Coaches: Are you talking another language to the players you teach?
By NEAL BROOKER – Squash Mad Columnist
As a squash coach and personal trainer I spend all week teaching clients and players. I have realised, from teaching the same skill to a variety of people, that to be a good teacher you must to be able to have different ways to teach the same skill as everyone learns differently.
Learning styles vary and include: visual (sight), auditory (hearing) and kinaesthetic (feeling). So ultimately, as teachers and coaches we must understand this and communicate with our players effectively.
The term, ‘communication’ seems to have become a buzzword within learning environments recently, but I question how many of us coaches are actually communicating effectively?
It became apparent to me that I wasn’t communicating effectively with my players during a junior session I was running at Cheam Squash Club.
The session was aimed at intermediate juniors, aged 8-11. I had set-up a pairs feeding drill to work on the drop shot. One player was ‘hand feeding’ the ball into the front corner, for their partner to come in and play a drop shot off it. In this instance the ‘hitter’ was finding the drill too easy so I asked the ‘feeder’ to make the drill more challenging.
I used the following command: “Make the feed harder.” The feeder’s response was to the throw the ball more powerfully (harder), which in turn actually made the drill easier; therefore, it had the opposite effect from what I was originally seeking.
In this instance, I used a poorly thought-out command or a ‘throw-away command’ as I now call them. I simply assumed the player would be able to interpret my command of “Make the feed harder” and actually throw the feed ‘softer’ – which is what I wanted. On reflection, I should have demonstrated or described the qualities that I was searching for to make the feed more challenging for the ‘hitter’.
From this moment onwards, I have found myself watching other coaches and listening to the language they use. Have you used some of the following instructions?
Example 1: One -to-One Lesson / Group Coaching
“Don’t overcrowd the ball” or “Don’t get too close”
Essentially, with these commands we are trying to get our players to stay further away from the ball. However there is no positive instruction for a player to actually follow, so we are just hoping that they understand.
Alternative: “Reach out with your hitting arm as you make contact with the ball.”
Or, if you are hitting a succession of feeds, start using one-word commands like “Space” or simply “Wait”.
It’s important to give the longer instructions before the feed, not during it, as you are like to disturb the player’s concentration as he or she moves to hit the ball. They have enough things to concentrate on without you adding to the list and possibly confusing them while they are in the middle of the task.
Example 2: Advice in between games during a match
“Too many cross courts,” or “There is no structure to your game.”
Both of these coaching cues, again, do not offer the player anything positive to take back onto court. So ultimately I would ask the question, was it worth even going to speak to your player? The alternative I have provided below is very simple, but gives the player a process to follow to take into the next game.
Alternative: “Hit straight and counter drop every short shot played by your opponent”
When I am coaching I search for words / phrases which particularly resonate with that player. I have found players tend to over-crowd the ball, so to work on correcting this I may use a command such as ‘reach’ or ‘extend elbow’.
By following these commands players will be forced into creating more space between themselves and the ball.
Another nice command I use when teaching the volley is ‘punch’ or ‘snap’ as it offers a nice description of the short, compact volley swing. I also the like the sound of these words when they are said as they sound almost ‘explosive’, similar to the nature of the shot we are teaching.
When teaching players to ‘cut’ the ball and add ‘spin’ I use the word ‘grip’ in a phase such as ‘get the strings to grip down the back of the ball’. I place extra emphasis on the word ‘grip’ to get my player to grasp the feeling of the strings hugging the ball.
In terms of teaching new skills or developing a player’s technique, so that it becomes instinctive, I have found particular success in asking them to perform the desired skill / action without the ball.
If a player cannot perform the desired skill without the ball, it doesn’t matter how clear your coaching points are, they will struggle to perform the skill once ball is added back in.
This is due to excessive stimuli in the environment, including: tracking a moving object, moving to the object, making a decision based on a variety of factors, and then executing the skill – not to mention potentially having an opponent on the other side of the court!
These factors all contribute to preventing the player from solely focusing on the skill, which is what we were aiming for.
This approach is training the player’s central nervous system, which ultimately coordinates, and influences all bodily movements.
It will allow players to make certain bodily movements instinctive, which is what’s required when players enter match-play situations and coaches cannot have a direct influence on decision-making and skill execution.
I’m a firm believer that coaches should be developing players so that they can make independent decisions under pressure when in a match. Addressing a player’s central nervous system in practice will mean skills and processes becoming instinctive and habitual.
I feel coaches could benefit from using shorthand commands with stationary practice to develop players who need to think, process and execute skills under pressure.
Conclusions: As coaches we are always going to make mistakes, but we can only rectify these mistakes if we are aware that we are making them!
Reflect on the language and commands you are using and ask yourself honestly if your players actually understand your instructions.
Keep Reflecting. Keep Improving. Keep Coaching.
Cheam Squash Club Head Coach
BSc Sport Development
UKCC Level 2 Squash Coach
Diploma Personal Training
Picture courtesy British National Championships