Like many coaches, I work with a variety of players. This includes older teens looking to make the transition to pro, juniors that are still honing their skills, seniors that want an edge and pros climbing their way into the top 100. On top of that, it’s a mix of females and males.
This get me thinking (and contemplating) - is my on-court and off-court feedback impactful? Is it driving change? Or impeding it?
Are you a high-performance player or coach? If so, this post is for you.
You see, I’ve coached in a number of high-performance settings. From academies, to federations and in private settings. One common characteristic that has struck me time and again is training schedules. The typical schedule sees players training Monday to Friday. On rare occasions, some take part in Saturday morning sessions - but this is certainly not the norm. As you can see, these settings follow the regular school and work week schedule.
But is it the most ideal option when developing an elite performer?
If you’re involved in tennis at any level, you’re like me, constantly searching for ways to help players learn and improve.
At the base, though, what is it that we’re trying to improve? From my perspective, it’s skills - the more skilled a player is, in theory, the better they’ll perform (although even skilled performers can underperform...but that’s a whole other topic).
As coaches, what do we do when young juniors misbehave? Or what about when they don't complete an intended drill? I’ve been around the game for a long time now. From academy settings, junior circuits, the pro tour and everything in between. And what kills me more than anything is players getting punished, either for poor behaviour or not achieving a specific task. Coaches yell, make players run, do push-ups, or suffer some other form of physical punishment. Is this really the best approach?
While there was a lot of positive feedback from last week’s post on blocked vs. random practice, there was also a bit of confusion. I suppose the term ‘random’ can be a bit misleading. To clear the air, this week’s post will attempt to clarify the supposed dichotomy between blocked and random practice and offer a slightly different perspective to the argument. Furthermore, there are 2 other forms of practice - called ‘variable practice’ and ‘constant practice’, which can be influenced by both block and random approaches. Lastly, several examples of each practice type will be offered and described, along with the 'why' behind their use.
Many experts in the field of motor learning believe that the way a coach interacts with an athlete, bears a tremendous impact on the improvements that athlete makes. These same experts, however, would argue that the organization of a practice is perhaps even more important than what a coach says to his/her athlete. Let’s assume that to be true for a moment. As a coach, would that change the way you look at your practices? As a player, would it affect your perspective when attempting to improve serve accuracy, for example?
The ability to respond quickly and efficiently to an oncoming shot, is perhaps one of the most important qualities a tennis player must possess. This ability is predicated on a number of factors including anticipatory skills, perception skills - picking up cues from the other side of the net, judging the ball appropriately etc. - along with physical qualities, one of them being reactiveness. Further to that, it helps when a player has tremendous change of direction (COD) abilities. Why? Because the player that can recover more efficiently after their previous shot, has a better chance to not only better 'see' the next shot, but also has the ability to respond to that shot with less ‘emergency’ - a term many coaches use.
What if I could tell you the secret to successfully winning more points and being more in control of a match? Would you want to know? Of course you would! It’s not a secret but sometimes, we look past it, forget about it or take it for granted. You must know the road ahead, because if you know what’s coming next you have an incredible power called Anticipation. Anticipation is the ultimate advantage! The first step in increasing the power of anticipation is to realize and affirm the number one body part that you'll use to play tennis – your eyes. The skill of shifting the eyes from what you just did - striking the ball - to noticing the body position and the racquet position of your opponent, is a critical one. The main reason we lose points and get beat is we fail to anticipate what’s coming next.
If you’re anything like me, you may often marvel at the game’s best players. As an observer, I often ask myself, "how do they make it look so easy?" Many of us probably wonder if it's possible for anyone to play at that level. Or if you’re a coach, you wonder if you can ever get an athlete to that level. Just for the record, I don’t believe in talent. Even considering the dominance (and brilliance) of players like Federer, Nadal and the Williams sisters. They all practiced (and practiced and practiced). This isn’t just opinion based, rather, it’s derived from a new-ish branch of motor learning called 'the science of expertise'.
Bend your knees. Use your legs. Turn your shoulders. Extend your elbow at impact. Flick your wrists. These are just some of the verbal cues that we’ve all heard countless of times. Notice any similarities? Let me give you a hint...the focus of these instructions are directed exclusively towards a body segment or part. Is this type of feedback relevant? Does it help improve technique and ultimately, performance? Let’s take one of these examples and break it down. 'Bend your knees'. How does a player interpret this cue? I mean how low should I bend my knees? Is a 90 degree bend more or less effective than a 100 degree bend? On which type of shot? Should one knee be bent more than the other? As you can see, this cue can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending on the athlete and the context.
This is a follow-up to last week’s article. This post will attempt to clarify the misconception that dynamical systems theory (DST) and nonlinear pedagogy (NLP), which for the sake of simplicity I will use interchangeably, are solely game-based approaches to coaching. To highlight this fallacy, we’ll define both open and closed skills - which is often a poorly understood topic in and of itself. Finally, we’ll take a look at the complexity of learning through the lens of fixed versus variable movement patterns - what they are, how they’re developed and why both are necessary qualities for skilled movement execution.
About 6 months ago I hired a weightlifting coach. You might be wondering why. There are 2 main reasons - first, he owns a gym less than 50m from my front door. Second, he was a national champion weightlifter in Cuba, national champion in Canada (in his late 30s), silver medalist at the World Championships, coached a world champion and has worked with many athletes from many sports around the World. Needless to say, I was intrigued.
Below are some of the lessons I’ve learned; in training, sport and life.