The Role(s) of a Coach

One of the hardest things about being an instructor is that you are different things to different people. In some instances you are strictly a clinician whose job is to diagnose problems and find solutions. In other instances you are a motivator or cheerleader, someone who is there to support people who may be playing pickleball for the first time or who are trying to develop a new skill but lacking some confidence.

As the one identified as Instructor you may be asked to wear the hat of the peacemaker, rule interpreter, advocate and even marriage counsellor. The point is, in your position as a coach you better be ready to take on a number of different roles, often at the same time.  Here are some ways to do it:

Set Out Clear Terms. While the people in your PB classes probably think of the sessions as theirlessons, you are the one steering the ship. And while you cannot know for sure how that journey will transpire, you will do well to plot a course and to make people aware of the plan.

It is a good idea to start your sessions by outlining what the goals and expectations are. Something like: "Hi everyone. My job is to introduce you to pickleball and to help you get playing on your own. The plan is to focus on developing the most important skills early, and then to unpack some of the more nuanced elements as time permits. We will do this by keeping everyone as involved as possible and by spending way more time playing than talking."

By taking the lead and setting out the terms at the beginning of the session, you are setting the tone and shaping expectations. Note that in this case the emphasis was on participation and a focus on fundamentals (i.e.  "developing the most important skills early",  "help you get playing on your own" and "keeping everyone as involved as possible"). By articulating these goals at the outset, you make it easier to deal with some possible challenges down the road. For example, if an eager students wants to ask non-stop questions about the intricacies of topspin, you might say:

"I'm really glad you are so keen to know more. Remember that our focus is on developing fundamental skills. I'd be happy to talk with your more about this later"

Or for those students who monopolize your time you might respond with:

"Your enthusiasm is terrific. I need to check on the others and make sure everyone is clear on what we are doing. I'll get back to you shortly". 

While each lesson is unique and has its own feel, the markers that you put down at the start of your coaching sessions are a way to help guide the group (and you) as the lessons unfold. 

Be Open to Change. You're not teaching skills, you're teaching people. And like any sort of human endeavour, pickleball lessons have a way of taking you in unexpected directions. You may have a surprisingly athletic group of new players who allow you to do much more with them than you thought, Maybe you have a group of supposedly 'intermediate' players who need some serious remedial work. The best coaches are those who have the ability to be flexible, to roll with the punches based on the people that they see in front of them.

Of course, this is easier said than done. And if you are a new coach who is just getting their feet wet, it is understandable that you may cling to the lesson plan for dear life. And that is ok. As you gain experience and develop more confidence, you will become more comfortable straying from the plan a little and responding directly to the players you have in front of you. In the meantime, do yourself a favour and think of the lesson plans as roadmap. And while you want to make sure that you are heading to your final destination, a little detour here and there -- so long as they are done thoughtfully and for the good of the students -- can actually be quite exciting. 

Know When to Say No. While being a responsive, flexible instructor is great, that doesn't mean that you are a doormat and beholden to the whims of your players. As the coach, you have a responsibility to guide the lessons toward a particular outcome and if you aren't careful, there are many different things that can lead you and the group astray.

Your primary role is to lead the group and that sometimes means saying 'no'. It may be to the 'know-it-all' student who has watched every pickleball video on YouTube. It could be the chatty person who uses the warm-up as social hour and distracts his partners. It may be the participant who always 'just wants to play a real game' even during drills or other learning activities. It could even be the person who is always 15 minutes late and has no idea how disruptive it is to the group. 

Whatever the case, you have the responsibility to make sure that things stay (relatively) on track. And if a person or group of people are threatening to take you and others off course, you need to address it early and with impact. This, of course, doesn't mean being mean or disrespectful. Here are a few ways you may need to assert yourself:

"I'm really happy you are here but I've noticed that you are often late. I'm worried that it makes it hard for you to know what is going on and it also means I have to leave the group to explain it"

"I'm glad that you are friends with so many people in the class. I know that some of them do much better when they are focused so I'd appreciate it if you saved the chatting for the water breaks" 

"It is great that you watch so many videos! We've got a program that we are following here, but if you'd like to talk about some of what you've seen, let's do that after class". 

Again, these should all be said with respect and the knowledge that it isn't personal, but for the good of the group and in most cases, people get the point. In fact, people often aren't even aware that they are causing a disruption in the first place.

Whether you are wearing the hat of the motivator, psychologist, disciplinarian or cheerleader, remember that pickleball is a game and games should be fun. How well you wear each of those hats will be a function of your own personal strengths as well as your comfort level leading a group and delivering lesson content. And just as your players will progress to become more confident doing different things on the court, so too will you evolve as an instructor who can seamlessly inhabit the different roles of a coach.