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From the Mouths of Babes

Josh is a beauty of a kid.  He has thrown himself into his tennis playing 5 times each week including squads, privates, competition and tournaments.  Naturally his learning curve is fairly steep at the moment.  He has areas which need development, most noticeably moving around the court.  The coaching team are working at his reaction speed, some leg strength, speed work etc… Seeking to improve his athletic skills.

The major breakthrough in improving Josh’s court movement didn’t come from any genius from the coaching team, although I am very proud of my coach who asked Josh, “when do think you need to watch to ball – off my strings, when the ball passes the net, or when the ball bounces.”

“Um…about…when the ball passes the net,” answered Josh.  So from the mouth of our young tyro the answer, keep working on the athletic skills but turn attention to perception skills.  By not picking up the ball off the opponents racquet Josh was missing key pieces of information and was not necessarily reacting too slowly, but reacting too late.  Listening to our players can deliver the most insightful feedback.

What the science tells us is that the moment the opponent hits the ball is actually the key time in the tracking the ball.  The amazing relationship between the eyes and the brain mean that key calculations are made to judge the trajectory of the ball and immediately the player can begin to move and prepare for their shot.

The key coaching point here is to draw the players attention to the impact of their opponent.  We must go beyond direct coaching methods and telling Josh, “you must watch the ball off the opponent’s racquet.”  More specific and creative coaching is needed to create long lasting learning happen…try a couple of these activities if you have players who could do with improving their perceptive abilities.

Play Hit – Bounce.  We have all played bounce – hit with our young players to develop their rhythm and timing.  Calling the “hit” of the opponent and then the “bounce” of the ball down your end builds the tracking capability of your players.  Research shows that elite players determine the flight of the ball early and late, it is impossible to watch the ball all through its path, but by focusing on the key moments leads to better performance.

Wear a bright pink wrist band.  Rally with your players wearing a bright wristband and ask them to be aware of the wristband.  Our goal when it comes to perceptive skills is to achieve anticipation.  Elite players are able to read their opponents body movements to anticipate the type of shot they will hit, focusing on the wristband will help the young player become aware of the opponent down the other end.

Spinners.  Rally with your players hitting with a variety of spins and ask them to call the type of spin you are hitting.  Elite players look at specifics like the spin of the ball, while beginners vision wonders around when tracking the ball.

The visual system is the slowest of the sensory systems and to make matters worse beginners tend to focus on the wrong things and are late to react.  However, training can make a big difference to how quickly visual information can be processed.  If you have a player like Josh, invest some time in the activities suggested in this article, they only need to be worked at for a few minutes within your coaching activities to make a difference.

After all, the eyes are the gateway to the brain, which as we know stimulates all our movements and actions on the tennis court.

Do you have any great activities to help players watch and perceive the ball better?  We’d love to hear about them at evolve9.

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