Often in tennis, we talk about players being burnt out after a long season, or a long career. As we know all too well, the tennis season doesn’t really take a break. The professional tour pauses for around 6-8 weeks a year, but the lower tiers roll on, with only a couple of week’s hiatus before we re-load for the new season.
It makes sense that players will be burnt out. As a tennis fan, I’m almost done after the US Open in September. But what about the coaches out there? It was recently called out on Twitter by Magnus Norman, when he replied to another tweet.
He posted… ’Not many people talk about coaches health. We give energy everyday, nonstop for years. Occasionally, we run out of sources to dig from, and need to take a break…’
I couldn’t agree more. I coached tennis for 12 years. I loved it. There are countless positive aspects when performing the role of a tennis coach. I got paid fairly well as an hourly rate, I wasn’t stuck inside four walls, I was able to directly influence the enjoyment of tennis for others, and I was allowed to do a job that I am passionate about. All that taken into account, tennis coaching can be a deeply gratifying career move.
But it’s hard work. Anyone who believes it to be a glamourous, laidback, and pleasurable job every day, undoubtedly hasn’t done it full time for any lengthy duration. I have been lucky enough to travel in short stints on the professional tour, but 98% of my personal coaching journey wasn’t at the tour level, it was at the ‘grassroots level’. An assistant coach, a head coach, a school team coach. I can confirm Magnus’s comments ring very true with me, as part of the reason I gave coaching away, was due to burnout.
What is burnout?
In a nutshell, burnout is a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. There is a difference between the day to day worries of a job, and burnout, caused by prolonged and excessive stress. There is not necessarily one particular cause of burnout, but it is often the result of a number of factors, building up, until you feel overwhelmed, and like nothing you do is worthwhile, or appreciated.
Nearly all elite coaches began their journey at a grassroots/club level, so it is vitally important we do all we can to ensure more coaches remain in the industry for longer. If we don’t address the issues, the pool of talent gets reduced, which can’t be positive for tennis here in the long term.
Speaking with Head of Coach Education in Victoria, Paul Aitken, coach burnout is something that is spoken about regularly, and taking care of a coach’s physical and mental health is paramount to avoiding an early exit from the industry.
But how do coaches become burnt out, and how can we reduce the regularity?
Unfortunately, coaches can be particularly susceptible to burnout. Often a coach is working
on their own, day in day out. It can be a very autonomous job for those who don’t run a large club, or employ a team of coaches around them. For some, working on their own can be a dream, but for others, loneliness can set in, taking a mental toll.
Adding to the aspect of working solo, is the stress when injury and sickness inevitably strike. I tried to count just how many baskets of balls I have hit in my coaching tenure, and it came out somewhere close to 100,000! With 100-200 balls in each basket, we’re talking some huge numbers.
Personally, I struggled with wrist and arm injuries, but I wasn’t in a position to take paid leave to get things right. I was in a situation where I had to coach with my non-dominant arm for over a year until I could get surgery. Coaches furthermore have to be careful which sports and activities are undertaken away from the court. A broken leg playing football, or snowboarding, results in a big hit to their income stream.
Even just getting the flu, or a cold, is harsh. If you’ve ever tried coaching or teaching for 6-8 hours in a row, in the middle of winter, with a sore throat and a headache, you know what I’m talking about. Often there’s no one to fill in, meaning a coach will frequently have to battle
through, sometimes making their health worse.
Speaking of working hours, the hours a tennis coach has to do, to make a decent living, are not only tough on them, but tough on family life. You can pretty much lock in every weeknight from 3-8pm, meaning dinner with partners or children is non-existent. There might also be morning classes, followed by a period of time during the middle of the day, where there is plenty of admin to take care of.
Come the weekend, it’s either more coaching hours, travelling to tournaments, or convening with a junior team. In essence, most of the down time the average worker has, a tennis coach simply doesn’t.
A side effect of this, is that plenty of coaches don’t eat right, as they are skipping meals, or snacking throughout the day. Poor diet and eating habits can quickly turn into poor general and mental health.
But there are things a coach can do to make life easier. When talking to coaches about burnout, Paul Aitken is adamant that keeping yourself in good shape is the key. Not only physically, but mentally. Set aside breaks into your schedule to ensure you have time to eat well, and take a mental refresher. Try to finish earlier a couple of nights a week if possible, so you can get home to your family more regularly.
Paul also pointed out, ‘I think it’s very easy to get stagnant with coaching, and outgrow it pretty quickly. Unless you’ve got a good mentor around you, it can get tough’
One of the keys, is to surround yourself with a good team of coaches, or, as Paul said, a mentor you can lean on. Having someone to talk to is customary in most professions, but for a coach, often there is no-one. Seek someone out, whether it’s another local coach, a coach at your club, or simply someone to bounce ideas off. Basically, do what you can to ensure you aren’t the centre of everything, and achieve a sustainable work/life balance.
Paul mentioned another important idea for a coach to avoid burnout. ‘Mix up your stimulus.
Focus on something different every year. Perhaps one year put your focus on Hot Shots, the next, Cardio Tennis, or competition, player development. Variety is important’.
There are also other factors which can make life difficult for a sole proprietor. A coach is being paid to teach a player, or group of players. They pay to receive knowledge, and to trust that we, as professionals, know how to make them a better tennis player. A coach is responsible for what they practice, how they learn, how they behave on court, and often, facilitating them to become better people off-court.
Yet, is a coach really in charge? Should a player decide they no longer enjoy what their coach has to offer, they stop paying, and move on. Job security as a coach, just isn’t there. This is even more magnified at the top level, when a coach’s income may derive from just one player, and as Paul Aitken mentioned to me, ‘there is a lot of insecurity in a coach’s tenure’.
As coaches, we put our heart and soul into helping each and every player who steps onto our court. From time to time, we come across players who have untapped potential, and often, we’ll go over and above to make sure they get the most out of themselves. Extra sessions, travelling to tournaments, and even planning schedules for them late at night can be the norm.
We invest our time into them, only to ascertain a long way down the road, that tennis isn’t their priority after all. It can be deflating.
Those need to go under the heading of ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’. While it can be easy to take it personally, it’s imperative to just let it go. Clients will come, and clients will go. If you are strong in your convictions as a coach, and do the right thing by your players and peers, you need not worry about a few lost clients.
Of course, then there are the off-court items that need attending to, such as parents, and money. The majority of tennis parents are genuinely wonderful, and are usually tennis people themselves. But every now and then, there are those who clearly know more about tennis than the professional…at least, in their mind.
Nothing will split up a player/coach relationship faster than an overbearing parent who criticizes or undermines a coach. I think it’s fair to say, this can happen at every tier of tennis.
Something else that can transpire at all levels, is the stress of payments. I re-iterate, the majority of clients are great, and will pay on the agreed schedule. But there wouldn’t be a tennis coach alive who hasn’t had to chase players/parents for payment. It’s not an enjoyable aspect, yet at the end of the day, it is a coach’s principal source of income. Every so often I wonder if people don’t consider tennis coaching a legitimate job, which somehow, doesn’t warrant an income.
Setting boundaries early in their child’s tennis journey is essential. Everyone will have their own rules, but whatever they are, stick to them. Whether it’s a ‘no parents on court’ rule, or scheduling a time once a month where parents can sit down for an extended discussion, it’s important parents are heard, but just as important that they hear the coach’s perspective.
How do you know you are getting burnt out, or how do you spot a coach who is in danger of burnout?
Enthusiasm for the role is the clearest of indicators. One of the most challenging things for any sports coach/teacher, is staying enthusiastic, or ‘up’ for each individual lesson, and each individual student. If you’re in a good place, it’s not something that needs to be thought about, as the love for coaching and teaching will radiate out naturally.
But if, for whatever reason, a coach starts to waver, you’ll see it on the court. A coach who starts to lack self-determination, or self-motivation, will begin to economise with their energy levels, and take short-cuts with their coaching. A lack of enthusiasm, a ‘less fun’ environment, and lessons that have no variety in them, are a sure fire sign that something needs to change.
For the long term health of tennis in this country, and indeed around the world, it is so important coaches are looked out for, and looked after.
Without quality coaches, quality players wouldn’t exist.