Coaching: Lateral or Vertical Structure?

Rowden Fullen (1980’s)

It never ceases to amaze me when I tour the tournament scene and talk to top cadets and parents, that many of these young and in some cases very young players have achieved so much, so quickly, often with little or no technical backing. It should perhaps be emphasized that I refer to youngsters ranked in the top twenty, in some cases in the top ten in the country!

Is it not understandable that so many good prospects do so well at cadet level, even play nationally a couple of times, only to fade away into oblivion as they get older? It would be an interesting exercise to make a list of the top-10 cadets in any country in Europe over the last 15 years, to find out just how many out of the 150 have played more than three times at senior level (or even to see how many are still playing as seniors)! I think most countries would be appalled at the wastage figures! I am not saying that there are not other good reasons why teenagers give up or give less time to our sport. I am saying that lack of good technical coaching in the formative years coupled with a clear path of development, can cripple the youngster’s chances of real achievement at senior level.

Do not get me wrong on another front either. The close family approach to the game, with the sharing of organization, planning, coaching and corner work is something I very much approve of — this is the development of the artistic, the deeper side of coaching within the family unit; where we have total trust, advice, motivation and encouragement are readily accepted and acted on. What does concern me is that in-depth technical attention is not available in sufficient quantity or quality, at the period in the child’s development when he or she is most susceptible to the learning situation. I see young players 10 – 12 years old doing things which should be ruthlessly stamped out if they are ever to be competent seniors, I see many glaring omissions and above all I see limited guidance towards an end-style which will be effective at senior level. I even see players being developed with techniques which manoeuvre them into a cul-de-sac from which there is no way to progress further.

Equally at a rather higher level, at county, regional or even national sessions there appears to be in many cases a shelving or an over-assumption of responsibility. I hear remarks such as – ‘Once a cadet has reached top-20 standard their style is set, it’s not up to us to change things.’ Presumably this means that if a 9 year old girl is in the top 10 because she plays with long pimples and has a serve the other cadets can’t return, then all further technical development should be written off and she should progress as and where the mood takes her!

Or coaches go the other way even at national level and I hear talk of how well ‘my player’ is doing, this from someone who sees them all of two weeks a year and has very little input into the actual development of the player. Unfortunately because of our system of development and selection in Europe far too often young impressionable players come into contact with too many different coaches and too many different ideas.

Some years ago I started telling players, even those I coached, not to listen too much to trainers and coaches, even myself. Ask questions all the time, don’t just do things, be critical and ask for reasons. As I said to them if a coach doesn’t know why you are doing a particular exercise and how it is of benefit to you with your way of playing, then why should you waste your time listening. Since then I have had feedback from several players who now play professionally in Europe. They are not very popular with many coaches but as they say – ‘ The head coach treads very warily now when I train and has started to think more about the training and even asks me what sort of multi-ball I want for my particular style!’ Another player said to me — ‘I’m going to give our national coach the benefit of the doubt and believe that he’s got too much on his plate and too many players to look after. The alternative is to believe that he has never really known anything about coaching players!’

I think that much of the difficulty is that the vast majority of coaches think of the process of coaching as a lateral rather than a vertical structure. Just what do we mean by this? We mean that they tend to see the development of a talented youngster as best served by a series of steps where the player is uprooted at each stage and passed on to a new and supposedly more senior or more experienced coach. (Many parents or coaches would in fact be quite horrified if they knew just how little thought had often gone into the selection of these ‘more senior’ coaches and in many cases just what qualifications and experience they actually had!) What many people fail to appreciate is that there is little motivational continuity and little stability of development with this and each change requires an adjustment to a new situation. Players are after all people and not robots and in my opinion stability especially in the case of the young and often in the case of girl players (even of an older age) is of particular importance. I would suggest rather than being beneficial, such a system slows down progress!

The vertical structure as I see it provides a much sounder base for advancement where the young player proceeds through the various levels of the one club gaining stature and maturity as he or she does so. This tends to be the system in the bigger clubs in Europe where the young ‘gladiator’ comes to train and to hone his or her skills against the established stars. The unfortunate aspect is that we have far too few top clubs where this can be achieved. This type of system does occur in other sports, athletics for example, where the national, Olympic or World Champions regularly return to train with and run for their own club. The thought does not seem to occur to them that they may perhaps be too good for this sort of involvement or that there may not be too much in it for them, rather they seem to have an ingrained loyalty to their roots which we might do well to look to in our own sport.