Whether with juniors or adults, effective player development is not only a matter of quantity but quality as well. To improve the quality, there is both a science of player development (what skills to develop) and the art (the order they are developed, how things are sequenced together, etc.). Most coaches, players, and parents would agree that quality is important, the question is, “quality of what”?
The trap that many fall into is the narrow view that player development is only about technique. It is not uncommon to see coaches who have, at worst, a ‘technical only’, or at best, a ‘Technical-first approach’. A quick look at the internet easily reveals tennis’ obsession with technique.
While technique is a critical component, it is not the only one. Disregarding others will often lead to developing players who may look good, but cannot play the game successfully. So what are the other components a player needs?
Internationally, the world’s top coaches agree on 4 main components that are required to develop a complete player. These are called, the 4 Performance Factors:
These are not new. However, coaches normally don’t spend time developing them all. The 4 Factors typically live in separate ‘silos’, and other ‘experts’ are often called in to deal with them. Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely helpful to have experts in other fields but, the challenge is, it is the coach who sees the player most frequently and has the biggest opportunity to impact all 4 Factors. Also, it is the coach who is typically responsible for the player’s overall performance. Not to mention that many coaches world-wide are running small programs where they don’t have the resources to include other experts (even if they wanted them).
Coaches need to understand that, players do not play matches with only their technique. They need to coach the entire human being (not just their technique). So, to truly improve match performance a coach must deal with all 4 factors, each with its own challenges, development path, traps to avoid, and methods. Developing all of the components in a cohesive way is called the “Integrated Approach”. It has been systemized by top international coach, coach educator and former Canadian Head National Coach, Louis Cayer. It is a more holistic, inter-connection between all the factors since each one is important.
To make things more understandable and manageable, the Integrated approach divides individuals into two parts. The ‘Performer’ is their body and mind (The Psychological and Physical Performance Factors) , and the ‘Player’ which is their Tactical and Technical Performance Factors.
One important note about the Integrated approach. It does not mean a coach must become an expert specialist in every one of the 4 factors. But they must have sufficient tools to develop each one.
WHY COACHES NEED TO INCLUDE EACH FACTOR IN TRAINING
The great Jimmy Conners once said, “Tennis is 90% mental”. Anyone who plays knows tennis is psychologically challenging. Our definition of Psychological skills includes Mental (cognitive) and emotional. The goal is to equip players with tools to handle all the demands the game will throw at them.
Coaches, parents and players all must realize that psychological skills need to be trained just like technical skills (with observed repetition and feedback). ‘Parachuting in’ the Psychologist to do a presentation or, just talking about psychology before or after a match can be helpful however, it is not training.
To train the Psychological aspects of the ‘performer’, the coach needs to understand enough to provide relevant feedback during training, in order to help players maintain an ideal performance state. It is the coach and the consistent relationship with the person that will allow them to shape the person’s identity, beliefs, values, attitudes, mind-set and behaviours.
In any sport, a good athlete will always have an advantage. As much as athleticism is a matter of genetics, it is also very trainable. A player needs to develop many physical qualities (e.g. endurance, speed, flexibility, strength, etc.) Some of the most critical qualities to develop are what’s called the “ABC’s” of athleticism.
All of these are important but, developmentally speaking, coordination has been flagged as the #1 physical capacity needed for long-term success in tennis. Therefore, it is critical to develop coordination in junior players. Coordination training builds a solid foundation for tennis much more effectively than only training tennis (e.g. sticking players at the baseline and feeding balls to them). Coordination training for tennis has the goal of being able to maintain balance while judging where a ball is in space, and reacting to it with an efficient sequence of movements, at the right time.
Again, the coach doesn’t need to be a physical development ‘expert’ however; they do need to be able to understand how the physical elements mesh with the technical for on-court performance. For example, the coach is the one who would help players learn tennis-specific footwork. If a physical expert is used, it is the coach who would direct them to the tennis-specific standards (e.g. increase leg power to be able to recover with stronger cross-over steps after a groundstroke). The coach would develop the footwork during training supplemented by the Physical Trainer.
There is even a process called, ‘Complex training’ where physical activity (e.g. throwing a medicine ball) is alternated with actual hitting drills for direct application.
One very effective way to learn tennis is through using a Game-Based approach (GBA). This is in contrast to the traditional, “technique first/tactics later” approach. In a GBA the enjoyment of playing tennis is maintained right from the beginning by re-creating playing situations adapted (or scaled-down in the case of starter players) to the level of the players. As they play, they learn they must accomplish certain tasks to win more points (or lose less).
In a GBA with its ‘tactics-first’ emphasis, the coach would typically train shots ‘situationally’. Players would learn tactics with technical skills then learned as solutions to the challenges encountered in those situations. With such a direct link to playing tennis, the skills learned in training transfer easier to match play. In other words, people are taught how to play tennis rather than being taught just how to stroke. In my opinion, this is one of the most critical aspects of developing a successful player. The challenge is that a coach must have a systematic way to develop tactics, so using a functional tactical framework is important.
As mentioned previously, a “technique first” approach is not the most effective way to develop players since technique is only a way to execute a tactic. This is not to say that technique is not important. Good technique creates the following advantages:
- Ability to perform tactics effectively (get the ball where it is supposed to go)
- Minimizes injury
- Doesn’t waste energy
- Allows technique to be repeated under pressure
- Allows the ability to send balls with power and consistency and receive harder shots
- Provides a foundation to advance to higher levels
Technical development has evolved dramatically over the last few decades. In the past, the goal of instruction was to get players to execute the proper “form”. It is no longer a matter of just ‘looking proper’ (who cares how nice your follow-through is if you can’t win points with it?). Technical development that uses stoke models raises challenging questions it could not answer. For example, think of the ‘proper’ forehand players were taught in the past:
- Is that forehand the best ‘form’ when various champions hit the ball differently?
- How can technique be individualized if everyone must conform to the same ‘form’?
- What is the proper forehand when it must change for the situation? Do you use the same technique if the ball is coming higher or lower? Faster or slower? For a wide ball or a short one? When attacking or defending? If the technique must change for all these situations, what is ‘proper’ form?
Technical development is evolving from teaching ‘stroke models’ to teaching students principles that can adapt for every situation. They learn the principles that are true for pros as well as beginners that can be suited for their own individual play. It equips players to be more effective, win more points, and lose less (not just look nicer).
AN INTEGRATED WAY TO ANALYZE (Appreciating root causes)
One of the critical reasons the Integrated approach is valuable, is to identify errors and correct them. The trap is that every error is technical. The physics of the shot were incorrect. However, an ineffective response by the coach is to falsely think every solution is technical.
Even on seemingly purely technical issues, the other components may be involved. For example, take a common situation where a player is in a third set tie-breaker and sets up the point for an open court, volley winner. Rather than putting the ball away, they ‘pop’ it into the middle of the court. Although technically it may be true the volley didn’t have enough racquet speed, the racquet angle was incorrect, and the path of the racquet was too level, that isn’t the whole story. They may have popped the ball up for emotional reasons (fear of failure or being overly excited about winning the point), or for mental reasons (too focused on the future and not on the volley). It may have been physical reasons (lack of endurance for the third set), or tactical reasons (they changed their mind on where to put it). A coach who sees the error as only technical and, as a solution, proceeds to practice volley technique over and over, is missing the point.
I used to develop players with technique as the #1 priority. Although I had some good results, I have found over the years that it works best to bring all 4 components along as a package. At various points in their development, other players may look better technically, but in the end, the advantage will go to the complete player. The alternative is to let the non-technical components get developed at some later stage. But questions need to be addressed in the “technical first” approach:
- “When will the other components be addressed”?
- “Is it the most effective to learn these later”?
- “Do the players with the best technique always win the competition”?
Typically, you can tell the coaches who develop players with a technical first approach because they keep commenting to their players, “I can’t believe you lost, your technique is so much better than theirs”! The coach then goes away deceiving themselves into thinking that technical superiority is the goal that will translate into winning in the future.
The glitch is that, at every level of tennis competition, players are grouped with others of similar ability. Beginners don’t compete against advanced players in tennis. People need to qualify to get into the various competitive levels. In other words, the further up in tennis you go, the more you are placed with players who are technically able to hit the ball as well as you. So, what will make the difference on who wins? Eventually, to perform successfully, a player will have to demonstrate superiority in the other Performance Factors. Even on the pro tour, the principle is the same. When a Federer or Nadal loses a match in early rounds, is it because their technique has gotten worse? I am by no means implying that technique is not important, (it is very important), just that it is one of the factors and not the only priority.
STEPS IN THE INTEGRATED APPROACH
Louis Cayer has outlined a 3 step coaching process when utilizing the approach:
- Address the ‘Performer’ first. (e.g. Start the journey of adopting performance-enhancing identity, beliefs, values attitudes and behaviours.)
- Raise awareness with the player(s) about the standards and norms they must achieve to be successful (at the desired level of play they want to attain).This is in all 4 Performance factor categories.
- Develop the skill(s) in a training environment that addresses all 4 factors. When conducting any practice activity, following these steps will inform the coach where the priority needs to be for their feedback:
- ‘Drill’: Ensure the activity is being performed correctly (e.g. They are positioned in the appropriate location and they are making the ball do what it is supposed to. For example, if a player is slapping the ball with full power when the activity is about cooperatively rallying, it needs to be addressed first. From the coach side, if feeding is involved, it must accurately re-create the situation they are training).
- ‘Will’: Ensure the player(s) are putting the appropriate effort, and have the appropriate mindset for the activity. (e.g. it is no use correcting a player’s swing when they are exerting no effort or focus. This may also include ensuring players ‘buy-in’ and believe in the usefulness of what is being trained).
- ‘Skill’: Once the ‘Drill’ and ‘Will’ are set, the coach can address the elements required to improve performance of the skill.
Tennis is a multi-faceted game that requires a person to use everything they have. To develop all that is required, coaches must deal with both the ‘Performer’ and the ‘Player’, integrating the psychological, physical, tactical and technical components in their training. Fully equipping players for the demands of tennis involves much more than some technical instruction and hitting a million balls. It is a process that involves both the science and art of training and is sequential and systematic. Anything less is a disservice to players learning the game.