Situation Training - Sample Lesson Plan

From Ace Coach Photos

One of the simplest and most powerful ways to do a Game-Based approach lesson is to use Situation Training. This is where we identify a frequently encountered situation at the student's level and present it as a problem-solving task to accomplish. Then, we set-up drills to groove the technical skills required to perform the outcome. Situation training allows students to maintain the feel of playing while getting the appropriate repetition to develop the skills of tennis.

No matter how interesting our 21st Century material may be, it will be of little practical use until you learn to apply it in your day-to-day teaching. It is in the tennis lesson that theory is transformed into practice.

To visualize how the lesson works, one can imagine an "Hourglass". In the first part of the lesson the "Big picture" of the situation is presented and experienced. This is called an "Open" Situation". The lesson progresses to "Closed" drills (the thin part of the Hourglass) that help students to master the specific skills required for success in the open situation. Finally, the lesson takes those skills and re-integrates them back into an open situation. Many coaches are familiar with the success of using a "Whole-part-whole" approach for technical skills. This is a similar concept only using tactics and techniques.

From Ace Coach Photos

Click on the Lesson stages below to see how each stage unfolds.


The beginning of every session starts with this opening stage. It has two key goals:

Warm-up: To physically prepare their bodies for activity (by raising body temperature) and help them to make the mental shift from 'life' to tennis focus.

Maintain Skills: Since they will do this on-court hitting warm-up every lesson, it is a perfect opportunity to reinforce fundamentals.

A typical Skill Maintenance routine includes players exchanging with each other in cooperative drills. A basic routine would include:

  1. Mini-Tennis Rally (service line to service line). Mini-tennis has both physical and mental components, and can be adapted for any skill level.
  2. Baseline Groundstroke Rally (crosscourt & down-the-line)
  3. Volleys to Groundstrokes
  4. Lobs to Overheads
  5. Serve & Return

Sample coach-player dialogue (notice how a number of fundamental skills are reinforced during this Mini-Tennis drill)

"Good morning everyone and welcome! Before we start our training session, let's get our mind and body prepared. With a partner, let's start a rally from serviceline to serviceline. This will give us a chance to loosen up and focus our minds on what we're doing. Remember to keep your feet moving between shots."

(Below are examples of how the coach can adapt a mini-tennis warm-up to various skill levels.)

NTRP 2.5

"Okay, now let's all concentrate on maintaining a continuous rally with the ball clearing the net by roughly the length of your racquet."

NTRP 3.5

"See how early you can determine where your partner is going to hit the ball. The sooner you know, the sooner you can begin to prepare your racquet and move into position. That's the key to avoiding a last minute rush to hit the ball."

NTRP 4.5

"Today let's concentrate on our breathing, always exhaling as we hit the ball."

NTRP 5.5

"Today I'd like everyone to concentrate on hitting with good topspin or underspin."

There are more possibilities available (slice groundstrokes, atttacking forehands, etc.). The coach must determine which routine suits the group best. The time of the routine varies from a 'fast' version (like the 10 minute warm-up allowed at many tournaments) to an extended version (45 minutes) that is a full-blown practice routine.

In a Game-based lesson, this stage is critical since, many different situations will be covered over the course of a year. This stage provides a regular opportunity to ensure players 'groove' their fundamentals.

Skills that aren't maintained will disappear in tennis. Once a skill is learned, it must be constantly reinforced to turn it into an automatic habit. Coaches can reinforce the skills learned in previous lessons by incorporating them into subsequent maintenance routines.

Here the coach sets up the lesson by introducing:

  1. The game play situation that will be the subject of the lesson, and
  2. The specific response (task) that will be the focus of the training.

The basic building block of a Situation Training lesson is the "Shot Situation". This is the sequence of events that happens from the time your opponent hits the ball, to your impact, and back to their impact again. This is sometimes also called I "Shot Cycle". The Shot Situation has two main components:

The Context:

The situation you present must be realistic - that is, it must be something that the players typically encounter in game play at their skill level. Describing a situation requires specifying:

Player locations: Where exactly are the player and the opponent on the court?

Ball Received Characteristics: What kind of ball is approaching? Specifically, what is its Direction, Height, Distance, Speed and Spin?

Other elements such as score, environmental conditions (e.g., wind, sun) can be added to the mix when considered important.

The Response:

Once you've laid out the situation, the response (task) to be trained must be described. For every situation, there will be one or more responses that are reasonable choices for players at the skill level you're teaching. Describing a response requires specifying:

Stroke to be used: Groundstroke, volley, overhead? Forehand or backhand? (There will often be several possibilities when the player is not pressed for time and can move to one of several positions on the court to intercept the approaching ball.)

Phase of Play: How aggressive or defensive should the response be? Specifically, should the player Attack, Force, Rally, Defend or Counter?

Ball Sent Characteristics: What kind of ball should the player return? Specifically, what Direction, net clearance, Distance, Speed and Spin?

Recovery Position: Where should the player move to await the next ball?

Remember that whatever responses you elect to teach for a given situation, they must be quality choices. If they are not, your students may not be motivated to learn them. If you sense any lack of motivation, you may need to "sell" the response to your students. Make sure they understand why it's a good choice.

Coaches' Note: The dialogue below assumes that players are at roughly the 2.5 (advanced beginner) level. However, the lesson theme (taking control of the point from the middle of the court by hitting angled shots to the sidelines) is relevant to all levels of play. We have taught versions of this lesson to players up to the 5.5 level.

Sample coach-player dialogue

Today, we're going to look at a common situation you'll all recognize from your game play. Imagine that you and your opponent are both at the baseline and engaged in a rally. Your opponent sends you a ball that is a little weaker than usual. It lands softly in the central part of the court, perhaps just past the service T, but it's not short enough to justify trying an approach shot. What should you do with that ball?

(students offer several ideas)

Those are all great answers. Let's zero in on Carol's suggestion. Have you ever had an opponent who made you run side-to-side across the court? Don't you hate that? Wouldn't you love to make your opponent do it? Well, here's a good chance for you to take control of the point and force your opponent to run.

Here's another question: Is it more difficult to hit a ball when you're stationary, or when you're on the run?

(students answer)

Right! If you can force opponents to hit on the run, there's a greater chance they'll make an error. And you're also going to tire them out more quickly. Even if they don't make an error, when they're out near the sideline returning a ball, that leaves you most of the court wide open for you to hit into.

*So, that's what we're going to practice this morning - moving ahead of the baseline to receive a weak rally ball landing near the middle of the court, and returning it with good angle to one of the court sidelines. We'll learn to do it on both the forehand and backhand sides since the principles are the same. Okay, let's see how it looks ... *

(coach now demonstrates)

*See how my opponent and I are in a rally baseline to baseline. When I see a ball that's coming down the middle of the court, and it's a little shorter and weaker ... like this one ... I move in and and put pressure on the opponent by hitting the ball to one of the sidelines ... like this! After the shot, I need to position myself for the next ball by recovering over here ... *

The goal here is to assess your players' ability to successfully perform the task, and to determine where they need to work to improve their performance. To do this, you'll first need to put them into a realistic playing situation. Although game/point play is a possibility, it's most likely that you'll want to narrow the focus, and recreate the specific situation (that part of a tennis point) in which you're interested.

In analyzing a player's performance, the 21st Century coach must first look at two things:

  1. The player's effectiveness (Can the player consistently hit the ball into the target area with the appropriate speed and spin?), and
  2. The player's efficiency (Is the player's execution biomechanically efficient?).

The first of these - effectiveness - will tell you the nature of the work you'll probably need to do. The following table provides some working guidelines:

0-50% Success = Rework: Substantial changes will likely be required.

50-80% Success = Refine: Make minor changes to improve performance.

80-100% Success = Elevate: Take the player to the next level by making the task more challenging.

Once you know the nature of the work to be done, the next question is: What exactly should you work on?

Another way of phrasing this is: Of all the things you could work on, which one(s) will likely be of greatest benefit to the player(s), given their current skill level and future aspirations?

In general, you should be looking for one thing that will be the focus of your teaching in the next stage of the lesson.

The analysis performed in traditional coaching typically focused almost exclusively on technique - often trying to force the student to conform to some idealised "form". We now know that this has been a shallow approach, and has probably hindered more players than it has helped. 21st Century coaches must use a more comprehensive or "Holistic" approach. Specifically, we must look simultaneously at four areas:

Tactical: Decision-making is the core of tactical tennis play. Tactics must come before technique, and technique must always be adapted to suit the tactic. Tactical decisions the player must make include:

+Where to receive the approaching ball +The shot to be executed +The recovery position after the shot

Technical: Good technique is critical, but we now know that it's more important to focus on sound biomechanics, rather than force the student into some idealised "form". (The variations in the way professional players execute their strokes provide ample testament to this.)

Psychological: Mental factors are crucial in determining a player's success at all levels, from closing out a match to successfully executing a shot during a point. Does the player have a productive attitude? Is the player able to control their focus? What is the player's intensity level (i.e., their commitment to make a shot)? These are factors that are often overlooked by coaches, but they can have an enormous effect on a player's performance.

Physical: Physical condition is a foundation of quality, injury-free tennis. As the level of play increases, so too do the physical demands. Important physical elements include: flexibility, agility, strength, power, speed, aerobic & anaerobic endurance, recovery, and so on. Nutrition is also an important factor in this area.

When analysing a player's performance from the physical perspective, the question the coach needs to ask is this: Is the player physically capable of performing the shot, playing the point, completing a game/set/match ... without risking injury? When physical training is required, the bulk of it should be scheduled outside of the player's normal lesson time.

Coaches' Note: In a private lesson, your analysis can be more in depth than in a group lesson. When dealing with groups, for simplicity you may want to pre-plan several key observation points. Also, when selecting your teaching point(s) for the next stage of the lesson, with groups you'll generally need to compromise and pick something that will generally benefit everyone. However, as you gain experience, you may be able to customize your teaching points for individual players in the group, as long as the group is not too large.

Sample coach-player dialogue

Okay! We're now going to play out some points, beginning with that weak ball down the middle. I'll start the points off by sending you the weak ball. Attempt your shot and play out the point with me. Then rotate to the back of the line and give the next person a turn. I'll give everyone a chance to try this 5 times.

Notice that I've set up target areas by the sidelines. Give yourself one point if you land your first shot in one of the target areas. Everyone keeps track of their own points. Okay, let's play!

(the coach observes and analyses the effectiveness and efficiency of the targeted shot, looking for a key teaching point for the next stage of the lesson)

Okay, how many points did everyone get? ...

After the coach gathers the information, they must "present their findings" to the group. This presentation shows the professionalism of the coach by engaging the players in the process. It also presents compelling reasons for the players to commit to the changes they may need to go through in the remainder of the lesson.

E.g. "As we were playing I noticed that we only put the ball away from the opponent 40% of the time. Most of our shots went back to the middle. if we are going to capitalize on this opportunity, we need to place the ball further to the sides of the court."

Here the coach gives players an opportunity to practice the task in a controlled situation, and ensures that they get an appropriate volume of quality repetition.

The drill starts with the coach showing the players exactly what they need to work on to improve their success in performing the task. That "what" - the teaching point(s) you've selected - will be based on what you've observed in the preceding Evaluation stage.

The key component here is a quality visual demonstration, accompanied by a simple verbal explanation. It is important that you demonstrate the target skill in context, once again reinforcing the players' understanding of where and when the skill is actually used in game play.

In your demonstration, you should highlight your selected teaching point(s) and, in general, there should only be one. The reason for this is that few players can successfully concentrate on more than one thing at a time. The teaching point you select may be something technical, tactical or mental in nature -- whatever you feel that will be of most benefit to your players. (Any physical deficiencies should generally be addressed outside of formal lessons, often via prescribed off-court training.) If you really feel you must cover several points at this stage (and can successfully do so during the time available), you should present them one at a time. However, when you move on to the next stage (Drilling), make sure that you don't ask players to focus on more than one thing at a time.

In summary, keep these points in mind:

  • Ensure that players are well-positioned to observe your demonstration.
  • Give 3-5 visual demonstrations of the skill in context.
  • Keep your accompanying verbal explanation simple.
  • Focus on a single teaching point.
  • Give players keywords to help focus their attention on what's important.

Sample coach-player dialogue

*When we see that weak ball coming down the middle, here's how we take control of the point and put our opponent on the run. Our main challenge (the one that most of you had trouble with) is to direct the ball accurately. Watch as I hit the ball and see if anyone can tell me how I control the direction of the ball, sending it to one of the sidelines. *

(players provide feedback)

*Yes! As you all saw, it was the angle of my racquet at contact that determined the direction of the shot. Watch again and focus on that angle. *

When introducing a drill, put players into their positions first, and take them through a "dry run" which incorporates any player rotation. This is much clearer than trying to explain the drill verbally. Have the players start the drill in slow motion, and highlight where you want them to focus their attention. Once the players understand how the drill works, you can add additional elements (rules, scoring, etc.) and speed up the pace.

The feedback you give players during the drill will more effective if it makes them think. This will help them become independent problem solvers. Rather than telling them what to do, ask questions and guide them to find the correct answers.

Sample coach-player dialogue

*Let's do a drill to practice this. Here are everyone's starting positions. (coach explains) Everyone move into place, and I'll show you how the drill will run ... Ready? Okay! Each player will get 4 repetitions per turn. The goal is to direct the ball to your partner by ensuring that the racquet head has the correct angle at the impact point. (coach demonstrates) Give yourself 1 point each time the ball lands within the target area. *

We'll start by hand feeding each other. Then we'll progress to feeding with the racquet ,and finally to a live rally situation. We'll do this for 8 minutes and we'll switch partners every 2 minutes. Let's go!

(drill begins)

*Thomas! See how the ball landed in the target area? Did you feel the racquet angle at impact? It was exactly right! *

Gabriela, why do you think the ball went down the centre? What could you do to angle it more?

Pete, was that a good time to try this shot? What cues told you it was?

Here the coach revisits the task laid out in the Shot Situation stage of the lesson and first attempted by the students in the Evaluation stage.

Having students perform this task once again will have a powerful "before" & "after" effect. The students will see their improvement (or at least realize how much more comfortable and confident they are when they encounter the situation in live game play). It is often a good process to progress the drilling from basket feeding to "live" ball drills. This progression of drilling helps maximize the integration of the skill.

Remember that the ultimate goal of a lesson is to equip the players to use their newly acquired skills when they play. During the lesson, you've helped them develop the skills to do this. Any keywords you've given them to help focus their attention on what they need to do to succeed will help them retain what they've learned. They'll be able to use those keywords in future practice or play.

Sample coach-player dialogue

"Okay, everyone! Now that we've developed a new tactic and the skills to deal with that weak ball down the middle that we sometimes receive in a rally, let's replay those points we tried at the beginning of the lesson. Let's see how much we've improved in recognizing and responding to that weak ball, and see if there's anything that still needs more work. When you see that weak ball approaching, remember our keyword: "angle".

The main goal for this closing stage is to help players make a physical and mental transition from the tennis lesson back to their normal world. Light aerobic activity helps the body cool down (it's especially important to do this if the training was intense). Mini-tennis is again very useful for this purpose, and it can be adapted to players at any skill level.

If the training was of low or moderate intensity, simply walking around and collecting balls will probably be an adequate physical cool-down.

Reviewing the lesson before players leave is always a good idea. Asking them to describe the situation and the response(s) they worked on during the lesson is an excellent way of checking and reinforcing their understanding. You should also give players a chance to ask any questions they may have.

When your players leave, you should feel confident that they are equipped to practice on their own, and that they are clear on what to do during their normal game play whenever they encounter the situation they've just worked on.

Sample coach-player dialogue

Okay, let's summarize what we've learned. Follow me as we walk through the situation we faced today. Everyone come over here behind the baseline and let's imagine we're rallying with an opponent. What kind of approaching ball tells us we can take control of the point and put our opponent on the run?

(students provide answers to this and the following questions from the coach)

Where do we want to put the ball? What will this do to the opponent? How can we angle the ball more sharply to the sidelines? Where should we recover after the shot? What keywords can we use to remember the important points? Does anyone have any questions?

Excellent! I'll see you all at our next lesson.