What kind of learning environment do children need to maximise their potential and build self belief?
About 9 years ago, I was trying to help my son aged 7 years to play tennis. As a coach and a player, I desperately wanted him to play well and I thought that I could help him by showing and telling him a few things. However, after 5 minutes he stopped trying and completely switched off. I encouraged him to take part again but he seemed really resistant, even crouching down into a ball and sobbing lightly that ‘he didn’t want to do it’, and that, ‘he couldn’t do it’. I was upset to see him so unhappy and at the same time baffled by such a strong reaction against wanting to learn.
One year later I was offered the opportunity to train to become an Inner Game tutor for the British Tennis Coaches Association. The principles of the Inner Game are aimed at increasing a player’s awareness, creating opportunities for players to become responsible, and helping players to trust in their capacity to learn from experience. After coaxing my son back on to a tennis court, I tried out the approah with him and the transformation was a revelation. I asked him what he would like to do and he told me that he would like to practice his smashing at the net. The first thing I did was to offer him choice over what we did in our sessions together. On one occasion, I remember asking him ‘What would you like to do?’ and he said, ‘Smashes at the net.’ I would ask him, ‘What shall we do today?’ or ‘What would you like to work on?’ or ‘Is there any particular shot you would like to work on? Quite often he would chose smashing at the net, and I would just follow his interest. After about 5 – 10 minutes when I could sense that he felt more at ease with what he was doing, I would throw in a few questions about choice, ‘Are you still ok to practice this, or would you like to look at something else?
If he wanted to change to say, forehands, then I would ask him again, what and how did he want to practice this – keen for him to begin to feel responsible for his own learning.
In addition, as he began to feel more comfortable with chosing to be responsible for the direction of the session, I would throw in the odd question to help him focus and increase his awareness, such as ‘what did he notice on that last shot? or what part of the racket did he make contact with the ball, middle, outside middle or frame?
The environment I was endeavouring to create, was a non-judgemental one, in which my son had choice over what we did, how we set it up, what we did next…etc. I feel that this helped in several ways. Most importantly it helped him engage in an activity in which he had previously written himself off! It showed him, that the help he got wasn’t going to be in the form of judgement about what he did right or wrong! And, I began to get a sense, that he felt, ‘I can do this’, and I am quite good at it too’. As a parent and coach, this felt fantastic! And, aged 16, he still enjoys playing tennis regularly at his local club!