Time to Make a Change?

You're watching one of your players at a tournament. They've missed three or four easy attacking forehands at crucial stages during the match. You're frustrated, they're quickly losing confidence, and ultimately the match is lost. A couple of days later, you have your next lesson with them. What are you going to work on?

The temptation of course is to 'sort out' that attacking forehand. You might try to spot what part of the stroke is breaking down, you might suggest a fix, or demonstrate an improvement, or even use video analysis to let the player see for themselves where the shot is going wrong. In some ways, there's a logic to these type of strategies, but the limitation of all four options is that they rely on one critical (and very possibly mistaken) assumption - That the missed forehands were uniquely the result of poor technique.

A whole range of actions, decisions and abilities feed into the effectiveness with which a player strikes a tennis ball. These combined elements are broadly categorised into the four headings of 'Psychological', 'Physical', 'Tactical', and 'Technical'. If we imagine a chain of events, with the first link being our awareness of the ball coming towards us, and the final link being our striking of the ball back towards our opponent, a huge variety of things can go wrong along the way. The problem with overly focusing on technique therefore, is that as a consequence, we are possibly ignoring the actual causes of the break-down.

If we go back to our player missing easy forehands at the tournament for example, consider for a minute the match conditions. Was the player nervous? Could this have resulted in uncharacteristic mistakes? How about the physical domain - Were the crucial forehands missed at the end of long rallies? And could tactical choices have contributed to the errors? Perhaps poor shot selection played a part in the disappointing results we observed.

When we try to help a player improve, we need to be extremely conscious of the 'Iceberg Effect' – That what we see as coaches is the technical attempt to perform an action, but what we have very little idea of are the player's mental state at the moment of the shot, their physical condition, or the tactical decisions they made. We see the outcome, but everything leading up to it is below the surface and invisible to us.

So how should we initiate improvement? Well hopefully the “what not to do” is already clear. A mechanic doesn't fix your puncture by just re-inflating your tire (that will work in the short-term but almost certainly won't have any lasting benefit). The true fix comes when we identify and resolve the actual cause rather than the outcome – The mechanic removes the nail from your tire and patches it. Now we have some hope of long-term success.

On a tennis court, the physical, mental and tactical domains all lay the foundations for, and contribute to, the technical execution of every shot, but how often are these over-looked as we dive straight into a technical 'fix' when a problem or area for improvement is identified? We fill the tire with air, send the player off to the next tournament, and then wonder why things go wrong again!

Over and over we focus on technique because we're comfortable with it, because we know how to train it, and because it's what everyone recognises as 'coaching'. BUT if the aim is to help our players improve as efficiently as possible, we need to pause and ask a few questions when we spot weaknesses…

Is this definitely a breakdown in technique?

Could there be an underlying physical, psychological or tactical issue below the surface? If a player can perform an action in practice for example, but it breaks-down in matches, is it genuinely accurate to describe this as a problem of technique?

Is a change in technique necessary?

Even if there is a definite technical concern identified in a stroke, it's hugely important to determine whether this is aesthetic or restrictive. Changing technique because it looks 'different' makes no sense and actually carries real risk - If we turn an implicit action (one that a player performs naturally) into an explicit action (one that we have trained them to do), this introduces a thought process into the stroke, which can in turn lead to doubts and indecision when pressure is applied. The question therefore is “What is it that the player can't/won't be able to do with their current technique”? If the answer is "Very little", then why are we making a change?

Do we have any other options?

Would it be fair to say that many coaches might describe themselves as being strong in the technical elements of stroke production but weaker in the other three areas? If this is true, then it's understandable why so many of us come back to technique 'fixes' repeatedly. The problem is that in order to call on the physical, mental or tactical elements, we need to firstly have these in our repertoire. We need to know something about them, we need to be able to identify weaknesses in them, and we need to be confident incorporating them into our lessons. Remember, just because it's more convenient to focus on technical fixes, it doesn't mean that it's the best way of helping our players.

If we're therefore open to the idea that some very important ingredients of improvement are often under-emphasised in lessons, would we be willing to considering three valuable aims for the coming months..?

1. That we commit to upskilling in whichever categories we currently have most scope for improvement in? Maybe we could improve our 'physical' IQ by studying footwork/movement, or our 'psychological' expertise by learning about relaxation strategies, or our 'tactical' know-how by reading about decision-making on court.

2. That we change our perspective when watching players compete, and start to dig deeper when we look to explain break-downs. If you've ever 'charted' one of your player's matches for example, I bet that you recorded every single score, winners, errors, etc. But few people take the time to include the physical, mental, tactical elements in a match assessment – At what stages did the player appear tired? When were they angry, calm, energised? How often and when did they make bad tactical choices? (And most importantly, how did these issues relate to the performance data that we collected?). There's lots to look at and plenty to record when we watch a tennis match – A broader lense gives us a bigger picture.

3. Finally, that before we initiate any change in technique, we make sure we have very definite evidence for the intervention, very clear outcomes that we're hoping to achieve, and very clear language to explain all of this to the player. If your lessons take lots of time, contain lots of talk, and involve lots of technique, there's something wrong!