As an academic writing tutor in college, I had the opportunity to work with students from various programs and schools within the university. One such group of students were those from a graduate program designed for working men and women who wanted to return to school after a long absence or hoped to switch career paths. I was 18 when I began tutoring these students, who were often the same age as my parents and professors. These students were intelligent and hard-working — but they struggled with concepts that seemed obvious to me. Why? Because much had changed in the decades since they last attended school. Learning how to do online research is difficult when you grew up finding information in books. Drafting an essay is challenging when the definitions of good writing and academic arguments have changed over the the last several years. Understanding the material is tough when previously held theories and beliefs have been called into question or rejected. So how did I teach my elders, the ones who were supposed to know more than me, in a way that made them feel at ease without patronizing them?
As a tennis coach, you will likely teach someone older than you. Like my students, your students may be doing something they haven’t done in a long time or they may be doing something completely new. In the period since they have been on the court, much has changed. Rackets were wooden, topspin wasn’t a thing and now you’re supposed to hit with an open stance? Yes, teaching an older student may have some challenges, but it’s also extremely rewarding. Here’s what you should keep in mind.
Before you begin working with a new student, you should always ask him or her about any previous playing experience, but this should never be a one-time conversation. When introducing a new concept, talk about what the student knows first. Say you’re trying to teach a topspin serve. Ask the student to describe what he or she has previously learned about serving, then explain adjustments based on his or her knowledge. If a student tells you that a concept you’re teaching is “not the way I learned,” it’s important to clarify why you think trying it this way will be beneficial. Although you are the teacher and it is your job to make corrections, sometimes you can forget the student has a voice, too. Listen.
If you’re used to coaching children, you may often find yourself amazed at how rapidly they learn new techniques. This may not be the case with older adults. If your student has taken lessons before and you want to correct something, it can be hard for them to un-learn what they have done for so long. It can also be physically impossible for an older person to execute some aspects of the game that you teach youth players. For these cases, you should always have a game plan to make accommodations for physical limitations. It’s your job as a coach to go at the pace that is comfortable for your student.
At first glance it may appear that the 70-year-old across the net from you is an intermediate player, but don’t make assumptions. I’ve met mild-mannered grandparents on the tennis court who were in halls of fame and won national titles. I’ve heard stories from women who played college tennis at a time when many colleges had just recently begun to admit women. You can learn a lot from your older students — and not just about tennis. This summer I met a former NFL player with a Superbowl ring who had recently gotten into tennis. What great stories about sports and coaching he must have! The ability to learn is in fact one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching.