Be careful of “Why” questions when…

A type of question to consider carefully is Why questions. Why questions are fantastic after a positive experience or the player having done something really well. But the minute you say: “Why did you throw your racket?” or “Why did you behave that way?” – especially teenage kids will deny it.

They will go: “I didn’t throw the racquet three times.” They’ll justify it. “Oh, well, he made a bad line call or annoyed me” or “Well, my favorite player throws his racquet, so why can’t I?”. So, it’s downward rabbit hole spiral. Just be mindful of it.

Adapting your coaching style to different players

On a trip in 2018 with the Australian Junior Fed Cup team I (Emma) found that I had three completely different personalities.

So essentially, I had to bring out the best in the team. I had to change who I was.

So, for example, one of my players, she was from far north Queensland, top out of Australia, and she’s so casual and she’s so relaxed. At the change of ends it almost looks like she’s sort of lying down. I have my chart and my notepad. And she’s like: “Coach, you don’t need that.” I got my pen and chart and then I was like “Oh, I don’t need that” And I put it down.

The next player where half Russian, half Australian. Yes. She’s like “Come on” and in a little more in your face. So, I was up and down, off my chair.

The third player she was 6-0, 0-6 and who would know what would happen in the 3rd set. So, I had to be like a flatline.

The reasoning I mention this story is that I think even though I’m an extrovert and I’m fun and I’m energetic that wouldn’t have brought out the best in all three of those players if I was myself. So, at the end of the week it’s almost like, I have multiple personality disorder.

At the end of the day, they didn’t really care what I knew. They knew that I cared. I cared through the accountability of the value, the incredible raging elephant. Once you get buy in from the players to create the behaviors, then as the coach, the accountability is so much easier. How do you think we went with improvement today? Did we do our charting or whatever it might be?

We all need to do a better job on how we coach female players and language, is number one.

Female Empowerment

In 2018 I (Emma) was the Australian Junior Fed Cup coach. It had been a long time since last time I had been out with a junior national team. I’d taken sort of 20 Aussie junior teams away. Now all of a sudden it was kind of 10 years later. I’ve been given this opportunity to take another team away and I haven’t done it in so long.

Last time I took a team away, there were no mobile phones. Especially not on the dinner table, etc. And I thought, well, rather than come in and give all these rules and tell these 16-year-old girls, I’m the coach and you need to listen to me. We ended up doing a values session. So, we’ve got all these cards and they’re all spread out on the floor and each of the players and me. And we had one of the support percent chose three values each. Then we did a voting system and then we came up with a really funny acronym for the team.

So, we were the incredible raging elephant. We stood for improvement, respect and enjoyment, and then they created the behaviors of improvement. So, what we’re going to be the behaviors around improvement. For example, one of the things around improvement was that we were going to scout our PNO, our potential next opponent. So, Improvement was one of the players would chart one of the players we were next going to play against.

Respect. We had to ask the Malaysian Uber drivers one question about culture each morning.

Enjoyment. We had the same playlist. We had no mobile phones at breakfast, lunch and dinner, not even on the table. And I took them overnight as well. We also visualized every morning on the top floor of the hotel just a short visualization, and we had breakfast in the morning before any other country. So, we’re always, no matter what time, whether we’re first on a second on.

when then I was caught with these certain players, what I found was that I had three different, completely different personalities.

Direct vs indirect coaching

As coaches, we live along the continuum from being direct to indirect. Being direct essentially means who’s making the decision within the learning environment. So, if I’m (Emma) being direct, then the coach is making the decisions for the player. If you’re working with a bunch of five-year-old’s and say “Come over here and place your toes on the white line” that is a direct command. Which is much needed for a group of five-year old’s and in terms of instruction. So, I’m not saying one is better than the other, but obviously that direct command is what comes naturally generally to most coaches.

I’d say 80 percent of the coaches do not need to learn direct commands as a tennis coach, that’s what they’re pretty good at, naturally. On the other end of the continuum is the indirect coaching style, which is where the student is making the decisions. Within the lesson, the coach potentially sets up a great learning environment and then the player is allowed to explore and what that the benefits of that are is unlocking the cognitive and what’s called the effective domain, which is the enjoyment. Because if the child has to think and try to solve problems and work it out, most kids, especially in Western culture, very much enjoy that process. They’re encouraged to do it because that is how they are they learning these days on their tablet, on the phone playing Minecraft and these games where they have to do the decision making and the thinking by themselves.

So, it’s so much a part of our world that if we can tap into that and unlock that in tennis, I’m a huge believer in that. So basically, having this knowledge of direct versus indirect and knowing that when we practice being more indirect, this is how we really can help to unlock the decision making and the learning within the player, which is essentially our sport.

That’s how we strengthen the coach or the inner voice. Let’s be honest, our ultimate goal, I always say, is to make ourselves redundant.

And yes, we may still stay in contact with our students. And certainly, my highlight of my career is when I attend a wedding or even watch one of my ex-students give her father’s funeral speech. Those are the moments that really excite me to see them as adults and be able to use this voice to help them, no matter what they do in their life. And build that character is the ultimate job for me as a coach. So, I think the more we can practice those indirect skills is absolutely critical to our ability to unlock the learning within the player.

When a player does something great on court…

There’s a great coachable moment

You may say “Hey, next time you get that same ball, what’s one word or one feeling that helps to get extra height or help you get the spin that you needed to create?”


“Can you summarize that in one word or one feeling?”


“Can you tell me in your own words exactly, precisely or specifically?”

I (Emma) love those words because when a player walks out onto the court and you ask, what are your strengths? And they say: “Oh, I don’t know, forehand or something like that”.

That typical teenager 12 to 15 age sort of response. Whereas if you say, can you tell me what specifically about your forehand makes it a weapon for you, then they’ve got to peel back the layers of the onion or you as the coach, you keep asking that question to peel back and get to the core of what the forehand does. When I move around and hit my insideout forehand with shape, what it does is it pushes the other player off the court and then it creates that opportunity for me to transition to the net. For example, if that’s my style of play.

Why you should use future based questions

I (Emma) got really quite burned out from coaching tennis. I couldn’t understand that I was only relating to half of my players. How was it possible that I could bring out the best in these players and not in those. I wasn’t quite sure why. After studing emotional intelligence and Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) I found the concept of coaching someone without being aloud to tell them the answer. All of a sudden it’s about asking the question that unlocks the learning within the player.

I highly recommend that tennis coches try for fun to have a lesson where they are not allowed to give direct commands. It’s really difficult.

Sir John Whitmore belives that it’s more important what goes on inside the head than what goes on outside, inspired by the Inner Game of tennis. When I heard about that I started exploring how to unlock the learning from within by questioning the players.

When I then got back to tennis I had from previous tactical and technical concepts, but I now also had tools around communication.

I started noticing when I used past- and future based questions.

Noticing that players would shut down when I said: “Why did you miss that ball?”

The player will then tell you a long list of reasons to justify why they missed the shot. As a coach you will nod at their answer, but that only cements what they did wrong – that doesn’t help them with what to do differently next time.

The minute you ask the player a future based question you point their attention towards the future and what to do.

My all-time favorite tip is the 2 words: “Next time”. “Hey, next time you have got that same ball…”. The future based question allows the players to move on and think about the future rather than dwelling on the mistake they just did.

To listen well…

You have to ask great questions. Asking great questions starts from the point of curiosity about the learner.

Remember that power of the pause.

Take care of the filler words, you can show your passion in other ways.

Another tip when working with introverted players really need to think. Sometimes the learning doesn’t sink in until the next day or the next lesson. So, I (Emma) love the question “When the time is right for you, can you come back to me with a way that you could describe that in your own words” and then when they’re ready, there’s real beauty in that as well.

One type of question to avoid is what I call memory recall question. So, a coach will say “Hey, make sure you turn before the ball bounces. That’s absolutely fantastic coaching instruction. The coach would then say: “Hey, remember, what you have got to do by the time the ball passes? And the players correctly remember “Turn” but oftentimes all the player is simply recalling what you said without them unlocking the learning and problem solving when the shoulders need to be turned in relation to the bounce of the ball as in as an example.

Another type of question to consider carefully is Why questions. Why questions are fantastic after a positive experience or the player having done something really well. But the minute you say “Why did you throw your racket?” or “Why did you behave that way?” – especially teenage kids will deny it.

They will go: “I didn’t throw the racquet three times.” They’ll justify it. “Oh, well, he made a bad line call or annoyed me” or “Well, my favorite player throws his racquet, so why can’t I?”. So, it’s downward rabbit hole spiral. Just be mindful of it.

#100: Emma Doyle – To really listen, you have to ask great questions


Hi guys, In this episode you are going to listen to Emma Doyle. Emma has been coaching for the past 30 years. She is a Tennis Australia High Performance Coach, tennis touring professional and a talent developmental coach. Emma is big on what she calls the “E-factors” Energy, Empathy and enjoyment.

You’ll get to know:

  • How to use future based questions
  • How to use sticky language
  • When to use direct- and indirect coaching

Enjoy the show!


01:30 What makes a great tennis coach
04:00 Listen
06:30 Future based questions
12:00 Sticky language
14:45 Direct vs indirect coaching
21:20 Questioning
25:00 WTCA
26:30 Team values
30:00 Habitual words
30:45 Keep knocking on doors and don’t take it personally
31:45 The importance of cringing
32:40 It doesn’t matter if you have the prettiest technique
34:30 Tennis exposes who you are
35:00 Gamification and anchoring

36:30 Emma’s inspirations

38:00 Emma’s advice to players, parents and coaches

40:15 How to get in contact with Emma