The selection of a coach is one of the most important decisions that can be made for a young player. There is no perfect coach or coaching style, as each relationship is unique and must be a strong fit. I have listed 10 categories to consider when evaluating the suitability of a coach, but of course each of these factors will be weighted differently by each player and their family (note that the first five categories ran in the November/December 2016 edition of Long Island Tennis Magazine).
6. Ability to communicate
Because everyone learns differently, it's important to find a coach that recognizes and adapts their teaching methods to best suit each student's unique learning style. For example, many boys are primarily visual learners, while girls tend to be more auditory in their learning preference. Younger and less advanced players often learn best from getting kinesthetic feedback in which the instructor prompts the student to experience what the movement feels like. The first thing I do when I get a new student on the court is to evaluate exactly how they learn best to increase the quality of our communication. Coaches can be fluid in their style and methods of message delivery, while still resolved in the content and goals of their instruction.
Students have different needs, and coaches have different styles of teaching. Here again, it's vital to find synergy in this match. As explained in Part One of this article, some students are motivated by a rigid, demanding drill sergeant on the court, while others might be intimidated and unmotivated by this interaction for example. Culture, age background and gender often play a part. For example, girls usually need to first like and emotionally connect with their coach to accept, respect and trust them. Boys often care more about finding a strong leader that they can feel comfortable following. As a parent, it's important to recognize that the style of coach you hire should fit your child's needs first, and your personal preference second. Coaching is more than just teaching the "X's and O's" of the sport, it's about providing confidence inspiration and positive identity.
It's a given that tennis coaches need to have a strong understanding of tactics and mechanics to provide the most helpful information to students. As the bar for top level performance is raised, however, ambitious players are also seeking training and guidance off the court from physical trainers, nutritionists and sports physiologists. While a coach does not need to be an expert in any of these fields, they do need to have a functional background and knowledge in each discipline to best coordinate, reinforce and integrate off-court training with on-court practices. An expert coach interacts closely and frequently with experts in other areas to ensure that their students experience the best possible learning environment. It takes a community to help a player achieve their potential.
9. College contacts
The long-term goal for most top junior tennis players is to play college tennis. Junior tennis success is an enormously valuable tool to help gain a scholarship or admission to an otherwise unattainable school. A junior coach well-versed in the process of finding, selecting and gaining admission to college via tennis will be a great help to aspiring players. Additionally, junior coaches with a network of college coaches who know and respect them will be a valuable resource to navigating and negotiating the college process.
10. Life after tennis
A great coach is also a powerful mentor helping to align students goals and objectives both on- and off-the-court. This service to students does not end the day they leave to play college tennis or even the day they hang up their racket from competitive play. A top coach will be a friend, advisor and resource to former players. Personally, I have found that feedback from former students to be invaluable to me professionally and my friendships with former players are some of the strongest friendship bonds that I have.
Want to find a great tennis coach? You could ask a current player for a recommendation, but most will be loyal to their own coach. You could ask a parent of an avid junior player, but here again, many parents have a bias out of loyalty, validation of their choices and even financial incentives for recommendations. Perhaps the best resource for finding a great coach is to ask former players no longer in the tennis world who they would send their children to for coaching. The omniscience of life experience and time provides great clarity.
Steve Kaplan is the owner of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as the director of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation. Over the last 34 years, Steve has been the longtime coach of more than 600 nationally-ranked junior players, 15 state high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous touring professionals and prominent coaches. Steve's students have been awarded in excess of $8 million in college scholarship money. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.