The game has changed over the last 30 years. With players hitting harder, athleticism increasing, and racquet technology, it is a different ball game. Only recently has coaching started to catch up. This is due to the increased access to solid sports science that coaches now have access to.
Tennis is a game, and people need to learn not only how to stroke, but how to play as well. Playing requires not only physical motor skills but cognitive skills like problem-solving and decision-making. This means the tactical development of a player is every bit as important as their technical development. The Game-based approach maintains the fun of playing by either scaling the game down for success (for starter players), or placing players into commonly encountered tennis situations. Either way, players learn as they play. Tactics and techniques all weave together. The Game-based approach teaches players in harmony with the true nature of tennis. That tennis is an ‘open skill’ which balances both the motor and cognitive aspects of a player.
So, in its simplest form, my definition of the Game-based approach is:
“Get players to play, and help them to learn to play better”
GAME-BASED APPROACH KEYS
If a coach (program, club, country, etc.) wants to move to a Game-based approach, there are 4 keys that can help:
#1: Keep the Game in View
Since tennis is actually all about playing (not ‘drilling’ or ‘stroking’), it is good to keep the purpose and objectives of the game constantly in front of a player. All to often, in traditional tennis coaching, the entire lesson time was spent getting players to have better ‘form’. The technique became an end in itself. Once a player could mimic the ‘proper’ form, the lesson was done. Coaches were ‘stroke teachers’ rather than play enhancers.
It was not unheard of that coaches would even impose the idea that players shouldn’t be allowed to play until they learned to, ‘play properly’. Imagine how the fun of playing tag would be killed if a coach put players into a series of agility and footwork lessons before they were allowed to play. This is often what is being done to the fun of tennis!
Even with players just starting (whether juniors or adults), the game can be kept in view by scaling it down to a size where they can play with success (e.g. Red, Orange & Green Tennis). They then can have the whole game progress and expand as they develop.
#2: Teach tactics (what to do) before/with technique (how to stroke)
The change in method from the traditional teaching procedure to a GBA is in the positioning and relationship of tactics to technique. Traditional tennis taught a “technique first, then tactics later’ order. The key is to reverse that and help players learn what to do (tactics), then help them learn how to perform technique as a means to perform the tactic.
#3: Use Principle-based technique
Although technique in a GBA is second (subservient to tactics), it is by no means secondary. It is very important. In traditional coaching, the ‘proper’ technique was defined by a set of idealized stroke models (the forehand, backhand, volley, etc.). Since tennis is defined as an open skill, technique needs to be adapted to different situations, This means stroke models become insufficient to adequately equip players. What is the ‘proper’ stroke when the most successful players in the game all have different styles and, something as basic as a forehand needs to be technically adapted for high balls, low balls, sending different spins, trajectories on the run, from the middle, etc., etc. Rather than stroke models to conform to, technical instruction needs to emphasize the general principles that are true in all situations.
Playing successfully requires technique that allows players to be effective (get the ball where they want) and efficient (biomechanically sound). For example, where to end the follow-through is a ‘form’ issue. It changes depending on the grip, the path of the racquet, the purpose of the shot, etc. Rather than teaching all players to end their follow-though at a specific point, it is more successful to teach the purpose of the follow-through. These include maintaining or accelerating the racquet through the contact and having the proper racquet path for the intended shot. If these are correct, the shot will be successful and there will be an appropriate follow-through.
#4: Train Situations (not just strokes)
Players can learn the game by being placed in level-appropriate situations. These situations should be common ones that they encounter when they play. This “Situation Training” helps players develop their problem-solving and decision-making skills. It requires the coach to program sessions based on situations (e.g. Maintaining a rally from the centre of the court). Traditionally, lessons were programmed based on strokes (lesson #1, ‘The Forehand’, Lesson #2: ‘The Backhand”, etc.). This type of stroke lesson programming stuck coaches in a model approach rather than a Game-based one. In contrast, a GBA session would follow a simple Play/Practice/Play structure:
- Start with a playing situation where the coach analyzes the skills needed for the players(s) to be more successful.
- Drill the specific skills uncovered in the analysis (could be psychological, physical, tactical, technical)
- Integrate the skills back into the original situation
Rather than conforming to specific stroke models, the goal of GBA development is to build and expand the ‘library’ of solutions players have to the situations they encounter when they play.
Training skills in situations is simply a reflection of the evolution in learning that has developed in multiple fields as learning moves away from ‘rote’ repetition to application of principles to specific contexts. (e.g. “Contextualized learning” in the field of Education, the ‘case study’ approach in business and medicine, etc.) .
The Game-based approach is a more effective way to teach the game of tennis since it equips the players with all the tactical and technical skills needed for successful play. In 1999, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) endorsed the approach at its World-wide Coaches Conference.