When Coaches Should Keep Quiet (Part 1)
Julia: “She stepped in the kitchen.”
Mark: “I know.”
J: “Should we say something?”
M: “Not yet.”
Not long ago I was working with a new instructor (Julia) who wanted to improve her coaching skills. She was shadowing me during a group lesson at a venue I had not been to before. I was coaching these players for the first time and we were walking around as the group (12 people between 2.5 and 3.5) were finishing their warm up. We were about 10 minutes into the start of the 3 hour clinic and at this phase of the warm up, I had asked players to hit reflex volleys back and forth from around the NVZ (kitchen).
J: “His paddle is too low.”
M: “Yeah, probably.”
J: “That’s a weird grip.”
M: “Yes, it is.”
J: “I’ll go tell them.”
M: “Hold on.”
Julia was observant and eager to get into things with the players. I whistled to get their attention and I could tell that Julia was expecting to hear me recount the list of mistakes players made and then correct them. Instead, I told my students that they were doing great and that the person beside them was now their partner and the people on the other side of the net were their opponents. They were about to play the first of two 6-minute games. I said that now they were warmed up, I wanted to see them in action. They quickly went back to their courts and started to play.
J: “Mark! She’s not running in after she returns serve!”
M: “You’re right”
J: “He should have smashed that high ball, not played a soft shot”
J: “That should have been a drop, not a drive”
At this point, because she felt bold or maybe just grew frustrated with me not addressing these issues, Julia went over and started explaining to a player that a third shot drop was the best option from back at the baseline and started demonstrating the technique. The other players stood patiently as this player got some personal attention from Julia. After about 30 seconds I intervened, told the player they were doing a great job and to keep working hard, and gently ushered Julia away.
A Dog on a Bone
Julia was too much of a professional to say it aloud, but I knew she was thinking something along the lines of: “Dude. Don’t just stand there. You’re the coach. They are paying you to tell them what they’re doing wrong. You can see they are doing something wrong, so you should address it. It’s your job!”
This perspective is fairly common — even (unfortunately) among many coaches. The underlying assumption is that, like a dog jumping on a bone, as soon as you see something ‘wrong’ with your student’s technique, your job as the instructor is to immediately ‘fix’ it it. After all, that’s what they’re paying you for, right?
I had an email exchange recently with an elite player who also does some coaching. In it, they revealed themselves as being clearly in the dog on a bone camp: “If I see basic elements that need to be corrected, I start to address them during warm ups.” Another instructor wrote: “When an issue is spotted by us as instructors, that becomes a teaching moment to start to correct the problem.” The belief is “See something, say something. Immediately.”
This perspective imagines coaches and instructors as being professional ‘fault finders’. It assumes that the coach’s job is to raise an alarm each time s/he detects a fault and to pounce on it right away, even in the initial stages of the lesson. They attack errors like dogs attack bones. They think that’s their main job.
The truth is, finding faults in other people is probably the easiest job that the coach has. All you have to do is have an image in your mind of an elite player and compare what you think they do that to what you see in front of you. Then, pick the myriad ways your real-life player isn’t matching the model you have in your head and tell them what they should be doing differently. Boom. Easy.
Why Dog on a Bone is Bad for both Players and Coaches
Taking a pickleball lesson isn't easy; you’re publicly acknowledging that you have limitations and it requires you to open yourself up and to be vulnerable to the observations and opinions of others. While I appreciate it when people spend their time, effort and money with me, I truly admire their willingness to do so. It takes some courage to take lessons as an adult and for some people this can be nerve-wracking. I often have students who begin lessons a little nervous; they are in an unfamiliar environment, often with strangers, and it can take some time before they settle down and feel comfortable.
If you’ve ever been pulled over by the police or been caught in a lie, you know that when you’re nervous you don’t quite feel like yourself. Being nervous typically makes people act in atypical ways and in the context of pickleball, this can cause people to play differently than they usually would. Nervous players tend to overhit the ball, carry tension throughout their body, as well as make poor decisions and more errors.
Now if I’m the dog on a bone kind of instructor who starts to make corrections during the warm up, am I actually helping my student by jumping in right away? I don’t believe so. Since they haven’t had much time to settle in, there is a good chance that I’m observing a player who is not quite themselves just yet. This means that I’m possibly giving feedback and advice about a behaviour that is not typical for that person. And what’s the point of that?
Moreover, I would argue that If I’m telling a nervous person what they’re doing wrong in the first few minutes of a lesson, there is a good chance that I’m making things worse for my student not better. I’m quite possibly adding to their anxiety rather than relieving it. And that’s not good.
An Alternative: Spear Fishing at Sunset
So if the coach isn’t going to jump on each and every ‘bone’ they come across, what’ s a better approach? How can they fulfil the role as a paid expert but do so in a way that is better for the student? A thought experiment might be helpful here…
Let’s imagine you are fishing — not with a rod but with a spear. And let’s add the time constraint that the sun is setting quickly and you only have time to use your spear about five or six times before it gets too dark and your chance to fish is gone.
As you step into the stream to try to catch your dinner, you spot three very small fish in the water about a dozen feet ahead of you. Walking toward them, you notice a flash off to the side. There are four more fish, but these ones are bigger and more appetizing than the first. You change paths and move toward them but suddenly hear a splash. Looking downstream, you spot five much bigger fish jumping out of the water, practically begging to be caught.
As you walk toward the big fish, eagerly anticipating your feast, you realize that the stream isn’t actually a stream at all. The water funnels into a pond in which all the fish reside. When you look into the pond, you see that there are dozens and dozens of fish of all shapes, sizes and varieties. You are excited to see the bounty — and relieved you didn’t spend your precious time on the first fish you saw. Not going for those first fish (which would have used your valuable time for little reward) turned out to be a great decision on your part. But now you are confronted with a new question: of the many different fish you see, which ones do you pursue given your limited time?
This is the kind of problem a disciplined pickleball coach is confronted with — so long as they don’t impatiently attack the first fish/problem they encounter! If they are willing to wait just a little bit, to explore the terrain in front of them by letting their student play without the interference of a coach, the instructor will be in a far better position to assess the situation and decide what direction to take the lesson. And while it is possible that the initial issue is the best one to pursue, you will only know this if you’ve taken the time to explore all of the other possibilities. Only once you’ve seen the whole pond will you know where to focus your attention.
Warm Them Up, Let Them Play
If you want to observe your students’ strengths and weaknesses as a player, you have to let them play an actual game of pickleball I repeat, LET THEM PLAY! After a thorough warm up to get loose (mentally and physically) let your students play a real game or two. While you should praise and encourage effort, don’t place any restrictions or give any tips as this may tamper with their normal behaviour. As much as possible, you want to see what they normally do in a game.
Deciding What Issues to Tackle
As you watch your student(s) play — I usually give them 8-15 minutes depending on how much time I have to work with — you have to pay attention to what you see. This is where you can (silently) go into fault-finding mode. You can notice the poor grips and late set-up. You can observe the weak serves, short returns or lack of third shot drops. You can identify all the things you’d like them to do differently.
The trick is to watch these things, make a list — either in your head or on paper — but do nothing other than praise and encourage the players’ effort during the game. Make your students comfortable, allow them to be themselves as much as possible. Not interrupting the game can be very hard for coaches who are eager to jump in and start imparting their knowledge, either because they are impatient or because they feel the need to prove themselves to be as expert as they claim.
Truth be told, it is not that difficult to pick out other people’s errors. The real skill/art of coaching — or any kind of teaching for that matter — isn’t in finding faults, but in prioritizing them and then creating conditions where the person can make meaningful improvements. If we haven’t overdone our metaphor yet, anyone can see a bunch of fish but knowing which ones to pursue and how to catch them is what separates an amateur angler from a gifted one.
Different people will have different opinions about which skills are most important to address and in what order. I’ve written elsewhere about a time I was criticized for seeing things differently than some others in the pickleball coaching world and why I think some of the conventional thinking is misguided. Perhaps I’ll write another article about how I make my decisions about which ‘fish to catch’.
For now, I’ll sign off by encouraging other coaches to give their students a chance to show themselves as players before jumping in and telling them all the things they’re doing wrong. Resist being a dog pouncing on every bone you see. It will be better for you as a coach and for your students as people.
Mark Renneson is a 5.0 player and professional pickleball coach. He has spent more the 20 years coaching and has advanced degrees in education. Mark tours North America working with pickleball players and instructors. He is the founder of Third Shot Sports and can be reach by email at firstname.lastname@example.org