How the curse of gaming actually helped my coaching
Christian was a handy 11 year old lefty. Previously he had pretty much kept to the baseline and played pretty conservatively. Today he surprised me by slicing his first serve out wide to the backhand, charging straight to the net and angling away my return with a crisp backhand volley. Classic serve and volley from an 11 year old who had previously never shown much understanding of patterns of play or a higher order thinking.
I was fascinated and immediately called a team meeting to explore this exciting new development. Dressed in a tennis singlet, head band, Nike shoes and wielding a Babolat Aero Drive racquet, Christian explained his new obsession was playing Xbox tennis. Playing as Rafa he had won several slams over the weekend using the tactics of serve and volley to the ad court (I’ve only ever seen Rafa serve and volley once!)
We proceeded to have the lesson you dream about. Christian was super motivated to learn how to improve his leftie slice to the backhand; and hit a first volley into the open court. I had a great opportunity to make real progress with his technical development because he was so inspired to improve his game and was open to new strategies like wrong footing me on the volley.
In his great book “Faster, Higher, Stronger” author Mark McCluskey contends that modern athletes do achieve an advantage playing the modern EA Sports phenomenon. While these games cannot of course replicate any of the physical demands of the game they do highlight the patterns of play that are so critical to higher level performance. McCluskey specifically describes how potential young Quarter Backs in American Football can generate a better understanding of the tactical demands of their sport through playing “Madden Football.”
Like these potential Quarter Backs, Christian had implicitly learned (the best way!) to anticipate the most likely response to his wide serve, understood he had created a big target in the open court which he could attack or wrong foot me. I hadn’t considered introducing serve and volley to him, but through his love of video games he had explored advanced patterns of play and I needed to catch up by improving his skills to perform the tactic. The Xbox had trumped me!
Fast forward a few years and I was explaining to a group of 10 year olds the importance of understanding the court and target zones. Picture the situation if you will; Sam and Jack were looking over my shoulder at the rally on the next court, Luke was focused on bouncing a ball on the ground, while Abby (bless her) was giving me her full attention. Great work coach?
The next time I introduced the concept I was armed with an iPad and a great Tennis Australia resource called the “Tactical Fundamentals” which graphically shows the target zones, safe lines, safe zones and then demonstrates the concepts with pro player footage. The kids were, to say the least, captivated. The information was clearly absorbed because the lesson that followed was another one that made you love being a tennis coach.
Many studies have shown the negative impacts of gaming and technology like antisocial behavior, poor posture and sleeping habits. There is however emerging evidence that in moderation (up to 1 hour per day) that playing video games actually has a positive outcome in skills such as quicker reaction times and greater cognitive flexibility. These results should give us confidence to embrace and encourage some level of gaming and use of technology, while recognizing that children who play over 3 hours per day experience significant negative impacts.
The art and science of tennis coaching has come a long way. From military style drilling and lines to game based approach; corporal style command coaching style to athlete empowered decision making; using the same equipment for players of all ages and abilities to equipment customized to the development of the player.
The use of technology is not new to tennis, but the ease of use with smart phones and apps means it is so much more practical. The technology I used just 5 years ago required me to take the footage on a video camera; download the footage to my computer and then process it with ‘Swinger.’ It was time consuming, it didn’t provide instant feedback and it was incredibly expensive compared with modern apps.
It means that using technology is no longer just the domain of elite training environments. Using technology is another way to bring high performance to every level of your coaching program.
Get a great read with Higher, Faster, Stronger by Mark McCluskey.
The Tennis Australia Technique App is a cheap and fantastic coaching tool
Rufus Keown is a member of the e9 Professional Development Team