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Coach, In Which Sandbox Do You Play?

The Sandboxes of Isolation, Cooperation or Collaboration

There is a difference between cooperation and collaboration, and that difference is found in the level of trust needed to make each work. When we cooperate with others, all we need are common goals. To the extent that people do what they say to support those common goals, then the proof of the cooperation will be found. To truly collaborate, each participant needs to trust one another, because there is an element of betterment, and each party going out of their comfort zone to come to the middle to make dramatic positive changes. When collaboration, there must be trust between the individuals or groups. Trust is built while traveling down one major highway, together. That highway is found in a commitment over time. It takes time to build trust, yet it takes very little to unravel it.

Perhaps you simply want to play in your own sandbox and be left alone. So be it.

Coaching Collaboration with Players

When we as coaches navigate our pathway, the question is which sandbox are we headed toward? It’s great for us to consider “Which Sandbox do we PLAY in?” As we work together to better our craft as coaches, do we strive to collaborate with our players, or do we assert our ownership of the sandbox? Are they lucky to be playing in our sandbox, or are we playing in the same one? How do we build trust between coach and player? When the coach can say “Try using the bucket like this, maybe the shovel is better, what do you think?”, posing the question to the player, that opens up an opportunity for the player to shape how playing in the sandbox will go.

One of the first questions we can ask any player to help us navigate this great journey is how do you learn best? Are you a visual person? Do you like to put ideas into action? Do you like to have things explained to you before we do them? Research shows that any one item of information is best framed in 10 seconds or 42 words for a person to have the best ability to attend to that detail.

This key question to players, can help you as a coach, discover a player’s strengths and weaknesses in learning. If a player is more of a “visual” learner, look to explain your teaching concepts with visual “word images” that paint a picture for the player to “see” the idea you are trying to teach about a stroke mechanic or strategy. If a player learns by doing, then we create activities to challenge the player’s learning. Recently, I have decided to change the name of these activities from ‘drills’ to ‘challenges’, as it sets a better tone, and players seem to more readily accept a challenge, because they see it as an opportunity for improvement. Visual, Kinesthetic and Auditory learning play a role, but we as coaches many times rely on the auditory, and tend not to have simple enough explanations that paint word pictures, or as Tim Gallway said, “To create Feelmages”. Ultimately, it’s what the player can see and/or feel that will be something they can reproduce. But, do we check for understanding? How do we do that? It happens best in a collaborative environment. All three: Visual, Audible, and Kinesthetic methods of teaching are like using the three primary colors: Red, Blue, and Green to allow for more color to be expressed on a canvas. Yes, some people love red more than blue or green, but that doesn’t mean that blue or green is not needed at all. Players can have tendencies toward one learning style over another, learning to recognize those tendencies can build collaboration very quickly between a coach and players.

Shifting Perspective from Coach/Player to Coach/Coach

When it comes to building collaboration between coaches, this can be a difficult task. Tennis coaches tend to be very strong individuals, and very entrepreneurial, so forming this type of collaboration takes a bit of going outside the normal comfort zone of any coach who enters into collaboration. Bill and I sometimes battle, and struggle together to come to common understanding, but it’s worth the fight, and we both take it in as “Iron Sharpens Iron” approach. Sometimes we throw sand. We ask ourselves, are we playing in the sandbox of true collaboration, are we only in the sandbox of cooperation, or in the sandbox at all? We want to encourage you to join us in the USATennisCoach sandbox of collaboration. A communal growth mindset is so important to avoid becoming defensive when our ideas are challenged by either another’s experience or opinion. “Without tension there is no hope for growth” is a powerful truth I discovered many years ago. I realized that in order for anything to grow and mature, it must be tested and go through a process of metamorphosis (a transformational process from immature to mature form in two or more stages). So the big question is: “How do I know which “sandbox” I’m playing in, Collaboration or Cooperation?

Maybe a good place to start is asking yourself these questions:

Do I become defensive when my ideas or perceptions of coaching are challenged?

Do I believe I’ve “arrived” and have all the best answers to any coaching method out there?

Do I hold on to “the way it’s always been taught”, or do I consistently strive to find the value in other ideas and ways to communicate more effectively and efficiently?

Do I try to keep others from ascending, or do I encourage them and push them along, even if they will exceed my output?

The Tension of Shifting Mindset

It can be quite scary to ask these questions of ourselves, and yes, the tension is real – becoming self-aware of our own biases towards a particular idea or concept takes courage. The courage to admit sometimes that the more we learn, the less we can be certain of. It can be a tremendous gift to yourself to become more self-aware of who you are, what you really want, and how you want to be known as a tennis coach.

We live in a very disruptive world today, the internet age has become one of distraction. Distraction away from reflecting, and into one of sharing opinions. It has also disrupted on a large scale our attention span, how and when we consume information and knowledge, how and when we build relationships between each other, and a host of other noble and destructive ways of learning, interacting, and discovering.

Becoming a better coach requires hard work, vulnerability, and humility. The world does not stop evolving. Technology is going to progress in a violent way to disrupt. Many of our long held beliefs are being challenged and will continue to be challenged. For example, we actually don’t play tennis in a rectangle, we play inside “triangles”. Sometimes the obvious is not so obvious until we take a closer and deeper look at what really happens on and off the court as a coach.

So, my challenge and invitation to all of us tennis coaches out there in the world, take a moment to breathe when we find ourselves in a moment of “tension”. It’s a way of telling you, “here’s your chance to grow, take advantage of this moment and don’t let it pass you by.”

Your Mission (if You Choose to Accept It):

Find a coach you trust, ask them to give you an honest assessment of what “kind” of coach you are, start in a place of humility and discovery to become the best you can be on and off the court. A good question to start with is, “Hey coach, do I have a growth or fixed mindset?”


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