Context-Based Coaching

Have you ever taken a lesson (in pickleball or anything else), felt really good about your progress and then failed miserably when trying to apply your new skills in a game? This can be a frustrating and even demoralizing situation and very often it stems from a simple coaching mistake: the failure to contextualize the skills being learned.

How do you hit a good volley? That's a reasonable question that a pickleball or tennis player might ask. But before answering the question, the coach should ask one of her own: which volley are we talking about? Are we discussing volleying when the ball is driven hard right at you (e.g. when playing bangers)? Or are we talking about playing a volley when the ball is slow and high? What if it is a volley off an opponent's third shot drop or dink and is now below net level?

Each of these situations -- or contexts -- require very different technique. And unless we identify the context we're imagining, how can we work on building the skill in a meaningful way?

At Third Shot Sports we make sure that our students are always crystal clear on the situation we are training. It is vital that they know exactly when in a game they might encounter one shot versus another. A good habit for coaches to develop is to introduce a skill by saying "Here's the situation..." and then proceed to outline when the skill they are about to work on might be useful.

When coaches fail to do this, when they merely say "today we will learn...", they disconnect the skill being learned from the game being played. By doing so, they make it much harder for the student to identify the moment in a game when the skill could be used. This failure to perform the newly acquired skill in a game situation is not the fault of the student; it is a mistake on the part of the coach.  

So if you're a coach, try to contextualize your students' learning. And if you're the student, feel free to ask the question "So exactly when in a game would I use this shot?". 


Mark Renneson is the founder of Third Shot Sports. He has been coaching tennis for over 20 years and now travels around North America coaching pickleball.