I reckon that anyone who has taught even a few private lessons has experienced that sinking feeling that comes when your player’s eyes sort of glaze over in the middle of one of your expositions, or when they nod repeatedly in response to your rhetorical questions but fail to make any adjustment as a result. And worst of all, when they actually stop trying. What has happened? What have I done to make this game (which both of us really like, maybe even love) so dull and tedious? It’s a nasty, niggling feeling. But ignore it at your peril. As a club coach, you live and die by one thing: players that come back for more.

Clue: Would you rather do something that is good for you, or something that you enjoy?

There’s no question that being a coach (or any other type of teacher) requires you to play a role. And yet how many of us would want to get up on stage? The difference is that as a coach, you are also always yourself. Your knowledge, your skills, your philosophy of the game and how to teach it. All of these can remain in place no matter whether you are on court with a middle-aged man or a girl in high school. What changes is the way the player experiences those things.

Two or three of the middle-level men that I coach are sort of obsessed with technique. Some lessons all they want to do is hit backhand drives. We compromise. Partly so for my own sanity, but partly because I don’t believe that working on a stroke in isolation is particularly useful. It’s a moving game, after all. Other players – the younger ones in particular – just want to play games. Well and good, I say, but there have to be other stages in the lesson, too. Otherwise, being on court with me is not much better than playing with a friend. At least, that’s the way it sounds in my head.

Not much fun, right? It’s true that I am not a joke-around sort of person, but I do get very happy and enthusiastic when my players make breakthroughs. And sometimes I don’t pick up on the signs that what we are doing on court has become more about me than about them. The player knows almost instantly, however. And that’s lousy.

So here are three types of questions I use whenever I realize that I’m being kind of a benevolent bully out there.

  1. Can the player do what I am asking them to do?
  2. Who’s doing the talking? Who’s asking the questions?
  3. Does what we are doing now “fit” with the rest of the lesson? Better yet, does it move us forward? Or is it just killing time, just more of the same?

The answers are obvious, but I tell you this: my lessons are much better if I run through them before the lesson, and use them to shape not necessarily the content or activities, but the way the player experiences those things.