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Five Steps to Better Student Retention

By Rod Heckelman, USPTA

April 2017 -- In this new challenging tennis market, we have come to a point where student retention is very important. This is why we need to find ways of teaching that will keep our students coming back for more. The obvious way to make that happen is to continue to provide a path for improvement, which we could also refer to as a path for learning. For that task to be mastered, we need to be able to interpret how each student learns. Each has their own learning behavior, a puzzle that we must unlock first before any instruction will be accepted. As it has been said many times before, we don’t teach tennis, we teach people how to play their tennis. It makes sense then, that accomplishing that task will go a long way to retaining students.

It takes years of experience to learn how to recognize and adjust our messaging to each individual student. Unfortunately, sometimes we reach a road block, a failure to connect, and are unable to make any changes or progress with a student. This will most likely result in the loss of that student or some degree of frustration with the student/teacher relationship. We need to remind ourselves that student retention is based on their learning, not our teaching. Although there may be many reasons for this lack of progress with a student, here is a five-step process that can help most teachers and their students get back on track toward improving their game, and in turn retain that student.
  1. Transitioning to auto-pilot – Most pros have heard of the four steps involved in learning repetitive physical behavior. The sophisticated like to refer to this as a student’s progress from non-cognizant incompetent, to cognizant incompetent, then cognizant competent and finally to non-cognizant competent … more simply put, the process of learning to execute either a stroke or tactic automatically. Some students will have a very difficult time in accomplishing that last step. They run into a conflict of trying too hard, or more specific, thinking too much. They fail to allow themselves to accept successful change and, in turn, develop confidence in that change. The very nature of transitioning to doing something automatically correct is in itself a non-cognizant moment. To try to think your way through that transition is contradictory to the process. Most teachers know that players reach their goals through correct repetition over a period of time and then transitioning those changes gradually into their style of play. You need to take the time to make this message resonate with your students. The next step will be adjusting their game and releasing some goals in order to develop a practical approach to improvement.
  2. Helping the student release their goals – Most players begin the process of improving by establishing goals. This is often the foundation of a player’s motivation, so asking them to release these goals is difficult. Their current style of play has provided them with their security and sense of direction. Many students have spent hours and hours honing a skill to improve their game and now you are asking them to either make an adjustment or try something completely new. As an example, your student has been working hard to develop a driving backhand with pace and accuracy and now you are telling him that he needs to master a defensive slice backhand on the occasion where he does not have position or balance. You explain to him the difference of compensation versus adaptation, and hope he appreciates the quest to develop a more rounded game. This adjustment now needs to become part of his new expanded foundation of his game. Learning these new shots and not being bound to prior goals is a big step toward developing a more rounded and flexible game. Once a student takes the step of learning to accept the idea that variety can be just as effective as hitting a ball better or harder, he is ready to understand the third step of learning: lateral vs. vertical development. 
  3. Lateral vs. vertical development – Every player has limitations, mostly as a result of their physical skills and athletic competence, but also as the result of a more challenging opponent. The latter can be addressed strategically, but the lack of physical skills resulting from age, injury or level of athletic ability, needs to be addressed in a more practical manner. The last thing you want to tell your students is that they can no longer improve, but you should be able to convince them that they can expand their game and learn a number of new shots. This lateral versus vertical development will often restart their motivation and kindle a new challenge to improve their play. As an example, a student may not physically be able to retreat back well enough to harness a powerful overhead, but she may be able with her limited mobility, reach just high enough and learn how to hit a soft side-slice overhead that can be quite effective and offensive. Another player who has hit a limit in his mobility may discover that learning more shots with spin can create a smarter strategical game plan. He finds ways of engineering a game plan that provides opportunities for his opponents to lose to him, rather than always trying to hit winners. Once your students begin to see how many new shots they can develop, they rebuild their confidence and create new goals ... which leads us to the fourth learning characteristic: accessing success.
  4. Accessing success – If you remember your school days, you might have heard that when you were taking a test and came upon a question you could not answer, it was best not to dwell on it but rather move on to the next question in hopes of reestablishing a successful train of thought. The reason for this is simple – the brain needs to find a pattern of solving to step back into an automatic response in performing. At a certain point in time, a teacher needs to help the student realize that he needs to redirect his game toward something he can do and not something he may want to do. Again, this can go against the grain of person’s learning style. Often very successful students are successful because they are stubborn and refuse to lose points. The “no giving up” mindset is important in competition, so you need to convince the students that they are not giving up, but just taking a brief timeout to reboot their game. How often do you see players continue to miss first serve after first serve, instead of taking some pace off the ball and trying to just get the first serve in? You remind the students that the second serve is the only shot in tennis that always follows failure and hope that just getting their first serve in will help them access a pattern of success. Remember that during a match, for the most part, coaching is not provided, and having the student come to any new enlightenment about any change will require our fifth step in learning: creating autonomy and intuitive skills.
  5. Building autonomy and intuitive skills – This is especially important with young players who are rapidly developing their style of play and at the same time trying to compete. At some point in time, all coaches need to let go of their students and allow them to fail or succeed on their own. Most parents have a very difficult time with this, and it is surprising to see how many coaches have the same issue. Giving up control can be a difficult task, but the results can be very fruitful. The very process of change and improvement starts with experimentation along with trial and error. Although it is a great habit for any coach to reinforce success, it is equally important to help the students recognize success on their own. They need to be reminded that self-encouragement is important in sustaining progress and interest. The coach needs to help guide that endeavor with an accurate analysis. Barking repeatedly positive comments makes you more of a cheerleader than a coach. Although this approach can be stimulating for a while, it can grow old, especially if the student’s improvement and performance comes to a halt. By asking a student about how she was successful, not just about what went wrong, you will help her evaluate her play and begin the process of helping her achieve autonomy. As a teacher you can help guide her through the understanding of cause and effect. As an example, she may have a bad forehand day; your teaching should allow her to be educated enough that she can figure out what is causing this issue and how to address it. This development of an intuitive process will accelerate and help the student recognize sooner and more effectively what she needs to do in order to turn things around during the heat of competition. A great coach is someone who helps their students perform on their own and not constantly need a coach to tell them what to do. This approach to coaching will also open doors for the student to take on new projects in their game and help improve their play. Trying to always control a student can end up forcing them away from you. 
At the end of the day, that is the goal of a teacher – to help guide, direct and educate their students toward improvement and also leave them with the tools that they can continue to process on their own. With that in mind, remember this simple equation: student ­learning = student retention. 

Rod Heckelman’s career started in 1966 when he began his five-year role as a teacher at John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch in Carmel Valley, Calif. Later he opened as the resident pro for Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch on Camelback in Scottsdale, Ariz. In 1976 he took over as head pro/tennis director at the Mt. Tam Racquet Club in Larkspur, Calif., and added the title and responsibilities of general manager in 1982. In 2010 he was awarded “Manager of the Year” for the USPTA NorCal Division and the “Manager of the Year” at the USPTA World Conference. He has written several books including, “Down Your Alley” in 1993, “Playing Into the Sunset” in 2013 and most recently, “250 Ways to Play Tennis.” He also produced the “Facility Manager’s Manual” and the “Business Handbook for Tennis Pros,” which is distributed by the TIA.
 
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