Urgency and Committment

Please enjoy part 1 of a coaching paper written by LifeTime’s founder Gary Stickler. This is a guide for coaches and parents to help develop younger players to an International level. Gary has coaches players such as Par Rafter, John Millman, Jason Kubler.

The two words that come to mind when discussing ‘High Performance Training’ are ‘commitment‘ and ‘urgency’. While players seem to be tracking well at nine and ten years of age, there is only a very small window available for coaches to develop their athletes, especially the female athlete. When a female athlete is nine or ten years of age, coaches are working with a very young girl who in four years time will have grown into a woman. If you believe that a player’s game grows alongside their physical development and emotional maturity, then coaches will understand that a four year window is all the time you have to develop a promising state ranked female player into a nationally and internationally competitive player.

So when we speak of ‘Urgency’ what do we actually mean, and what are some practical examples of implementing this philosophy of ‘Urgency’? The example of the development cycle of a  young female athlete shows that we have a small window to develop a large number of skills and fundamentals, so having a clear direction with this development is essential.

Some of the questions to be considered are:

  1. What are some of the key skills to be developed?
  2. What are the important training principles?
  3. How can I create more learning opportunities in the time available to the players, to fast track their development?
  4. As a coach how far am I prepared to go/ How committed am I/ What is my philosophy and culture?

What are some of the key skills to be developed?

Before identifying which are the important skills to work on at this stage of your player’s development, good coaches will identify the trends happening in the game and make educated assumptions as to where the game is heading. This is important if you are to progressively develop the skills required to compete at an international level in the future.

While each player’s game style will vary according to their individual qualities, some of the outcomes required across all game styles are generic.

Let’s consider the following trends in the game!

(a) The ball is being hit harder

(b) The players are moving faster and have greater physicality

(c) More balls are being played at end range

(d) Players are playing up in the court more often

(e) Players are finishing off the point at net more often but constructing that scenario differently

(f) The return of serve especially off the first serve is more dominant  

(a) The ball is being hit harder:

Coaches need to understand:

  • How leg and hip drive and a loose wrist allow this to happen
  • The concept of fast hands and a slow arm
  • Looking for the lay back of the wrist and the acceleration forward at the back of the backswing
  • Recognising that the arm speed is greater prior to the contact point and through the hitting zone than it is during the follow through phase of the stroke

(b) The players are moving faster:

If we accept that the ball is being hit harder as a result of not only understanding how the body works more efficiently, (bio-mechanics) , but also the advances in racquet and string technology, then our players need to move faster and more efficiently to negate this additional power.  

Coaches need to understand:

Wide Base: That a ‘split step’ wider than the width of the player’s shoulders will allow a player to change direction a lot quicker.

Acceleration / Deceleration: Acceleration off the split step, deceleration to the ball and acceleration off the ball will create a quicker athlete

Hit-Recover-Look: Athletes need to be taught the concept of ‘hit-recover-look’. Many tennis players don’t trust their shot and look to see what effect their shot has on their opponent before their first recovery steps have been taken. When a player looks down the other end before commencing recovery steps, it impacts on both court speed and shot quality.

This is the reason why: If a player’s recovery is quicker, then they are not running as hard to the next shot, are better balanced and have improved shot quality. If the player is better balanced on to the ball, they are less likely to overrun the ball and will have a shorter distance to recover, giving them a greater chance of reaching the next shot with better balance and improved stroke quality, and so on and so on.  

(c) More balls are being played at end range:

Because of the increase in the ‘pace of shot’, a larger number of balls are being played outside the player’s strike range and contact points. While players will need to defend at end range, they will also need to attack at end range to stop their opponents from moving up the court on them when they are pushed wide.

If your players can’t master the concept of ‘accelerating the racquet head through the use of a loose wrist’, then they will not be able to attack at end range, and will find it difficult to be internationally competitive in later years.

The use of a loose wrist, (less grip pressure), in ground strokes needs to become a PRIORITY in a coach’s teaching philosophy.    

(d) Players are playing up in the court more often:

We have discussed earlier the speed at which the ball is being hit in the modern game. All coaches are also aware that taking the ball early is another way to get the ball to the other end more quickly, (double time).

Modern game styles, (aggressive baseliner, all-court player)  are played up in the court. Because of this, it is important that the skills necessary to allow players to take the ball early and develop a game style suited to their temperament and physical attributes are progressively developed throughout their formative years in tennis.

Some of these skills required to take the ball early and play up in the court are:

Opponent: An understanding of the effect your shot is having on your opponent

Perception: Racquet & Body cues/ Ball flight path/ Tactical knowledge/ Player’s strengths and weaknesses/ Reading patterns of play

Preparation: Stroke Preparation: Racquet at the top of the backswing before the ball bounces at your end.

Movement: Moving into position early,(before the ball bounces), balance and recovery.

Shot selection: Deciding what shot to play while the ball is at your opponent’s end of the court.  

(e) Players are finishing off the point at net more often but constructing that scenario differently

Because players are developing greater court speed and playing the ball at end range with quality, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hit winners off the ground. Players are now creating opportunities to finish the point at net, (Nadal), when they recognise their opponent is playing a defensive shot.  

Depending on the individual player’s movement skills, the volley will be played as either a ‘drive volley’ or a ‘conventional volley’.

(f) The second serve and return of serve,( especially off the first serve), are becoming more dominant

The latest stats are showing the better players are winning more points off their opponent’s first serve, and losing fewer points on their own second serves.

Service Return:

This shot is the ultimate ‘end range’, shot and has to be taught the same way that ‘end of range ground shots’ are taught. Please see the section above on ‘More balls are being played at end range’ on Page 2.

Australians have always taught the ‘service return’ with an adjustment in the length of the backswing. Another school of thought has emerged where the length of the backswing remains the same, but players are not turning their shoulders to prepare for the faster service return.

As it takes longer to shift larger groups of muscles, it makes sense to treat the return of serve as an ’end range’ shot where hip drive and shoulder rotation are rarely used. Of course, on a slower serve these larger groups of muscles are brought into play.

Prioritised coaching

You have now identified what you believe are the fundamentals and skills to be taught to make you player internationally competitive in five years’ time. These fundamentals and skills will become part of your ‘non-negotiables’. There is. however, another very important aspect of your player’s development to identify, and that is-

“What is the priority to work on with your player at various stages of their development?”  

As each player is an individual and will acquire and develop skills at different ages, it is important that coaches identify the most important skill to work on at a particular stage to take that player to the next level. That doesn’t mean to say that a full range of fundamentals and skills will not be developed, just that some skills will take priority over others at different stages in the player’s development.

The prioritised skill should be developed in short bursts a number of times throughout the coaching session, while the other skills will be developed around this prioritised skill.

This provides the following benefits:  

(i) The necessary volume and repetition is provided to acquire the skill, and players improve in a shorter time frame.

(ii) When your player is learning a new skill and not yet proficient at that skill, it is not in their interests to work on it continuously for long periods. Continually failing at learning a skill can have a detrimental effect on a player’s confidence and their willingness to embrace and learn the new skill.

Teaching that skill in shorts bursts, (variable learning), surrounded by practising  other skills the player has mastered and is more confident with, is more beneficial for the player’s development.

(iii) Creating ‘variable learning’ opportunities for the identified skill surrounded by the learning of other skills also conforms to one of the important training principles – variety.

It is important for coaches to understand the difference between style, innovation, and the fundamentals and skills of technique. It has been mentioned earlier that there is only a small window available to develop a player’s game alongside their physical development, so coaches can’t afford to get it wrong.

Spending time on an aspect of a player’s game that will NOT make a major contribution to their improvement and development, only takes time and focus away from those aspects of their game that will fast track their improvement. Refer to P 16 of this document- Technique Correction/ Adjustment, Dominant Eye Theory, Myelinisation of the Nerve    

2 What are the important training principles?

Training a tennis player is no different from training any athlete, and there are a number of principles that apply across all sports. Some of these are:

Progressive Overload, Specificity, Variety, Recovery, Work-Rest Ratios

(a) Overload:

Coaches have always been aware that incorporating the concepts of ‘challenging’ and ‘realistic’ into players’ on-court experiences is important if they are to maximize that players development . However, understanding the concept of ‘progressive overload’ in the player’s training schedule, takes on a greater importance when fast tracking a player’s development. There are a number of ways to create an overload situation with your athlete.

Some of these are:

  • Technical: Hitting the ball harder: Still maintaining acceptable consistency and accuracy
  • Targeting: Improved placement with acceptable consistency
  • End range hitting: Attacking the ball outside a player’s strike zone with acceptable consistency
  • Mental: Tactical: Giving the player increased decision making responsibilities while maintaining shot quality.
  • Pressure: Developing games/ drills with added pressure or creating competitive environments during on court experiences.
  • Movement: Adding movement is perhaps one of the greatest ways to create an ‘overload’ situation in a training session, as well as developing tactical responses to a received ball.

While the movement to the ball places a greater strain on the quality of shot due to balance and end range issues, recovery off the shot requires the player to make a decision on how and where to hit the ball (i.e.) Will I hit a winner, hit through the court to give my opponent fewer options on the following shot ,or add more shape and spin to give me more time to recover?

All of a sudden we have the three areas of overload listed above,(Technical, Mental, Movement), all developed by having our players move to and off the ball each time they are involved in an on-court session. This can be commenced as soon as players are able to hit a ball over the net, and the movement distance and intensity will be progressively increased as the players get stronger and fitter.

See the importance of ‘Multi Skilling’ when fast tracking players development on pages 13 and 14.

As  younger players’ bone growth will outstrip their soft tissue growth, it is also important that coach’s programs for their players are responsive to the issues of movement and overload to prevent permanent damage to the player’s growth plates.  

(b) Specificity:  

We have mentioned how movement can develop a range of skills both technical, physical and tactical; however, it is just as important to ensure that these skills are developed in the context that they are going to be used. Here are some basic examples of lack of specificity.

How often do we see players hitting up and down a court to each other without any recovery off the ball ?

I am not sure whether players will rally up and down the line in a match. If they were to warm up across court with a recovery to the ‘singles recovery point’, their shot quality, movement and balance would improve, but so would their decision making. Players would have to decide when to hit for angle, when to hit through the court, or when to hit with greater racquet head speed or spin.

These decisions will be based on where they are situated when playing the shot , and their ability to recover to a defending or attacking recovery point.

See the section on Overload-Movement on page 4.

How often do we see coaches feeding balls to advanced players from a basket up near the net?

As players progress in standard, it is imperative that the ball is feed to them exactly the way it would be hit, and from the same position their opponent would have hit it from if they had been playing a match. By matching the ball feed to the player’s response, the player develops tactical awareness, variety and a sense of timing and rhythm of play.

See the section titled “High Performance Ball Feeding” 

How often do we see players hitting and running at high intensity for long periods of time?

With an understanding of how the player’s cardio-vascular system operates comes an understanding of how long to train your player, at what intensity, and what rest to give them. While some coaches at times train their athletes at high intensity for longer periods to ascertain their mental capabilities, (resilience, mental toughness), the best system to adopt is the following:

High intensity-low volume- longer rest

Low intensity-high volume-shorter rest   

As mentioned earlier in the paper, the game provides for 20 seconds between points, 60 seconds at the end of games, and a 90 second break at the change of ends, so the rests provided allow for high intensity play during the points.

Remember also that younger athletes do not have a developed aerobic system, and this does not allow them to recover after periods of intense work. Intensity itself is never an issue, only the length of time players work at intensity, and the amount of rest they have. The issue of ‘work-rest ratios’, has been covered in this paper on page 6.

(c) Variety:

Just imagine we had our favourite food every day of the week. It wouldn’t be long before it became one of our least favourite foods.  In the same way we need to change up the training regime of our players to continue to provide them with a training stimulus.

In the section under ‘Priority Coaching’ on page 3,  we have spoken about the concept of ‘variable learning’, surrounded by the development of other skills. This will provide variety and  maintain player confidence, and a wish to experiment, take risks and learn new things.

Variety can also be provided to a player’s program by some of the following ideas:

A change in training venue

Group training with another centre’s program

A guest coach from the ‘National Academy’ working with the players

Adding music to warm-ups

And so on and so on

(d) Recovery (During the session):

We have touched on recovery briefly in the section titled ‘Specificity’ on page 4 in this paper, as well as the section ‘Work-Rest Ratios’ on page 6. For coaches who understand the concept of developing a ‘Periodised Program’ for their athlete, they will also understand the concept of ‘Active Rest’ during the recovery phase.

‘Active Rest’ is where players are having a rest from tournament play and training, but are maintaining their fitness levels by continuing a lighter exercise regime such as swimming, running, bike riding etc.

In the same way, coaches can maximise their players contact time with their skill development by having the players involved in active rest instead of passive rest during training sessions. These periods during training sessions will have the athlete re-hydrating while being involved in very low intensity exercise such as:

Service line/ three quarter court hitting (hitting more balls in the same time)

Rhythm serving

Slow arm/ Fast hands hitting (easy power)

Half volley game (perception, improvising)

Between legs/ Behind back game (improvising)

And so on and so on

(e) Work-Rest-Ratios:

Mention was made of the twenty second break between points, sixty seconds between games, and the ninety second break at the change of ends. This in itself allows players to work at higher intensities during point play, although coaches will need to make adjustments to the number of balls hit at intensity by the players for the following reasons:

Aerobic System: The majority of athletes in the 10’s age group will not have a developed aerobic system, and their recovery from high intensity/ high volume exercise will be poor.

Growth Cycle: Players in the 9-14 year age group will have growth spurts at different times. Their bone growth will outstrip their soft tissue growth leading to the risk of injury. In an adult, the injury would probably occur as a strain or tear in soft tissue, (muscle, tendon, ligament).

Because a child’s growth plates are soft and not yet fused, (allowing for  future growth), the injury in a child will manifest itself as a bone chip off the growth plate. This in turn will create cartilage wear, eventually causing arthritis in that joint.

Work rest ratios simply applies the following formula to training drills:

Intensity: How hard the player is working (hitting harder, running faster)

Repetitions: Number of balls hit each drill/ point

Sets: Number of times the drill/ point is repeated

Volume: The number of repetitions and sets

Rest: The amount of time the player has  a break

When coaches are devising individualised on court experiences for their players, the simple rule to follow is:

High intensity-low volume- longer rest

Low intensity-high volume-shorter rest  

3 Creating opportunities in the time available to fast track a player’s development?

The major theme of this paper is theURGENCY’ and ‘COMMITMENT’ required to ‘Develop Internationally Competitive Tennis Players’. We have so far discussed the important training principles to adopt for our players in their on-court experiences, as well as recognising just which skills and fundamentals to teach our athletes. In this section we are going to explore ways to provide more opportunities for players to practise those ‘skills and fundamentals’ in their coaching and training, so that their rate of improvement is faster. In other words, we will explore ways to provide more meaningful repetition  to develop these identified skills.

Some practical examples are:

(a) High Performance Ball Feeding

(b) Player feeding/ Coach feeding In

(c) Co-operative practise

(d) Volleyer V Baseliner/ Three-quarter court/ Service line

(e) Variable learning

(f) No outs-Only out of reach

(g) More court time

(h) High Performance Hitters

(i) Ball pick Ups

(j) Multi skilling drills

(k) Commencing with a serve and return

(l) Goal setting/ Player assessments

(a) High Performance Ball Feeding

In the section on page 6 titled ‘Work-Rest Ratios ‘ the following was discussed:

Intensity, Repetitions, Sets, Volume, Rest

One of the tried and true methods for creating a training overload, and having your player hit more balls at a higher intensity, is through the use of ‘High Performance Ball Feeding’.  Even though the players are the best in the country for their age at ten, they are still unable to hit enough quality balls in a set to create a ‘training benefit’ with real overload advantages.  With ‘High Performance Ball Feeding’ drills, the coach has control of this process.

Some of the key ingredients for high performance ball feeding are:

Tactical and game style outcomes: If you subscribe to the philosophy of ‘function before form’, then all high performance ball feed drills should be constructed as part of a tactical outcome.

Here is a basic example for some of the feeding considerations below:

Tactics: Taking more balls on the forehand strength. This will also force the player to play shorter and wider into the backhand to keep the ball off the opponent’s forehand side. The opponent may also adopt the tactics of hitting up the line to get the opponent out of the forehand corner so that balls can be hit deep into their backhand. Serving to get more  return balls to the forehand side will also be part of the tactics.   

Feeding quality: Always hit the ball the same way it would have been hit if the player was playing a match. When players are younger, coaches will feed slowly with slice on the ball so that it stands up and is easier for the player to experience a degree of success. At a more advanced level, the ball needs to be hit harder and with heavy topspin for males, and slight topspin or flat for females, (females hit the ball flat or with less topspin that males).

Where the coach feeds from:  Always feed from the spot on the court that the ball would have been hit from if a match was being played. In a drill with the tactics listed above, the coach may return serve or feed  first from a spot where the serve was being hit to, to a spot at the player’s end where the serve was expected to elicit the response.

The coach would then move to feed the remaining balls from a spot where the player would be hitting the next ball to. In the tactics above, the player would hit the first groundstroke down the line into a right-hander’s backhand , so that they could move to the left of the centre to take more balls on the forehand.  Always ensure that the player is recovering to the correct recovery point after they have responded to each ball fed.

Timing of the feed:

Ensure that the next ball is fed when the previous ball would have been hit if the coach was returning it. Your ball feed should fit in with the player’s pace of shot so they feel they are in charge. They can then adjust their shot to match their own movement requirements.

Roaming feeding:

Always feed the next shot from where the player hit their previous shot. Do not stand in the one place beside the basket and feed. Before commencing the drill, place the basket in the position on court where the majority of balls will be fed from, and place some balls in your pocket to accommodate movement variations.

Feeding for ‘combinations’ versus ‘one offs’:

If you are training a single shot with repetition, and it is not part of a combination, it is acceptable to adjust the feed to fit in with the player’s recovery. This will allow them time to recover to the point on the court they would have been prior to hitting the shot. Let us take the tactical example given above, where a player is running around their backhand and taking more balls on their forehand side.

This could also provide them with some shorter balls on their backhand, as their opponent has to create angle in an attempt to get balls away from their forehand and into their backhand.

To develop backhands solicited by this tactic, the player may be fed balls to practice either backhand angles, backhand up the line or the backhand drop shot. Because they may commence from a position just on or inside the baseline before playing these shots, and recover to a position near the net after they have completed the shot, it is not practical to feed the next ball when the player’s shot passes the coach.

Thanks for reading part 1

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