(Keys to training in a Game-based Approach)
As coaching moves away from the technical ‘stroke model’ methodology and towards a Game-based approach (GBA), new coaching tools are needed. In the past, the tools coaches used to plan and structure lessons were the technical stroke models (e.g. the forehand, backhand, serve, etc). Coaches who use a GBA but continue to build lessons and plans around strokes risk being sucked back into model methodology. For a GBA, stroke models make poor planning tools since they ignore tactical elements. Effective GBA training combines tactical and technical learning.
The strength of the GBA lies in the fact that tactics (what to do) is placed before technique (how to do). Tactics include critical elements required for successful gameplay like decision-making, problem solving, anticipation, etc. A very effective way to keep tennis training on track with a GBA is to use what I like to call “Situation Training” (ST). During training, the effectiveness of drills can be improved when they are about situations rather than strokes.
In learning (whether business, medicine or tennis), the rule is: “The transfer of learning between any two situations is directly proportionate to the degree they are similar”. In other words, skills will transfer poorly from training or drills if practice does not re-create a realistic, game-play environment. This is the pitfall with many basket feeding drills. As a result, some proponents of GBA outright reject basket drilling as a tool coaches should use. However, even basket feeding drills can be used effectively in a GBA if Situation Training is employed.
Whether playing chess or tennis, the foundation of playing any game is tactical. Tactics are ways to win the game. They employ the relationships between the player, an opponent(s), and the elements of the game (e.g. a ball, the court, etc). Using situations as building blocks brings together all the elements of tennis (tactics, decision-making, problem-solving, technique, psychology, etc).
For tennis, we can incorporate all these elements by placing them in a situational framework and emphasizing the proper relationship between tactics and technique.
Three key elements are the core of the Situation Training system all wrapped around the acronym GPS:
G: Game Situations
P: Progression of tactics to techniques
S: Shot Cycle
G: THE 5 GAME SITUATIONS
The ST system starts with the ‘big picture’ tactical categories. These describe the general situations (relationship to opponent and court) players could be in during any point.
Every point in tennis begins with the serve (either 1st serve or 2nd serve).
Unless there is a double fault, every point includes a return of serve.
- Both Back:
This is where the players are located on or near the baseline.
- Approaching & at Net:
This situation includes the player moving forward and everything they can do at net.
This is the contrasting corollary to the ‘Approaching & at Net’ Situation where the player is trying to pass or lob.
Note: Every point obviously may not include all of the situations (e.g. a Serve & Volley pattern may skip the Both Back Situation). However, all of them need to be trained to develop a complete player. In every one of the 5 Game Situations, players can perform Neutral, Offensive or Defensive shots (except serving).
P: PROGRESSION OF TACTICS TO TECHNIQUE
In ST, technique is second (behind tactics) but never secondary. It is a critical component of tennis development. However, as mentioned previously, a traditional ‘Model methodology’ with its emphasis on mimicking an idealized version of a stroke, does not provide the flexibility and technical adaptation to use with ST.
ST becomes an alternative method for developing technique. It provides technical principles (not models) to use.
The following diagram tells the ‘story’ of the relationship between tactics and technique in ST:
- To win in tennis, Tactics are required
- Tactics occur in Situations (Shot Cycle)
- The technique required to successfully execute any tactic consists of Ball Control (what the ball must do to perform the tactic) and Fundamentals (What the player and racquet must do to make the Ball Control happen).
- Fundamentals include Racquet work, Bodywork and Footwork.
This diagram is critical, as it shows that technical feedback must be able to be traced to a tactic. Technique only exists as a way to perform tactics. For example, a model-based coach may provide the technical feedback to ‘Follow-through’ on a FH groundstroke. It is an ‘isolated’ technical instruction, not particularly connected to actually winning more points.
In contrast, a coach using ST would first identify the tactic, e.g. ‘Place the ball deeper to push an opponent back in a rally’. To do that, the ball must travel a greater distance (Ball Control). Distance can come through increasing the height, adding speed or manipulating spin. In this case, the coach chooses height (to provide a better arc). The Racquet work Fundamental that makes that happen would be increasing the low-to-high path of the racquet through impact. The feedback then becomes, ‘Swing more from low-to-high as your hitting the ball to get more arc on the ball and send it deeper’. Any technical instruction should be about making the ball do what it needs to implement a tactic. Just to be clear, a player could have a large follow-through (which is simply a way to look better) and not affect the distance at all.
This is often called Tactical/Technical coaching. It is also possible to progress from the technical end of the diagram to the tactical (called Technical/Tactical coaching).
An example of Tech/Tac would be helping a player learn to receive the ball at different speeds at net to work on their ability to adapt to Neutral, Offense and Defensive situations. No specific situation is being trained but, the skills for several situations are being improved.
S: SHOT CYCLE
The next element of Situation Training is to define the situation more narrowly. For more specific training, coaches can use the “Shot Cycle” which describes the cycle of events that happen during an individual shot, from the player’s impact to the opponent’s, and back again.
This framework gives coaches a critical tool to systematically organize training tactically.
It allows lesson construction (‘Coach, I would like to work on this situation that happened to me at the tournament’), unit planning (‘This month we will cover these situations’), and the creation of drills (‘Our next drill will be about what to do in a crosscourt rally situation’).
The Shot Cycle includes two main ‘halves’. A tactical Situation that presents a challenge to the player and a Response that deals with the challenge.
- The Situation incorporates all the elements that happen when the player receives the ball (their location on the court which is about where they are in relation to the opponent and the characteristics of the ball received).
- The Response includes all the elements required to answer the challenge (the stroke family used, the Phase of Play, the characteristics of the ball sent, and where to recover to begin a new cycle).
By using the appropriate Shot Cycle elements, training becomes ‘game relevant’ and fits into a GBA. For example, a lesson or a drill could start with this introduction to a context (try to picture it on the court with players):
“In a Both Back situation, the opponent was located deep behind their baseline and the player was near their baseline (Location). The opponent sent a high ball with topspin deep to the player’s backhand side (Ball received). ”
The Shot Cycle diagram can also be represented in the following chart form:
The coach can either set up the situation and let the player try to solve it (with guidance) or guide students into selecting a Response before the drill begins and jump right into training it. The player should always be part of creating their solution. If the player has a sense of solving the problem on their own, they will become better problem-solvers. If the coach gives them solutions, it short-circuits the player’s ability to become a self-sufficient player. To train appropriately, the drill must re-create the Situation. To reproduce the situation successfully, feeding becomes critical for repetition (whether basket or live ball feeding from a partner).
It is worth mentioning that this process is also the basis for creating hundreds of drills. How many situations do your players need to master? Every competition they play will produce many situations they need to work on. This is a far more useful way to practice than going through countless general ‘forehand’ & ‘backhand’ drills.
By understanding the components of Situation Training, coaches can create new drills or, change elements of the drills they currently use to increase their realism. For example, a coach could take a single file line drill with players hitting crosscourt forehands and evolve the following elements:
- The position of the feeder (re-create the opponent’s location) and the characteristics of the ball fed to recreate a specific situation The starting location of the hitter and their recovery after the shot (start in a realistic position based on ‘the shot before’ the one being trained)
- Determine the key decisions required in the situation
- Determine the appropriate Phase of Play for the hitter (Neutral, Offense, Defense?)
- Measure the characteristics of the ball sent required to successfully perform the tactic (did the ball have sufficient direction, distance, height, speed and spin to be effective?)
- Position opponent’s to re-create a competitive environment (after the feed, have an opponent ready to continue the point)
These are just some of the changes that would make the drill practical and more transferable to match play.
Coaches can increase their effectiveness by using a Situation Training framework that harmonizes with a GBA. The basic elements of the Situation Training system can be remembered by the acronym GPS (5 Game Situations, Progression of Tactics to technique, Shot Cycle).
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