Help Wanted: A Great Pickleball Coach
By Mark Renneson
There are a lot of great things about being a pickleball coach: you get to spend time with a sport you love; you meet new people; and you get to contribute to the success of others. But coaching is also really hard. You have to manage groups of people with diverse backgrounds, deal with a variety of different skill levels at once; plan lessons and attempt to execute them in a way that is safe and fun for everybody, etc.. For many pickleball players, it is a little unclear about whether they are going to be well-suited as an instructor. Here’s a handy guide that outlines some of the traits that prospective coaches might want to possess.
Must Be a People Person (or have the ability to fake it).
One of the most common misconceptions about coaches (of the PB persuasion or otherwise) is that more than anything else, they are teaching skills: how to hit a great drop; when to rush the net versus when to back up; where to stand when your team is stacking, etc.. This is one of the reasons that people (erroneously) assume that expert players will be effective instructors. The truth is that while a strong knowledge base is important, what matters more is that ability to get along with others in a way that is both respectful and fun. Here are some other key traits of good instructors:
can quickly make people feel at ease (a good joke or two is an asset)
ability to lead without being bossy
can empathize with the challenges players face — even those that seem ridiculous
knows when to back off (and when to get involved)
Must Be a Good — Not Great — Player
I know, I know. Someone can be an effective instructor without being an amazing player. And a great player may not be a good teacher. But here’s the thing: unless he has a permanent sidekick who will hit the balls for him, one of the jobs of a pickleball coach is to demonstrate what they want their players to do.
Whether it is hitting backhand volley with the right side of the paddle, or retrieving a lob from the other team, the instructor needs to be able to demonstrate those things competently if he is to convince his players that they are important. He should have a certain amount of physical/technical prowess if he wants to establish himself as an expert — or something approximating one. If the teacher can’t demonstrate these skills well, it is much harder for him to sell the notion that they are vital to effective pickleball play. So while I think that a less-skilled player can possess an incredible amount of knowledge, for them to be a great coach they need to up their own game first. It’s a tough reality but I think it holds true.
Must Be Able to Have a Broad and Narrow Focus
You know the saying: He couldn’t see the forest for the trees? It’s about what happens when a person becomes so narrowly focused on something (e.g. trees) that they fail to see how that particular thing fits into a bigger landscape (e.g. a forest). Pickleball instructors typically work in group settings where they have multiple students at once. One of the great challenges is to be able to attend to individuals without losing sight of the group as a whole. They must be able to focus narrowly in order to help a single person or team but also broadly in order to keep the group on track.
Excellent instructors can vacillate seamlessly between these two kinds of focus. They can make quick, impactful interventions with a single person and then quickly retract to observe the rest of the participants to make sure things are moving as they should. It is like a camera that zooms in for an important moment, and then pulls back to see how that moment fits into the bigger picture. Failure to move easily between a broad and narrow focus means that participants will get no individual feedback, or that the group’s overall rhythm, focus and flow is compromised as one or two people get a disproportionate amount of attention.
In the same way that being a strong pickleball player is the result of effort and deliberate practice, great coaches are similarly developed over time and with experience. I know that when I began my coaching career I struggled incredibly with many of the things I now find much easier: I had a tough time keeping my eye on the whole group as opposed to a single player; I wasn’t sure when to move the lesson forward or when to stay on a topic for longer; I kept running out of time!
But that was more than 20 years ago and before I put in tens of thousands of hours on the court. My point is that the best coaches I know are also the most eager to improve their skills — and to do the work needed to do so. They talk to colleagues, they get mentors and they constantly interrogate what they are doing and how they might make it better. It is a challenging endeavour for sure, but it is also an incredibly rewarding one.