Coaching is like playing tennis…

I’ve recently been using this metaphor with mentoring clients, to convey how a coach engages with their client.

Metaphor is a direct form of communication, as it cuts through a lot of words and mental churn.

Through metaphor, our client connects more holistically to an internal picture that has movement, feeling, energy and sound. It’s a fully immersive experience!

As the poet Robert Frost is quoted as saying, “Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.”

Serving to your client

Imagine you are on a tennis court, and your client is about to receive a serve from you, their coach. You are serving them a question, where one of three scenarios occurs:

  1. You hit an Ace, meaning the question went straight by the client! They either didn’t understand the question, or it wasn’t a relevant question to ask them at that moment. Perhaps the coach was more present to their own thoughts of how to coach the client, than being observant about what was occurring ‘over there’ with the client.
  2. The client hits the ball back into the net. The question didn’t land with the client, so you ask a different question. Or perhaps inquire to the client, What’s happening for you right now? Then the coach hits the ball back based on where the client is in that moment.
  3. You hit a question over the net that the client is able to receive. It’s responsive to what the client is offering, yet it’s a bit of a stretch toward their backhand side. Their response lets you know they enjoyed the ‘stretch question!’

Playing from the back of the court

Once you’ve served a question (or it could be a comment or observation) to your client, you are ‘in play.’ The coach asks a discovery question, using the client’s language to craft a customized question. Or maybe offers an intuition for the client to consider. The coaching session is moving along well, with the coach responding, whether the client hits a backhand or forehand shot, and wherever they are on the court.

There’s now a nice flow between coach and client, where the coach is responding to what the client is saying, and inquiring into what they’re not saying. This can be offered by the coach in the form of a sensing such as, “When said that, there was a drop in your energy and I sense something about that question didn’t land well with you. But what’s your experience?”

Moving to the net

At some point, the coach interrupts the client instead of letting them fully express themselves. This is like coming into the net, where hitting the ball back happens much more quickly than from the back of the court. Sometimes the coach stays at the net, quickly hitting back a question to the client, and then another one, and another question.

It might be the coach has moved out of Presence and into what I call, “solving the client.” The spaciousness is gone, which is an important characteristic of MCC skill level coaching, in fact all coaching levels. The coach might now be mentoring, teaching, guiding, or problem solving.

This might become exhausting for the client to keep receiving one question, then a suggestion, then a comment, another idea from the coach. Then an interruption as the coach has a thought they can’t wait to share. The client might enjoy receiving ideas from the coach. The downside of this approach by the coach is the client doesn’t first develop their ability to connect to what they already know. They are busy doing a lot.

Imagine your client has a weak backhand stroke, which might equate to a weak ability to pause and reflect to consider what they already know, what’s important to them, how they feel about a situation, and what drives and motivates their actions. The coach can really support the client by first drawing out the client’s inner knowing and self-knowledge they might not know they have.

The client can then gain confidence from this awareness building coaching approach, then more easily consider how to use that self-knowledge in a way that resonates with them. This is much more preferable than the coach playing a ‘lob’ – giving their unsolicited idea, resource, or suggestion. The first thing we want to do is support the client to develop trust in their backhand.

Using the entire court

A fully aware coach understands when it’s time to come into the net, and when to move back to use the whole court. We all have our preferences of how we coach, based on coach training models, cultural norms, and what we believe we need to do to be ‘seen’ as a successful coach.

Often, each coach does what’s easiest for them. Maybe they default to hitting a forehand, or staying at the back of the court, too afraid to get ‘up close’ to their client with a net shot. Maybe the could risk coming into the net, like asking a question about what emotions are present for them as they speak.

We want to use the full range of the tennis court with our client and adapt our game to how the client is playing.

Imagine what is possible when we give our client the spaciousness of the full court to play in. This is a different approach than the coach imposing their ‘game’ on the client. This is the realm of mastering coaching skills, and trusting them. Our mastery is not in showing how good our coaching game is, but rather in our Presence to how to use our coaching skills to draw out the client’s best game.

In closing….

Entering the client world through metaphor or visual language is a very engaging and fun way to explore with your client. While I’ve presented the idea of coaching is like playing tennis, even better is asking the client what metaphor resonates with them. You could offer them the tennis metaphor, and ask them if they have one of their own they’d like to use instead. Or start with asking them what’s a metaphor for what they’re facing, and take it from there.

Consider where you like to play on the coaching court, metaphorically speaking. Where do you prefer to stand on the court? How much of the ‘court’ do you use in a coaching session? How much space do you give yourself to be a masterful coach?

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2 thoughts on “Coaching is like playing tennis…

  1. Great article and inspiring use of the tennis metaphor!
    Makes me think Australian Open
    ( you are Australian and open!)
    Thanks Carly

    1. Thank you Julia! I have a big smile and a warm heart from your comment. I’m enjoying the amazing talent on display at this years Australian Open. A very exciting time in tennis. I’m now a fan of Katie Boulter after watching her in the Hopman Cup. And Cameron Norrie too! Both seem like nice people too.

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