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Games approach helps tennis players transfer skills learned in practice to matches

By the American Sport Education Program (ASEP) and Kirk Anderson

Technical and Tactical Skills

As a coach, you are responsible for patiently and systematically explaining and drilling your athletes on the basic skills and shot patterns that make up the game. These skills, called technical skills, are the fundamentals that provide each player with the tools to execute the physical requirements of the game. Each day at practice, you also must create scenarios on the court in which players have to use their technical skills in matchlike situations, forcing them to make decisions that simulate the choices they will have to make in a match. These skills, called tactical skills, are the bridge between practice performance and match performance. Although the proper execution of technical skills is necessary for success, the tactical skills (i.e., the ability to make the appropriate decisions) are the key to having everything come together when it counts—in the match.

Obviously, other types of skills, such as pure physical capacity, mental skills, communication ability, and character traits, all contribute to athletic performance (Rainer Martens, Successful Coaching, Third Edition, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2004, p. 170). Although all these skills are important, effective teaching of the technical and tactical skills provides the foundation for successful tennis coaching.

The variety of skills used in tennis is massive and impossible to chronicle in one text. Consequently, this book focuses on the basic to intermediate technical and tactical skills in tennis. These skills were compiled with the help of the United States Tennis Association. The goal is to provide a resource that will help you improve your understanding and instructional methods as you strive to teach your players the great game of tennis.

Technical Skills

Technical skills are “the specific procedures to move one’s body to perform the task that needs to be accomplished” (Martens, Successful Coaching, p. 169). The proper execution of the technical skills of tennis is, obviously, crucial to successful performance. Most coaches, even those with little experience, know what the basic technical skills of tennis are: serves, serve returns, groundstrokes, volleys, approach shots, lobs, and overheads. But your ability to teach athletes how to perform those skills usually develops only over a long period, as you gain coaching experience.

The goal of this book is to speed up the timetable of teaching skills by improving your ability to do the following:

• Clearly communicate the basic elements of each skill to the athlete.

• Construct drills and teaching scenarios to rehearse those skills.

• Detect and correct errors in the athletes’ performance of skills.

• Help athletes transfer knowledge and ability from practice to matches.

Effective coaches have the capacity to transfer their knowledge and understanding of skills into improved performance of those skills by their athletes. This book outlines a plan that will help you do just that by teaching you how to become a master of the basic to intermediate technical skills of tennis and provide your athletes with the resources necessary for success.

Tactical Skills

Mastery of the technical skills of tennis is important, but athletes must also learn the tactics of the game. Tactical skills are defined as “the decisions and actions of players in the contest to gain an advantage over the opposing team or players” (Martens, Successful Coaching, p. 170). Many tennis resources overlook the tactical aspects of the game. Coaches even omit tactical considerations from practice because they are focused so intently on teaching technical skills. Another reason for this omission is that tactics are difficult to teach. One way that you can approach tactical skills is by focusing on the following three critical aspects, the “tactical triangle” (Martens, Successful Coaching, p. 215):

• Reading the play or situation

• Acquiring the knowledge needed to make an appropriate tactical decision

• Applying decision-making skills to the problem

This book as a whole provides you with the knowledge you need to teach players how to use the tactical triangle. Part III covers cues that help athletes respond appropriately when they see a play developing, including rules of the game, game strategies, and opponents’ strengths and weaknesses that affect match situations, as well as ways to teach athletes how to acquire and use this knowledge. Part III will also help you teach athletes how to make appropriate choices in given situations and show you how to empower players to recognize emerging situations on their own and make sound judgments.

Perhaps the greatest frustration for a coach is to witness athletes making errors in matches on skills they have repeatedly drilled in practice. For example, in practice a player demonstrates perfect footwork while moving forward to play an approach shot and continues to the net where he hits a controlled and well-placed volley. During a match, however, he rushes his steps and overhits the approach shot and volleys wildly without getting set at the net. Transferring skills from practice to the match can be difficult, but you can reduce errors by placing the athletes in matchlike situations in practice to work on tactical skill decisions. Only after rehearsing the tactical decision repeatedly in practice will the athletes be prepared to execute those decisions (while maintaining their execution of the related technical skills) in the match.

Traditional Versus Games Approach to Coaching

As mentioned, transferring skills from practice to matches can be difficult. A sound background of technical and tactical training prepares athletes for match situations. Incorporating matchlike situations into daily training, however, increases the likelihood that players will transfer skills from practices to matches. To understand how to accomplish this, you must be aware of two approaches to coaching—the traditional approach and the games approach.

Part IV of this book provides examples of both the traditional approach and the games approach to coaching. Although each style has its particular advantages, the concept favored in this book is the games approach. The games approach provides athletes with a competitive situation governed by clear objectives and focused on specific individuals and concepts. The games approach creates a productive and meaningful learning environment in which athletes are motivated by both the structure of the drills and the improvements they make. Finally, the games approach prepares athletes for competition because they have experienced situations that closely resemble the tactical situations they will see in the match.

Traditional Approach

Although the games approach to coaching has much merit, the traditional approach to coaching also has value. The traditional approach often begins with a warm-up period, followed by individual drills, group drills, and then a substantial team period, or scrimmage, at the end of the practice. The traditional approach can be helpful in teaching the technical skills of tennis. But unless you shape, focus, and enhance the team period, the athletes may be unable to transfer the skills they learn in the drills to the scrimmage situation in practice or, worse, into effective performance, especially of tactical skills, in matches.

Games Approach

The games approach emphasizes the use of games and minigames to provide athletes with situations that are as close to a real match as possible (Alan G. Launder, Play Practice, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2001). But this method requires more than just putting the players on the court, throwing out a ball, and letting them play. You should use the following three components any time you use the games approach:

1. Shaping

2. Focusing

3. Enhancing

Shaping play allows you to modify the game in a way that is conducive to learning the skills your athletes are working on. You can shape play by modifying the rules, the environment (playing area), the objectives of the game, and the number of players (Launder, p. 56). In scrimmage situations the stronger players often dominate, and the weaker players merely get through the scrimmage without playing a strong, active role. If you shape play by reducing the playing area, every athlete will have the opportunity to learn and practice the skills required for tennis.

You also need to be sure to focus the athletes on the specific objectives of the game. Players are more apt to learn, or at least be open to learning, if they know why they are playing the game and how the tactics they are rehearsing fit into the bigger picture. Provide the athletes with clear objectives and a straightforward explanation of how those objectives will help them become better tennis players.

Finally, you must play an active role throughout the game, enhancing the play by stopping the game at the teachable moment and instructing the athletes about how they could improve their decision-making or technical skills.

A game called Half-Court Singles is an example of the games approach to teaching tactical skills. This game involves two singles players playing points using only half the singles court. The regular singles court is divided down the middle so the center service line is extended to the baseline, making the court 78 feet long but only 13.5 feet wide. This narrow court forces the players to use short and deep shots to move their opponents and create openings. The objective of the game is to move the opponent very deep in the court so the player can hit a short ball by using a drop shot or drop volley in front of her, or to draw her opponent to the net so she can hit a lob over her head into the backcourt. Because the court is narrow, hitting the ball with angles will be ineffective, so players will need to think about and work short and deep ball sequences.

To play this game, have players play to 10 points. Each player serves 2 points before changing serves. To emphasize the deep and short openings, players are awarded 2 points for hitting a successful drop shot or drop volley (a shot that bounces on the court twice before the opponent can play the shot). Also, award 2 points for a successful lob that the player at the net cannot touch.

This game forces all players to think about keeping the ball in play and not giving the opponent free points with unforced errors. It also makes players think about how to win points by hitting a series of shots rather than a one-shot winner. In this situation players are forced to use a combination of short and deep shots to win points. This is a great learning situation for all players because it makes them think about hitting every shot with a purpose.

The game seems simple, but some fascinating scenarios invariably unfold, creating vivid opportunities for teaching. For example, if a player has an opening shotin the court but hits a poor drop shot, it gives the opponent time to move forward, play the shot, and take an offensive position at the net. Players will learn that they must create an opening by forcing the opponent behind the baseline, but they must be inside the baseline themselves to execute a successful drop shot. This scenario illustrates some intriguing dimensions of the games approach to coaching. Later sections of the text will offer more examples of this approach for you to use in creating great learning experiences for your athletes.

This excerpt is taken from the ASEP title Coaching Tennis Technical and Tactical Skills, written by ASEP in conjunction with Kirk Anderson.

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