Coaching Between Games

By Larry Hodges

Many players at tournaments often find themselves either giving or receiving coaching from another player or coach at some point. But just what does a coach (or player) say to a player between games? What magic words are spoken that transforms a losing game into an inspired victory?

If I had those words, I'd sell them for a lot of money.

Not having those words to give to you, here is the next best thing: what you can say to get the most out of the short time you have with your player between games. It might not transform your player into a member of the National Team, but it might turn a close match into a decisive victory. Or a decisive loss into a close victory.

Start by judging the player's emotional state. Is he too tense? Too lackadaisical? If the first, your first job is to calm him down. If the latter, you must psych him up.

If you are coaching an overly excitable player, make sure to be calm and relaxed when you speak to him. Speak slowly and clearly. Tell him to take his time, and just relax. If he is angry with himself, you have to get him to put it aside, maybe even say a joke to get his mind off whatever is bothering him. You have to clear his mind.

If the player seems lackluster, this doesn't mean you do the reverse and talk fast and excitedly. (An interesting idea, however!) Tell him to fight! Use your own emotions to psych him up. Perhaps be a little excited. Let him know that his match is important, and perhaps he will start to think so as well. Note that a player often wants to win a match badly, and wants to try hard badly, but cannot get himself up for the match without help. You are that help.

Now that your player is properly psyched up and/or calm and relaxed, what do you tell him? The basic rule is: Not Too Much!
If you fill your player's mind with ten intricate strategies for winning, all you've accomplished is confusing your player's mind. He's not going to remember all of that. It's best to decide the most important things, and forget the rest.

A good breakdown of advice between games would be one or two things about serving, one or two things about receiving, and one thing about rallying. Always keep it short and simple.

During a rally a player can't stop and think about each shot. The only time he can do that is when he is serving. Therefore, service strategy is the most useful strategy that can be given. It's also where you can give the most useful tips, and expect them to be understood. When receiving, a player is in a ready position, and so is also more ready to follow advice.

Service strategy can be broken down into two types: general serves and surprise serves. General service strategies are those that the player should use mostly, i.e. serve short backspin to the forehand and follow with a loop, or serve fast and deep and following up by hitting. Surprise serves are those that a player can use to get a "free" point, but can only be used occasionally, such as a fast down-the-line serve to the forehand.

Receive strategy is usually very specific. Should the player loop the deep serve? Against short serves, should the player flip, push short or push long? Should he return serves to the forehand or backhand side? When giving advice on receive, you can combine things, such as: "Loop the deep serves mostly to his forehand, and push most of his short serves quick to his backhand."

Rallying strategy is the hardest for most players to follow – they can't stop and think over what to do, and usually they're busy getting back into position, rather than being in a ready position as when receiving. Give simple and more general strategy, such as "Stay close to the table," or "Go backhand to backhand, and then suddenly down the line or to the middle." Or the generic, "Play aggressive!"

You can also combine tips. For example, you may tell a player to serve mostly short to the forehand or fast to the backhand, and follow the short serves with loops, the long serves with hitting.

Now for the clincher. Even if you don't have a coach when you play, you can follow the above and coach yourself between games! Break things down as shown above, and pretty soon you'll be your favorite, most reliable coach.