The Woman and the Dress
Written by Selkirk Coach and SelkirkPro Morgan Evans
Sometimes I write because I have something to say, but often, I write because I need to understand better what I believe to be true. This is one of those times.
Coaches Can Learn a Lot From Students
I love a good quote. My new favorite comes from Hemingway when he said: "I've taken more from alcohol than alcohol ever took from me." I feel the same way about students. I am a firm believer that coaching involves a symbiotic relationship. As a coach, I teach my students to the best of my ability, but also, I am constantly surprised by the things I learn from them.
In my "Help Wanted?" article, I talked about the kinds of questions a player should ask themselves before endeavoring to coach other players. In this article, however, I want to talk a little more to the working coaches, certified or not.
An Active Coach is a Sponge for Information
I mentioned the word 'symbiotic' before. It's a serious word, I know...but hang in there, I promise I'm going somewhere with this. When you start to see your students as resources and not just work, your level of coaching can improve drastically. When you start asking more questions than your students do, then coaching can become more of a fluid artform than a skill. An active coach is a sponge for information and if you ever stop learning, you stop leading...simple. Sometimes you may only be learning how to better coach that particular person, but regardless, knowledge is power. Knowledge isn't actually power, it's really only potential power, the action is power. Did you ever have a friend explain in glorious detail the extravagant idea they had for your Christmas present, just after they give you a Starbucks gift card? To which one normally replies, "ooohhh don't worry, it's the thought that counts" No!! Just No!! We are judged by our actions, not our thoughts. For the record, I like Starbucks, so if you ever see me at a tournament and hand me a tall extra hot peppermint mocha, then I'll probably be your best friend for at least the lifespan of that beverage...Hmm, got a little sidetracked there...I'm back.
Player/Coach Symbiotic Relationship
Symbiosis is about a mutually beneficial relationship, in our example, the flow of information between the player and coach. It's not a difficult formula from the student's standpoint, they are there to learn and generally come mentally prepared to do just that. How many coaches can say the same I wonder? In my life, I have been taught various things by various teachers, from sports to languages. What I found time and time again is that the more experienced my teacher was, the less likely they were willing to change their beliefs and therefore teachings. It's understandable, their careers hinge on the pretense that they 'know' the answers, that they possess the exact right knowledge to teach a student correctly. What if I told you that no one really 'knows'?
Thirst for Knowledge
The greatest tennis coach I ever met, was so because he had an unquenching thirst for knowledge. He knew he was both a coach and student. I saw him as the gold standard of coaching, infallible with his approach and execution of lessons. One day after a lesson, I asked him how he knew that teaching the single-handed backhand to that particular woman was right. He replied, "Morgan, that woman has a chest you could spout Shakespeare from, and it is simply too crowded to use a two-handed backhand". After that amusing remark, he went on to explain a hard truth. There is a whole lot of grey area and very few black and white statements that should exist in coaching. Arguably, the closest tennis came is Professor Bruce Elliot, the godfather of modern biomechanics. Great coaches stood on the shoulders of Professor Elliot and developed their student's technique with as close to bulletproof certainty that what they were teaching was 'right'. That person, that wealth of clinically studied and proven knowledge, doesn't exist in Pickleball, yet. The intricacies of our game are so immense that few blanket statements can be made with a degree of accuracy that I think students really deserve.
So, what is the answer? Well, I think it's as simple and as difficult as having a dose of humility and finding comfort in these three little words. "I don't know". It's ok, it's not the end of the world. In a way, it's the complete opposite. It’s the start of a whole new world of exploration, it's when Alice first went down the rabbit hole. If you are teaching, you need to be learning as much if not more than your students. Are you? Pickleball, and its budding coach education system are still in such a stage of infancy that it makes any kind of knowledge base a scarce resource. This makes our students our best resource, and trial and errors our best methodology. Challenge your students to seek answers for themselves. Encourage them to take lessons from other coaches, you never know what kind of information they may return with. I tell my students straight, that if I do my job well, I will put myself out of the job as they become their own coaches. Give your students the tools to coach themselves, they won't just become better students, but better match players...after all, you won't be able to hold their hand when the pressure is on at a tournament. Once your students become problem solvers and don't need you anymore, then, and perhaps only then, can you say that your work was a success.
No One Size Fits All
Now, I would be amiss if I didn't address the other side of the coin in this argument & belief. Belief is the magic pill, the alpha ingredient, and is something I will address in greater detail in future articles. I've talked about a coach being willing to admit not having all the answers, and seeking to find them through open-minded experimentation. This can obviously come across to a student in a way that may shake their unwavering belief in what you are teaching, after all, trusting the process is a huge part of what creates the confidence in a player to then breed success. I think the middle ground can hold the answer, talking with authority but in a way that lets your students feel like an active participant in the methodology, style, and structure of lessons. Reassure them that you don't have a one size fits all approach to teaching and that together you will need to work hard to find what and how they need to learn. The first and most basic definition of 'good' technique is simple; something that is not going to cause an injury. The second definition is wildly complex and thought-provoking; something that is appropriate for the individual. Think about that for a moment, what's appropriate? If a player has very limited movement skills, is forcing them into the dink game box really appropriate? If a player has only ever played table tennis, is the continental grip appropriate? If a player has fallen on the court while moving back, is forcing them to stay glued to the kitchen line appropriate? These are just examples of the exponential variety of questions a coach needs to be thinking about, are you?
They say a dress makes a woman. I don't think so, I think the woman makes the dress. A coach does make players, but keep your eye out for the players that really make you a coach.