Skill Development Window
Looking back at old videos of Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal playing against each other it was clear. You could watch them play without knowing who they were. Their shots, style and technique were so clearly the players we have grown to love so much today.
Their games have obviously grown, developed and improved since their early teenage days, the fundamentals of how they play are still very much the same.
As a coach, the thing I love doing most is researching the science behind how we do things, why we do things and how to train these habitual changes. Are professional athletes born or made? Maybe both. This question is where I devote a lot of my time and the backbone of what we do at Lasvit Tennis.
When are players made? This is a very open-ended question and today we will focus solely on the technical aspects. Player examples in this article are Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Tiger Woods, Boris Becker and Stefi Graff.
Nadal and Murray exhibit such strong similarities from when they were 12 years old. There are more similarities than there are differences.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWff_KrNQ6c
This begs the question, when are the building blocks of technique made? My theory is that the bulk, say 80% of the technical fundamentals are built between the ages 8-12 years of age. Incredible to think about how many tennis balls that they have hit since the age of 12. Millions perhaps?! Yet, fundamentally their game is the same! This tells us a huge amount about development and just how important the pre-puberty stage of learning is. In an upcoming article, I will explore the changes through the periods of pre-puberty, puberty and post-puberty.
Tiger Woods has famously been playing golf since he could hold a club. Talk show spots with his father, constant media attention since those early days.
Tiger, the ever perfectionist looking to constantly find ways to improve decided to do an unprecedented thing when in 1997, after just winning a major tournament he decided to change his swing. He believed it could be better and more consistent. Tiger and his team went to work on making it the best it could be. This wasn’t an easy task and it took time. There was no certainty that he would ever return to the top. In late 1999 his new swing was better than ever. 1997 Tiger won 4 PGA tour events, 1998 (during the peak of swing change) only 1 and 1999 (after the swing change) 8 PGA tour titles.
Outstanding commitment and dedication to improvement.
Great snapshot on Tigers swing progression: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2366463-how-tiger-woods-career-might-have-turned-out-differently
Tiger shows that changing technique later down the track is possible, of course, it is. It just isn’t very easy. It takes time, it takes months of toil and it takes a world of commitment.
Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it should be our goal. Tiger had the luxury of large endorsement deals, a healthy bank account and endless resources to take time out of the game and commitment to the process at such a late stage in his career. 99% of athlete’s, professional or not, very rarely have the capabilities to commit to such great lengths and time to change their game.
I do really love his relentless push for better.
Sports evolve, equipment advances and tactics need to adapt to all of these changes. Games, technique and style may need to change to keep up with the modern way of the sport. I’m not saying you wouldn’t need to do that, all I’m saying is that the fundamental building blocks take a great deal of time and energy to change. The time that can be better spent in the very time-sensitive period of a professional athlete’s life. Career lifespan for the average professional athlete is not long.
Photo by J. H. Darchinger
Two other tennis examples who built their fundamental games very early on are the German sensations, Steffi Graf and Boris Becker. Both players went through the same German training system. They trained together weekly ever since Boris was 9 and Steffi 7. Looking back at old footage their games are almost mirrored images of how they played in 1989. The year they both win Wimbledon. Again the fundamentals were built before puberty, before dancing under the cameras of center court. A great mini biopic on the pair can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsQimQHS7d4
Why is this important and why is it so hard to do?
The importance can’t be understated. The technique players develop through two key stages, pre and during puberty is fundamental to all that comes forward. This neural network of connections forms the roadmap for the coming years. More on Neural networks in an upcoming article.
Why is it so hard to do?
The type of tennis we need to play when we are an adult isn’t always the type of tennis that is easy to play when we are a junior.
It may actually lead us to more ‘negative’ experiences like loss, feelings of slow improvement and an overall drop in self-belief. All elements that are so hard for parents are children to deal with. It can be a brutal sport at times.
What are the obvious differences between an adult and a junior-aged 8-13 years of age?
John Isner & Grandson
What do these three areas impact the most in a juniors game?
The high forehand stroke is the most common stroke you see impacted. You see many juniors, in particular smaller players, adopting a Western Grip. The Western Grip allows a player to make contact at a higher point while maintaining spin. Please note, the below image is not a perfect example of how the hand should be spread across the grip. We promote the top finger to be slightly further spread up the grip and not bunched up together with the other fingers. The goal of this image was to highlight the grip and change of hand position.
Photo Cred: https://tennis-uni.com/en/tennis-forehand/
On the serve, you see more changes with the ball toss. It’s so challenging for juniors to copy the pro players here. The ball toss, the contact point and the extreme power generated from the legs is unobtainable. Adapting is key.
Double handed backhands often lead to a similar problem to the forehand side. The top handgrip moves into a more extreme position (for the same reason as the Western grip, creating more spin from a higher contact point).
Some technical and coaching solutions for the above challenges.
The forehand is usually the shot where most players create opportunities. It has the most flare and the shot with most options. It is versatile. Versatility is a huge strength for tennis players, huge! By adopting a Western grip you are creating limitations for your future. As a smaller junior tennis player the most common grip, the semi-western, can be really challenging.
Pro-tip #1: Read the ball early. Watch the contact point when your opponent hits. If you watch early and focus on what you control (your side of the court) A well-timed split step and a fast first step towards the ball.
Pro-tip #2: Get behind the ball. It is much easier to move forward than it is to move backwards. I believe the Spanish training system has so much success for this very reason. Every day, coaches are shouting, behind the ball, get behind the ball! They’re definitely onto something here. You get more bodyweight, more leg drive and have more control with how you hit. Get behind the ball and if it’s short, move in and generate more momentum and power. If it’s high and deep you will be set and ready to build the ball back and get your teeth stuck into the point.
It’s all about the angle! We shouldn’t be teaching the same service action to young junior players. Teach the same swing technique, yes, but the way they contact the ball, the spin and the leg drive should be adapted to suit the lower impact/contact zone. The physics of the matter just don’t work with us here.
Pro-tip #1: Allow the contact point to be slightly lower than the pro players here (2-3cm, filming in slow-mo will help you see). The swing pattern won’t change but the lower contact point will help send the ball higher from contact, reducing the chances of dancing too often with the net.
Pro-tip #2: Don’t focus on the leg drive landing too far in the court. Focus on the legs driving up to the ball. In most cases, a player between the ages of 9-12 will be able to drive up but not so far out. No need to force something just because we see it on TV. Forget about the distance and focus on the timing of the drive moving up to the contact point.
These two aspects will keep the technique fundamentals the same as the professional players but different enough to bring about more immediate success for our junior stars.
Never sacrifice the left hand for the higher ball. Much like the forehand, it’s all about getting behind the ball. Read the ball early, get in position and make it happen. Anticipation drills will help you see body ques faster and create a neural web that adapts and responds much faster. Video Vlog on anticipation drills can be found here.
Is there a time to make grip changes on shots? The short answer is yes, I will be writing and filming about that soon. Sign up to our newsletter to stay up to date.
Practice the process.
The number one tool for all development, learning and growth is PRACTICING IN THE PROCESS. Look far into the future with your goals and work your way backwards. Is your child’s game ‘playing right now to win or a game that will give them a higher chance to ‘win in the future? It’s a balancing act because you don’t want all losses now because it can be crippling. This ties in well to our progression v Perfection article
The idea and research in the progression V Perfection article is about making these small changes towards the optimal path. This I think answers a lot of the questions on ‘how to apply’ the above framework.
Players will and should always have a flare, personal touch and quirks. Their own signature. These are special and should most definitely be encouraged. Creating a robot is not what we are looking for. Harnessing the unique flavour of the player, building the fundamentals from the ground up and wherever possible let’s aim to create such a strong foundation that their game will flourish for years to come. Giving your child the highest chance possible at reaching their full potential.
Keep building the framework