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Team Coach 15 Finding A New Level Of Problem Solving

“No problem was ever solved at the same level of thinking that created it.”

~ Albert Einstein

The way people react to a situation or circumstance reveals a lot about their mindset. When something out of the ordinary happens, someone acts out of their perceived character, or there is adversity, the approach people take to understanding it, reveals something about how they think. Sometimes people see a problem where there is none, prescribe treatment and act on it quickly more from habit, than from actual mindful decision making. It’s generally true that people tend to be negative and judgmental of things they don’t understand. In fact, at many times and in many ways coaches habitually do that which is obvious to them. For example, if a player is not paying attention to their instruction to them, then the obvious solution would be to “repeat” the instruction. After that, if there is still zero response – the next obvious response that most would default to would be to try and repeat the instruction in a different way maybe using different words. Some coaches may raise or lower the volume of their voice, ask a question like, “Did you hear me?” or “Do you understand my instruction?” There are definitely obvious responses to any and all situations and there are definite reactions to how a person handled such a response. Many times the above solutions work perfectly. When these obvious solutions are not getting the proper response, and the team or individuals are traveling down the wrong path, and a radical change needs to take place, then it’s time to do that which is not obvious.

Rush to Judgement?

Have you ever read or heard something that someone did in response to a situation and have an immediate reaction of judgement, “Wow, that was not good – they should have responded better to that situation.” Or “There was a much better way to handle that.” Exactly! This is what I describe as an obvious conclusion. Later, when you found out much more about the background of what exactly happened, then it can change your mind about how that person dealt with that issue.

There is a story about a man on a train, and when he entered the train he saw three boys who were very poorly behaved. The immediate response of the first man was that something needed to be done. He looked for the parents, and seeing the father, he said, “Aren’t you going to do something about the behavior of your children.” The father just shrugged and responded, “I’m sorry, their mother just died and they don’t know how to act.” Suddenly a moment of judgement becomes one of empathy when we gain more information about what has transpired, our perspective changes, we change.

Account for Our Own Bias

We do these things as coaches, we have behaviors that we accept and don’t accept based on how, where, and when we grew up as a person, the influences around us will certainly affect the way we make these obvious conclusions. What if we were to take a breathe, step back, and attempt to understand the situation and the response/solution to the situation in a transcendent way. This is what I mean, to see or discern beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience. We are all limited by our experiences how and why we respond to what happens around us or what we read or hear. That is my dilemma, I’m limited by my experience. If I have a wide array of experiences, my response to any situation is more broad in perspective. I may tend to see the bigger picture of who the person is, what motivates them in the matter, their intentions as a person towards others, and their attitudes towards life in general. I will link the context of what happened to the context of the persona of the individual. I can understand in a better way the “why” because I understand the “who” in a deeper way and trust that person to always look to do the right thing at the right moment. Judgement is withheld for a time to investigate the deeper purpose of the action(s) in lieu of having a knee-jerk reaction that condemns instead of understands. This is transcending the obvious, the idea of seeing a higher level, a clearer perspective of all the variables that may have played a vital role in the decision-making process of reaction.

There is an old wise saying, “I couldn’t see the forest because of the trees.” Sometimes we become to up-close and personal with our responses to situations because our own character is in jeopardy to being reveal truthfully. We can change this by stepping back, or stepping up and getting a new perspective of how to respond to any situation or story or conflict we face before reacting ourselves. I like the acronym W.A.I.T. ‘Why Am I Talking?’ I ask myself, do I need to W.A.I.T. Do I need to take a moment before I react?

So now let us look into some situations that at first flush may seem problematic, but when taken in perspective, more can be known about the person and what motivates them.

Timing is Everything

This week was amazing. No sooner did we publish an article on discipline, then immediately the next day I had a major discipline issue with my team. At the moment, I rationally chose to be angry to the point where I took an old racquet and in 10 seconds I smashed it twice on the ground, kicked it toward the fence, picked it up whacked it against fence post, and yelled at the girls “I AM TRYING TO BUILD A TEAM HERE, WE ARE TRYING TO BUILD A PROGRAM HERE.” If we stop there, it would be easy to make a rush to judgement.

I then shared a picture of the shattered frame and told the story on Facebook. That touched off a bit of controversy, which ranged from concerned friends wondering about my mental health, polite questions, expressions of disagreement with my method, quite a bit of positive support including Mr. Tennis Parent’s Bible, Frank Giampaolo, and one person who held my action up to judgement and ridicule. So, hmmm, which whack job insane person would then stop and write about it? That’s the ultimate, right? Or, is there something to be learned from this situation?

A Brief History of Controlled Explosions

I woke up this morning with the idea to give the short history of times I went berserk on a tennis court with my players. Whenever you talk to top coaches they will all agree that the capacity for doing the work lies inside the player, if they want it, they will do it. Anything else is secondary. When you learn about parenting, you find out that whether or not you use corporal punishment, which I did as a parent, that it’s imperative to discuss the meaning of it afterward. Kids need to know that what you did comes from love, caring, and setting boundaries. So, now I will go year by year into the times I can remember having a good blow up. I doubt that I will miss any, but if you remember one that I don’t, please remind me.

1995 – Marek

Marek was a talented player and had been #1 on the team for two years. It was my first year coaching the team and we had a hot shot freshman who took over the #1 spot. Marek sulked. His effort in practice diminished. The #3 player saw and opportunity, challenged and won the #2 spot. Marek was #3. His behavior worsened. I tried to be nice, encourage him, repeatedly. One day he was hitting balls over the fence where we cannot easily retrieve them. He and his friend, who also seemed to choke in a lot of matches were laughing. I stopped them. I yelled at Marek for a couple minutes maybe about one foot away from his face. I let him know that he is talented, could play college tennis if he chose, but that this behavior was not going to continue. When tears came to his eyes, I stopped. Then I quietly said, “The reason I did this is that I care, a lot. I care about you, I care about your tennis, and I care about this team, etc.” There were other minor episodes with Marek, and he struggled for a short while, but later he not only regained his #2 spot, and finished his high school career winning 21 of his last 22 matches. The next year he was the only player to go undefeated when we won our first championship in 26 years. He went on to play college tennis, and became a much sought after teammate as a 5.0 level USTA player.

1996 – Expecting to Slide

Twenty seven of thirty six players showed up to the first day of practice without having their physical done. We had previously had two meetings, and many reminders via email to get this done. As I got more and more frustrated at NOT checking the box on my paperwork that said ‘yes’, I decided to stop, throw the pen down hard enough to bounce and crack. I then let the boy’s know that practice is cancelled today, ‘but your team captain may run an optional practice for you, which I recommend that you attend. It’s not mandatory, but I highly recommend that you attend.’ I went into my storage area, threw a few items around, and peeked outside. The captain was working those players very hard. That year we won our first title in 26 years, and snapped another local school’s 19 year streak of winning league. People practically handed that school the title every year. Even after that, there was something lethargic about my team, I called in a friend and mentor who was a 7 time national champion, and twice went to Olympics to talk about what it meant to be a champion.

1998 – Lack of Player Leadership

My #1 player and captain on a girls team were slackers, they would miss practice with lame excuses and not give 100% effort. I talked to both of them about setting an example for the rest of the team, and maybe they did not see it, but I saw a team that was demoralized when the players they look up to, are not good role models. Nothing changed. Eventually we had a very heated meeting where I outlined exactly what I expected, I wish I had done it earlier. Still nothing changed and yet, I did not become angry again, but I did notice that if someone did something that was against team rules the kids would look at me as though to say “are you going to get angry again”. They were baiting me and I was not taking the bait. After some discussions with some of the juniors and underclassmen, we all decided that the following year we would be more committed. While there are not any outstanding results to report, our team maxed out what they could do the next year and it was a very satisfying year of improvement.

2006 – Altruistic Manipulation

I wasn’t ‘angry’, I was disappointed. In one of my most manipulative ploys that I have ever pulled, the culture of a school dramatically changed for the better in tennis. What I didn’t know when I started the season is that the team had not won a league match in six years. The losing streak was in the sixties. Twenty-four girls came out for tennis, because they were excited about a coach. After the first two days of practice only fifteen girls were left, by the end of he second week we had eleven players. They didn’t want to run, or get sweaty. Occasionally a girl would skip practice with an academic reason, and when she returned I would explain that practice is mandatory, and that there are 22.5 other hours in the day to get the school work done.

One day more than half the team was missing. “Captain, where is my team?” “Chem lab, coach”. I headed over to the Chem Lab. I got there just as the girls were leaving, and presumably NOT headed to practice. “Ladies, what does this do to our relationship? We have a player/coach relationship that I care about, and when you don’t even talk to me, then it really suffers. I am trying to run a practice for you, and I don’t even know where you are.” I said all of this in the best sensitive man voice I could muster. When they were all near tears, I stopped and from then on, no one missed practice the rest of the year, and we broke the 71 match losing streak, and were featured on local high school sports news as ‘featured team of the week’, for the entire greater San Francisco Bay Area, including Oakland and San Jose metropolitan areas. I tell this story, because I probably could have yelled at them, but I am capable of using a full range of emotion.

2008 – Slackers

I took on a new team that was underachieving. Every year they won the league, simply because they had a strong pipeline of talent, and almost every year they would lose in the first round of the playoffs.

We had an early season match against the last place team. Our school had a transportation problem, and while all the schools were not more than 20 minutes apart, the players where responsible to get themselves to matches. Some of my players came well after the time when a good warm up would be possible. Most all of them failed to put in a good warm up to prepare to win easily.

What ensued was ridiculous. I had warned them that I wanted to see our best effort in every match regardless of opponent, but since we were just getting to know each other, they did not know how serious I was. Two players came so late, that it necessitated a lineup change in doubles. My team played poorly, they spent way too long in winning the match. It could have been mercifully over in 45 minutes or less and then everyone could go home and do homework. The match lasted well over two hours. At the end, I had the players sit with the setting sun behind me, so they had to squint to see me. I didn’t yell, but I did express the extreme disappointment I felt, and that performing like that at any time is not the recipe for winning sectional playoff matches. We then proceeded to do 5 spider run drills with the other team watching.

Later that year we entered sectional playoffs as a #9 seed. We easily beat a favored #8 seeded team on the road, for the right to play the #1 seed at a prestigious club in Marin County, CA. Some of our players played out of their minds and we narrowly beat them 4-3, because three of their players were so good we had absolutely no chance against them. It was our full team effort that made that happen.

2009 – 3 Minutes of Slacking

Same team as 2008. Late in the season, we were doing quite well and our closest league rivals were nowhere near able to beat us, we had won some great early season matches and were looking primed for a high seed. Even so, it seemed like we were just cruising, and I was concerned. One day I got caught in heavy traffic behind an accident on the road. I called my team captain to tell him I might be a few minutes late. ALL THE PLAYERS KNEW THE ROUTINE OF HOW PRACTICE STARTS. When I walked in a few minutes late, no one was doing what they should. It was appalling how quickly they could go back to their normal state with 5 less minutes of supervision than normal.

I walked in, kicked over a ball basket hard enough that it bloodied my toe through my shoe and sent 100 tennis balls in every direction. I called every everyone to talk to me. I said “I am not here ____ing around”, and I never cuss in front of my team and so they were stunned. Then I lit my captain up for not having the leadership to get the team to perform, and I went off on him for a full minute. Then we went and had a very taut practice from then on. For the rest of practice I alternated between deriding my team for not following captains orders, and my captain for not making it happen. After practice I called my captain to say, “Hey man, you can do better, and most of that was an act, so the team can have empathy for you, they now will do what you say, because they don’t want to see me rip you like that again.” He said, “I thought that was what you were doing.” That year mainly because of the great work of that captain and the other two who also stepped up to do more, as a #3 seed, we beat #2, and #1 in the same day in 97 degree heat. It would be so easy to quit when its 97, and you are down 3 matches to 1 on the #1 seed. It would be so easy to quit when you need to win the final 4 sets on court. But they did, and they won the section title, best amongst 145 schools. Later we finished 3rd in the NorCal regionals, which represents about 600 schools.

2015 – Never Give Up, Never Ever Give Up

Working at an inner city school on cracked courts with a team that had experienced very permissive coaching, late in the season after three players were deemed ineligible, players began to quit on the inside. The effort level to get up, get to the huddle, move to a drill, execute the drill was way below 100% effort. The kids were bummed, depressed, hopeless. That lasted about 10 or 15 minutes before I blasted them. “No, we are not going to quit, every moment on this earth matters…” I think I might have cussed again, but I can’t remember what I said. This all happened with less than two weeks left in the season. We had some talent, but the players had been very undisciplined for a long time.

The next day I showed them the TED Talk by Carol Dweck on “The Power of Yet”. Suddenly the kids were energized, players began to improve a lot! We were in last place and lost a heartbreaking match playing poorly against our rival, the second to last place team. But now, we had something. Players competed hard, learned to make one more shot, gave their best on everything. In our final match of the season against the first place team, we were about 5 points from pulling the upset, mostly because the other coach made some lineup changes that were a tad overconfident, and she did not know how much we had improved in two weeks. Ultimately we lost 5-2, but one match was a 6-4 loss in the third with many deuce points, and the other was a tiebreaker after a full third set. In the league tournament our players went 4-0 in first round matches, with my number two player going to the semi-finals and giving the #1 seed all he could handle. And we also gained two wins over that first place teams players.

2016 – The Smashed Racquet

My team captain informed me that a player on the team was going to skip our match, because “It’s the first day of school and she doesn’t want to miss her 6th period class on day one.” I thought about it for a few seconds. “Captain, what do you think? Is that ok? Also, you, number one player is that ok?” Both nodded tacitly. Captain nodded because she didn’t yet have the courage to say no. Number One player nodded because everyone has the right to self determination. I thought for another few seconds. “Do I want to destroy this 5 year old feeding racquet in my hand in front of the girls? Yes, I do, and I must be careful not to hurt anyone, and we will stop practice at this point to talk about this issue.” So I smashed it down hard twice, kicked it to the fence, picked it up and whacked it against the fence post.

Master Blaster

Then I yelled at the girls. “I am trying to build a team here, WE are trying to build a team here. It’s NOT ok to miss…” I went on for another minute or two. I had our team captain run the rest of the warm up, so I could think, and presumably cool down in their eyes, even though I was completely in control of myself. One player was arriving late to practice and saw this all happen, and she still came, so that said something about her bravery, and maybe that she trusts me. On a team that needs 10 players to be official, had only 6 unconfirmed on a roster, with three or four attending on a daily basis, it was a serious concern for one player not to come. I told Captain Karla, “It’s time for you to step up as a leader, and if you become a great leader on this team, I will write you an incredible recommendation letter to go to the college of your dreams.” Within 48 hours Karla had recruited six more players to join the team, we played a match with 9 players, next week we may have 12 or more players on the team. That’s worth raising a racquet. Update: (Karla and one other girl on the team became the highest achieving academic successes in years at that school. Karla said that it was the passion that I exhibited that inspired her to have the drive to go to University of California, Berkeley.)

How many instances is that in 30+ years? Take a moment to reflect on how many times you may have expressed anger and how strongly. For me a well controlled, planned detonation is much more effective than regular free floating hostility. The blow up gives players a chance to really see a lot of passion. The free floating hostility of weekly or daily yelling sessions, just helps players tune you out. If you never express any disappointment, you aren’t working with teenagers.

Bill Patton, Executive Director is the Author of The Art of Coaching High School Tennis and Visual Training for Tennis.

Styrling Strother’s Book 7 On Court Strategies to Enter Your Play State was released July, 2017

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