Introducing Higher Levels of Challenge
A coach can develop greater trust with their players based on the challenges they give their players. We at USATennisCoach try not to use the word drill, instead we say challenge. Why? Challenges are fun and exciting, drills sound like painful drudgery. The challenges we place our players in express a lot about how well we know them, and what they can handle. What is the next level that they can aspire to?
It’s pretty easy to give challenges that are not really challenges, or to take the level too high. One thing we know for sure, is that any new challenge no matter how perfectly dialed for the next level of development of our players, will lead to some confusion, taking players out of their comfort level. How we coach players during the initial first few minutes of poor performance, caused by the cognitive dissonance, created by the new activity, skill or game played at a higher level, says a lot about how fast our players will begin to perform at a new level. When coaches are willing to adjust the challenge level to an appropriate level, players learn to trust the coach and are better able to succeed moving forward. If the so-called challenge is really just a routine and does not push the players, they learn not to give 100% effort. Finally, when challenges are too great and the drill is nearly impossible, then a sort of learned helplessness is taught, and players learn it very quickly. Gaining players feedback about the challenge level also helps develop those relationships.
Yesterday Styrling and I were talking about challenges as though they were the main course of a meal. The daily meal of practice is most important, and we are starting at the heart of the matter, getting the work done. Of course, practices include a warm-up, skill development, blocked skill practice, and fun games, but for the time being we are zeroing in activities that will take 20-30 minutes of your daily practice routines. This is the work!
It’s vital to truly observe everything about your players as they play under certain parameters. This allows you the coach to notice if changes are needed, or if in a measure of time players will get up to speed with the task at hand.
When practicing challenges (drills) to improve as a player, there three areas of discovery for players to manage. First, the initial moment will most often seem awkward to them. When you begin these on-court strategies there needs to be a mental and emotional commitment to overcome the initial confusion and feelings of awkwardness. It can certainly feel frustrating for players, when given a challenge that is beyond their comfort zone and pushes athletic and psychological limits. Starting with a growth mindset, meaning to become stronger in mind, body, and emotions, will help you see more value in the journey towards performance than just the goal of winning points alone. For a player to execute a shot or sequence in a live match scenario, they mainly need to do most or all of the following:
1. Develop the technique of a skill
2. Gain a level of mastery in a closed challenge
3. Gain a level of mastery in a limited open challenge
4. Show confidence in a practice match situation
5. Display automaticity (automatic rhythm response) in a live point play situation
Specific Challenges that Create a Strong Foundational Base
One of the most important challenges that I have players perform is called the “Depth Challenge”. It’s a challenge that promotes a sustained rally with an emphasis on keeping the ball deep in the backcourt and I usually begin a practice session with this one. I must give credit to Carl Maes, former coach of Kim Clijsters, for the inspiration with this challenge. I met Carl at the 2016 PTR International Symposium and we had a chance to talk about training players. He shared some great stories about Kim and his coaching experience with her. He reminded me that if consistency was King (making shots), then depth of shot was the Diamond. So, I came back home and created a challenge for my players, it’s made a world of difference and putting it first as a warm-up has launched my players to new levels of deliberate focus from beginning to building a point.
Challenges that work well with players when developing these first two shots is the Serve Depth Challenge and Return Depth Challenge. Making the ball land deep in the service box and in the backcourt is key to keeping an opponent from attacking your serve or return and help you get the upper hand on your opponent.
Serve Depth Challenge
1. Place two yellow court lines inside the service box about two feet or 1/2 meter inside and parallel to the service line.
2. Players that make their serve land between the yellow court lines and the service line score three points. Any other place inside the service box, score one point. A missed serve out is zero points. Sometimes its wise to make a serve in the net a negative point to motivate deeper serves.
3. Players with higher performance levels can be challenged to hit 1/4 meter (one ft.) square boxes marked by yellow court lines on the inside corners of the service box or whatever area is decided to train for accuracy. Player receives three points for making shots in the target area, and one point for anywhere else in the service box.
4. The main objective for the server is to become more and more intentional about placing each ball in a target area within the service box. Without a target area, the player may be tempted to just getting the ball back in play rather than improve their ability to play the ball closer to a specific section. If a player double faults they lose one or two points depending on their skill level or how much a player or coach wants to underscore the importance of placement over power.
5. The server’s +1 shot can be emphasized in sequence with the serve. If the server’s +1 shot lands in the backcourt (back half of the big rectangle between service line and baseline), the player scores an additional three points. The serve player earns one point if the +1 shot lands in the opponents service box, zero points if the shot misses in the net. If a clean winner, the player scores 5 points. The point system keeps the intensity of the game challenge at a high level and earning more points than your opponent is always fun!
We are living in the golden age of he the returner with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray being amongst the greatest returners of all time, and in the WTA tour, it feels like there are almost as many breaks of serve as there are games where players hold serve. Developing strong return game habits, will help our players to become much more complete, so here are some return challenges:
Return Depth Challenge
Set up the court with a line that is approximately six feet inside the baseline. I like to use a few of the yellow plastic court lines you can find through various vendors. When a serve returner hits inside the last six feet of the court, they get three points. Every shot between the service line and the six foot line is worth one point. If it’s a point play situation, then I also reward five points if they make a clean winner on the return.
Some variations that can help refocus players include penalizing players who hit short or in the net. You have to be careful using negative points, because the assumption is that will be rare. If players begin to accumulate negative points, it can create a confidence problem. Balls in the net can be negative one, two, three or more points. Be wise in your application of those, based on the ability of players. Low intermediates may or may not be helped by losing point on poor performance, but gain much more confidence when they do score.
Sometimes a comment about how obvious the outcome is when the ball goes into the net makes a world of difference. There is a 0% chance of winning the point when the ball goes into the net.
You can also choose to score the returner’s +1 shot, and that can create a subtle but important shift in their mentality to keep the pressure on the opponent on consecutive shots. A variation of this is incorporating angled targets, and/or drop shot targets for the +1 ball to help players take advantage of creative combinations after a strong deep return. So, you can keep the same three point scoring for a deep +1 shot, or you can reward another target area that keeps the pressure on the server.
The Serve and Return Depth Challenges can be played together with two players or as part of a larger team to a determined score or players are attempting to score as many points as possible within a specific time frame (ie. 3, 5, 7 minutes).
Depth Rally Challenge
Since approximately 25% of all points will end within five to eight shots, and another 10% after nine shots, it’s a great idea to train players to maintain depth control for a great period of time. Longer rally points are not worth more than shorter points, but they can feel as though they are worth more to the player who has invested so heavily mentally and emotionally in them. I implement this depth rally challenge at the beginning of every training session for a player to find good spacing, rhythm, timing on their groundstrokes.
Many times the player who unintentionally hits a short ball gives up a huge tactical advantage to a player who has maintained great depth of shot, or who hits short intentionally to pull their opponent out of position. The challenge here is to have a player practice their ability to maintain a deep rally with their opponent. It’s ideal to continue to use whichever scoring system you started with to reduce confusion. In my experience using three players per court is ideal for this challenge. Players and coaches can be as creative as they desire to make this challenge fit their needs for an individual player or team of players. Here are couple of ideas to set up this challenge for two or three players per court.
The Depth Challenge begins with taking two yellow throw-down long lines http://www.oncourtoffcourt.com, and placing them 6 feet inside the baseline.
2 players per court. One player attempts to score points, call them the ‘scoring’ player. The other player is called the ‘rally’ player. Continue with the yellow court lines two meters or six feet inside the baseline of the opposite court from the scoring player only. The rally player with the yellow lines, in front of them, tallies points for the scoring player. If a coach is present during the practice session, the coach can tally the scoring player’s points while the rally player is free to focus on maintaining the rally. Continue to use the scoring system, three points for shots landing between the yellow court lines and the baseline, one point for landing in front of the yellow court lines, zero points for landing in the service boxes, the net or out of bounds. The challenge can be timed one, two, or three minutes and then players rotate in their on court roles. Coaches and players can time training sessions based on the skill level of players or if the focus is training physical endurance while maintaining depth of shot. For lower level players, longer periods of time are advisable to help players score more points, and especially to get over what often can be a difficult start to a high level challenge.
Three players per court. One player is the scoring player and the other two players are the rally players. The rally players are responsible for tallying the total points for the scoring player. This is the best possible scenario for all the players and the coach because rally players can keep score as they rally, scoring player can focus on scoring points, and the coach can roam and observe receiving skills of each player. Coaches can look for a particular technical skill to encourage during this live ball challenge. I recommend having one set skill, or one unique to each player, so that players can focus on one adjustment at a time.
Rotate players after a timed session of one, two, or three minutes – scoring points remain the same for specified target areas. These games make for a fun intra-squad competition, and can also be a team building exercise, when the team is split into smaller teams. It’s a fun way to introduce a competition between players that does not result in a lineup change, gaining or losing status on the team. Playing these games can also be a great way to encourage concentration in the early moments of a practice.
As coaches, when developing practices for your team players, keep in mind the skill level of your players and match them according to similar levels. The challenges/drills you create will be much more effective and fun with players in same skill level groups. For more information about practicing on purpose, DM me through Facebook or my coaching website http://www.transformpracticecourt.com