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Communicate to Win We must Prepare, Plan and Persist to Succeed

By Dan O’Connell, USPTA Master Professional

<i>Dan O’Connell and the NMMI men’s coach Danny Dominguez, with the five African players on the team.
Dan O’Connell and the NMMI men’s coach Danny Dominguez, with the five African players on the team.
May 2017 -- You walk into the locker room at the Maseru Club, Lesotho (Africa), sweaty, tired and discouraged.

“OK,” you say to yourself, “It’s a hot day.” But you know you’ve played and taught tennis under blistering African suns on hotter days. This day you feel defeated. You couldn’t get across to Mrs. Farnsworth the simplest volley – never mind trying to correct her disastrous serve. She got mad; you got frustrated and lost your cool. 

When you became a USPTA Professional, you passed a test that measured your knowledge of tennis, skill level and teaching ability. Now here you are, failing on your first job. What’s wrong?  What can you do?

Read, Attend Meetings – Prepare. Improve yourself. Read books and magazines, attend clinics, workshops and national conventions to widen your knowledge. Meet professional colleagues, exchange experiences. The USPTA provides a variety of opportunities for members to improve. But reading tennis books and attending meetings are not enough. Knowledge of playing and teaching tennis alone will not make you a better coach.

All coaches possess the same basic tennis knowledge after a couple of years. Why then do some tennis-teaching professionals have more or less success than others? The answer may lie in their individual methods of transmitting that knowledge to students. Transmitting knowledge is a skill; teaching is a science. Both require the ability to handle people effectively. 

Tennis manuals do not teach you to influence human behavior. Methods of motivating, inspiring and managing others are innate – or can be learned. Read other books – you have to have a basic understanding of psychology to teach. There are hundreds of books on the market that deal with “getting to know yourself” and “getting along with others.” 

Learn to Communicate. All teachers can master the same tennis coaching knowledge that Ashley Hobson, Dave Porter or Karl Davies possess. But these coaches have developed unique methods of communication that have contributed greatly to their success. These expert communicators have no problem motivating or influencing students. They possess effective personalities. They make a great first impression. They speak in a manner to influence students positively; they possess the ability to listen – to hear their students’ thoughts. Hobson, Porter, Davies and successful coaches develop communicative characteristics. They have developed communication skills to persuade others. 

What kind of first impression do you make? Do you think about what you’re going to say? Do you speak precisely and fluently? Do you listen? Everyone knows someone that seems genuinely interested and makes creative comments about what he or she has to say. That someone is a true communicator who has mastered the art of communication. To be a good communicator, you must learn to listen, observe, think and speak effectively. You enhance personal relationships by carefully developing speech patterns and listening abilities. When observing students’ personalities carefully, you will realize that, like everyone else you meet, they need encouragement. They want understanding and sympathy and they want to be liked. These needs are universal, but each student has additional unique personality traits that govern his or her responses. Ferret these out – learn to understand your students’ responses and act positively to reinforce their better qualities. 

Your communication style should be tailored to each individual you coach. Beginning teachers may concentrate too much on the rudiments of the game and ignore an individual’s reception of their instruction. A good communicator learns to “serve” up an idea and to “return” his thoughts based on careful evaluation. You must develop both “shots” to be successful. When you learn to observe your students’ reactions to your instruction and also to listen to their responses, you have begun to master the art of communication. My teaching methods and communication skills were improved accidently. A friend lent me Dale Carnegie’s book “How to win Friends and Influence People.” When I read that helpful philosophy for living, I became interested in reading books on self-improvement. “The Power of Positive Thinking” and “The One Minute Manager” by Kenneth Blanchard and Robert Lorber helped me to recognize that sometimes I did not use all powers as a communicator on the court. These books started me on the road to thinking about my reactions to students and THEIR reactions to me.

The Student /Coach Team. Now I view the student/coach relationship as a team working to achieve goals. The team changes every hour as the next student comes on court. As a teacher, I must adapt to each student’s ability level. We hit a few balls. I analyze his strengths and weaknesses. I try to estimate his anxiety level, his competitiveness, his tennis ability and his personality. I don’t get all the answers in the first lesson, but I’m aware of what I’m after, and believe me, that is a step in the right direction. I control the lesson; I set the tone of our relationship. I develop the environment in which we play. I’m after a successful team effort. Whether or not I think my student will be the next Roger Federer, I want him to feel good about this lesson; good about himself. Then he will produce the best that is in him and have a good time. I want him to continue having fun playing tennis for the rest of his life.

Developing that philosophy took time. I failed again and again. But, I learned more from failing with Thabo Mokenela, the Lesotho tennis star, than he or I ever expected I could learn. I pushed him too hard – I was too tough and Thabo ran off the court crying. I was negative and he reacted. I got just what I deserved.

On another occasion, I took three of my Lesotho stars to Botswana, where I was coaching the Botswana national junior squad. I overreacted again and caused one of my students to leave the court in anger. Later, the national coach of Botswana, Euphemia Tlhapane, gave me advice: “Dan there’s a time to be tough and a time to be tender,” she admonished.

Blanchard and Lorber in “The One Minute Manager” stress the importance of how to use criticism with kindness. No one makes mistakes on purpose, least of all your young tennis student. You must be careful when you criticize his performance or smart-alecky behavior that he does not believe you are angry with him. Begin by pointing out his minor flaw and strengthen your relationship by making the student know that you are on his side; You like HIM – you simply don’t care for his ACTION, whether it is his thoughtless behavior or his faulty tennis stroke. 
Use Positive Reinforcement. My failures in Lesotho and Botswana shook me up. I learned that no matter how talented the student, he needs positive reinforcement. That’s the answer to instilling confidence in all your students. I’ve learned to encourage every student. I wiped “negative” out of my teaching vocabulary. Saying “don’t do this,” “don’t do that,” “didn’t I tell you this,” etc., will destroy motivation.

Criticism is futile. The student becomes defensive and resents the instructor. That’s not teamwork – that is defeating your purpose. Instead, use positive reinforcement. It works gradually. Learning takes time and it should be a fun experience for the teacher and the student. Concentrate on the student’s talents; reinforce them. Then you will set up a positive, improving environment. Don’t worry only about stroke production. Worry more about developing a student’s strong mental attitude. By being positive you stimulate your student into positive thinking and action. With affection, care and hard work you will see his confidence grow. You can help your student conquer fear and develop courage. You can steer him toward self-motivation. When I began to make sure our hard-working practice environment was surrounded by positive reinforcement and fun, success followed.  

Learning progressions. It took me years to understand learning. As a young coach teaching beginners, my drills might have been either too difficult or too easy. As a more experienced coach, I improved my ability to match the skill level of the player to appropriate drills. I measured learning in a step-by-step skill progression from: (1) never, (2) to seldom, (3) to sometimes, (4) to often, (5) to always. To provide a challenging environment, the experienced coach avoids drills falling into the “never” or “always” categories. Experienced coaches chose drills at the “seldom” success level, knowing with repetition and hard work, the “often” and “always” levels will be reached. Tennis lessons are fun when drills are introduced in correct progressions, to challenge students to eventually reach the “always” level. 

Plan for success – set goals. Improved teaching and communication skills prepared me for success in the second portion of my career. Besides setting goals for myself, I found it was also often important to create goals for my students. Lesotho player Johnny Lin and I created a goal. We planned for Johnny to gain a U.S. university scholarship and we reached that goal. My relationship with Thabo Mokenela improved when we set a similar goal to gain a U.S. scholarship. Reaching Thabo’s goal became a team effort. Two years later Thabo earned his scholarship. Every student needs a dream. There must be a goal. 

After 15 years in Africa, I relocated to Fiji to become the International Tennis Federation’s Pacific Oceania Development Officer. Our main program was a regional training center, hosting 10-14 tennis champions from around the Pacific. We structured our center around the motto of: “The ITF House is the home of good people, good students and good athletes.” Upon arrival to our training center, the common dream was planted into students’ minds that they would eventually earn a U.S. university tennis scholarship. After a few years, we created a “hallway of fame” to strengthen the goal of our students. Written on the hallway wall was: “This hallway is meant to honour past graduates and to inspire future champions.” Today, hanging on that wall are more than 30 individual photos of graduates. During my final 10 years, 32 of 34 training center graduates earned their scholarships. They dreamed about gaining their scholarship for four to six years while living in the ITF House. Their dream came true. We created win-win teamwork with Pacific tennis leaders and U.S. university coaches. Our island champions were given a unique opportunity. They worked hard to reach the goal.  

What goes around comes around – be persistent. My career is winding down. I fondly look back on many successes in nearly four decades based in Africa and the Pacific. At first, I stumbled toward success. My thinking progressed. I was patient and persistent and eventually made progress. 

In 1976, the United States Peace Corps appointed Dan O’Connell as the National Tennis Coach to the Kingdom of Lesotho. During 15 years based in Africa, he taught in 20 nations through the United States Information Agency Sports America Program and the International Tennis Federation. O’Connell relocated to Fiji in 1991 to become the first ITF Pacific Oceania Development Officer. In 2012, he returned to the United States to become the Ladies Tennis Coach at New Mexico Military Institute.  
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