Proper planning prevents poor performance, especially in the case of high-level tennis. Athletes are always in competition with one another, even in between tournaments. Every session and repetition counts – too few, and they fall behind; too many, and they get injured. But it’s not just about load management. What kind of reps is the athlete getting? What are they working on? How does it all tie together to lead to better results? Maximizing the efficiency of the training block is crucial to maximizing improvement.
There is no one right answer; there is no perfect system. However, I’m going to present an approach that I believe allows for greater progress and results. In Part 1, we’ll look at how to design the content and goals of a training block. In Part 2, we’ll look at how to design a training session to help achieve said goals.
The Big Picture
What is the purpose of a training block? Assuming that players have already acquired the fundamentals of the game, the purpose of a training block is to develop the skills necessary to win more points the next time they return to competition. This sounds obvious, but it’s not always the approach taken. Take, for example, the coach who decides to work on “hitting the forehand harder”, or even “accelerating at contact”. There are a few potential problems with this technique-centred approach, but the main one is that there is no clear explanation for how hitting the forehand harder will help win more points. It seems like it will, but how do we know? And even if it does – will it lead to a 2% improvement or a 10% improvement? Training blocks should always be planned from the top down. Here’s an example:
The goal-setting starts with the outcome: win more points. Then we find the process goal tied to that outcome – for this particular player, it’s to win more points in the rally phase. That process goal then becomes an outcome goal, whose process is to be more consistent on the forehand. And the outcome/process cycle continues. Of course, these goals need to be realistic and appropriate to the player – charting and a knowledge of the norms are required. But, done correctly, this approach greatly increases the chances of the player improving and winning more points, because there is a clear link between the work done on the practice court and the intended outcome on the match court. Anything else is just educated guesswork.
But why did I choose to focus on points won in the rally phase? If I’m not just observing technique, how do I know what to observe?
Three Perspectives for Planning
Tennis is a complex, open-skill sport. There is a lot of variation, and no two players or matches are alike. There are, however, three main frameworks that we can use for planning.
1. Planning by Pattern
Let’s imagine I’m watching my player and I notice a trend: whenever the ball comes up the middle, they tend to give up control of the point. In neutral, they don’t get around the ball quick enough and fail to capitalize. On defence, they get jammed and give up a short ball. And on offence, they’re not able to create enough angle to cause damage.
This would be an example of planning by pattern. I’ve observed room for improvement in a specific situation of play – controlling the middle. Tennis can be broken into a few basic patterns. For the purposes of this post, I’ll define a pattern as a sequence where your opponent hits a shot and you hit one back. There are four basic patterns when both players are back:
Control the Middle
Win the Crosscourt
Open up the Court
Each of these patterns can be integrated with the serve and return. For example: I serve wide and the opponent returns crosscourt, so I change direction and go down the line. Or, I return a second serve and the next ball comes up the middle, so I control the middle. There are also a few variations (dropshot, wrong-foot, x-pattern, heavy spin) as well as patterns for coming to the net (approach, attack & follow, attack & sneak). Each pattern can be executed on offence, defence, and neutral, and can be executed in different ways depending on the gamestyle of the player. For example, one player might try to win the crosscourt with power, while another might use precision.
In planning the training block, I need to know exactly in which phase of play we are working, and for which gamestyle. Of course, this may be influenced by how much time we have. If we have three weeks, we may only work on controlling the middle on offence. But if we have six weeks, we might work on doing it in the rally as well.
2. Planning by Phase of Play
Alternatively, I might watch a player compete, do some charting, and find out that he or she is only winning 53% of points when attacking. Now, that might be because of one specific pattern, but it could also be that their attacking skills in general are simply lacking. In that case, I’ll plan our training block according to the phase of play and include all the patterns within it. For example, within the attacking phase, we can:
attack out of the middle
attack down the line
attack off the serve & return
I would then work on each of those patterns with the end goal of improving the player’s overall attacking skills. Of course, this may take more time, so it may be necessary to focus on only one or two of the more important patterns.
3. Planning by Game Situation
Lastly, after observing and charting, I may find that my player has some deficiencies in a particular game situation. As a reminder, there are five game situations:
In that case, I would identify the patterns that fall within that game situation and pick the most important or relevant ones to work on. For example: let’s say my player has trouble when the opponent is approaching. After observing more, I notice that she does well when the opponent is coming in off an attack, since they are farther back and she can slice it to their feet, but struggles when the opponent comes in off an approach, since they are closer to the net and she has trouble passing. We would work on identifying two or three passes she feels comfortable with — cross or line, power or precision, or lob — and then train them when receiving different types of approaches.
As you can tell, whichever perspective I take, it all boils down to certain specific patterns. This approach is what I would call “outcome-oriented, process-focused”. Once I know which patterns I want to train, I can drill into them and identify the mental, tactical, physical, and technical goals that will help my player improve (process-focused), while still making sure that the end result is that they win more points (outcome-oriented). This is a much more effective method of planning than focusing only on the process (“relax the wrist”) or only on the outcome (“win more 1st serve points”).
Now that we’ve identified our process goals and how they are connected to the outcome, we can plan each training session to ensure they are achieved. Stay tuned for Part 2!