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).
This post isn’t about the ‘how’ of skill development but rather a look at the definitions and classifications of skills. It’s my belief that all coaches should have an understanding of the underlying science of ‘motor learning’ before being able to design practices and training sessions that effectively target the vast array of skills needed to perform at an elite level.
The aim in this article is to define the concept of ‘skills’ - detailing their classifications and providing examples from varying tennis scenarios.
What are Skills?
In Motor Learning and Performance (2014) Schmidt and Lee define skills as:
“The ability to bring about some end result with maximum certainty and minimum outlay of energy, or of time and energy”.
**NOTE - this definition relates to all types of skills of daily life - including walking, cooking etc - along with skills that relate to sporting activities (the area of concern for us).
This in itself is an interesting definition - and to better understand it, we should consider some of the components that skills are made up of. For instance, the end result refers to some sort of goal a player is aiming to satisfy. In tennis, an example would be to execute a wide slice serve on the deuce side.
Given this, it’s quite apparent that skills are made up of movements - Schmidt and Lee argue, however, that movements themselves are not skills. For example, he might say the arm action during a groundstroke isn’t a skill, it’s one movement...but all the components that make up a groundstroke (including the movement of the arm), is a skill. Can you pick out the difference?
Next, the definition states that the movement must be performed with maximum certainty. So for instance, if I serve out wide on the deuce court but can only execute, on average, 2 out of 10 attempts, I’m not skilled in bringing about this end result (when/if it goes in, I’m lucky). Thus, according to Schmidt and Lee:
“To be considered “skilled” requires that a person produce the skill reliably, on demand, without luck playing a very large role.”
Back to our serve example - on tour, players who have 1st serve percentages in the 60s are considered effective...we could say that they are ‘skilled’ at executing that task. In practice settings, however, my analyses have shown that an 80% first serve percentage would be considered ‘skillful’ (because of match pressures, fatigue, potential environmental conditions etc., serve percentages in competition will always be lower). It’s up to the coach, however, do determine what ‘skilled’ means in their specific setting according to the level, age etc. of their players.
Another component of skill is the ability to perform the desired task with a minimal amount of energy. While the most obvious feature of energy conservation is physical, we underestimate cognitive and emotional forms of energy that are also required to perform complex tasks. Which is why athletes should be working to reach something termed the autonomous (or automatic) stage of learning (another topic we’ll discuss in a future post).
Roger Federer comes to mind here...the efficiency of his strokes & movements along with his calm demeanour - especially under pressure - aids his skill expression in wide range of conditions and for extended periods during matches, tournaments…
By this point, you should notice that stroke mechanics aren’t skills - the varying aspects that make up a stroke contribute to the skill of hitting an effective forehand, for instance (which can help augment that skill). But the mechanics themselves - which are made up of movements - are not skills. It’s my belief that players should spend a bit more time on ‘skills’ training versus ‘technical’ training.
The Key Elements of Tennis Skills
It’s no surprise that skills are realized by a combination of both mental and motor processes - in other words, we cannot separate the mind from the body and vice versa.
While I’ve mentioned the following in previous posts, I will use Schmidt and Lee’s words to reiterate it here. Every shot in tennis depends on:
Perceiving the relevant environmental features
Deciding what to do and where and when to do it to achieve the goal
Producing organized muscular activity to generate movements that achieve the goal
For instance, when receiving a shot from an opponent, we’re trying to detect as many features as we can - where is the shot heading, how much speed/spin/height etc. is on it, along with many others. From there, we have to make a decision - where do I play the shot in order to be in the best possible scenario for the next shot - can I attack, am I defending etc?
Now, even if we fulfill the first 2 criteria - we perceived the oncoming shot effectively, and made the appropriate decision - did we execute the shot? I.e. did we meet the desired end goal? In tennis, this in itself is a feedback loop as many shots could be played within one point.
From a coaching perspective, there are obviously many complex features that we must analyze in our players, and then practice them, in order to satisfy each component as best as possible. A young junior, for example, may not perceive the depth of the ball very well - and while they might recognize that a short ball is an opportunity to attack, if they do not move forward quick enough, they may have trouble attacking effectively. Perhaps they are still attacking but with the ball impact point at their feet rather than their shoulders - so this is where we would have to start!
Once they are able to recognize the features of the oncoming ball - and in this case move up effectively to meet the short ball at the right height - we’ll have a chance to see if they organize their body and produce the necessary movements to effectively carry out the skill of ‘attacking’ a short ball (the execution part of the process). But if we train the attacking ball first, we’re missing many items that make up the skill as a whole (the forehand strike in itself isn’t the only part of the skill!).
What Skills Define Tennis Play?
If you’ve been around tennis, surely you’re aware that, it’s largely an open skill sport - especially when compared to something like a 50m swim in a lane. According to Schmidt and Lee, “an open skill is one for which the environment is variable and unpredictable during the action.” while a closed skill is “one for which the environment is stable and predictable”.
Open and closed skills, across a variety of domains, are not, however, black and white - they lie on a continuum. Gentile (2000), broke down the skill of batting (as in hitting a pitched ball in baseball) into 16 categories - ranging from completely closed to completely open. On one end of the spectrum, we have a batter hitting a ball in a practice setting off of a tee that is positioned at the same height for every trial (closed skill). On the other end of the spectrum, we have a batter hitting a ball thrown by a pitcher in a real game setting (open skill).
In tennis, this is also apparent. A simple example would be a player hitting a forehand from a stationary position, in which the ball is dropped from the same height on every attempt (closed) versus a player hitting a forehand in a match setting, where the various features of the ball and the intended target, are unknown, and movement is involved (open). Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, we would have an environment - that Schmidt and Lee called - semi-predictable. An example of this type of scenario would be 2 players in a forehand rally exchange during a practice. The players know that the ball is coming crosscourt (predictable) but may not know the exact features of the ball - spin, speed, depth, height, direction - (unpredictable) which would make this drill semi-predictable.
According to these authors, practices that favor more unpredictable (open) environments, have better transfer to competition. Makes logical sense doesn’t it - especially considering the principle of specificity? That doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and a place for predictable & semi-predictable practices/drills but it’s a matter of positioning them appropriately based on the athlete’s needs, time of year, training plan etc.
Another way to classify skills…
There’s another way to classify skills - which deals more with the inherent characteristics of the movement. For instance, a forehand stroke in and of itself, has a definite beginning and end (from the set-up position all the way until after the ball is struck). This would be classified as a discrete skill. On the other end of the spectrum, we have what are called continuous skills - running and swimming are examples here - in tennis, continuous skills don’t exist. There’s a third type of classification - called serial skills - that are made up of a number of discrete skills, which are linked together. For instance, a rally in tennis is a serial skill (yes, rallying is a skill) - each stroke has a definite beginning and end but when you combine several of these strokes, you get a serial task.
These various skills can get a little confusing. I’ve heard some coaches call a serve a discrete skill while others think of it as a serial skill. If you consider the service toss a skill, then yes, the serve would be classified as a serial skill. There’s an obvious grey area here, however; it’s still important to be able to know the definitions and be able to apply them appropriately given each coaches unique environment.
So why is this stuff important anyway?
Here’s the thing - we’re all after something called the transfer of training. That’s why we practice right? The aim is to be able to take what we’ve learned, trained & mastered in practice, and bring it onto the tennis court during a real match environment. And there is a body of research that can help us determine what ways to optimize this transfer of training, based on the classifications we’ve outlined.
We will look at the transfer of training in another post - but just know this, arranging practice sessions that are closed skill vs open skill focused, for instance, can have huge implications to how a player develops. And many factors are at play - does my player respond better to closed-based drills? Is the time of year more appropriate for an open-skill practice?
These are all questions we should be asking ourselves when designing practices - because ultimately, it’s this that will have the greatest impact on our players growth (rather than how much they ‘grinded’ during a session).