March 2017 -- Something is wrong with your car. You suspect it is the transmission, but from your perspective cars operate via magical principles. Which mechanic would you trust to fix your car?
Mechanic 1 explains at great length how a transmission works and then goes on to describe the physics behind the internal combustion engine. He’s billing you for his time and you want him to start repairs.
Mechanic 2 says when transmissions have problems it usually it because of “X.” He then takes your transmission apart and replaces part X.
Mechanic 3 asks about your car – how much do you drive and under what conditions? He checks the age and mileage. He asks why you suspect it is the transmission. Specifically he asks, “What happens when you drive, shift, or go up hills?” Based on your answers he may ask more questions. He then either drives your car (assuming it is safe to drive) or asks you to drive around the block. He diagnoses the problem and suggests there are two likely scenarios and proceeds.
I think it is pretty safe to say we would feel best about going to Mechanic 3. All too frequently I see tennis teachers who try to help a student or group of students in a manner similar to that employed by Mechanic 1 or Mechanic 2.
If you are meeting a student for the first time, ask questions! If you listen to his words, you will get a sense of his learning style and personality. You can begin to build an environment of trust, and a student who trusts you will be inclined to try what you ask. The student will also be more relaxed, and more likely to succeed.
If he wants a lesson on his backhand, you might want to ask some of the following questions: “What happens when you hit your backhand well? What happens when you miss? Where do you most frequently miss (long, in the net, wide)? What kinds of balls (fast, slow, high, low, etc) are most difficult for you? What would you like to be able to do with your backhand that you can’t? Are you better at hitting crosscourt or down the line? Are there areas of the court (behind baseline, ¾ or midcourt) where you are more or less effective?
You probably won’t want to ask all of these questions. This is especially true if he has difficulty assessing or it is your sense he feels at all threatened by this process. Remember – his assessment may not be accurate and you will need visual verification for what you’ve been told.
It is then vital that you watch the student hit. You may know (or think you know) the issue after one or two shots but it is a good idea to let the student warm up and hit several shots as at times what you initially observe may change as the student warms up and relaxes. It is almost always a good idea to watch a student hit groundstrokes crosscourt, down the line and inside out (even from mid- or ¾ court) when you are assessing mechanics. It is wise to have a player serve from both the deuce and ad sides when you are giving a serving lesson. If there is a difference (and there frequently is), you can determine why and use the stronger side to help the weaker side. For example, if a player hits a forehand inside out more effectively than when he tries to hit crosscourt, the issue may be one of spacing, contact point, stance, racquet swing path or something else. If a player serves more effectively to the ad side than the deuce side, it may be a matter of stance, balance, swing path, contact point, or something else.
There are times when a student is doing four things wrong and correcting the root cause of the problem will cure the other three. It is your job to learn to identify root causes – in other words you have to figure out what matters and what doesn’t. This is student and situationally specific.
You should then share with the student what you see, and explain what you would like him to try. It is almost always better to tell him what you want them to do (i.e. “do this”) while showing him what you want. Then ask the student to show you to assure he understands the goal. Another common mistake beginning teachers make is to tell the student, “Don’t do this.” If I say, “Don’t think about purple cows,” I’ve probably made it more likely that you will think about purple cows.
At a USPTA National Tester’s meeting I attended I asked other testers where applicants had the most difficulty on the exam. Every one of them said, “Diagnosis and Cure.” It is impossible to diagnose a problem a student has with a backhand without seeing him hit.
You may find if you spend a bit more time on diagnosis it is much easier to find a cure.
Dave Hagler is a USPTA Master Professional, National Tester and graduate of the USTA High Performance Coaching Program. He works with players of all ages but has a special passion for Junior Development and has spoken at conventions on a wide variety of topics. Hagler has received service awards from the Southern California and Intercollegiate Tennis Associations, is a two time Los Angeles District and 2007 California Division Pro of the Year. He is a member of the Head/Penn Advisory Staff.