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Two sides to every story: How to get the most out of your club’s adult performers

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Hollie Bees

THE BALL IS IN THEIR COURT: 'I push them as far as they sign up to being pushed,’ says tennis coach Hollie Bees on motivating adults in her sessions

  • Don’t underestimate the competitive nature of adults.
  • Players undergoing individual coaching may lack the confidence to take part in competitive matches. Coaches must work quickly to build their self-belief.
  • An awareness of what motivates each player should be a primary goal of every coach.
  • Team players brought up on a traditional style of coaching may struggle to adapt to a sudden shift in philosophy and behaviour from a new coach.

Understanding the hearts and minds of children is crucial if you want to inspire, nurture and influence their sporting development. 

Coaching children is, and always will be, a hot topic, and when it comes to advice on getting the most out of your young performers, it is easy to become swamped by the philosophies, tips, blogs and general coaching wisdom floating around cyberspace. 

Research theories and coaching master plans are a bit thinner on the ground when it comes to advice on maximising adult performance in a club setting but having an emotional connection with those you coach remains paramount. 

ConnectedCoaches member  Hollie Bees  – a Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) Level 4 Senior Performance Coach – argues that understanding what makes a bunch of adults tick can be even more complex and challenging than figuring out the impulses and motivations of a group of children. 

She highlights some important differences that exist between coaching children and adults that, once understood, and combined with more generic coaching principles, can help further the improvement and enjoyment of your members – from beginner level to advanced. 

Elly Moore  coaches netball at club and performance level. Like Hollie, she was also ambushed by a few surprises when she made the transition from coaching youngsters to also coaching adults. 

She is struggling to impose her constraints-led approach (CLA) coaching philosophy on to adults who have grown up and thrived under more conventional coaching methods. 

Their resistance to change is threatening the side’s chances of promotion to the National League. 

This article shows that, when it comes to achieving performance gain in adults across individual and team sports at club level, putting theory into practice can be easier said than done.

Surprise, surprise 

Hollie is the head coach at Claremont Tennis Club in Timperley, Altrincham. 

She played professionally on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) circuit, earning a WTA world ranking, before becoming a highly respected coach. 

After being selected for a pilot mentor scheme at Leeds Beckett University, she worked with high performance players and university teams alongside head coach Steve McLoughlin. 

She also spent time coaching in the United States before ‘jumping at the chance’ to take over the head coach role at Claremont – which boasts LTA Clubmark status and 200 members. 

‘I come from a performance background both as a player and a coach so when I went into club coaching, I wasn’t expecting the adult side (which she describes as a neglected market) to grab me quite like it has done,’ she says. 

‘I was surprised how motivated they were. As a high performance athlete, you know what it’s like to train hard, but for these guys to come in and train to a really demanding level, after a hard day’s work, came as a big surprise. It’s purely because they love tennis. Working with people so keen is very rewarding as a coach.’ 

Hollie applies a lot of the techniques used in her high performance coaching with the members at Claremont and is happy to debunk a few myths surrounding the coaching of adults. 

‘One of the things I like to do is to make sure it is challenging and demanding for them because I think they enjoy that. 

‘In some adult coaching I’ve observed, the assumption is that they have just come for a good time or a bit of a social get-together. Of course, they have, and that definitely needs to go alongside it, but most of them have also come because they like to train hard and they want to improve and they want to be fitter.’ 

Curb your enthusiasm 

While ‘salvation through suffering’ may be pushing things a little too far, Hollie was pleased to discover that most of her members want to test their limits. So how far is it advisable to push players? 

‘Asking a lot of questions is the key,’ she says. ‘Whether junior, adult or high performance, all training should be player-driven. They need to own it. Push them as far as they sign up to being pushed.’ 

Sometimes, Hollie finds herself urging individuals to dial down their enthusiasm as their desire to improve can begin to border on obsession. 

‘I think adults, in contrast to juniors, tend to be a little too hard on themselves. So sometimes, I’m the voice of reason in terms of saying to some of our first-team guys, “No wonder you’re injured, you’ve been training every single day after work for a particular match. Maybe tone it down a bit.” They can get quite tense about it so it’s just helping them get a good balance.’ 

It may seem something of a contradiction to say that, on the one hand, they are highly motivated and relish hard practice, but on the other, they lack confidence in their ability. But Hollie reveals that adults can need regular pep talks to build their self-belief and reassurance regarding the progress they have made. 

‘With coaching juniors, you find they almost want to run before they can walk. It’s the opposite with adults. When you ask them if they are going to play some matches, they will say, “Whoa! I don’t think I’m ready yet,” whereas juniors are, “Yes, yes, yes! When can I play a match?” 

‘I’m a firm believer in equipping people with the skills to actually go out there and play. This is especially true with adults. If they can’t go out and have a hit or a match with someone, they’re probably not going to stay in tennis because coaching is quite dry on its own. So I will teach an adult beginner as fast as I can the ability to rally and to serve, just so they can rock up to someone and ask for a game.’

Tennis coaching

FUN AND GAMES: It is important to strike a balance between having fun and methodical technical instruction

Club politics 

I’m interested to know what the different forms of motivation are in adults. A budding junior tennis player may have their sights set on being selected for a talent programme or to play at county level. For adults, that boat has long since sailed so do they instead swear by the f-words: fitness, fun and flab (losing weight)? 

‘The coach needs to use their intuition as to what each person is there for and should try to find out in the early days what is motivating them because people are there for all sorts of reasons,’ says Hollie. 

‘One guy, for example, loves to talk about technique and could do that for hours, and that’s great, but another guy just wants to hit balls for an hour so – as long as we keep him on track to make progress – I just stand back and don’t interfere, and he’s as happy as Larry. 

‘With juniors in groups you can often have a plan in tennis and more of a “one size fits all” approach because they are all a little bit more homogenous in terms of their goals. With adults, you can have a wide range of motivations, and it’s about making sure you cater for everybody. You can also have a wide range of abilities so being able to adapt your sessions so that all levels are catered for can be the challenge.’ 

A lot of members are motivated by the desire to rise up the team rankings, celebrating their promotion from third team to second team as if they have won the singles title at Wimbledon. 

Welcome to the world of internal club politics, where personal rivalries, power struggles and resentment at failing to make the team are continually simmering away under the surface.

‘You can’t underestimate the size of the club politics when it comes to progression up the club ladder but I try to stand back from that as much as I can and leave the team captains to it.’ 

A sensible approach indeed from Hollie, who adds: ‘I have talked with the captains to say how much reward you get in terms of loyalty and player progress if you are selecting based on commitment to team training and team practice as opposed to promoting a culture of picking the best player to win a match regardless of their commitment to training.’ 

Whatever the motivation of the player, or indeed the age group, Hollie agrees that coaching sessions must always have an element of fun attached to them. 

The need to strike a balance between having fun and methodical instruction is always in the back of a coach’s mind. 

‘Evaluating the mood of your sessions is important,’ says Hollie. ‘It’s the same whoever you are coaching. You can tell when people come through the door if they are here purely for enjoyment after having a hard day or if they really want to push themselves. 

‘I would hope, with all my sessions, if someone came and watched they would see some sections of it quite focused and technical and another section a bit more fun. 

‘What isn’t fun is telling them to hit hundreds and hundreds of forehands one after the other in a rally.’

Teething problems 

On to netball, and like Hollie, Elly’s game-plan when taking over the hot-seat at South Region Division 1 side Eagles Netball was to adopt the same style of coaching she employs in her role as a performance level coach working with the England Netball Performance Pathway and as Head Coach of Team South Tigers (Under-19s). 

But while this tactic worked a treat for Hollie, Elly has encountered something of a brick wall, and the plan has backfired. 

Made up predominantly of adults, the Eagles players are used to a coach ‘shouting out a continual stream of specific instructions from the sidelines’. 

For Level 2 coach Elly, who took over the Maidenhead-based Eagles at the start of this season, this approach contravenes her coaching principles. 

‘I am struggling at this moment in time,’ she freely admits. ‘Some of the players are a little bit older than I’m used to, and it’s a complete style change for them. 

‘I am a believer in empowerment coaching (making your players accountable for their actions and empowering them to be involved in the decision-making process). 

‘What I do not do, and have never done, is scream at the players on the court. For a start, how can I talk to players about dumping distractions to focus on their on-court performance and then be a constant distraction?  How can players truly enhance their game sense if, as coach, I’m giving them play-by-play instructions? 

'Because of the drastic difference in coaching styles and my seemingly restrained approach, some of the older players think I don’t care whether they win or not – they obviously don’t know me well enough to understand how much their success means to me.  And I don’t yet know them well enough individually to bring out a consistent performance.’ 

Think for yourselves 

There are four teenagers in the ten-strong Eagles squad – academy players who have been drafted into the side to give them senior club experience at a high standard. Aged between 15 and 18, they are familiar with the performance programme coaching style and have responded well. But her older players are seemingly reluctant to think for themselves.

Research undertaken at performance level shows that players learn best if they, and not the coach, are forced to problem-solve. Constraints-led coaching theory argues that the manipulation of constraints can induce performance-enhancing adaptive behaviour. 

Challenging yourself to come up with solutions to in-game problems can be a rewarding experience. But Elly has so far come up against apparent resistance. 

‘That’s how I coach,’ says Elly. ‘But the older ones just don’t seem to be able to respond. They are constantly looking to the bench for answers because that’s what they’re used to. 

‘If you’re a games player you should work things out for yourself. I tell them if they work it out for themselves, they will have a much better chance of retaining that knowledge than if I give them all the answers. 

‘One of my objectives in the training hall is to make it a place to be fearless: don’t be frightened to make mistakes. The faster you make a mistake, the quicker you learn.  

‘We are amazing in the training environment, but it’s as though they step back from taking any responsibility during a game.’ 

The upshot is that, at the time of writing, the Eagles had lost three out of their five games this season. 

‘We just don’t seem to be able to stick with the game-plan for the whole match,’ says Elly. ‘Or the players are waiting for me to yell out instructions, and I cannot respond like that. 

‘I’m happy to give reminders, tips and suggestions at quarter breaks or half-time, but we only have three minutes and five minutes so there’s not a great deal of time to be teaching technical skills and tactics.’ 

Elly says she became head coach on the understanding that players wanted to be coached in the same manner as those who attend performance netball centres. 

It was part of a grand plan to help the club win promotion to the National League. 

Winning the Netball South Division 1 Regional League this season will give them a shot as the regional champions compete in the National Play-offs for promotion to England Netball National Premier League Division Three. 

Out of her comfort zone 

Elly, then, is desperately searching for answers and players. Her tough baptism has been made even harder by players retiring and two falling pregnant. 

‘I appreciate it’s a female sport so I have to deal with pregnancies and women who struggle to get to training because of family or work commitments, but I’m not used to that because I’ve always coached under-19s and not adults. I’m out of my comfort zone in that respect.’ 

It means she is left with only ten players to cover every position, and as such, she has to tread carefully when it comes to employing strong-arm tactics to get the Eagles flying again. 

‘I feel I have to take a delicate approach when it comes to deciding how far to push them, as if one decides to walk away, I’m potentially stuck,’ says Elly. 

‘It’s strange because, in the training hall, the squad seem to have adapted to my coaching style and yet they want me to shout out instructions during matches.

'I’ve tried using different pre-match approaches: from setting individual, unit, and team goals, to asking players to visualise and feel a good performance, to talking through the difference between wanting to win and needing to win – how the former can release you to play fearlessly whereas the latter can make you fearful of mistakes so you play “tight” so as not to lose or fail. What can else can I try?’ 

With the clock ticking, time is running out for Elly to solve these coaching conundrums.

Hollie’s Top Tips

  1. Take time to know your players, avoid falling into a ‘one style fits all’ routine in your coaching.
  2. Get to know what motivates an individual: Why are they there, and what are they hoping to achieve? Make sure they know and you know.
  3. Understand your own strengths as a coach, but make sure you run sessions that give your players what they need, rather than just staying within your comfort zone – sometimes, as coaches, we need to push ourselves as well as our players.

Elly’s Top Tips

  1. Give the team controllable challenges: if we could control the outcome of a game, we’d win every time.  No-one makes mistakes intentionally; errors creep in when focus is lost – even momentarily.  Work with players to set performance goals for the game, not outcome goals, and this will give them their focus.
  2. Focus on a player’s strengths not weaknesses: a much better result can be achieved for both the individual AND the team. 
  3. Perseverance pays off in coaching – learn not to expect it to work first time.  Use self-reflection to find ways to tweak and tune your plans and strategies until they give you the results you want.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

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Comments (3)

Interesting read and some great points! It always come down to knowing your athletes....Coaching is coaching (without sounding flippant!)

You might find my blog 'Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks' interesting...... http://www.sportscoachuk.org/blog/teaching-old-dogs-new-tricks
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I think for Elly's situation perserverane is key. You're doing everything right, even if the group do not see it yet. I had a think what I would do in this situation and I think that first i'd chat to some other coaches like Jon above - his blog is well worth a read.

But then what i'd probably do is ask the group to outline what they feel a coach should 'have or do' in terms of skills, values and knowledge. Then ask them to think about and present back what they feel they best respond to in a coach, or teacher or leader.

I bet you that what they've outlined as a top coach and what they feel they respond best to is not the shouty sterotype - i'm thinking Class of 92 for those who saw that show! That then will help guide them towards seeing your way is the right way - Very Brian Clough in outcome, but without the fisticuffs or screaming first!
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Of course we've had chats and post-match debriefs and I will certainly ask the question suggested (thanks David T). I've been researching and am currently pondering on two models: Lizard or Learner (courtesy of Trevor Ragan - trainugly.com) and Chimp Management (Prof Steve Peters) ... is it that adults are more fearful of making errors and/or is the Chimp looking into the Computer and finding Gremlins or, even worse, Goblins??? BTW, Eagles had a good win last Sunday! Please keep the tips coming in.
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Congrats on the win Elly! If anyone is interested in more about the models of Trevor Ragan that Elly is referring to this is a great video from Trevor we shared recently https://www.connectedcoaches.org/spaces/10/welcome-and-general/video/robertkmaaye/talks/58/learning-how-to-do-it-better
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