Teaching tennis as an 0pen-skill sport...

Internationally, it is now well documented that tennis is an Open-skill sport -- a sport in which players must constantly adapt their movements to an ever-changing situation on the court.

Every time an opponent returns the ball, the receiving player must decide where to move, what shot to hit, and finally where to recover while awaiting the opponent's next move. Thus the player's movement and stroke execution must be continually adapted to the situation at hand.

Contrast this to a closed-skill sport (such as diving, figure skating, gymnastics, etc.). Here the objective is to execute pre-determined movements in a precise and repeatable way, based on an idealized model or form. In closed-skill sports, this is precisely how athletes gather points and win medals. Tennis matches, by contrast, are not won by amassing points from judges who sit at courtside, evaluating the extent to which the form of each stroke conforms to an idealised model.


In the 1980's, then Canadian Head National Coach, Louis Cayer systemized a method of instruction based on the principles of open-skill development. The approach was so effective that Tennis Canada adopted it as the official national coaching methodology. It's principles have now also been adopted by the International Tennis Federation and numerous countries.

Cayer's premise was that the way skills in an open sport are taught must also be adapted.

Closed-skill sports use "Models" to convey technique. A model is a series of standard movements that athletes must imitate to gain success. These models are labeled (e.g. "Double axle") and taught as the basic units of the sport.

In traditional tennis coaching, stroke models have been used as the basics of the sport for the last century (e.g. The forehand, The backhand, The volley, etc.).

In contrast to closed skills, an open skill must go through a 4 step process:

From Ace Coach Photos
  • Perception is the first step and is required to gather information regarding the situation (opponent, ball, etc.).

  • Decision is the second step and is required to select which tactic and technique must be used or adapted to the situation revealed in the perception.

  • Execution is the third step as the selected tactic and technique is performed.

  • Feedback is the final step as the performance and results must be assessed for future improvement. Every shot performed in a match follows these 4 steps of what is called in motor learning, "an information processing process".

Since adaptation to a situation is the key distinction between open and closed skills, open skills must emphasize the first two steps of the process for correct performance. A 'Model Based Methodology', with it's emphasis on the execution step, is inadequate when applied to tennis.

For example, when looking at the 'forehand groundstroke', a standard model will appear in the minds of most coaches and players. In recent years the content of the model has been changed to reflect the modern trends of the game (e.g. Semi-open stance, loop swing, Semi-western grip, etc).

Regardless of the model, the athlete must adapt it to the situation. Does the same technique occur if the forehand is performed from a wide ball or a 3/4 court low ball? Is it the same for an attacking shot, or a defensive one? Is it the same when receiving a high ball or sending a sharp angle?

When a model must be changed constantly to adapt to the situation it becomes the exception rather than the rule. For example, in observations conducted on advanced beginners (2.0 Play Tennis Rating), the amount of time the ball was in range to perform the standard 'model' groundstrokes was maximum 30%. In other words, when novice players play (not drill), they are required to adapt in ways they have never been taught 70% of the time!

A model based methodology impedes development of open skills because it falsely conveys there is a "one size fits all" technique that is good for every situation (e.g. "The basic forehand"). It relegates the first two steps of Perception and Decision-making to secondary positions when they are the basis for any technique performed in the execution step.

A model methodology is best suited for closed skill instruction. True, many players eventually discover that stroke adaptation is critical to real world tennis. But how long does it take to achieve a reasonable degree of success? Months? Years? We now know there is a much better and much faster way.


Traditional tennis coaching was based on the priority of conforming students to these models (in other words, treating tennis like a closed skill sport). The typical lesson consisted of a coach standing at mid-court delivering a soft feed to a student. Once the model stroke was reasonably stable, the coach sent the player back into the "real world", expecting the player to successfully use the carefully-polished stroke in a live rally or match play situation.

The typical result was the stroke quickly breaking down. Why? Because the player was not taught how to adapt it to real play situations. If the player returned to the coach for further work, the cycle was typically repeated.

In any open-skill sport, technique is not an end in itself as in closed-skill sports. In an open skill, the situation rules. The player must correctly perceive the tactical situation to decide on which tactic gives the best chance for success. Technique becomes only a means to execute a tactic. The player must know what they are trying to do before learning how to do it. Technique should never be divorced from tactics, no matter what the level of play.

Since every skill must go through the open skill process, it is more effective to teach a player how to play (perform tactics) by applying 'proper technique' rather than teaching them a model stroke and then tactics later. This 'tactics later' approach is not learner-centred because the 'proper technique' must always be adapted in ways not taught, applied to situations only mentioned, with decision-making skills never trained.

Tennis is a sport which requires many coordinated skills. The 21st century coach must have a deeper understanding of the nature of the sport and adjust his/her coaching accordingly.