Planning for Performance: Designing Training Sessions for Maximum Improvement
As mentioned in last week’s post on designing training blocks, the quality of the work we do on court is often more important than the quantity. At an elite level, there is no athlete that isn’t training three to four hours a day, six days a week. One of the factors that will separate the good from the great is the efficiency of the on-court work. What kind of work should the athlete be doing? How do you order the elements of the training session? What’s the balance between maintaining old skills and teaching new ones? While an entire book could be devoted to these questions, and I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers, I’ll outline a few principles that I think are key.
Three Main Goals
Before we can begin, we must identify the goals of any training session. There’s an old phrase that encapsulates the desires of any lesson-taker – old or young, recreational or competitive: “learn, move, compete.” While move and compete should be spread out across the session, learn can be broken into three components which will form the building blocks of our practice. Within learn, we can identify three needs:
The need to maintain or train previously acquired skills (PAST)
The need to learn new skills that will help the players win more now (PRESENT)
The need to learn skills that will help the players win more in the future (FUTURE)
Let’s look at the salient features of each one.
It’s one of the biggest mistakes a coach can make, and we’ve all made it. You spend a month working on a skill, the players master it, and then you move on to something new. A few weeks later, and suddenly, they’ve lost it. Acquired skills need maintenance – not forever, but for a period of time after being learned. In fact, there’s a lot of science on the topic – it’s called spaced repetition. Let’s say I work on consistency in September. The first two weeks of October, I might maintain it every day. The next week, every other day. The last week, only twice. By the end of October, it’s fully ingrained and we’ll only need to return to it for minor touch-ups.
At the same time, it’s not just about maintenance. Two players with identical strokes can have very different ball-striking abilities. Training is just as important as maintaining. Training is taking an already acquired skill and pushing its limits. Just as you can only lift heavier and heavier weights by pushing your maximum, the same is true on the tennis court. However, a skill should only be trained once it is acquired and solid enough to be challenged. If you push an exercise with poor form in the gym, you get injured. Push a skill with poor technique on the court, and it falls apart. In practice, this usually means we train the skills we introduced in the previous block:
While forgetting to maintain old skills is a common mistake, the opposite – never teaching new skills – is just as problematic. Remember what we said about training: you can only push the limits of a skill when it has already been acquired and the technique is solid. Before that stage, instead of training, we have to teach. Teaching is the act of developing new skills or correcting acquired ones. Without teaching, the level of a player will always be capped. Whereas training is about pushing athletes past their limits, teaching is about raising those limits. Teaching doesn’t always have to be technical – it can be tactical, mental, and even sometimes physical. And teaching doesn’t necessarily mean closed drilling – just as much teaching can occur in open points as with hand feeding. Teaching is simply any work done in the earlier stages of skill acquisition.
Everything we’ve just covered is done with the intention of helping players win more matches now. Helping players win more matches is important – it was even the central point in last week’s post. After all, if players don’t see the fruits of their labour when it comes times to compete, they’re less likely to be motivated. But we have to dedicate a portion of practice to preparing athletes for the future, even if it won’t help them win immediately. We call this awareness building. We're not really teaching, and we're certainly not training. We're just putting athletes in new or uncommon situations and letting them adapt.
At the U10 level, this could take the form of exposing kids to volley situations. While not particularly useful in the present moment, it’s a skill they will clearly eventually need. With older kids, it could be anything that’s important but that might not fit into the other two sections: coordination work, overheads, dropshots, etc – things that you may not be working on at the moment, but that are nonetheless essential.
Order and Duration
Now that we know what our building blocks are, in what order do we put them? How much time do we spend on each one? Once again, there are no right answers – just guiding principles.
The first thing to consider is the tone you want to set. The first minutes of any practice will send a message as to what the rest of that session will look and feel like. Personally, I like to make sure to start with something high energy and competitive – it’s much easier to start at a high pace and maintain it than to start slow and gradually work your way up. Similarly, I like to end with something competitive and physically demanding. One of the beliefs we try to instill in our athletes is that “we play our best tennis at the end." This has a lot of implications, both physical and mental. In this case, competing at the end of practice means that you have to be at your best when you’re most tired, and I like putting the athletes under that kind of pressure. Remember: competing doesn’t necessarily mean playing open points. Competing can still occur in cooperative environments (team vs. team) or in closed drills (player vs. player). Ideally, a sizable portion of the practice should be competitive.
The other factor to consider is the research showing that athletes acquire motor skills more rapidly when they are mentally and physically fresh. This would suggest putting the teaching at the start of practice, but there are reasons to start with training/maintenance. One is that it sends a message that we don't move on to new skills until we've mastered the old ones. If the training is first, and you see that the players need a bit more work, you can adapt accordingly. The other benefit is that the training is usually a bit more intense than the teaching, and it may be worthwhile to put it at the start to set the tone. Personally, I’ll usually put the training first unless it is especially physically demanding.
In principle, building awareness should take the least amount of time, and teaching the most. This makes sense: maintaining a skill or being exposed to a new situation doesn't require as much practice as learning something brand new. However, the amount of time each section occupies varies according to where in the training block the athletes are. At the start of the block, more time may be dedicated to teaching — explaining key points, breaking down the skill, etc. Towards the end of the block, there may be more training, as the focus shifts to integrating the skill into point play and making sure it is acquired.
Travel across the globe, or even across the country, and you'll find thousands of different styles and approaches to session planning. There is no one right way. Some coaches may do things differently due to personal preference, while others may change their approach depending on who's in front of them. One thing is certain, however. Ask any great coach why they plan the way they do, and they'll have an answer. Having a detailed and systematic method is key to maximizing improvement, and I recommend starting with a structure that looks at the past, present, and future.