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The Power of Coaching with Empathy

Harrison arrived at his tennis lesson and from the moment he hopped out of the car he was in a frantic state.  Parents who have dropped their children at Kindergarten will be familiar with the scene.  Hysterical screaming.  Mum desperate for him to do tennis.  Coaches attempting to coax him onto court.  Child hyperventilating and acting irrationally.  Mum on the verge of tears.

Eventually he collapsed on the ground at the side of the court.

We are very fortunate to have coach Carrie on our team.  She seems to have a magic touch in these circumstances.  She sat down next to Harrison and began talking gently to him.  She bought over two friends who were with him for the day and reassured him that he didn’t have to play and could just watch.  Patiently she spoke to him and eventually he picked up his racquet and allowed her to lead him onto court.

15 minutes later he was so fully engaged in the lesson it was hard to reconcile the earlier scene.  The fun he had at his lesson was wonderful to see.  If it wasn’t for the empathy Carrie had shown he would have gone home with his stressed out mum and reinforced his separation anxiety and fear of new experiences.

Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings or difficulties.  It is a critical coaching skill, and a skill we need to use everyday in our dealing with our tennis kids.

Consider the next two examples:-  (To compliment the 5 year old’s tantrum)

  • The 10 year old girl who has had a fight with her best friend at school. She is withdrawn and unresponsive in her lesson.  Normally incredibly bright and cooperative she is ruining your lesson by missing every second shot.
  • The 9 year old boy struggling with self confidence as he is weaker than his friends. He is desperate to stay with his friends but has resorted to playing the class clown to hide his feelings of inadequacy.

In the first example we need to understand just how important friends are to a young girl’s well being.  If her social life is not in balance everything else will suffer.

In the second example we have to realize competitive “one upmanship” rules the life of a boy.  Boys will try all sorts of strategies to gain a foothold and cement their confidence in this game.

In both example’s how we act can have a dramatic bearing on the mindset of the child.  Their mindset towards you and towards tennis.  If we lose our temper (and let’s be honest we have all done this in the face of misbehaving kids) we may be able to get a short term improvement.  But, we may miss the chance to make a real difference in the child’s life.

That is the power the tennis coach has.  A major adult role model in the child’s life capable of making a tremendously positive impact on their development.  Helping them develop physical, social and life skills that will serve them well in all parts of their young lives.

The power of empathy is in getting down to the child’s level and finding out what is troubling them.  To ask how they are feeling and if there is anything you can do.  To slowly bring them to be fully engaged in your class.  To show you understand that everybody has a bad day and that being resilient and positive is the best way to deal with a bad situation.  If the child knows you will be there to help them, it will give them huge confidence to adopt this mindset.

A practical strategy to embrace the power of mindset is to greet every student at the beginning of the lesson with enthusiasm “How are you feeling today? How was school?”  You will unlikely get the full story, but you may begin to sense something is not quite right.  You have also opened up the lines of communication and encouraged them to see you as an ally as they navigate their way through their childhood.

If you are the leader of a coaching team, extend this empathy to your coaches.

Firstly, these are the people who will be representing your business and it is critical they feel they are working in an environment that promotes empathy.  Most importantly these (often young) coaches will face the same difficulties as your tennis kids, exhaustion juggling exams and work; financial pressures to pay the rent; or facing  challenges in their relationships.

Be a real leader and make sure your team knows they have the support of their work mates.



Great further reading to help you better understand kids at different stages of their development include:-

  • “The Cheers and the Tears” by Shane Murphy; and
  • “Raising Boys” and “Raising Girls” by Steve Biddolph
  • Anything by Brene Brown…
  • Short Youtube Animation (2 mins)
  • TED Talk (20 mins)
  • Any of her books, “Rising Strong” is her latest, while “Daring Greatly” and “The Gifts of Imperfection” were best sellers.



conferenceRufus 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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