Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Representative Design of Tennis Lessons

Below is a write up of a talk I gave, minus some graphics, at the Brunswik Society's annual meeting in Minneapolis in November of 2004. The Brunswik Society examines judgment and decision-making using a methodology inspired by the work of Egon Brunswik (1903-1955).

The game of tennis provides a rich environment for judgments and decision making. Tennis players must evaluate the speed, spin, height, and direction of incoming balls. They must respond physically and mentally to those variables. The physical response involves moving to intercept the incoming ball. The mental response involves choosing the shot the player intends to hit in response to the incoming ball.

The incoming ball is not the only factor in those judgments and decisions, however. There is also another player involved, or multiple other players if the game is doubles rather than singles. The player’s judgment regarding the incoming ball will be influenced by the actions of the other player – size and direction of the other players’ swing, the location of the other player on the court, e.g. – and by what the player knows about the opposing player – proficiency with various strokes, ability to hit shots from different court positions, facility in hitting on the move, e.g..

If the game is played outside, the wind, the sun, and the court surroundings also vary significantly from match to match and even from point to point. The court surface itself also varies, as does, within limits, the size, weight and aerodynamic characteristics of the ball itself.

Finally a tennis player must make these judgments, make these decisions, and take these actions in an environment with differing levels of emotional stress. A player simply hitting with a friend will experience different emotions than that same player competing in a match with that same friend, playing in a tournament against a stranger, playing in a national championship match against a known foe, or taking a lesson from a coach.

It is the comparison to and contrast with the environment of the tennis match and the environment of the tennis lesson with a coach that we will examine in detail in this paper.

Classic Tennis Lesson

Typically a tennis player will approach a coach or a teaching professional seeking to improve his or her tennis game. That help will most often be in the form of a lesson on a particular tennis stroke – the serve, the forehand, the backhand, volleys, etc. The professional or coach will then schedule an hour lesson with the individual. What will that hour consist of and what will be the lesson environment?

The coach will most often arrive on court with a large basket of tennis balls. The coach will ask the player what stroke is giving him or her trouble. The backhand is a common problem so we’ll use that example briefly. The coach will examine the player’s grip on the racquet. The coach will “feed” a few balls to the player and have the player execute the backhand. The coach will observe the motion of the backhand in an attempt to see any stoking flaws that can be corrected during the lesson, or during subsequent follow-up lessons. Perhaps the student is having trouble hitting topspin backhands and the coach observes that the player is not swinging upwardly toward the ball and therefore cannot hit the ball with the desired spin. The coach will demonstrate to the player how to make a proper swing to hit a topspin backhand. Perhaps the coach will take the player’s arm and hand and help the player move through the proper swing path.

The coach will then typically return to the basket of balls on the other side of the net and begin feeding balls to the player so the player can work on executing the new motion. The player will then hit dozens of backhands, usually to a specified target across the net, while the coach provides verbal and visual feedback to the student on whether the stroke conforms to the model offered by the coach.

After dozens of attempts, the coach may again return to the player’s side of the net and reinforce the proper stroking pattern, and then resume feeding balls so the player can do some more practice under the helpful eye of the coach.

After the agreed upon amount of time has elapsed, the coach and the player will compare impressions of the progress during the lesson. The coach will suggest some exercises and drills that the players can do on his or her own that will aid the development of the desired stroke. Normally the coach and the player will agree on another lesson in a week or so to see what progress has been made.

Typically quite a bit of progress is made during a lesson of this kind. Players will very often perform a stroke better at the end of a lesson than during the lesson. Unfortunately, that improvement can be difficult to take to the court without the coach feeding balls and providing the feedback in the manner in which those elements took place in the tennis lesson.

A closer look at the match environment compared to the lesson environment might provide clues as to why that may be the case.

Match Versus Lesson Environment

As we described initially above, the match environment provides a thorough test of the perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and motor skills of the player. The lesson environment focuses mainly on the motor skills and the kinesthetic awareness of the path of the arm, hand and racquet on a particular stroke.

The lesson environment is set up to be stable, certain, comfortable for the player, predictable, cooperative, coach driven, and to a large extent focused on a closed skill.

In contrast, the match environment is nearly the exact opposite of all those characteristics. A tennis match is unstable, tending to large swings with small changes in any number of variables. A match environment is uncertain as regards the outcome, of course, but also as regards the behavior of the opponent, the incoming balls, the results of shots, both well-hit and not well-hit. A match is rarely a comfortable environment. A player must work hard physically, mentally, and emotionally in a match. Rather than knowing what sort of shots are coming and what short of shot a player should hit, a match is very much an unpredictable environment.

During a lesson, both the player and the coach are striving for the same goal – improved play. Therefore the environment is one of cooperation. A tennis match, by contrast and by definition, is a competitive environment. Only one player (or team) wins a tennis match.

Unlike during a lesson, the player, not the coach, drives a tennis match. The player must make all the decisions on what shot to hit and where. The player must be self-motivated. The player will not receive feedback from the coach during a match. The player in a tennis match must learn to get feedback from his or her own body and from the environment rather than from a coach as is the case during a tennis lesson.

How Can this Situation be Improved?

The typical tennis lesson is not the only way to structure a tennis lesson. Rather than operating in an environment very different from the match environment, a coach can structure lessons in such a way as to more nearly represent the match environment. In that way a coach can help a player improve specific strokes – with more likelihood that improvements in specific strokes will show up in matches – and the coach can also help the player improve the other areas so vital to tennis match success.

A representative design of a tennis lesson includes work on all the areas mentioned above, specifically the perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and physical demands of tennis.

The coach can help the student’s perceptions and judgments of incoming balls by varying the speed, height, direction, and spin of his or her feeds. The pro can also move around the court as he or she hits shots to his student. This will help the student judge incoming balls and help the student see different openings on the court depending upon where the ball is coming from.

By letting the student choose the targets and the type of shot he or she will use to respond to the ball fed by the coach, a coach helps a student learn decision-making, the principle cognitive activity during a tennis point.

A coach may also introduce emotional stress into the lesson environment through creative scoring methods. By putting pressure on a student in the lesson a coach can help a student perform under the pressure of a match.

A coach can also enhance the motor skill of a player beyond what happens in a typical lesson. Rather than having the player hit an isolated stroke from a single location on the court, the coach can stress the dynamic aspect of tennis by moving the player around significantly. The coach can also insist that the recovery for the next shot be an integral part of every stroke. By moving a player around and insisting on a recovery after each hit, the coach trains dynamic balance and tactical dimensions of tennis shotmaking, all while helping a player improve a particular stroke.

Example of Adult Doubles Clinic

In order to demonstrate the process of introducing representative design into tennis lessons, we’ll now offer up an example. In the winter and spring of 2004 I sought to improve my adult doubles clinics by making the clinics more closely represent the match environment. My goal was to train the players on the shots and situations that they encountered most frequently. I wanted to introduce uncertainty into their lessons. Finally I wanted to train decision-making under some stress.

In order to achieve these goals, I had to learn something about the match environment faced by my adult tennis students. I had several groups of students, adult men and women ranging in age from thirty years to seventy years old. All of the players fell within the USTA’s NTRP level 3.0 to 4.0 range. Since these people came to weekly clinics with me, I had the opportunity to observe them in match play. I used the last half hour of each weekly clinic to have them play doubles. As they played, I gathered data on their matches.

At first my data gathering consisted of simple charting of their points. On a piece of paper I noted how long each point lasted (by total number of hits of the ball), how the point ended (by error or by winner), and where on the court the last person was located when they struck the last shot. This allowed me to learn some important facts about their tennis.

First, I learned that their points tended to be fairly short. Less than half the points they played (roughly 45%) lasted beyond the third hit of the ball. Over seventy percent of their points lasted four hits or less. They played some long points to be sure, but the vast majority of their points were over quickly.

I was also able to tell how those points ended, by error or by winner. For my group, the errors greatly outnumbered the winners. Of points ending with the serve, my players double faulted three times as often as they hit aces and service winners. The story on the return of serve was similar, three times as many errors as winners on the return of serve. The third hit of the ball showed errors outnumbering winners, but the gap began to close. There were only 50% more errors (approx) than winners on the third hit of the ball. Beyond the third hit, the errors and winners were roughly equal.

From my data, I was able to learn that the single most common way for a point to end was on a return of serve error.

Having learned that the points were short and that early in the points errors outnumbered winners, I turned to the analysis of where on the court the player striking the ball was located. I excluded serves and returns of serve from the location analysis.

For the location analysis I divided the court into three areas. The area of the court closest to the net I called the Finishing Zone. I defined the Finishing Zone as the area from the net to five feet inside the service line. Next I defined the Back Court as the area of the court from three feet inside the baseline all the way back to the back fence. That left the area between the Finishing Zone and the Back Court. That area I defined as the Transition Zone.

From my charting sheet I could add up the numbers of errors and winners from each zone of the court, defined above. In the Back Court, the number of both winners and errors were low, just 17 winners and 11 errors. The majority of points ended with the ball being struck by a player in the Transition Zone. In this area, errors greatly outnumbered winners: 110 errors to 30 winners. The Finishing Zone was where the players had the most success, with winners exceeding errors 91 to 45, a ratio of over 2:1.

From this analysis it looked like playing balls from the Transition Zone was a particularly bad idea. It looked like my players were not very good from that area of the court. But in order to test that idea, I needed data on how many shots they hit from there, not just how many shots from there ended points. In order to know that, I resorted to video tape so I could capture every strike of the ball.

From my analysis of the video tapes, I learned that my adult doubles players played most of their shots (excluding serves and returns) from the Transition Zone. My players hit 280 shots form the Back Court, 460 shots from the Transition Zone, and 210 shots from the Finishing Zone. Having all the shots and the results of each shot allowed me to calculate error and winner rates from the three court areas. From those video taped playing sessions I found the following error and winner rates by zone:

Back Court: 14% error rate, 3% winner rate
Transition Zone: 22% error rate, 11 % winner rate
Finishing Zone: 20% error rate, 32% winner rate

From this data it was clear that striking the ball from the Transition Zone was a bad idea while striking the ball from the Finishing Zone was a good idea. The Back Court was a bad place from which to attempt hitting a winner, but had a lower error rate overall than the other two court areas.

So armed with all this data and analysis, how did I structure my lessons to represent the match environment?

First I prioritized my drills around shots that happened frequently. That is, I set up drills that put players in situations they would face in the first four hits of the ball. Those first four hits comprised 70% of all points played.

Second, I emphasized consistency from the back court. With a very, very low winner rate on hits from the back court, I set up drills to teach my players how to hit the ball safely from the back court and discouraged their urges to go for winners from back there.

Third I emphasized offense from the front of the court. I set up drills where the front player was encouraged to look for and hit into open areas of the court with the goal of ending the point with a winner.

Finally I stressed tactical awareness as it related to positioning and shot selection. I discouraged my players from choosing to advance or retreat into the Transition Zone early in points. I encouraged my players to avoid hitting shots to opponents who were in the Finishing Zone on the opposite side of the net, but encouraged them to get the ball to any opponent who ventured into the Transition Zone.

With these distal goals in mind, we could interrupt practice to work on specific shots that were useful. We would work on those shots in the context in which the players were most likely to use those shots. Players were not simply instructed on hitting angle volleys, but were instructed on where to be when attempting an angle volley, when and where to aim an angle volley, and how to hit an angle volley with a little or a lot of pace depending upon the situation. Then we would return to match-type situations where the players had to choose among the various options and execute the best shot. We would almost always use the shots in competitive game situations.

The result was perceptually, cognitively, emotionally, and physically challenging lessons. Players were continually asked to read, react, make decisions, execute shots, and recover in all drills. Drills involved live balls, game scoring, and objective measures of success. These lessons were not always as comfortable as typical tennis lessons, but the players found that the skills they learned transferred much better to their match play.

As the old saying goes, “you play the way you practice.”

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