I have been called many things in my lifetime, husband, brother, Mr. Slezak, a few others names I won’t put in the blog (just kidding), and a coach. The term coach means a lot to me and I am actually honored when someone calls me by it. I am sure as you are reading this a picture of a coach from your past comes to mind, maybe a person who really helped you along or a bad youth experience. I know I have had both of those in my life. By definition a coach is someone who is responsible for the direction, instruction, and training of a sports team or individual. To me a coach is much more than just that one dimensional definition.
The truly great coaches like UCLA’s John Wooden, basketball’s Phil Jackson, and Clemson’s Chuck Kriese develop more than just sports skills, they shape the entire life of their athletes. To them it is not just about sport performance (wins/losses) it is about developing the person. Great coaches simply use their sport as the means to teach young men and women life lessons. Sports are such an outstanding metaphore for life and this is why I believe tennis can have such a positive impact on the lives of young people whether they dream of playing professional tennis or just enjoying the game recreationally.
People wonder how I have seemingly endless energy to coach tennis and train athletes. I literally get excited to train high level athletes and 5-year-old beginners to the same extent. Sure I know a ton about my discipline but what really gets me excited is knowing that I can have a positive impact on a person’s life regardless of their age or ability. When you look at coaching like that how can you not get excited? Tennis and fitness are simply the means with which I teach young people. Certainly the job is to get them bigger, faster, stronger, and playing great tennis but it becomes much more meaningful when you are developing the person along the journey.
So the next time you call me or someone “coach” think about what the term really means. Think about the message that coach is sending to your child when you drop them off. When you start to see coaching through that lens it becomes very clear how to distinguish a good coach from a great coach.
I do not have kids yet but I already have dreams of Little Alex Jr. picking tennis as his favorite sport, holding all kinds of trophies, and being ranked #1 in the world at the age of 10. Then the other day I was reading a new book about motor learning and it really made me have some deep thoughts about my dream. I know my book choices may be a bit nerdy but I love reading stuff that helps me become a better teacher or coach. Anyway, my deep thoughts came from this section where the author basically explained that young athletes with a great deal of success early on in their junior career are typically not the ones who make it to the elite levels of the game. Now common sense would lead one to believe that if they were #1 in the world at the age of 10 the potential to be #1 in the world as a professional is certainly there. However, this early success turned to elite professional success scenario rarely happens and it really comes down to a pretty simple concept of learning and improving.
So lets imagine Alex Jr. is #1 in the world at the age of 10. He obviously has figured some things out and has learned how to win. The problem lies in human nature telling us to cling to safety. You see because he has achieved so much and obviously what he is doing is working causes him tend to cling to what has worked in the past in his training. The old saying, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” comes to mind. What if Alex Jr. always spent all his time training technique on the tennis court because that is what he had initial success with? Then his strength, power and overall athletic development would suffer in the long run because he did not put in any work off the court. What if his serve technique was slightly flawed and he never took the time to correct it because the serve was good enough to get him all the wins and #1 ranking? Then long-term his flawed technique would eventually catch up with him and his peers would surpass him. The truth is that early success and clinging to what got a player that early success is going to eventually be what hampers continued growth and improvement. This is a product oriented mentality, meaning it is all about winning and results. This is in opposition to a process oriented mentality, meaning always trying to learn and improve regardless of the outcome or product.
My dream has changed for Little Alex Jr., I want him to be good at tennis but not the best, especially at a young age. I want him to have to struggle, lose a few matches, and respond by continually looking to get better. I want him to focus on the process of getting better each and every day and knowing sometimes he has to go out of his comfort zone to do it. Finally, I want him to be focused on his long-term development as a tennis player. I think those are the attributes the greats of the game have and that is where I really would dream of him being. They are also the attributes I approach my coaching career with.
Now if you are fortunate enough to have a young child be very successful at a young age I think with the right guidance and grounded roots they can harness that early success into long-term success. It will not be easy but with the right guidance, focusing on the process over the product, and looking forward to continually getting better I think it can be done.