My sophomore year at Stanford I was taking a class on 19th century American history. This is a topic that I found really, really interesting. For the first time that I could remember, I found myself at class listening, concentrating and trying to follow what my teacher had to say. I found this class very easy. Doing this for the first time when you are 20-years old may sound strange, but it was in this class that I realized that I never really tried to understand my teachers. What I would do (and I have spoken to others who can relate) is sit in class and mind numbingly write down what was on the blackboard while my mind was usually on something else..maybe if this happened in 2010 instead of 1994, I would be diagnosed with ADD, who knows. Anyway, I would take this blackboard information, go home and study my brains out (usually while my mind was on somthing else.) Since I wasn't really learning it in class, I would need to relearn most of what I could have learned in class. Needless to say, this wasn't an efficient way to study and get good grades.
The semester I took this American History class, I had an ephiphany. Maybe, if I actually listened to my teachers in class while I was taking notes, I would understand and learn things at a much faster rate. Even though I did not a lot of the other classes as interesting, I forced myself to follow the teacher and take interest in the fact that by listening, I could learn faster and easier. Sure enough, I did better academically my last two 2.5 years of college than I ever had before.
Yes, listening is an important life skill...and listening to a coach in any sport is no different. Some students, often the underachieving but talented ones will reflect rather than absorb. What I mean by this, is the student is thinking of a response to the coach's comment while the coach is making it, therefore not really listening to the substance of what the coach is saying. For example, a coach could say something in-between a 2nd and 3rd set like, "you started double-faulting at the end of the 2nd set because you were tight and possibly tired, try getting your first serve in if you are really feeling nervous before the point starts." If you get a quick response of "my pony tail is really wet and whacking me in the eye on my second serve", you could bet the message of get your first serve in on a big point is not really getting processed. Yes, I did get that response in a tournament last week.
Deliberate practice is a much talked about concept. This basically means, focus on what you are practicing. In my experience with my students, the kids who are conciously thinking about what they are working on rather than just doing something because the coach tells him/her to do improve a lot faster Think about if your coach surprises you and asks, why will this task help you become better, can you really answer?
Another way to tell that a well-intentioned student is not really listening is if they verbally respond "ok" before the coach is finished delivering the message. This can occur if the student is nervous or trying to impress the coach by showing he/she reallyunderstands what the coach is saying. This however, does show that the student is more interesting in seeking approval from the coach than following and understanding what a coach has to say.
If you are a parent of a junior player ask questions on the way home. "What did you work on?", "Why does your coach think it is important for you to have your left shoulder higher than your right shoulder on your serve?" If you are not getting good answers mention to the coach that your child is not really absorbing the message. Also remind your child, that they should focus on the message.
At a certain level, the player may not even agree on the message. This is o.k and a good, confident coach will usually be o.k answering questions and having an interactive dialogue. But this is better than just blindly practicing while your mind is on what you are going to have dinner or who just sent your phone the text message you hear beeping on the bench.
Ricky Becker is director of tennis at Pine Hollow Country Club and independently coaches high-performance juniors year-round at Bethpage State Park and Jericho/Westbury Tennis where he is the junior tournament director. He can be reached by phone at (516) 605-0420, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JuniorTennisConsulting.com.