By Chris Lewit, USTA High Performance Coach
Delivering a World-Class Private Lesson
May 2017 -- In different countries and cultures around the world, the importance of private lessons for junior development can vary greatly. For some, private lessons are highly prized and considered absolutely essential, and for others they are dismissed as unnecessary, wasteful and extravagant.
I have spoken with many Spanish coaches, for example, who often lament that American players – and parents – are obsessed with private lessons. Culturally in Spain, private lessons are not considered necessary for successful development; rather, players tend to be taught successfully in groups of two or three. The legendary Spanish coach Lluis Bruguera is well known for his philosophy that strongly dismisses the need for private work in junior development, and he has undoubtedly influenced the coaching culture throughout Spain. Interestingly, some of the younger generation of Spanish coaches who are more progressive, have started to embrace private lessons – at least as an adjunct to group work.
While Spain is moving slowly toward embracing the benefits of the private lesson, the U.S. industry trend seems to be directed toward more group lessons.
Still, Americans strongly value the one-on-one nature of the private, and many of our legendary American coaches like Robert Lansdorp and Rick Macci have argued for the primacy, priority, and necessity of taking private lessons as a way to get the developmental edge.
In the New York City area where I coach, private lessons are extremely popular, especially due to the time-pressured world here. Privates are simply more time-efficient for players and parents struggling with hectic and jam-packed schedules.
Here are 15 keys to giving a world-class private lesson that have helped me gain an edge on my competitors and charge a premium per hour:
- Arrive early and leave late. It is common sense that coaches should arrive early to prepare the court and get ready for the lesson. If you want to command a high rate for an hour of your time, you need to be prepared and ready to go at the top of the hour. Parents won’t pay you a premium if you shave minutes off the lesson by arriving late or not having your equipment ready. Parents will also be frustrated when a coach shaves time off the end of the lesson by ending early. If you are consistently giving a 50-minute lesson while your competitor is giving a 60-minute lesson, who is going to develop their student faster? Which coach will the parent consider paying a premium to for his or her time?
- Your player should arrive early and leave late, too. When players arrive late or even on time, 15 minutes of the lesson is spent warming them up – so the lesson is not as productive because it has been shortened by 25 percent. Nothing says professionalism to a parent than when you ask the player to come early to hit or do his or her dynamic stretching/injury prevention program. This is another way to give more value to the lesson and a better service. In addition, you can ask the player to stay late and work on a bucket of serves, do some extra running or agility exercises, or to work on an extra skill. In this way, you are making a 60-minute lesson into an 80- or 90-minute lesson. The player is learning professionalism and self-discipline – and you are getting better results to show the parent.
- Give extra time if your next lesson is late or if there is no next lesson. This is one of my favorite customer “hugs.” Most coaches shave time at the end of the lesson by ending early. Good coaches finish on time and give their students the full hour. Great coaches add even more value. If my next lesson is late, I won’t go to check my phone or even rest. I like to give the player an extra 10 or 15 minutes to help them. That makes a 60-minute lesson into a 70- or 75-minute lesson and parents and players really appreciate the bonus time.
- Don’t stop the lesson when near a breakthrough. Many times I have witnessed coaches who are close to a breakthrough with a player check their watch and call an end to the lesson. Imagine how frustrating this feels for the player! When you are near a breakthrough moment, give the player a little extra time to see if they can achieve the magic. Your player and parent will be grateful.
- Engage parents during breaks. During water and pickup breaks, speak with parents about their thoughts and concerns. Parents often have insight into their son’s or daughter’s personality or learning style that you may have missed. This opens up the coach-parent communication lines, makes the parent feel valued and appreciated, and can help you craft the lesson to better fit their expectations.
- Adjust your lesson structure to the student’s personality and learning style. I have some students, whom I call Mechanics, who love to drill and work on technical detail. I have other students, whom I call Magicians, who love to play and create patterns in a game format. Craft your lesson according to your player’s individual needs. I’m going to play more live ball points with my Magicians and engage them in bigger picture creative problem solving. With my Mechanics, I’m going to drill more from the basket to give them the repetition they desire to work on fine points, and I will discuss theory, process, and biomechanics in more detail. Players always fit somewhere along the from line of Magician to Mechanic, a spectrum explained to me by the insightful tour coach Paul Annacone.I recommend Frank Giampaolo’s work, maximizingtennispotential.com, on brain typing for coaches interested in learning more about player personality and learning style differences.
- Give homework. The lesson doesn’t end when the hour is up. I think many times the most successful coaches convince their players to practice at home and to come back the next week showing progress. Giving homework helps players take responsibility for their games and builds self-discipline. When parents see you assigning homework, they know you care and they feel they are getting extra value in addition to the 60 minutes they paid for.
- Send follow-up communications. Another way to “hug” your customer is to send follow-up communications to parents, whether simply a text, phone call, or email, to check in on progress during the interim between lessons. These communiques can also reveal valuable insight to the coach about how the player is feeling about the lessons and could potentially help the coach craft better lessons for the future. Parents are a great resource for feedback about how your player is truly feeling after his or her lesson – but you need to reach out to them and ask. This will separate you from the coaches who only communicate during the 60-minutes lesson itself, and not so much outside the court.
- Use video judiciously. Video can be beneficial, and technology for tennis is progressing at an exciting rate. However, coaches should be very careful in a private lesson about taking too much time to set up and review video.I have seen many coaches waste a lot of the time in a 60-minute lesson just setting up and shooting video, let alone analyzing it. I prefer to use video economically. If you have an assistant for your private lessons like I do, the assistant can be in charge of the video and this is a very efficient way to do it. If it’s only you, be quick and don’t waste valuable time. It’s better to get the clips and do the heavy analysis later. You can send your thoughts via email later rather than take too much of the lesson time analyzing video. Tech-savvy parents can also be used to assist in taking the video, which can save you time.
- No phones ever! I see many coaches checking their phones during lessons, and I think it’s becoming an epic problem. Put the phone away. Wear a watch. Don’t use the phone to check the time because parents or students could get the wrong impression that you are on your phone during their valuable time. The phone can be used for video analysis but be brief – and only use it for this purpose. During water and pickup breaks and any lesson down time, a great coach should be communicating with and motivating the student, going over concerns with parents, or planning the next drill progression to help the student get better.
- Have parents pickup balls. Ball pickups can waste valuable time. Some coaches use pickups purposefully to shave time off the hour; others do it inadvertently. Have the parents do it if they are around. Explain to them that if they pick up, you may be able to squeeze a little more valuable time out of the lesson and get a breakthrough for the player. Most parents will appreciate your concern for providing them with the most value for their buck. To teach responsibility, have the player pick up the balls at the very end of the lesson, perhaps even while your next lesson is beginning, to maximize time.
- Skip the warmup. Many coaches will have a light warmup with a player, sometimes for 15 minutes or more. If a coach does this consistently, he or she is giving a 45-minute lesson as opposed to a 60-minute lesson each week. Players receiving 60 minutes each week will progress faster than players taking a 45-minute lesson. I like to have my players come early and hit with mom or dad on an adjacent court so I don’t have to waste time warming them up. As discussed previously, players can also come early and do their physical warmups, too. Thus the private lesson is productive from the very first minute.
- Hand feed. American coaches frequently teach from 60 to 80 feet away from their students and often feed with the racquet from across the net. In many parts of Europe, the coaches spend significant amounts of the lesson time on the same side as the player using hand feeding. The benefits are that the coach can see the player’s body and technique more easily from up close, communication is easier, and the coach has better control of the feeding tempo and placement. Try to vary your lesson by using some live ball hitting, racquet feeding, and hand feeding in varying proportion based on the needs and learning style of the player.
- Serve first. Why do so many coaches follow the tired lesson plan of warmup, groundstrokes and drills, and then finish with serve? If the serve is the most important shot in tennis – and the most complicated to learn – why is it often relegated to the last 10 minutes or less of the lesson, almost as an afterthought? Many times I will flip this lesson plan around and perform serves first. In this way, I communicate to my students the importance of this shot. If my players are struggling, we have plenty of time to work on sorting the technique out. By starting your lessons with serve from time to time, you and your student will have enough time to successfully tackle this challenging technical skill.
- Ask players and parents what they need in the moment. Having a plan is important, but it’s equally important to ask the player and parent what their priorities for the lesson are, which can be impossible to know ahead of time.Too many coaches stick rigidly to their lesson plan as opposed to being adaptable to what their player and parent are actually feeling and needing in the moment. Be flexible and listen to the concerns of your students – and their parents who pay your salary.
“Hug” your customers and give your players and parents more bang for their buck by following these 15 keys. You will be rewarded with client loyalty – and you will be able to command more per hour than your peers.
Chris Lewit, USPTA, is a USTA high performance coach and author of the best-selling book, “The Secrets of Spanish Tennis.” He trains many top regional, national, and international level players in New York and at his boarding academy and summer camp in Southern Vermont.