I was recently asked about my preferred teaching style: do I strive for the “perfect” technique or I let my students learn tennis through games (lately there are more and more tennis coaches who embrace the games based approach by the way).
The answer is simple: tennis should be fun regardless of the level of performance.
I do like to stress the proper technique in the beginning of the lesson just to start with the right fundamentals but I want to make sure that at least 60% of my lessons are actually exciting for my students by introducing games and drills that have them work on placement, friendly competition and strategies.
In my teaching career I’ve often paid attention to the faces of my students: when they are put through the repetitive drills of learning the “perfect” technique and when they are presented with the opportunity of playing tennis games.
The difference between the two is enormous; and here is why:
1. When a coach stresses the technique most of the time they (the kids) might end up “looking great” on the court but deep down in the back of their minds they will consider tennis as boring and repetitive.
2. The games based approach gets players thrilled to be on the court and, even though their technique will not be as good in the beginning, the fact that they enjoy playing tennis will make them do this longer and not only that… they’ll encourage their friends to get involved into it because people want to share things they love.
I’m not advocating that technique should be eliminated from the tennis practice – just not over-emphasised.
My suggestion would be that a player/student should practice his/her technical elements in the beginning of the lesson (let’s say for about 15 – 20 minutes) but then she/he should be exposed to applying the learned fundamentals into a fun related tennis activity.
I was recently asked: “How can I get my students to stick with the technique I teach them and not poke at the ball once they begin playing games?”
This is a very good question because I remember when I was a kid I used to do that only for the sake of winning a match. In my attempt not to miss I was just “pushing” the balls over the net.
The upside was that I was winning matches playing this way… in the beginning.
The downside? Well, this kind of play does not lead to real progress in the long term.
Poking the ball will annoy your opponents first but they will soon figure you out and make you work hard for the points.
The players should understand that developing relaxed and full swings will benefit their tennis in the long run.
A player who cares for his proper development knows that in the beginning, it’s not about winning. They are patient to develop a comfortable technique that allows them to swing at the ball with power and less effort.
Many people want to sacrifice the process of properly developing a solid technique for the sake of winning a few matches.
As a coach, you must not allow players to become “sloppy” when playing; especially after a lesson where you put so much effort into teaching them the proper technique.
With my students, every time I see them not following the technique we studied, I stop and ask them to do shadow strokes (swing with correct technique, without a ball). And I do this with them until they know that not sticking with the proper strokes will interrupt their fun games. 🙂
I thought about writing this article after a match I recently played against one of my top students. What happened during that match? Even though my student is much younger than me (he is 17), I found myself overpowered in the matter of strokes and quickness by him. This usually makes me proud to see it in my students but in that particular situation I had to save my pride by trying to not lose to him. 🙂 One thing I had to do in order to stay alive in that match was… to be creative and be able to get out of my comfort zone. In order to achieve that I had to mix up my shots a lot more often than I usually do, I had to really plan ahead every stroke (I mean, to think at least two tactical strokes before the point would begin) and be “on my toes” a lot quicker…
So what was the lesson that you can learn from my experience? ▪ If a player wants to achieve top performance in tennis, she/he must strive for consistency and stroke dependability first. This consistency must be applied to at least two shots on each side (forehand, backhand or serve). Because if one fails, you must be able to rely on the other one. In what way can a stroke fail you? In my case, against this particular student, he would 90% of the time crush my kick serve (putting it away) so I had to use my slice on the second serve most of the time to keep him away from winning the point off of my second serve. So having two dependable serves (kick and slice) I could switch between them when one failed me. ▪ You, as a player, must learn/practice to think ahead in the point. Avoid just hitting the ball in play and wait to see what happens. Instead you must make things happen. If your opponent, let’s say, is slow, then hit the ball often to the open court to make her/him hit it on the run (off balance); if she/he likes to come up to the net, you can visualize a two shots combination: one short at her/his feet followed by an attacking shot (assuming the low ball at her/his feet will produce a slow return) etc. Think at least two shots that will put you ahead in the point! ▪ A good player must be quick. If you are not, then you can train to be one. When I say quick, I do not mean fast. As an example, I was never a fast runner but I was quick on the tennis court. How can you be quick on the tennis court? Well apart from doing footwork specific drills you must train your eye to read your opponent’s body language. The way her/his body is facing before the shot or the grip she/he uses to strike the ball are to be paid attention to all the time. Also, learn proper court coverage (see Court Geometry) so you know ahead (before your opponent strikes the ball) what your opponent’s options are considering her/his location on the court.
Consider these new tips in assessing your game and see what you lack and what you need to improve. Above all try to work on stroke variety in your practice sessions. Is your slice backhand a weak shot? Then go ahead and practice it. You never know when you will have the chance to play against someone who does not handle slice well. Is your slice serve a weak shot? Well… you know what to do. And so on. Practice what you are not very good at because being able to change your game and to mix up your shots will pay off in many tennis matches.
Having fun playing comes from being confident that you can rely on your strokes ability when needed. Practice all your shots not only the ones you like!