them: “What could you have done differently to be steadier on your forehand side?” Posing “What if you tried ‘XYZ’” questions are a great way to get the player to problem-solve and stay away from any negatives.
A post-match conversation can be a productive brainstorming session or an uncomfortable and destructive one. Coaches and parents should try to applaud effort, toughness and attitude above all else. All of the above are things that the player has complete control over and are therefore most important. Results, however, are not always under a player’s control and rewarding or criticizing it can be damaging and send the wrong message. For example: A player who tries to run after every ball demonstrates good effort and should be consistently applauded for it. If that player misses some of those shots, it might simply be out of their control and they should not be criticized for a weaker performance.
In my opinion, the goal of the post-match conversation is to validate how the player performed no matter what the result was. Assuming they put in the effort and have a good attitude on the court, I will always validate their performance. As players, we know how difficult it is to control your results, but how imperative it is to control your energy level, positivity and toughness. Use this conversation as a way to problem-solve, validate and demonstrate your support for your players. Coaching is more than just communicating. It involves establishing a rapport with your players and building a trusting relationship that will allow your players to succeed.