Is tennis training top heavy?

Thomas Leach, Head of Mini Tennis at Wadebridge Tennis Club, gives his views on how a different style of tennis coaching could help improve performance of young prospects.

During my career as a tennis coach there have been times when I have been fortunate enough to have been given a free reign on designing and structuring a tennis programme.  You can really look in depth at available resources, what player base you are working with and what the goals are of the players, not to mention the programme itself. It is during this time that you can really use your imagination and formulate some great initiatives.

However it wasn’t always like this. There were times when I worked under head coaches who told me what I should be doing and when. I didn’t mind that as I understood they had the authority to run the programme how they wished, however I soon recognised a pattern on how myself and other coaches were set out to work. It was very much a case of developing coaching squads (for all ages) during the week and over the weekend, whilst also setting up individual coaching sessions for clients who wanted private tuition. This was pretty much it. A week of coaching for me, and for the players it was a case of weekly coaching sessions. All repeated over the following weeks.

This was quite normal, and it probably still is for a lot of coaches and players, however my background isn’t just in tennis.

When I was younger I played many sports and represented teams and counties and I loved it. I loved the weekly training, I loved doing drills and improving skills, but what gave me the excitable goosebumps was the weekend match.

Whether this was a football or hockey match, this is what I trained for. This is what gave me a connection between training and competing and an understanding as to why training is important. I wanted to use the skills I had learnt against my opponent, and doing that was just as good as the feeling of winning a professional match. It was the experience of understanding a skill, learning and refining it, but then actually using it in a live, real, important situation. The thought of it still gives me butterflies. What could be better?

However, I soon realised when undergoing my usual week of just coaching, that this very feeling, the feeling that got me hooked into most sports, just wasn’t being provided by the programne I was sent out to deliver. Everything for the players was coaching-based with no time or opportunity for the players to express themselves or to play a forehand down the line against a real opponent. It was always against a coach, or to a target, or against a fellow squad player. There was no regular weekend match which would get the players excited and want to train, and this unfortunately is still so common.

So is tennis training too top heavy? Is too much emphasis placed on coaching and not enough on playing the game? I believe it is. Not everywhere, of course, but still in too many clubs and centres no doubt.

Imagine my relief when I was finally given the opportunity to lead a programme and have a team of coaches to work with. Yes, we had to provide coaching sessions, but I made sure there was room in the programme to include actually playing the game.

This took the shape in many forms due to the differing abilities and included things such as a ‘junior night’ whereby players came along and just played instead of having coaching. We introduced ladders and box leagues giving the players opportunities to play for something and to have a goal. We entered teams into local leagues so there were regular weekend matches, just like I had when playing my football matches.

There are numerous ways to introduce this element into programmes and it is something I still prioritise now. Our latest scheme, called ‘Pro Play’ is for all categories of mini players and is open to everyone. Players turn up, choose a professional to be for that day (optional!) and go out and play matches. It has been hugely successful and really allows the players to understand the connection between training and competing.

So what have I learnt?

Do not be afraid to copy other sports. Yes each sport is unique but there are some great aspects of each which we can take and paste into our programmes. Have a look at your programme and see if it is too top heavy with coaching. Players want to train, but they want to play too!

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