It’s often been said that to be the best at tennis you must be a great "problem-solver", yet very little is actually written about how coaches can help students learn how to solve problems. Specifically, an often neglected yet vital topic is: how can a young tennis player reconcile differing instruction from multiple professional sources? It’s particularly relevant today because we live in a world in which so much information is accessible, inevitable and conditioned by reinforcing our confirmation bias.
Some primary coaches deal with potential information "overload" by demanding that they be the singular source of instruction and no other opinions are valid or permitted.
Unfortunately, such a demand is unrealistic, immature and selfish. Teachers shouldn't fear information and students shouldn't avoid it. Instead, teachers can help students, examine instruction, conceptualize it, flush it out and break it down to teach students how to separate misinformation from fact and observation from wisdom. Tennis is about solving problems and if students don't have a strong instruction receptive filter, shielding them from information doesn't offer a solution, it creates another problem.
There is a better way. We can teach students to be intelligent, active decision-makers because the best players take responsibility for their successes, their failures and their education.
I start by inviting students to question the instruction that I provide to them. Saying "listen carefully and thoughtfully, consider everything you have heard and if you do your own research, I think you will agree with me" is more compelling than saying "trust me."
Here's a simple process to follow for players to take ownership of information:
1. Ask yourself how does the instruction reinforce or conflict with what you know of the world?
Sound instruction is logical, reasonable, realistic, specific, simple and science- based.
2. Consider, is the instruction an observation or an insight?
Observations identify problems, insights solve them.
3. Examine the source of the information. Is it credible?
Playing tennis does not make someone an expert on teaching tennis. Teaching tennis to expert players does not make someone an expert on teaching tennis. Education, experience, knowledge, wisdom, passion and practice make someone an expert on teaching tennis.
4. Watch slow motion video of the best players. Do they perform the movements as you have been instructed?
►If you notice almost uniformity it's a fundamental.
►If you see variation it's a style.
►If no one does it, it's wrong.
5. Examine the instruction. Is it suitable for you?
►If it's a fundamental, it is.
►If it's a style it might be dependent on your physical, technical and mental attributes and outlooks.
►If it's wrong it's not.
The best teachers don't simply provide the answers to the test, they teach students how to find the answers. The best students don't passively wait for instructions, they actively ask questions and seek solutions.
The best teachers encourage the development of the best students and the best students become the most successful players.
The ability to solve problems on the court is a learned skill and an important part of a developing player’s education.
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.