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Are You Learning to Play the Game-Based Way?

Fri, Feb 18, 2011

d. Technical, e. Tactical

Are You Learning to Play the Game-Based Way?

Written by: Wayne Elderton

***Wayne Elderton is acknowledged as one of Canada’s leading coaches. He is Head of Tennis Canada Coaching Development and Certification in British Columbia. In this role, he has provided coaching training to over 1500 coaches. He is a main contributor to the Tennis Canada Coaching Certification program and has also written articles and coaching materials for the PTR, Tennis Corporation of America, Tennis Coaches Australia, and the International Tennis Federation. He is a popular speaker at coaching conferences world-wide. He is a Chartered Professional Coach (ChPC) as recognized by the Professional coaching association, Coaches of Canada. Wayne has enjoyed considerable success in his career using the Game-Based approach. As a High Performance coach, he has led provincial teams to gold medals in the Canada and Western Canada Games. His players have won numerous national titles and many have achieved full scholarships at US Universities. Some have gone on to achieve WTA and ATP rankings. He has also coached 3 wheelchair players to top 10 world rankings and has coached Canada’s World Team Cup squad (Davis Cup for Wheelchair players). He is a key builder of the Canadian National Wheelchair Team program and created Tennis Canada’s Wheelchair Instructor Course. In 2006 he was inducted into the City of Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame in the coaching category. He is currently Tennis Director at the Grant Connell Tennis Centre in North Vancouver which was awarded the 2005 Canadian Facility of the Year for program excellence by the Tennis Professionals Association.***


The scenario is a common one. You start playing tennis and enjoy both the exhilaration and frustration the game provides. In an attempt to improve you take lessons. The coach takes a look and decides to completely overhaul your backhand (forehand, serve, etc.). The result is a stroke that only seems to work on lessons and especially when the coach feeds the ball. There is little success using it against real opponents. Eventually, with practice, your stroke becomes much ‘better’ than many of the people you lose to.

If this is your story, the solution may be found in a new international coaching trend called the Game-based approach (GBA), it is becoming the methodology of choice for the majority of the world’s top coaches. The concept is simple, tennis is a game that needs to be played, so get people to play tennis then help them learn to play better. Playing successfully requires more than a singular focus on technical skills or conforming to a coach’s image of the ‘perfect stroke’.

In this approach, the fun of playing tennis is maintained by re-creating playing situations adapted to the level of the players. As they play, students learn they must accomplish certain tasks to be consistent or win more points. Students discover what to do (tactics) by being placed in situations that promote problem solving and decision-making. Technical skills are then presented as solutions to problems encountered in these situations. With such a direct  link to playing tennis, all the skills learned in the lesson transfer easily into match play. This approach promotes students being active and fully involved in their learning process. With children, the situations are adapted to their size and skill level by using modified equipment.

Sports Science Spotlight

As the spotlight of sports science focuses on tennis, the true nature of the game is being revealed and key aspects illuminated. No game can be played successfully without tactics. You need to know what you are trying tom do (tactics) before learning how to do it (technique). Tactics in tennis can be as simple as keeping the ball in play against an inconsistent opponent, or as sophisticated as slicing low to an opponent’s backhand to set up a big inside-out power forehand. Sports science has confirmed that tennis requires large doses of both “motor” skills (technically using your body) and “cognitive” skills (tactically using your mind). Cognitive skills are typically under-taught in traditional instruction. However, any game demands them. For example, in chess, no benefit is gained if the pieces are moved quickly or smoothly rather, moving which piece where, and when, is critical for success.

Another aspect of tennis that profoundly affects the way tennis is played and taught is that tennis requires ‘adaptable’ technique. Effective and efficient technique is needed to perform tactics, but your technique must adapt to the situation an opponent puts you in. Tennis uses what are called ‘Open’ skills. With open skills it is not only how one moves that’s important, but judging the situation and selecting which technique to use and when. For example, it is common tennis knowledge that when one identifies a hard serve, they should select a more compact preparation. The reality is, every shot in tennis must be adapted in one way or another.

Traditional ‘technical focused’ instruction downplayed or often ignored these sports science revelations. The goal of traditional instruction was to conform students to an idealized ‘model’ stroke. Frustration was often the result when that stroke needed to change for attacking, defending, hitting with more power, more spin, from different locations on the curt, or when the ball the opponent sent changed (higher, wider, shorter, etc.). Are you really equipped to play tennis when that backhand you paid hundreds of dollars for ends up being the exception when you play rather than the rule? Not to mention that top professional players all have their own style that often conflicts with the pro’s version. What then is the proper form?

Moving into a new era

Coaching conferences all around the world are now featuring more and more presentations on GBA. Ron Woods former Director of USTA Community Tennis Programs was responsible for overseeing the USA Tennis Pathway programs and Development Coaches Training programs. His vision for the future of coaching in the US evolves around the approach. “The USTA is committed to helping coaches use a Game-based approach for all levels of players from promising world class juniors to adults or kids just learning to play. In particular, we believe Game-based coaching is a staple for coaches of USA Team Tennis, a program that emphasizes “Playing the Game” while learning strategy and skills.”

Travis Atkinson, National Coordinator of Coach Education for Tennis Australia is also keen to further Australian Coaching down the Game-based path. He comments, “Tennis Australia has been implementing a Game Based Approach coaching philosophy for some time now. We continue to challenge our coaches  to embrace this approach. The driving motivation for this is a recognition that coaching must better address the needs of participants and players.”

In Canada the approach was pioneered by former Head National Coach Louis Cayer and was adopted as the official coaching method by Tennis Canada. It has been used there with good success since 1988. European countries have been converting their coaching since the mid 90′s. The ITF has repeatedly promoted it as the method of choice for the 21st Century coach.

The future is now

Your game can benefit by seeking out this kind of coaching. You can play more successfully with the technique you own currently and take your technique up a notch if you want to as well. Isn’t playing the game of tennis better what coaching is supposed to be about?

Is the Game-based approach just a fad?

Coaches need to realize that this is not some passing whim. It is the leading edge of an international trend in learning that has deep roots and a successful track record in other fields:

- Education (“Contextualized learning” or, learning in specific situations is a large field of study)

- Business (Harvard Business School became an international leader by using the ‘casestudy’. In other words, outlining a specific, realistic situation and applying principles to solve the problems the situation presented.)

- Medicine (Medical schools have moved to a ‘case-study’ approach rather than simply learning by rote repetition.)

- Physical Education (Teaching Games for Understanding is a ground-swell movement that has gained momentum in recent years)

GBA has only recently started to make inroads into tennis coaching, As with any new trend traditionalists tend to resist however, experience in these other fields dictates that the Game-based approach is here to stay.


Use these keys to see if you are receiving Game-based lessons

- Does the coach analyze and evaluate you in real playing situation rather than in a drill?

- Is the lesson about a situation you commonly encounter when you play? (rather than about only technique or how your strokes looks)

- Does the technical instruction you do receive help you to be more successful at solving the problems you face on court? (technical instruction that’s only purpose is to help you look ‘proper’ may not help your game)

-  Does your lesson start with a playing situation and integrate all the skills you learn back into your game-play?

- Does your lesson include playing tennis in full or modified situations? (Rather than standing in lines waiting to hit basket fed balls the whole lesson with some token points played at the end)

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4 Responses to “Are You Learning to Play the Game-Based Way?”

  1. 1
    tennisdad Says:

    There are a number of interesting points in this post, especially when I think about the individual lessons, squad sessions, matchplay, and competitions that my son, @Dyzcat, plays in with his coaches. He plays mini orange tennis for U9s in county and regional competitions. His sessions are at the performance level and seem to be taught in a manner that stresses real-game situations, and repetition. His coaches have a notice on the corkboard near their office that says: “No technique has been learnt, unless it has been used in competition.” During lessons, they practise plenty of match tactics and matchplay points. On the other hand, they can also practise cross-court forehands, cross-court backhands, and his recovery over and over again. This does genuinely seem to have a positive effect on his in-game technique though. Perhaps, an approach that integrates the positive aspects of both methods is best?

  2. 2
    Sean Sweeney Says:

    To allow a child to become the best they can be at a high performance level requires in my opinion

    2 hours per day with tech and tactical 4 days per week. . We have a predefined game plan which we then teach the technicahal components to. In privates we will use Dartfish to allow the student to make adjustments to the stroke ( different lesson) based on the commonalities of the top players in the world.

    The problem with the open concept in my opinion (for what we are doing) is it does not allow for mastery because there are too many variiables for true development. . In our game plan we are looking for mastery of predefined conditions set by the best in the world and if they change then we will adjust . They are the ones that dictate where our players will have to be 5-10 years from now. So our students may not win to begin with but over time their development and mastery will surpass those who are only concerned about short term gain. I will give you an example: we teach that an on the run forehand is to be played as a 3/4 court angle unless you are pulled off the court in which case you go for the down the line for an attempted winner. i had a coach tell one of my students who missed the angle to just get the ball in. My student was in the pursuit of mastery not winning and that coach will never talk to my plAyer again because he does not undestand this vision. In 5 years and when there is a big paycheck on the line my student will nail that shot and get himself back into the point and not watch an approach hit the opposite corner. They will have mastered it. My mentor says “chickens do not win they just get eaten” and “Do it Right & Fight” my player went for it and he will provide himself with a positive prescription to learn from but he will master that shot.

    The second part of practice – another 2 hours 4 times per week is made up of live ball drills and coached match play. Students must hit the patterns in our game plan during match play – we provide help, positive feedback and plan reminders but if the student continues to miss their pattern they may run or do pushups to jog them into doing it right. I see too many kids playing match play on their own and if they are making mistakes and these mistakes get ingrained especially if the students wins. Ever see that U14 boy that can push and win. Ever see them in the Bigs?(nope)

    The last part of our training is making sure that kids play 150 tournament matches a year so that they can master the patterns under pressure.

    Hope this was of value and thanks for your article it was great.

  3. 3
    elizabeth Says:

    Hello and thank you Wayne, I am a Brazilian tennis teacher and I teach like you said and I am happy to hear it´s correct and the best way to teach because I almost never see other teachers teaching this way…so, thank you to sharing your knowledge and give me an amazing feedback. I´m going to keep this kind of teaching with my students because i always felt, with my own experience, that it is the better manner of they learn how to play tennis. Sorry about my poor English.
    Best regards

  4. 4
    Alan Moel Says:

    I do enjoy the way you have framed this specific concern and it does indeed supply us a lot of fodder for consideration. Nevertheless, coming from just what I have personally seen, I simply just trust as other opinions stack on that people remain on issue and not start upon a soap box associated with some other news of the day. Still, thank you for this fantastic point and although I do not really agree with the idea in totality, I respect the viewpoint.

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