“Get set”...“use your legs”...“keep your wrist locked”...“step in!”...“move forward”...“hit higher”...“follow-through”...
If you walk by a tennis court during a lesson, these are only some of the phrases you’ll hear being shouted from across the net. The problem (beyond their vagueness) - as we alluded to in last week’s post - is the constant bombardment of these phrases. At times, players don’t just hear one cue or piece of feedback, but 5 or more. And further to that, it’s on every ball! Is this feedback facilitating learning? Or hindering it?
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?
’ve received many questions of late and thought it might be interesting to share some of them in a post, along with my thoughts on some key topics. These queries come from players, coaches and even tennis parents.
As you read along, keep in mind that a lot of scenarios are circumstantial, so there could be more than one answer to a particular query. That being said, I will give the most direct, evidence backed response, that I possibly can.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had a step-by-step recipe when it came to building the ultimate tennis champ? Just add 10 years of skill training, a half-decade of physical development and a sprinkle of mental skills...and voila, a world-class player, just like that!
Jokes aside, the topic of ‘what it takes to get to the top’, is eternally interesting. Whether you’re a coach, parent or athlete, achieving high levels of success in your chosen sport, is often a lifelong dream. The odds, however, are stacked against us all.
When beginners first start playing tennis, their movements are rather mechanical. While many coaches appear frustrated, this process is totally normal. Why so? Early on, a beginner uses a lot of conscious effort in order to complete a task. But with exposure (and hopefully proper instruction), their movements begin to stabilize...and eventually, after considerable time, they don’t even have to think about their actions, they simply ‘do it’.
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).
The serve is arguably the most important stroke in tennis - and the one in which players have the most control over. In today’s game, speed is a primary factor for players aiming to develop a potent service weapon. While I personally don’t believe speed is the only strategy of choice on the serve, it’s hard not to see value in gaining velocity on this stroke.
When looking at increasing serve speed, we should consider what it is that enables players to add considerable miles per hour. In other words, what qualities does serve speed (we’re talking first serve here), consist of? Is it strength? Flexibility? Balance?
For those of you who weren’t aware, my wife and I spent the last 2 years in Munich, Germany. It was a refreshing experience - especially considering that Munich is regarded as one of the nicest cities in Europe. But besides that, I’m eager to share some details about the tennis system in Germany, especially considering I was able to experience it firsthand
My aim is to give you an inside look at what competitive tennis in Germany is all about (based on my perspective) - from the club structure, to the elaborate ranking system and more. Overall, my experiences were quite positive - and I feel that the tennis world in North America can learn a few things from the German system.
Imagine this scenario. An amateur player takes a lesson from a coach with the hopes of hitting a forehand like Roger Federer.
Let’s say the coach plays along. He/she presents a sequence of images to the amateur in order to see exactly the various phases of Roger’s forehand. Next, the amateur performs shadow swings, going through each position as carefully as possible. The coach then feeds the amateur a few balls, providing feedback ONLY on how close the stroke looks to Roger’s.
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?
When teaching various tactical scenarios to players, I often ask them the following question: “what do you think is the most common rally length in tennis”? Less experienced players jump to answers like 7 or 9 while those that have been playing for many years reply with 3, 4 or 5. Do YOU know what it is? When it comes to professional tennis, according to Brain Game Tennis, it’s 1. Can you believe that? The most common rally length (called the mode, in statistics) is 1! That’s a service ace or a service winner (i.e. the returner makes an error off the serve). This happens about 30% of the time. The next most common rally length is 3 - that’s a serve, return and one more shot.
In last week’s post, we introduced the main physical training components that tennis players likely should focus on during the off-season. To get the best out of this week’s article, I suggest reviewing part 1 of this series first.
In this post, I’d like to tackle a couple key points. First, I’ll outline what a typical training week in the off-season might look like and how the overall cycle takes shape. Next, I’ll take a stab at commenting on the interplay and subsequent management of on-court and off-court training loads. Lastly, I will then offer some feedback - in other words, why it's my belief that training the various qualities outlined in last week’s article shouldn’t stop once the off-season cycle ends.
In last week’s post, we introduced the concept of grit. We also took a closer look at grit’s correlation to elite sport. What did we find? For one, according to recent evidence, elite athletes across many sports are grittier than their non-elite counterparts. Secondly, those same athletes more consistently commit to their sport over the long haul - in other words, they stick to it. And lastly, the grittier athletes (the elite), were more adept at persevering through challenges compared to non-gritty athletes.
Have you ever wondered what separates athletes that ‘make it’ from those who don’t? Are physical skills the key determinant? While at times it may be the case, I’ve seen many players in tennis settings with superior physical abilities get outperformed...so fitness alone isn't the answer. It must be technical and tactical abilities, right? While critical, I’ve also witnessed supreme skill, coupled with a sound game plan, get beaten time and again. So what is it then? All of these factors play a massive role in who succeeds and who doesn’t, I’m sure of it, but in my books, one factor seems to outweigh the rest - by at least a hair. The psychological component.
Tennis itself is primarily an individual sport. Even if you play mostly doubles, individual differences between players exist at all levels of the game. This concept is known in sport science as the principle of individualization. Research studies and coaching experience tell us that all athletes respond differently to training. That’s why many fields of study exist - from psychology, to motor learning and strength & power training - each attempting to answer questions that help us better understand human behaviour and the stress-adaptation process (and why there is so much variation in responses to the same training stimuli!).
In the last couple of posts, we explored two key sport science training principles, progressive loading and variation. These training principles were linked to both off-court as well as on-court training for the elite/developing tennis player - in hopes that they could provide the astute coach or player with more insight into the organization of practices and long-term training schemes. But the principles don’t stop there. There are other of equal - or perhaps even greater - importance, especially when it comes to tennis training.
Specificity is this week’s topic of interest. It’s a term that’s been somewhat of a buzzword for the better part of a decade (or longer). Often times, tennis coaches, players and parents are brought to believe that to be a successful tennis player, one must be subscribed to a physical development program that is ‘tennis specific’. When these same tennis folks see programs that include a variety of plyometric work and ballistic lifting in the weight room instead of rotational band work, quick footwork drills, and other movements that ‘mimic’ tennis play, they think to themselves - “this isn’t tennis-specific”. I’ve got news for you though, there’s only one training component that is truly specific to tennis play and that’s...wait for it….TENNIS!
In last week’s post, we took a closer look at the principle of progressive loading and offered several ways in which we can effectively ‘progress’ a player both on and off the tennis court. To reiterate last week's point, it’s critical that we look at progressions from a long-term macro perspective. Why so? Well, progress is rarely (if ever) linear. Further to that, each of the biomotor qualities that we spoke briefly about last week (speed, strength, stamina, suppleness, skill), improve and regress, depending on which we give greater attention to (i.e. more training stimuli).
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?