When To Talk to your player
By Rohan Williams WTCA Platinum
The tough part! Talking to your players before and after matches One of the big grey areas in professional tennis coaching has to be the pre and post match discussions. Whilst I could sit down and write out a list of do’s and don’ts, as far I can tell, there are barely any absolutes when it comes to communicating with your player on match day. There is a great deal of variables that make each match situation slightly different from any other. As a coach, the best that you can do is to be aware of these variables and proceed accordingly!I’d like to start this article off with a blunt truth; no coach will get these conversations exactly right all the time. Ever. I attended my first professional tournament in a coaching role when I was 22. In the ten years since then, I’ve gotten it wrong many times (there are many ways to do this… read on!), and I’m sure I’ll get it wrong many times in the future. Each time I have one of these conversations gives me more experience for the next one, and I try to learn every time.
The pre match briefing is usually the easier conversation to have. There is plenty of time to plan this chat out, and do research if the situation calls for it. Many junior players are still trying to develop their own system of match preparation, and also match play. So often who the opponent is will either be a secondary or a tertiary consideration. Clarity and consistency is key here. Even outstanding juniors (top 100 ITF) often have a limited tactical range, so pick 2 or 3 key points and look to emphasize these. The tougher part with juniors is the mental and emotional consistency. Perhaps your player had a fight with a parent or her friend the night before. How much will it affect her mood? And how much will her mood affect how she plays? These questions obviously come with very individual answers, but they are just an example of factors to which you may want to be aware.Dealing with an established pro is both easier and more difficult. Again, these are not hard and fast rules, but merely a generalization from my experience. An adult player usually has a greater awareness of how they like to operate on match day. Some players are so up tight on match day that they like to talk about the match the night before, and often they will specifically ask for this. Other players will prefer instructions before the match day warm up, and there may be parts added to the warm up because of this. The most common time to talk is between the warm up and the match. I have always accommodated any reasonable match day request, and even most unreasonable ones! If I need to cheer, or be quiet, or sit in a certain spot so that the player is comfortable it’s the least I can do. That’s the easy part. The tough part can often be the specific match instructions and it works different for every player. Scouting is often required and/or expected, and first hand knowledge is gold in this case. Seeing one or more matches is great but speaking to other players who have experience is important too. Not all players see matches in the same way. I know that Nicole Gibbs will give a completely different scouting report for an opponent than Sloane Stephens will. Both are great, smart players, they just have different ways of viewing and feeling things when they are on the court.As a coach you have to evaluate and filter all of this to produce a clear and concise game plan. It’s important to give a game plan that’s specific and suitable to your player’s game. Sam Stosur will not be able to execute the same tactics as Ana Ivanovic will. For some players it’s really important to get the tactics just right, if you don’t know the exact right thing to say, then don’t say anything at all.For some players, just the security of having a game plan is enough to make them feel confident about the match. The more times you go through this process with a player, the more you will be able to hone in on a process that works. Like any personal relationship, the coach and player need time to feel comfortable with each other.
Whether you are a player or a coach, the post match debriefs are the conversations that will most likely provide you with the most emotionally charged moments of your career. We’ve all seen the joyous victory celebrations of a new grand slam champion, while one pro described losing a tennis match as the equivalent of having his dog die, and it happens 30 times a year! Heart and soul goes into a match, and that’s as true as it is for 10-year- old Mary playing her first tournament, as it is for Serena Williams. As a coach, I feel like it’s my job to be able to enjoy great moments with my player when they come along, as well as keep them in perspective. I also hope to be able to smooth out a rough loss, and provide perspective and learning opportunities in this case. How and when this happens is where the process is again individualized. Normally there is some kind of immediate outlet of emotion right after a match. If it’s a really good day, you get a hug! I have also seen a payer break all 5 rackets in their bag…. Either way, this is almost never the right time for an in depth conversation about a match. Some time later in the day or at night during or after dinner will result in a much clearer discussion from both you and the player, and will also give you time to organize yourself. For a tour match, you may be able to collect statistics that support your observations, or you may find you have to change your thoughts on the match based on the statistics. If the opponent served at 74% first serves, did your player really return that badly? For junior matches, you may have to keep your own statistics, in which case you will need time to organize and collate your figures and notes. These conversations are easier to have if you have figures to support your case. Some players need to hear the truth, no matter how good or bad it is. Whether or not you need to edit that truth is your call! It will depend on the player, their history and the match they have just played. In cases where a player is looking for confidence or support, sometimes it may be pertinent to bend the truth slightly. These are all judgment calls, and this judgment can only come with coaching experience and knowledge of your player.For those of you who thought this would be a “How to” guide, I apologize, as I have left a lot of the grey areas uncolored. This is the best of what I’ve managed to observe and learn in my time doing this job. I share my thinking on this topic in the hope of encouraging thought on this topic and invite you all to share your ideas on the matter.