Bob Chan: Looking Ahead at Progressive Tennis (Part One)

Written by: Bob Chan

Source: Ontario Tennis magazine, Fall 2011

Photo credit: Peter Figura

In this two part series, tennis professional Bob Chan looks at progressive tennis from two different perspectives. In the first part Bob looks at the implications of using progressive tennis for developing the physical skills of tennis.  In the second part he will examine the use of progressive tennis in the development of the mental skills of tennis.

Progressive Tennis and the Physical Skills of Tennis.

What is Progressive tennis?  At first glance, it seems clear that the small nets, the menu of activities, graduated soft balls, rackets and courts are what the program is all about.  I believe that rooted behind the program are some very subtle changes in the way we should teach tennis.  The methodology behind Progressive tennis came about out of our desire to get more kids to play the game, have fun and more importantly, stay in the game.  This being the case, it means that we were actually using an educational principal of “end result process” or “Outcome base learning” to build the Progressive tennis program.  By the same process we developed a plan that shared some pedagogical similarities to early childhood education.  Specific ideas like fun and play, outcome base learning and associative learning are some of the shared methodology.

A teacher friend gave me an example of his application of this principal.  He was asked to teach some “special ed” 7th graders grammar and reading skills.  He started by finding out their interests.  He found that they were interested in cars and shop mechanics, so he gave them books to read on the subject.  All their reading and reports were about cars.  Nearing the end of the course, the kids asked him when they were going to learn grammar?  He replied, you’ve been doing it all by yourselves.  The students were motivated to read because it was fun researching and reading about cars, they then had to find ways to communicate their ideas.   Having read the books on auto mechanics, they already had imprinted some of the syntax of grammar, so they used this rudimentary syntax to do their reports.  The technical aspects of grammar then became a useful tool to help them write their projects better.

In many ways I, like others, have used my own version of progressive tennis for the last 12 years.  My teaching with young kids has been shaped into activities that were game based.  Within the equipment limitations, I was able to create activities to enable kids to succeed.  For instance ground hockey tennis to have them discover the relationships of their hand to the racket face or ground bowling tennis with pylon cones as targets to understand the correlation between directional movement and face angle of the racket.  One activity I use is a game in which youngsters catch balls in a pylon cone held upside down.  They catch the ball in the air then tip the ball onto their racket on the baseline.  After a full basket of balls is used, I ask them to count how many balls they’ve got on their rackets and the winner is the one that has the most balls. The toddlers at a certain developmental point have no idea why a racket has a face or how that face relates to his hands.  Trying to teach them to hit a ball over the net is frustrating for them if they haven’t mastered that relationship. By using an implement like a pylon cone to catch, the children learn to identify contact point and improve hand-eye-feet coordination; it is a classic form of “associative learning”.

When I was a kid and Borg came along, I switched grips and started to hit a double backhand because I thought that Borg was cool.  Kids will always emulate their cool heroes, kids just have a knack of intuitively getting it better than we do.  The ironic truth is that, as coaches, we are basically reverse engineers; it’s the kids who actually create new ways to play and push us to improve our craft. It is by deconstruction of modern stroke mechanics that we can make the changes needed to adapt to the modern game and apply “end result process” to our teaching. For example take Agassi’s game.  Considered unorthodox, wristy and lacking leg drive for the first 10 years of his career, yet today it is the prototype.  The process to reverse engineer Agassi’s forehand made us more aware of biomechanics. Teaching pros thought the power came from wrist snap but now we understand that the so call snap was in fact the release of the racket head long after the impact.  Agassi was from the first generation to grow up with oversize composite rackets and he intuitively learned to create the most out of deflective power, and thus he changed the game from the domination of serve and volley to aggressive baseliner.

Federer was a perfect adaptation of both Sampras and Agassi’s game style and he stood on the baseline and used his all court game to rule tennis.  Nadal’s game has arrived at a time when the tour has deliberately slowed the courts and balls down to create more rallies. Each generation grows up with new intuitive adaptations to the balls, rackets, court construction and game styles.   Laver’s generation hit most of their balls at knee level with slice on grass, Mac and Borg at hip level with topspin, Agassi and Sampras at shoulder level, Federer at the head level and now Djokovic and Nadal at a foot above the head.  In Laver’s time, all the best players had one handed backhands. Now the two handed backhand that dominates the game. The next adaptation will likely come full circle with the next great player being an all court player who is able to hit the Sampras’s slice serve and Roddick’s kick serve, have Nadal’s patience to use circular footwork to drive through the balls with heavy topspin from 10 feet back behind the baseline, and have the old school transition skills to finish at the net.  Maybe Milos will be this player.

History has proven that tennis pros don’t change the game, it is always the kids that invent new ways to defeat the last generation. When we teach a youngster to play tennis we must be mindful of the fact that each successive generation WILL create their own intuitive answers to the game.  Teaching tennis is therefore a symbiotic relationship between students and teacher. We can only take credit for helping them refine their skills.  Each successive generation of tennis pros must constantly change as well to create new “end result process” by recognizing and anticipating these new adaptations.

When we use progressive tennis to teach kids, we set fun games based on achievable goals.  The best teachers are the ones who are actively using their creativity to find the best “end result process”.  The best progressive tennis pros will be the ones who have successfully deconstructed the modern stroke mechanics into smaller and smaller segmented sequences.   It is with this deconstructed knowledge that he can identify the capabilities of each group of children, then challenge them by adding the next logical sequential segments to their game.  The end result process of these lessons is to create an achievable next step for each group of kids while making it fun for them.  The menu of games and skills allows us to follow the program easily, but the craft of teaching is a skill that needs to be continually honed.  A school teacher has to go to university for 4 years to learn the craft of teaching.  To be able adapt to changes in the game, tennis pros also must be mentally active in the application of the root values that created the menu of activities.  To be a good Progressive tennis pro, one must always PROGRESS with the ever changing adaptations of the game.

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