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The Imitation Game – Watch what you do and say

My 5 year old son has reached a deep and wonderful obsession with tennis this UK summer. Fuelled by the blanket coverage of Wimbledon he is enthralled by an environment where interest in tennis is at an all-time high.


He will watch 2 points (3 at most) and then bound out into the garden to commence play.  Sometimes he will play a classic between the greats, “Daddy, its Federer vs Nadal and Federer is ahead 2 – 1,” he will announce earnestly.  Sometimes it is the flavour of the day, “Daddy, it’s James Ward vs Heather Watson.”


No matter, matches comprise hitting against the wall with the many obstacles of the garden and the tricky bounces of the lawn to contend with.  Of course this is England and he is frequently forced inside where he must create an imaginary match up, avoid the coffee table while running up and down the lounge room.  Not being able to use a ball inside is no obstacle.  Whenever he can he will harass his parents or grandparents into the cul-de-sac for his favourite match where only he knows the rules.


Observing this passion has been a delight; and enlightening.  It has highlighted more than ever that 10 and under kids are copycats, and they will pick up everything and anything.  It is to do with a phenomenon in the brain called ‘mirror neurons’ For example:-

  1. After watching the emotional Williams vs Watson match he has taken to celebrating every point he wins (real and imagined) with a swivelling fist pump…he is not yelling c’mon at his players box yet.
  2. Sharapova was on, he started grunting loudly for every shot. This was during an indoor session, so he was quickly shut down.
  3. When losing he started to scowl, swipe his racquet and mutter to himself under his breath…no swearing at his players box yet.


While he was imitating the techniques and movements he saw, it was the behaviours of the players that were making the biggest impression.


It is not just the TV the kids are learning from.  As critical adult role models in their lives, teaching them in a fun learning environment our attitudes, behaviours, language etc… are constantly being imitated.  With that in mind we need to consider everything we do on court, not just our feeding and demonstrations.


Be an energetic role model of action.

When on court be full of energy, demonstrate footwork activities at high speed and be involved in the rallies with your players at a motivating intensity.  If your energy is mediocre your players will sense it, and they will follow your example.


Give real and sincere appreciation.

Kids thrive on praise (don’t we all), but they will sense a fake straight away.  Learn to appreciate every little effort, “great try” or “better luck next time” won’t be enough.  Tennis takes a tremendous amount of skill and even in failure young players must coordinate a challenging combination of arms, legs, body and racquet.  Continually encourage and speak in positives to gift your players the ‘growth mindset’ to attack the challenges of the game.


Folded Arms.

As the leader of a team of coaches one of my biggest turn off’s is folded arms, usually over a racquet.  Although only small and just a habit, it puts up a barrier between the coach and their kids and shows disinterest.  Use your arms to demonstrate, gesticulate, be a ball person, clap, give thumbs up…anything but folding them.


Avoid using competitive language.

This starts with eliminating using the question, “did you win?” but most importantly includes not comparing your athletes.  “You should beat him; you’re better than her; you should try and serve like Sarah” are all phrases that should be removed from your language.  This is especially true for girls who most often feel uncomfortable in a coaching environment where players are always competing with one another, rather than building together as team.


Appreciate the profound impact you have.

We have a unique opportunity to have a positive impact on our tennis kids and their families and therefore the entire community.  Your little coaching program can be a safe and happy enclave where the simple goals of building skills and making friends are the priority.  If you approach your tennis coaching with the profound belief you are making a big difference then you will be a role model worth imitating.


So my son is not allowed to watch Nick Kygios at the moment.  As much as I enjoy Kygios’ talent, his behaviour, which most recently included tanking at Wimbledon and constantly arguing with the umpire and his players box is not the behaviour I want a 5 year old imitating.


Coaches Challenge

Get a tripod, or even a ‘gorilla grip’ and a recording device (camera, smart phone etc…) and record your coaching session.  Observe the behaviours you are demonstrating on court.  If you would like a formal evaluation tool check out the resources section below and print out the Coaching Skills Checklist to fill out while you watch yourself back.  Watching yourself coach (or doing most things) is confronting, but valuable.


Resources Section

Mirror Neurons – find out why mirror neurons are so important to the learning process for young children.

Growth Mindset – check out this recent video, visit the Mindset Works facebook page or even do yourself a favour and buy the book Mindset by Carol Dweck

Gorilla Grip – is a fantastic and versatile tool which helps you set up a stable camera position in any situation.

Coaching Skills Checklist – fill in this evaluation tool while you are watching your coaching video.


Rufus Keown

E9 Professional Development Team

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