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Surviving the Disengaged

One of my coaching leaders sent me a dejected email yesterday.

Monday and Tuesday were pretty tough days given the lack of response from a lot of my kids.”

Andrew is an intense coach, committed to learning and giving his absolute best on the court.  He is constantly searching for ways to be a better coach with players of all levels.  He is upgrading his qualification this year.  He has approached every challenge with an absolutely positive mindset.  His disappointment in failure to engage the kids was deflating.

When discussing it with him I felt there were two issues at play.

  1. Engaging the Disinterested

This is the “I’m only here because I have to be” situation.  Andrew expects a lot from himself on court.  He was dispirited when his tennis kids failed to show the same energy.  But you can’t expect the kids to be as engaged as you.  They may only be here because a parent wants them to be; or have only a very short experience with the game and haven’t had a chance to engage with it.

If you get frustrated because you are working so hard to get a learning response, the child will sense it and potentially withdraw even further.  I understood Andrew because I recognised this in my own coaching behaviour.  “How can this kid be misbehaving when I am working so hard to give him a great experience?” Have you ever felt like this?

My advice to Andrew (and myself) was:-

  • Meet the learner where they are at. If they’re not engaged let them play the fun game and don’t force the learning down their throat.  Hopefully at a future time they will be engaged enough to absorb the key lessons.
  • Survive the moment. Don’t let your frustration ruin your day.  It isn’t personal.  It is just a disengaged kid.  Without letting them disrupt the class and keeping your standards of behaviour intact allow the disengaged to enjoy their lesson.
  • The evolved coach sees the non engaged child as a creative challenge, not a waste of time. Can you make learning happen without the child realising it?  Find an activity they do enjoy and create a way to weave it into your tennis lesson.


  1. Celebrating Every Victory

“The invention of the wheel was as big a step forwards as the invention of the airplane…coaches need to learn to be as genuinely pleased and excited by wheel inventors as by plane inventor.” Perhaps my favourite ever quote from educator John Holt.

When coaching young kids we need to celebrate when they catch the ball in a cone or when they hit an ace; when they pick up 5 balls or when they focus intently for a 1 hour private lesson; when they build and airplane or a wheel.

The learning journey is messy and is certainly not in a straight line.  But if you can celebrate every little victory you what learning looks likecan keep yourself sane (just).

Coaching kids tennis is not easy.  The coaches efforts might not be reflected in the child’s performance, especially from day to day.  And the principles of the evolved tennis coaches mean that the pay offs are in the long term.

Just remember the difference you are making.  The awesome responsibility of helping a young person achieve their best.   The child will remember every high 5, every fist pump and every pat on the back you give them after a mistake.



RufusRufus Keown is a member of the e9 Professional Development Team

He is Director of the Victorian Tennis Academy, in Melbourne Australia and a Course Facilitator for Tennis Australia.



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