Tennis literally raised me. From fan to competitor, competitor to coach, coach to theorists, theorists to the entrepreneurial side of the sport and right back around to fan! Through the metamorphosis, one thing remained constant: I have always been a willing student of the game first and foremost, a trait I take pride in because it has allowed me to remain dynamic together with the sport. I have had numerous opportunities to learn valuable lessons, some directly and others indirectly and today as a coach, I would like to share and discuss, hopefully get a dialogue going on how we might keep lasting, rewarding relationships with our old and new clients. Topspin in Chicago, Mutare, Almaty, and Madrid is the same, so I know that these lessons span distance and time. So, as long as you are a tennis coach, even for those of you employed by a club, being conscious to the business aspect of the game will make your customers happy, as well as make you indispensable to both your students and your club. Those of you who enjoy the business side of the sport like me definitely need to know some of this stuff. Either way, I am hoping coaches will be in the forefront with your experiences in discussion, and players, feel free to air your dirty laundry, and hopefully we can all grow.
All these scenarios are from personal experiences directly or indirectly. In 15 plus years of teaching, I have made errors for almost the entire list but I can also say I learnt and have grown from the errors.
Replace your cellphone with a watch: Using a phone during a lesson is rude, disrespectful, and most importantly it is not our time. It took me a while to learn this lesson unfortunately for me. Even to check the time, pulling out your cellphone is not okay. This is one of the biggest complaints from lesson takers, some who are tweeting and texting during your lesson, actually! Just because clients use their mobile devices during a lesson, it does not make it OK to use ours. Most clubs have wall clocks, warning buzzers, and if none of these, including wearing a watch, is not an option for you, mount a clock on the back of your cart. I have seen it with my own eyes and thought it was genius! There is always a temptation and a VALID reason to keep a phone on for those of us who are trying to run a business and teach simultaneously, but I have gone through all the important reasons and none of them held. Coaches should use phones in private, out of sight. Almost all scenarios can wait until the top of the hour.
Don’t expect EVERYONE to like you or think you are the best coach: Even the Justice League type partnership of Roger Federer and Tony Roche did not end so agreeably well. This is a tough one to grasp for accomplished coaches. After producing a series of satisfied clients, our confidence in our coaching abilities can soar, at times to disproportionate magnitudes. Some people will decide almost immediately you are not as good as hyped. These situations are far in-between but real. I once taught a group of about 6-10 6-year-olds. I always looked forward to this class because they did make me feel young literally and reminded daily why tennis is fun and why I have been involved in it for so long. I was also partial to them because not only were they cute and innocent, they liked me with all my idiosyncrasies, awkwardness, and imperfections minus the judgements. Topping it all off, they were super talented. It was such a happy coincidence that it almost felt like they had to try out for the class. My supervisor at the time told me while the other parent could not sing enough praises, one parent thought I was awful and so I should try to handle their child with extra care. It felt like a punch in the stomach because I actually felt that those kids brought out my A-game because with the enthusiasm they showed I could not afford to slouch even for a second. Also, because the class was so fun, high energy, and the kids always seemed happy to be there, I never suspected anything was wrong. As I dismissed the preceding class these kids would flock to me at top speed, there was no better compliment! In my head it was the perfect class, except it was not—at least not for everyone. I have had 2 more scenarios like that in private lessons with adults, ending in an apology in one case and a refund in the other. In both cases, I was oblivious to their disdain, dissatisfaction, and disappointment until I checked my e-mail and voicemail messages. I do evaluate success from returning clients and their results so I can safely say that it has been mostly good. But it can always happen that someone out there is not a happy customer. If we can, it is good to learn from it, but at times it blindsides you. It can be hard to stagger out of it, but it is not a catastrophe. This was one of my tougher lessons to grasp.
Have a signature move: Extra mile: Going the extra mile is usually easier if you genuinely enjoy your job, but if that is not encouragement enough, then at least respect the source of your income. Personally, I enjoy watching some of my clients in tournaments and in their club, winter, and summer leagues. I have received all sorts of reactions—some players performed better knowing I was there, some buckled a little, but one consistent remark I always get is that they appreciate me being there. When I cannot go to a match, another “extra mile” I take, whether they win or lose, is to discuss the match for a few minutes during their lesson. So, “going the extra mile” is not necessarily time consuming. A few examples I have witnessed and thought were good: I heard of a coach who sends an e-mail to their clients with reminders of what to do on court relative to their lessons before every match their clients play.
Remember clients by name: I will confess right at the beginning that I am awful with names! I have addressed a shy client by the wrong name for 2 weeks because I heard wrong during introductions and they did not correct me! I have switched names between players taking a semi-private lesson. I have forgotten a name within a minute of hearing it. I do not mean any harm, but unfortunately for me, this is actually offensive to a lot of individuals. Remembering names is not my strongest suit, but I have managed ways to get around it. This is because remembering you clients’ names suggests that they matter in your eyes, juniors need our approval as role models, and adults want to be appreciated and at the least respected. It also reflects well on us as coaches, and shows that we care and appreciate their business or presence! A good memory device is to use their name as often as you can without becoming obvious within the first few minutes. This is especially effective in groups because it actually brings a personal touch to their group experience. If no memory device will save your life, as in my case, admit to your weakness right at the beginning and most people are very accommodating. “Look, I will probably keep asking you to remind me your name. Don’t get offended. I need to make sure I get it right as I am awful with remembering names.”
Listen to what your client needs: After coaching for so many years, there is the temptation to assume that you as the coach “KNOW WHAT THE PLAYER NEEDS TO WORK ON”. And rightly so. Why not? It is our job after all, right, wrong?! New clients always measure you by the standard of their previous coach, and there are plenty of opportunities to suffer by comparison. Professional lesson takers who have not surrendered themselves to your vision, like you, actually “KNOW EXACTLY WHAT THEY NEED TO GET BETTER”. In their stubbornness, they actually have seen it all and heard it all. I hear this all the time: “Let’s work on my serve, but my backhand, in its awkwardness, works, so do not touch it.” This is even true at times. Ease you client into getting used to you and your coaching style. It may take them a while to be wholeheartedly open to your suggestions. Once you have hit the ground running, you can gently coerce them towards where you would like them to go. You will find some players are not so malleable and prefer their routine. Try to reason otherwise without offending.
Take pride in your appearance: I am sure we have heard of the cliché business phrase floating around to the effect of “dress like you want to be addressed”. There has been a progressive trend for today’s business world to strive for “hip or cool” so they do not seem “old, monolithic, and disconnected”. This is OK, as long as you look respectable and still look the part. Tennis is a sport that promotes individuality, but this should not be detrimental to us executing our jobs. Remember, first impressions last a long time, so set a good precedent about yourself before you start dressing down. We can potentially lose a client before they even take a lesson from us. Dress the part.
Maintain good personal hygiene: Our job entails sweating and that is OK. It is, however, just as important to take extra care to make others around you comfortable. Occasionally we all have to step closer to a player to explain something, so we should be careful not to turn this into an bio-attack on our clients. If you perspire more than normal, having the necessary number of shirt changes is important. If you do hitting lessons often, take extra changes for practice shirts for each hitting lesson of that day. Your hitting lesson shirts should not be your teaching shirts. Every coach needs to get friendly with deodorant and anti-perspirants. I have received compliments on smelling nice, and it makes me extra excited to give my best gems! I have also had the uncomfortable task of relaying a message from the higher ups to a personal friend, so do not put anyone in that predicament.
Respect appointments and be punctual: We are paid for the time, so we need to show up ON time. I have lost 2 potential clients simultaneously because I goofed their first lessons twice in a row. I do not remember the reasons I was late, but legitimate or not, I know the unfavourable result clearly. I also rely heavily on my phone, meaning all my hours are scheduled in my cell. This can be problematic, as I have forgotten my phone at home and on occasion the phone failed and I lost the data. Paper trails for lessons, even in instances where we can log everything digitally, are necessary! Paper records for appointments are always good and all digital files should be backed up. Nothing screams irresponsible, unprofessional and disrespectful like being tardy does. It is also annoying to the client who made the time. Now, it is going to happen that we are late regardless of how well prepared we may be. Calling the club and client to let them know of your situation shows sincerity, and most people are reasonable. You may also be able to catch the customer before they get to the club or court, and this allows them the convenience of making other arrangements.
Punctuality entails our readiness to teach as well at the top of the hour. If the use of teaching aids is involved, have them ready courtside for deployment. Good aids are easy to set up, take down, and store away. If any of those three are not covered with your teaching aids, there has to be a more efficient way of re-enforcement of the same concepts.
If you are late—because it WILL happen—always over-estimate your anticipated arrival time. You do not want to further frustrate your client if they decide to wait on you.
Be personable: Great personality goes a long way for a coach. Of course, it helps to know the material you are teaching, but delivery is just as important. Confidence shows people you have conviction in what you’re saying and suggest that it might actually be true, and humour always lightens up the mood and makes those awful frustrating mistakes bearable for your players, and also makes whatever lesson we are trying to convey palatable. A great personality can make people look forward to your lesson for the sheer entertainment, or your presence alone.
Keep up the energy and tempo on the court—it depends on us!: You may have the best drills in the world and be well versed on the intricacies of the tennis game, but if you have monotone delivery, all your jewels can fall flat. Tennis coaches fall very short of being motivational speakers; we see some positive attributes in people’s games they may not necessarily see or believe in themselves. We can carry people over the finishing line by the intensity of our encouragement and body language. Adults may be polite enough to sit through a couple of boring classes, but kids start drifting, bouncing balls, picking their nose, and watching the other court. These are sure signs that the energy in your class may be off.
Keep personal relationships off the court: Remember a client in a certain way is still your boss and can fire us as they see fit; the difference is they will not return minus the courtesy call announcing your dismissal . These relationships range from dating, friendships, to frienemies. These can be very positive. As a matter of fact, I have met some of the most impactful people in my life, in a positive way, as my students initially. Despite this fact, I also learnt to be careful, as this is always a tricky one to negotiate because wherever people spend time and great results are an outcome, friendships develop and the conduct can be overly casual. Blurred boundaries can easily be overstepped. Picture a scenario where a good friend/client of yours for 3 years is going through heavy personal stuff unbeknownst to you. Your usual playful jab about him being dressed as if he were “determined to be single” is the last stroke before the fall off the edge. Because at this moment, his personal life is indeed in shambles. You are immediately stuck in a potentially volatile situation. True story.
As a business rule of thumb, dating clients and co-workers is not encouraged.
Understand the client you are coaching: This is a rather broad aspect, but I will simplify it but hopefully not trivialize it. While coaching kids usually requires us to be animated and playful, and incorporate fun and attention-grabbing games, this demeanour should be reserved for kids. Kids, adults, serious or funny people, and older folks should all be “handled” appropriately. Make attempts to cater to each particular client. Some clients respond positively to the drill sergeant approach, while others would rather be coerced rather than barked at! This can take time to learn but is important.
Watch your language: As with any personal relationship, it is easy to get comfortable, but mind your language! This doesn’t just mean avoiding bad language alone, but gender consciousness, sensitivity, and political correctness have to be in play as long as you are coaching. I am one of those people who thinks people have just gotten overly sensitive. There is too much therapy, group healing, and coddling, and the world could use an extra teaspoon of cement with our cereal in the morning. But not everyone shares my opinion, so in my place of work I have to respect their position.
Lace up, literally!: Every hard worker enjoys the relief of removing those work shoes after a long day on their feet. Tennis players tend to get around with our laces undone for the same relief, and it does feel good. I had the annoying habit of doing even some hitting lessons like that. A couple of players took pleasure and felt complimented in watching me do my laces when they “upped the ante” but those were the ones who shared my similar casual approach. I have grown to learn this is actually the same casual approach I unintentionally insinuated relative to doing my job to those clients who do not necessarily view it in the same favourable light.
Be aware of your body language: Body language says a lot about your character, demeanour, enthusiasm, sincerity, confidence, and poise, among other traits. A display of enthusiasm and energy can pick up a group, or even your partner’s energy in a match. It is the same for a tennis lesson. Your body has to express what your words suggest. For those who coach out of convenience, this is one of the dead giveaways that you do not really like your job. If you can get away with a positive display of body language, you will not bring negative attention to yourself and can actually have clients who will look forward to your class which is the most awful compliment for a job that tests your patience.
Respect “the institution” or “order of authority”: Park your personal beliefs and convictions at the door, and understand and respect your client and their environment. Yes, you can absolutely do this without compromising your integrity. This is somewhat related to understanding the client you are coaching, but more so on the social aspect of things rather than their actual tennis game. With every club/establishment//environment, there is a certain unspoken aura that determines the overall conduct in that environment in which we coach. For example, although wearing my cap backwards (ala Hewitt) is not against the rules at country clubs, it was definitely frowned upon to such an extent that I got reprimanded for it once. At an overnight summer camp, our presence, effectiveness, and interaction with the children on and off the court is strongly encouraged and should be visible because it is a mentorship position coupled with tennis. On the contrary, at the country club, our effectiveness and efforts should be felt and noticed, but we personally should neither be “seen” nor “heard” because it is a service position coupled with tennis. In college tennis, socialization with your opponents (some you know personally) is not necessarily outlawed, but the “right” conduct is to band with your teammates and root for teammates in the on-going matches. However, at most clubs, socializing with members and/or parents is almost required of you. While practicing to loud music can be considered cool, hip, lively, and even inspiring at a tennis academy or a college tennis program, at the local public park or country club it can be distracting, rude, uncultured, inconsiderate, and definitely obnoxious.
Stay clear of potentially polar topics—politics, race, religion, gender, sexuality, and any other topics that can give off the vibe that “I am different from you”; your clients are not the right people to have a heart to heart with when it comes to these topics. From my experience, however, when clients see a hint of intelligence, “togetherness”, or charisma, they solicit for your position on the matter. Change the subject, which most people will recognize, but if they choose to ignore your tact and persist, saying “no comment” usually suffices.
All these are unwritten laws of the land that if broken will not necessarily get you fired but if followed, make your stay at any of these establishments productive, manageable, or at the least bearable. Every tennis arena and their immediate social circles have a “social conduct” to abide by and these usually blur the boundaries related to tennis etiquette, business relations, and friendships. “Common sense”, when traversing these different arenas, can be vastly different and fatally uncommon.
Apologize when you make a mistake: Look, we will mess up, and why not? We are human. A sincere apology goes a long way. Apologizing has 3 levels: stop pointing figures or finding blame, admit to your mistake, and find ways you can make amends. A heartfelt, sincere apology always shines through, but do not expect it to be accepted immediately and, at times, at all.