A training tip from the world of sports: tennis anyone?

It amazes me how many parallels there are between corporate skills training, such as communication skills for selling, negotiation, and managing, and the world of sports.  Sports trainers are generally more effective than we corporate trainers because they have the benefit of instant feedback when they teach a skill correctly.

When I’m not busy with my real job, I’m a pretty serious distance runner, and I spend a lot of time talking with other runners about training, coaching and teaching; how we adapt our behavior to improve, and also help others do the same.

One of my favorite running partners is also a professional tennis coach, and she told me this story about a successful approach she took in helping her students avoid hitting the ball into a dangerous spot on the court.  She had broken up the defensive court into three zones:  zone one near the net, zone two the service area a few feet in front of the baseline, and zone three the baseline area itself.

You tennis players know that during a rally you try to land the ball deep in the court near the baseline, which keeps your opponent back and restricts choices for return.  The most dangerous area to hit the ball is zone two, because it gives your opponent time to plan the return, and to move forward more easily into the ball.  She said, “Since this is where we like to receive the ball, it makes sense we wouldn’t want to hit it to our opponent there.”

But people learning tennis are often afraid to hit the ball long to the baseline for fear the ball will go out, so they hit it “safely” into zone two and then get hammered.  “No amount of telling them helped at all,” she said.  “Finally out of frustration, I came to the lesson with a bunch of beach towels and placed them on the court, covering up zone two.  Immediately, the balls stopped landing there.” 

I love stories like this, because they show how an effective instructor will come up with an imaginative way to make a teaching point.  Back in the days when men wore jackets to training, we would ask them to stand up, remove their jackets and then put them back on again, this time putting the other arm in first. Try this sometime. It’s fun to watch a bunch of grown men, who are used to putting their right arm into a coat first, put their left arm in first.  There’s a lot of hopping around, believe me.

We used to use this little trick to help people understand that they would get more comfortable with a new, strange behavior if they would agree to practice it over and over.  After all, how hard is it to put the other arm into the jacket first?  This is a good exercise and you can do it with just one person while the other learners observe.

As corporate trainers we have to be quicker on our feet to notice that a given training approach isn’t changing behavior, because we can’t always see how our learners perform when they get back on the job.  That’s why you have to keep thinking of new and better ways to teach.  Gimmicks, classroom aids, strange tricks and new ideas are necessary methods of instruction, to ensure we are getting through to people.

I’d love to hear some of your effective training techniques.  Write to me.

 Think Like Your Customer

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About Gregory LaMothe
I teach people how to sell things. I own the company ActionSystems. Visit my website at www.actionsystemstraining.com.

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