Written by: Daniel L. Rosenbaum
***Daniel L. Rosenbaum, an ITF Level 2 coach with a Social Sciences degree from the University of Sao Paolo, has been working with juniors and professional players since 1982. As an assistant, producer and speaker, Daniel has participated in several national and international tennis courses, conferences and workshops. He founded and coordinated with Carlos Kirmayr the Coaches Education Department for the Brazilian Tennis Confederation, and is currently the Achievement Program Director for the Israel Tennis Center.***
While it is likely that two tennis coaches will have different opinions regarding how players should hit the ball (the right way versus the wrong way) or even agree about it, in reality we must accept that at the end there are not two players that hit the ball exactly in the same way.
Therefore, we must help students find their own unique way to strike the ball.
Game of constantly changing situations
Most motor skills are defined within a wide spectrum of open skills to close skills.
In closed skills sports (swimming, most track and fields athletics) there is a minimal need for improvisation. The situations repeat themselves over and over, and require mostly precise machine like repetition.
Tennis is a game of open skills which requires adaptations and improvisation while dealing with constantly changing situations since every player’s action influences on the opponent’s reaction.
Therefore, teaching biomechanical skills by trying to duplicate strokes techniques and ignoring the “open skills” nature of this game would be useless.
Teaching too much “mechanics” can result in tension, lack of ability to adapt to a game situations and frustration.
The majority of the learning process, especially for beginners and players with lower coordination skills should deal with all the elements – like intentions, placing and timing – that occur before the actual strike of the ball versus the stroke technique itself.
Beginners start working on improving coordination and court awareness in a changing situations environment on the physical level, while changing perceptions on the mental side and making shot selection on the tactical side.
Working on coordination means developing one’s ability to connect the ball to the middle of the racquet. Beginners suffer to do so facing the ball’s complicated flight; therefore we easy to them through progressive familiarization exercises.
Working on movement and court coverage means working on moving to the ball before the moment of contact which depends on situational perception and tactical intentions (reasonable meaning for the stroke). Smaller courts and soft balls provide friendly conditions to rich the ball with sufficient time to achieve it successfully. After coordination and movement are reasonably developed, it is possible to carefully start refining the stroke’s technique.
The tactical aspects are relatively simple but important. The goal for lower levels is to aim the ball accurately and consistently. The student must learn to control the ball within certain boundaries. They first learn to control the ball in the service box and sometimes even closer. Since most of the teaching is done in a game mode, or at least during a live rally, we must enforce ball control within the boundaries at any time.
The tactical phase is about making decisions. Beginners mostly focus on their ability to control the ball. After some ball control is achieved and becomes more or less beyond thinking, players must shift thoughts to decision making. Obviously, at this stage the strokes are not perfect and technical work on the strokes might be helpful. However, we slowly ease up and shift the focus from how the stroke is performed to how the ball is controlled in order to affect the opponent. We expect them to learn winning points and matches and to avoid losing them. And loving…
It is important to mention that it is almost impossible to focus on technique and tactics at the same time. Since every action starts with a thought (a meaning to it), therefore, in order to change ineffective actions we must alter ineffective thoughts. For example: many beginners think that in order to hit the ball over the net they need to take a big hard swing or in order to win the point they need to take risks. As a result they totally miss the ball. Teaching them how to hold the racquet and how to swing may not be as effective as helping them understand that it is not necessary to hit so hard. Expecting them to swing successfully before and instead of controlling the ball could be even less effective.
About teaching and learning
Let’s remember for a moment that, based on principles, we first teach coordination while delaying the refined stroke technique for later stages.
Many pros tend to confuse this order by assuming that when the player can’t make solid contact with the ball, it is because of lack of proper stroke technique. They give instructions related to the movement of the racquet and where the motion should end. As a result, they sacrifice player’s coordination and ability to make contact with the ball. I have seen many students who know all the “proper strokes technique” but the percentage in which they make a solid contact is very low.
Since tennis’ nature is of constantly changing situations, player must constantly improvise, especially when their court sense and positioning relative to the ball is yet to be developed. The conditions seem to be ideal to practice reacting to unexpected stimulus, create solutions to each different problem, increase the experience and develop anticipation.
Only highly coordinated players can perform with perfect technical stroke technique while leaving room for improvisation for any situation.
When we invest in something for a long period of time we create a sense of importance. Working too long on strokes technique without balancing the tactical aspects, often create a twisted or imbalanced perception of importance. For example: if players are taught strokes technique over and over for a long period of time, they start creating a belief that all their problems and solutions are in correcting their technique. In reality, every error can contain elements of all aspects, physical, tactical and mental. When a player missed the ball, it could be because he tried to take too big of a chance, wasn’t clear about tactics, or made a technical error. Sometimes all aspects are involved and we need to figure out which is the most effective angle to approach the teaching.
Creating a belief that it is all from one aspect means creating false perception, which reduces learning ability and performance.
Hundreds of researches were conducted regarding the science of playing but much less regarding the science of teaching. The roll of the coach became more complex and shifted form “showing how to do it right” towards being a guidance, educator and learning process manager.
We shifted from science of playing towards science of learning and we must keep continuing to farther do so. Good teaching values “how to learn” not less then “what we learn.”
There are two basic approaches to learning motor skills. The first one is teaching details to create the whole, while the second approach teaches the whole and slowly moving to perfect the details.
Since tennis is a game of open skills, teaching from the whole to the details is a must.
In other words, players must learn basic ball control to be able to play the game while over time strokes become more refined and efficient.
The goal is to help students feel like players that are constantly improving rather then feel like students that will become players sometime in the future.
Practice mode for most coaches is when they feed balls from the basket while the student hits them back and there is no rally. We call this method “dead ball drill”. This type of practice is effective when we want to focus on a very specific shot in order to improve a very specific habit. It may look attractive, they work hard, the students are somehow activated and the coach is completely involved. Game mode is when the ball is moving back and we count points at times. It is called “live ball drill”. This type of practice is more open and works on the effect of consistency while dealing with changing situations. Game mode is less effective for changing more specific technical habits. Therefore, many times is not considered as a learning method but an opportunity for the kids to have fun since they are playing less responsibly or a moment when players should apply what they learned technically during the practice mode. Few face it as an opportunity (and know) to teach the tactical and mental aspects of the game. Some may say that playing is not practicing.
The conventional thinking says that students at the lower levels need to be mostly in practice mode.
In other words, game mode is more for advanced players. This type of schooling assumes that beginners do not have the ability to control the ball and therefore cannot play games. The coach feeds the balls over and over in the exact same way. As a result, many players who do well in practice cannot translate their success into a game situation. They tend to become frustrated and constantly feel under achieved.
Today, modern methods understand the need to help students play games as soon as possible. They may “sacrifice” some strokes technique in favor of helping their students with qualities such as coordination and dealing with changing situations.
The conclusion is that the farther a player is from the natural line, the more he needs to work on coordination skills such as making contact with the ball, court sense and dealing with changing situations. Therefore the teaching should be less technical and more in a game mode.
There is an old argument about the benefits of having many choices. The more choices we have the more our “appetite” increases.
At the beginning, players are happy to just hit the ball over the net. As time goes by, they acquire other skills that open many possibilities for creativity. When a player is able to aim to the right, left, high, low, harder, softer and understands how to make decisions based on offense and defense situation, he feels he has decent tools, so his appetite to use them grows.
Some think that too many choices create confusion, and some see that as opportunities. Any way we look at it, we need to acquire and sort the largest amount of tools and learn to use them all effectively at any given moment. This process is called mastery.
During initiation phase, all the basics are being taught. It is the stage where student’s coach dependency is the greatest. Most students that take lessons start with the feeling that they won’t succeed and that the coach will help them to learn. It is a crucial situation when ensuring success moves fears away. The responsibility of the coach not only determines what to teach but mainly the way to do it.
The mental aspects are about using effective teaching to create positive cycles of learning and emotional feedback. The way we teach the first phase affects students dramatically. It can determine if they will grow to become dependant frustrated and helpless, or independent mature problem solvers.
The mental aspects are mostly about attitudes during practice and games.
Children tend to observe how we treat them, and often treat themselves accordingly. For example: if we judge them and their character, it will not take long before they judge themselves, something that will cause a frustration cycle. On the same token, if we model patience, non judgmental approach, combined with non emotional but rather practical problem solving attitude, that’s the behavior they would adapt and the better they will become on the long run.
One of the most ineffective attitudes is being judgmental. Players always feel that they can do better. However when frustration and lack of patience become a way of being, the learning slows down and can lead all the way to even quitting the game.
In order to shape positive attitude for the long run, the player must understand where he is at, where he is going to, how he is going to get there and know that the pro is not judging him nor putting him down. Playing doubles and cooperative tasks offer a great opportunity to educate attitudes. When a player keeps putting himself down we can asked him “would you treat your partner this way?” or “would you like your partner to talk to you this way?”
We shall keep in our minds that our beliefs and attitudes shape theirs and must teach them that in order to be good players they first learn to help each other including themselves.