For 20 years I used a predominantly command and control style of coaching. A typical lesson consisted of a warm up of 5 minutes or so, followed by some analysis of what I had seen and how we might work on this. From there we would go backwards and forwards trying to fix something with the result that nothing seemed to get much better.
In 2002, I attended a series of workshops to learn about the principles of the inner game. (The principles and related articles can be found at www.theinnergame.com).
Since that time I have used this skill set in my coaching.
The Inner Game Approach focuses on how we learn, which can have a dramatic effect on how we teach. This is achieved, as demonstrated in the dialogue below, by remaining player centred and using a process of effective questioning and attentive empathic listening.
Effective questions are often open questions that are crucial for finding out what is going on in a players mind. Using questions that create choice and thus ownership of learning for a player also increases their buy-in and commitment to the task being worked on. And when I added in questions that helped a player to narrow their focus, and raise their awareness in a non-judgmental way, I experienced an increased level in their learning and performance.
Please find below a typical coaching dialogue using the principles of the inner game within a player centred style of coaching.
Look out for the subtleties of the questioning process!
C = Coach
P = Player
( ) = Explanation of the intervention used
C; What would you like to work on today?
P: I would like to try and improve my forehand. I would like to be able to hit it with more power, topspin and control.
(Sometimes when asked, players give a number of qualities that they would like to improve or work on. However, it is more beneficial for the player to choose one quality at a time to focus on)
C: What is most important to you at this moment, power, topspin or control?
(Following players agenda and giving them choice)
P: I think topspin is.
C: Ok what level of topspin would you say you currently hit on your forehand out of 10, with 10 being the most and 1 being the least.
(this is called checking current reality)
P: Probably about 4-5.
C: What level would you like to achieve?
P: I would be happy with about 7or 8.
C: Ok, would you like to hit a few topspin forehands and using a scale of 1-10, call out after you hit the ball, the level of topspin you are achieving on each shot.
(player then hits a number of shots without any intervention from the coach and rates on their scale the level of topspin, i.e 4,4 6, 4, 8….)
C: So what made that last shot an 8?
(The player has rated one of her shots at the desired level they were after and it is always useful to stop at this point and to ask the question above to help raise their awareness).
P: I think I used my wrist a lot more
C: How did you use your wrist a lot more?
(Using open questions that directly relate to what the player has just said help the player to further increase their awareness. Open questions typically begin with what, when, where, how much..).
P: I noticed that when my wrist finished here after the shot, that I created a lot more topspin.
C: Where did it finish?
(Again, I am following the player’s agenda and helping them to raise their awareness further)
P: When it finished here, I got a lot more topspin from the shot?
(player is showing me physically where his wrist finishes. As a coach it is important to stay open to non verbal, as well as verbal feedback.)
C: Ok. Would you like to look at where your racquet is finishing on this shot.
C: So, then maybe this position, the one your are showing me now, you could call position 1, and if you finish before this position you give them a minus number, ie. –1,-2,-3 and after this position you rate them +1, +2, +3 etc.
(It is very important at this stage that the player, having discovered this desired position doesn’t try to achieve it on every successive shot, but allows themselves to swing freely and notice after each shot where they finish – it is ok for them to go past or short. Sometimes when someone hits a shot and it goes well they want to emulate it, and so will try in this case above to stop the racquet at position 1. This doesn’t help the body to learn through awareness and more than likely will create tightness and tension in the shot. Eventually, what will happen providing they remain focussed and aware, is that they will find the optimal position for them.
C: So, how is this going for you? Would you like to continue with hitting a few more?
(After a few shots I might check in with the player to find out where their attention is. This allows them the choice to either stay with what they are working on or to place their awareness on some other aspect of the shot, or their game. Shifts in attention can also be observed by watching their body language).
P: Yeah, it’s going ok. Actually, I am noticing that my legs are helping me to develop a bit of power in the shot now.
C: What is it about your legs that you are noticing are giving you more power? (Here I am following their agenda, and raising their awareness).
P: Well, when I bend them and then come up again I get more power.
C: So, which one are you noticing the most, the bending down or pushing up
(Helping player to become aware of where most of their attention is)
Ce: I think it is the pushing up that is giving me most power
(In the last few interactions above, the player has changed their goal from wanting more topspin to wanting more power and by following their agenda and asking awareness raising questions, they are taking ownership for their learning – not me! When someone feels responsible for their own learning there is a corresponding increase in self belief – something I believe we are bit short of in this country!!)
Co: When do you begin to push up with your legs? i.e, How far away is the ball when you start to push up?
(Helping player to raise awareness by putting their attention on their legs)
Ce: I am not sure
Co: Would you like to hit a few and find out, by maybe noticing for each ball how far away it is when you start to come up and maybe call out how far after each ball; i.e, 3m away, 5m away, 2 m away. Would that be ok?
(By helping to increase the player’s awareness of where their attention is and encouraging non judgemental, but informative feedback, increased learning takes place)
Ce: Yey ok.
(Other awareness raising questions might be; How far away from you is the ball when you bend your legs? How much bend feels right for you? What is the most you could bend your legs? (this is done so someone can get a range of what is possible)
Since incorporating the Inner Game principles of trust, choice, responsibility and awareness within a player centred style of coaching, I have witnessed and experienced some very positive effects for my students and for me.
Within my students, I have noticed increases in confidence, motivation, involvement, willingness to learn, effort, happiness and respect. Just before the end of last summer’s term, 2 girls that I have been coaching for about a year, came up to me and said, ‘Whereas last year at school we used to be the worst in our class, we are now probably the best’. When they first started playing tennis they had very little natural ability and a corresponding low level of confidence. Now they come to each lesson full of confidence, enthusiasm and ready for any challenge.
And as a coach my work is now very stimulating, challenging and rewarding and I feel privileged to be able to facilitate and observe my students learning in such a natural way.