Going Back in a Time Machine
When I was 10 years old my favourite baseball coach, Mr. Pyman, asking me to take over duties at third base while he dealt with some sort of grown up issue. Unlike coaching at first base which basically just requires you to encourage the batter to run as fast as they can, the third base coach has many more responsibilities. They have to use signs to tell the batter whether or not to bunt, they have to call for baserunners to steal at just the right time, they need to keep an eye on the whole field to make sure each runner is being aggressive yet safe, lest they get picked off by the opposing pitcher. It was a big deal for me that Mr. Pyman believed me capable of handling such a task.
Since then, I have spent more than 30,000 hours coaching professionally (mostly tennis and pickleball). And like with anything, if you put in enough hours you eventually learn a thing or two. I’d like to use this edition of For the Coaches to reach back and to illuminate some of the more valuable lessons I have learned after spending a couple decades on the court. My hope is that sharing these can help you to avoid some of the traps I fell into as well as take some useful shortcuts that can make your life easier and your coaching more impactful. 30 years later I still think about Mr. Pyman and some of the things I learned from him — a few of those might pop up too.
Mark Renneson — CEO, Pickleball Coaching International
You’re Not Teaching a Sport — You’re Teaching People
One of the exciting things about the growth of pickleball is that there is a body of knowledge that is steadily developing. We are starting to better understand tactics and technique and there are people — some more proficient than others — who are bringing this knowledge forward in thoughtful ways. It is important that instructors pay attention to some of these developments since they can inform what it is that they teach their players. That said, it likley isn’t your vast knowledge of different grips or shoulder biomechanics that is going to make the biggest impact on your students.
Teaching of any kind is inherently interpersonal and is vital to remember this. It will be the relationships you build with your students — by how you speak to them, how you encourage them, how you push them — that makes the lasting impression. Yes, technical knowledge is important. But when you are coaching, it is to remember to put the people you are working with front and centre.
Good for holding balls, class lists, lesson plans and tips. Don’t go on court without them.
Make Life Easier: Get Your Players to Do the Work
For newer coaches especially, there can be a great desire to show how organized you are. You arrive early, set up all of the cones you need on each court, make sure each basket of balls is well-stocked, etc.. And this is good. But so is saving time. One way that you can be more efficient is by enlisting your players to help with the clean up.
At the end of a drill, game or even the whole lesson, get the players to bring in balls, markers or anything else that was being used. Just say something like: “Great work everyone. Please collect 6 balls and a cone, put them in the basket and you’ve earned yourself a 2 minute water break”. It is a way to tidy up fast and your players will appreciate the direct instruction.
Have a Plan (at least in the beginning)
There is a lot to worry about when you are coaching and you can take some of the work off your plate by devising a lesson plan well in advance. The plan should include a clear warm-up activity, key teaching points that will form the main takeaways for your players, the drills or games you will use to work on those new skills, as well as an end-of-lesson game or activity. While some people like to include every detail and others prefer a rough outline, having a plan in your pocket gives you one less thing to worry about when you’re doing your job.
Position Yourself Strategically to Observe
Observe from These Spots
You can see all courts at once!
Where you stand influences what you can see. By positioning yourself in a corner — don’t forget to circulate so you are spending time near everyone — you give yourself a vantage point to see everyone at once. This means you will have an easier time making sure things are running smoothly without constantly having to turn your head.
Learn Your Students’ Names — and Use a Cheat Sheet
It is important to learn the names of your new students as fast as possible for two reasons: 1) it’s a safety thing. If a ball is rolling at someone’s feet and you’re two courts away, it is impossible to get their attention and warn them if you don’t know their name. 2) it makes people feel good. People will be impressed by your effort to make the lesson personal.
It is likely that you have a class list when you are teaching. If so, use it to make notes about people. Mary has red shoes. John uses the same paddle as you do. Keep that note in your pocket and refer to it when you need to until you have memorized their names.
Ask for (Anonymous) Feedback
Whether it is a form that you print off or an online survey you create yourself and email to your students, it is important to hear from your players about what they liked from your lessons and what they’s like to be different. And to make sure that they are being as honest as possible, consider making it anonymous.
While it can be tough to hear things like “he talked to much”, “I don’t really care how many medals you have won”, or “you ignored the weaker players and spent all your time with the 4.0s” etc., these are important messages to receive. And even if you think they totally misunderstood what you were doing, it is valuable to know how the lessons was perceived by people.
Don’t Play pickleball with Your Students
This advice is directed primarily at those who are looking to earn a living through their coaching. While it can be tempting to play pick-up games of pickleball with your students (or even hit around during breaks in the lesson or between sessions) you may want to re-think that idea. Here’s why:
If you are charging money for your lessons but then play with people for free, you are de-incentivizing those same people to pay for your time. If they can get on the court with you, ask for a quick tip here and there and do it all for free, why in the world would they pay for it? It’s a situation of Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?
Additionally, if you offer private lessons as well as group training, you may want to re-think providing your group session students with some quick 1-on-1 time during breaks or before or after a lesson. Presumably, your dedicated time is valuable (that’s why people pay a premium for private lessons) and you are now giving it away for nothing. Imagine how that makes the people who paid for a private feel.
This may seem harsh. And if you are the instructor who is teaching for free and not worried about building a business, then by all means play with your students whenever you feel like it. But if you are trying to grow your coaching profile and make it profitable, it is vital that on-court time with you is perceived as valuable enough for people to pay for it. And you are hurting that prospect if you are giving it away.
If you want to make your lessons stick, consider organizing them according to themes rather than shots. For example, why not run a class that is all about STARTING THE POINT EFFECTIVELY. This gives you the chance to work on serves and returns, as well as the movement patterns for each. You could set the theme of GETTING OUT OF TROUBLE to work on defensive skills. WAYS TO APPLY PRESSURE can be an interesting way to think about offensive skills.
Themes work particularly well because they help focus the students and can make it easier for the whole lesson to hang together. A lesson “on the forehand” doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as HOW TO BEAT BANGERS or 3 WAYS TO WIN CHEAP POINTS. Using a theme allows you to be creative and gives you freedom to work on a wide variety of shots, situations and skills.