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What’s In My Bubble?


Integrating elements of the tennis environment!

It was an interesting sight. I had been asked to watch 3 boys who were all highly ranked in their region. They were aged 7 – 9, the youngest being only 7 ½ but actually the biggest. All were playing on a regular court with a regular ball, hitting from baseline to baseline.

As I watched I considered the usual things that I look for, mostly physical things like balance and posture, the ability to be able to move and cover the court, plus the usual tennis things like where are the contact points, is this in a position of strength for the player, does the finish show that the player had control of the racket throughout the swing.

The discussion with other pros brought up similar points of interest and their observations showed their concerns. Then, the subject of whether the players should be on a full sized court and what were the benefits of them being on the 18m court with the orange ball would have been. I was positive that all players should still be playing on 18ms but other pros were less keen. They pointed out that the players could rally and play on this court and surely this was enough to signal that this was the correct court to play on.

My retort was surely tennis was more than that. That tactical development was not really being developed with these young players, their ability to impose tactics and solve problems was not tested. It was simply a case of who could hit hardest and for longest.

The problem was I could see that I wasn’t getting through, how could I really get these coaches to understand what I was seeing and leave them with a model that they could use over and over again?

Since tennis pros eyes are trained, I decided to discuss “Where to look?”  We discussed what they had been looking at!  I told them that I always look at the players eyes! You can tell so much from a player’s eyes, the eyes are the gateway to the brain. And of course on the tennis court, so much of the information that we gather as a player we do visually.

Tactically our understanding of the game is driven firstly by how we combine the different moving parts of the tennis environment, just like an ever changing machine we look to connect information about

  • the ball
  • our position on the court
  • the position of the opponent.

We only truly understand each of these moving parts through our observations, then by adding an understanding of limits, possibilities and probabilities we arrive at tactical solutions.

On this day the eyes told the whole story, and since that day I have spent more and more time looking at this window on to the mind to understand what stage of tactical development a player is at.

Let me explain!

Each time you watch a young player ask yourself. Which parts of the tennis environmental machine are they switched into? Players need to learn to incorporate all these pieces and make split second tactical decisions. From my 20 years of working with this age group I have come to believe that there is also an order in which most young players integrate and build an understanding of these elements.

The order seems to be Ball, then Court, then Opponent, with younger players. The way in which players use this information is also interesting but as coaches working with young players it is useful to consider this integration from two perspectives.

  • Where is the player at in their stage of development and are they ready to move to the next level if they have been unable to integrate more than the ball element of the puzzle?
  • How can we help young players to understand and integrate more elements through effective coaching and understanding?

The Bubble

My solution to the pros observation tool was to think about an imaginary bubble around the player, and ask if the bubble represents the players awareness of the tennis environment (Ball, court, opponent), then where does the bubble start and finish? Is it over the player only, is the court (particularly the other end) in the bubble or is the player able to integrate all three elements in their awareness and respond with an appropriate tactical solution. And as I have already said you can see it all in the eyes of the player.

So we are back to the three young players that I was looking at. All of them fairly competent hitters of the ball but often a little off balance and with limited movement skills around the ball. Clearly their lessons up until now had focussed on technical shapes and they were trying their best to repeat these shapes with each strike of the ball.

In their eyes I saw that they were playing mostly reactive tennis. Their awareness of the ball was reasonable although like many players they picked up the flight of the ball as it crossed the net, so on the inward path I would have to say that their “bubble” started at the net. The “outward” path was a different matter. They were so busy reacting to and coping with the ball that the outward path finished less than 6 feet from the point of impact. In short although they had a vague concept of where they were trying to hit they were “hitting through history”.


Hitting Intention

This is a concept that I have arrived at over years of observing players. It means that they hit without intention. All they do is repeat the motor pattern for the stroke without thought or understanding. It makes the ball go in but that is about it and you could hardly say that there was tactical intent involved. It is very general, with little focus or specificity.

This is like answering any question with the same very general answer! What is brown and barks? A animal!, What is white and lives in the arctic? An animal! It is an easy answer to make but too vague; consequently it doesn’t create learning or real understanding! It is possible as a young player playing on the full sized court to play this way and win. The area is so large and the points are often won and lost not because the player out thinks or out plays the opponent but simply because one player fails to cope with the physicality of the court. And this is what we were seeing with these 3 young players!

In short these young players are dealing with the ball and the bubble in which they exist is very small.


What do you expect?

So is this nature or lack of nurture that we are seeing. Well actually this fits principles of development for very young players (age 5 – 7). The principle of decentring, the ability to deal with more than one aspect of a problem is not one that young players find easy in fact they struggle both mentally and emotionally to integrate different aspects of any problem both on and off the court.

But we were not looking at players who were new to tennis. In fact all had been playing over 3 years and currently are finding their way to the courts at least 5 hours a week. So the development of a tactical understanding of the game was very important. Some studies suggest that I takes 10 years to become tactically proficient so for sure players who are playing 5 hours a week need to be on track.

So what are we looking for in young players when we are considering moving them from one court to another! As well as physical and technical competency I would like to add intention which means being more than reactive, it means being pro active. Whether this thought is conscious or unconscious there should still be an intention.


Growing the Bubble

So we have to try to move players from being just reactive and “hitting through history” to actually trying to make the ball do something. And this should be done in relation to the court. It’s a cornerstone of everything I believe in developing a young player.

There should always be a court!!

Tennis is about making the ball do something given the perceived space that you have to hit into. To start with young players, all focus on the ball. They need to or else they might actually miss it completely. Over time this confidence grows and they can do more than contact it the can control it. But control mean using all the what, how, where questions!

It means having a “where from” and a “where to”. And a how! So looking at our young players again I had to ask how could I get them to get beyond the “how” to hit the ball and understand the Where from and where to. In short create the intention. And extend the bubble from that tiny bubble that surrounded the player to one that now had the court within it!

Time and Physicality

Actually the first argument for these players going back to the orange ball was “time” currently they simply had not developed the perception and reaction skills required to use the faster ball and they were further limited by both growth (physical size) and development (the physical ability of their body to move and manage the court).

You can hardly expect a player to be pro active if they are struggling physically to the point that they are spending most of their energy and mental capacity merely “coping”.


A Proactive Environment

Once back on the Orange (18m) court it is then a question of helping players to integrate the other elements of the court environment, now that they have time and the physical demands are not acting as limiting factors.

Including the Court

Adding the court is the first logical step to “extending the Bubble” and it can be done in many different ways but it is probably worth first considering why we should get players to include the court next.

Two key reasons. Firstly the court will never move during play. It is the one constant that exists. Both ball and opponent will, but a player can be taught simple patterns of play from an early age simply by changing the court shape and using target areas, hitting deep to deep, hitting cross court etc, it’s a constant!

Secondly players even at this age (6 – 8) are still very egocentric. They live in their world and care mostly about what they get and how their interaction with the world results in things that they benefit from. They sometimes fail to recognise good performance by their opponent and mostly don’t see things from the other player’s perspective.


In Practice

Changing the shape and size of the court – this means making the court

  • narrower,
  • shorter and wider,
  • using only cross court,
  • using only the deep court,
  • playing down a court (on the 12m Red court even with Orange players)


Changing the ball – this means

  • Sometimes using red balls with orange players
  • Using a variety of different balls to challenge coordination
  • Using throw and catch games that replicate patterns of play

Building patterns of play

Simple basket drills which establish patterns using target areas can be equally effective the keys here are

  • Using target areas big enough to achieve success but have a central “bullseye” for focus
  • Having players hit from and to appropriate areas of the court
  • Feeding tactically appropriate sequences
  • Including natural movement between shots, to, from and around the ball


Moving from Cooperative to Competitive

On each court player can first work cooperatively with a partner then play competitive points on the same court shapes or using a combination of different court shapes.

In all creating an awareness of the court geography and likely patterns of play should be done with all orange players and arguably many red players as well. If a player is capable of mastering simple patterns within a computer game, then they are also capable of learning simple patterns and combinations on a tennis court.


The Challenge

Back to the famous three that I was watching on that day and it was evident that not only had they not spent time working on these patterns and court understanding but they were also way off of the level required to do that effectively on the full sized court.

The big challenge was now one that we all face from time to time. How do we move the players back to the appropriate court size without massive loss of self esteem and motivation?  My answer is that we don’t! Or at least we don’t completely! Instead we create a task based environment where we ask the players to perform a pattern. They will struggle we will allow them to do it with the orange ball on the orange court and provide a scale of success which means that they swap back and forth between orange and regular courts and balls. Keep rewarding the successes on the Orange court and sell the benefits of what you are teaching and the successes that they enjoy.

It’s unlikely that they will ever feel great about moving back totally but at least you are opening their eyes to a more specific, focussed and tactically proficient way of viewing and learning the game. Furthermore, you will be using an approach that creates adaptability in a player helping them achieve higher levels of coordination and proprioception.

If these steps work and the player is at the appropriate level, you will see that their bubble extends to the court. You will see in their eyes that they are hitting with intention and within the bubble is the court as well as the ball.


The Final Step

Once we have a player who is at this stage, they will be able to understand the real nature of tennis. It’s a battle between one player and another. Action and reaction! Then it is time to really let loose with some problem-solving scenarios, that such the opponent into the “bubble”.

Not only does the player now know where they are and what the ball is doing, they can start to “counter their opponent” and by becoming aware of them anticipate and be aware of the shots and patterns that they like to use.

Players generally will not fully achieve this as 9 year olds. It is enough to contend with to include the ball and court fully and learn the patterns. However, if you use a “guided discovery” approach to coaching, using questions and answers and creating situations that encourage players to learn the start of this integration is possible.


In Practice

This can be done by

  • Limiting the options of one player (no volley, no forehands)
  • Make the mission to make one player do something (step outside the tramlines etc)
  • Asking on player to react to the position of the other (hit down the line if the player is standing cross court)
  • Do the opposite of the other player (if one hits topspin the other slices)



As with all things with this age group it is more a question of understanding the continuum of development rather than saying at a particular age a child should be able to do a certain things. But the key points you should consider are

  • What do you see in the player’s eyes? Where is the “bubble of consciousness”?
  • Ball then Court, then opponent?
  • Is the player playing the game or merely hitting balls?

The challenge for us is to believe that young players are capable of learning so much more about the game of tennis than maybe we imagine. We need to have a greater, fuller understanding of the tactics of the game and recognise the level of understanding and decision making that is really taking place. And finally, to teach this we need to ask for more commitment and time from our players. The irony of making this commitment is that learning the game becomes so much more interesting, exciting, and genuinely absorbing.

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