What qualities matter most in a tennis coach? A long, strong record of success is, of course, one trait, but how about considering how a professional coaches above whom and how many they coach? The defining positive quality of a teacher is rarely service volume, so why then do so many coaches advertise student ranking benchmarks as definitive proof of excellence, and why do so many believe them?
It's self-evidently true that if you ask the wrong questions, you will get the wrong answers, and if you search for a misleading marketing pitch about how many ranked players a coach or club has created you will easily find it. Too often this superficial promotion is a mile-wide and an inch-deep as many players change instructors as often as they change underwear, and coaches have been known to claim credit for every student they have ever spoken to. Some claim to have "coached" more ranked tennis players than anyone in history. With such a fluid definition of the term "coach", I guess YouTube's Charlie is the world champion "coach" of millions of children on how to bite their brother’s finger.
Let's further consider for example, the self-anointed title, "High Performance Coach”. Skillful coaches help players improve, but it's difficult to be sure if this claim means that players are ascended to a higher performance or if these already-skillful performers are just maintained. Top coaches "develop" players with diverse learning styles by adapting to their student’s uniqueness, and successfully instilling skills and habits that lead to a lifetime of safe and enjoyable growth. Promoters “produce" players by finding a critical mass of talent and performing a Darwinian natural selection experiment that demands conformity. They assume full credit for the winners while taking no responsibility for the uninspired and injured. Ask a prospective coach about their failures. The answer will reveal volumes about their outlook and character.
What exactly defines a great coach? I would reduce it to two simple yet profound qualities:
First, great coaches mentor and empower students by fostering problem-solving abilities and skills that are valuable to tennis as well as transferable to life. They do so by holding players and families accountable by teaching them what they need to know, not exclusively what they wish to hear. Such honesty requires courage and integrity as there are more ambitious young families in tennis who embrace sweet little lies above realistic profound truths. Mentors place the long-term growth needs of the student above their own desire to exercise ownership. They understand tennis success is a long-term endeavor and therefore impart a progressive plan that emphasizes skill development, tactical understanding, competitive joy and problem-solving ability. Most dedicated mentors have themselves benefited from caring mentors who have held them accountable which leads to the next quality:
Great coaches encourage independence and leadership in their students.
Skillful coaches are confident and do not insist on being the sole source of all information. Instead, they encourage students to seek out as much advice as they can, first arming them with the ability to make wise choices on what to value, what to internalize and what to discard. Insecure coaches see others as a threat to their control, instead of teaching students how to use insight and wisdom to see all input, even misinformation, as clarifying. Enlightened coaches educate and build independent leaders. They don't seek to create more devout followers by demanding compliance.
Independence and the foundation of leadership development are encouraged by working with students to clarify their own goals, and then teaching them how to bring their dreams to reality. Such selfless professionalism by a coach is not revealed by numbers.
Look beyond the numbers.
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation, and executive director and founder of Serve &Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally- ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.