DEAD BALLS V.S. LIVE BALLS
While spending time on tennis courts, we often see tennis coaches feeding balls from a basket to players waiting in queue. They send them slows and shorts balls with a curved pathway in order to improve players technical skills. But is it the most efficient way to improve a player?
Tennis is a game with 4 main components (Technical, physical, strategical and mental). Has tennis game come down to hitting perfect ground strokes? How important is ball trajectory anticipation? What are the limits of coaching with dead balls sent from a basket?
1) Different coaching approaches :
The directed game :
During a training match, the coach and player have a specific objective and the coach can give feedback to the player directly during the point or at the end of the game.
The real game situations :
During points, the coach can add specific rules (like one ball for serve or lob not allowed) or ask specific strokes to be played (like only backhands allowed), or a specific stroke sequence (3rd stroke must be a volley).
Live balls drills:
Players are repeating a specific stroke through rallying until the moment they reach their goal
i.e: "the golden alley": rallying in the deuce court with forehands , when a player crosses the single alley line , his opponent can play down the line and they play out the point.
Dead ball drills
It is a set of high number of balls sent from a basket (usually from mid court) to repeat a specific stroke without rally. This aims to a technical or physical improvement.
2) Player Ability at different ages:
That is the more important question that a coach should answer.
Under 10, kids need to move around the ball pathway, trying to catch it first, and to be able to send a ball by hand. Between 7 and 10 year’s old this is the best period to work on pathway’s perception. How a young player can succeed to return a ball if he is not able to throw it in an area with his hand? So under 10, players need a good ready position, hit the ball on the side by turning around the pathway, and have a good perception of the bounce. Those are the technical skills that he needs for rallying. In addition, he needs to enjoy the game of tennis to ensure a long term progress! Tennis is more than repeating the exact same stroke sent by coach. That’s why, from five year’s old, a player needs to get used to irregular balls from an opponent, and start learning about the rules. A tennis lesson with lot of real game situation will help the student to develop game ability!
Between, 10 and 12 year’s old, this is the best period for technical improvement. It’s called the « golden period » to learn motor’s skills. At thirteen, a player should be able to hit ground strokes with topspin, use a hammer grip to serve flat and slice and feel confident at the net.
At 14 years old, a player should be technically made at 90 %.
Sometimes, when we’re coaching adult beginners, we see that the pathway perception, and specially short/depth direction and height of the bounce are not mastered with hard balls. And it’s harder for beginners that didn’t practice sports ball under 10. For sure, it’s never too late, but at Fifty year’s old it takes more time, and it shows how it matters under 10. Same difference between an adult beginner and a 11 year’s old kid about learning technical skills.
Tennis coaches are working long hours on technical skills with dead ball drills. Does it make a complete player? How to work on pathway anticipation or upper body moves? What about strategic and mental components?
3) Benefit of soft balls:
A hard ball basket is a cliché of tennis coaching, and it is still used because some players have hard time mastering technical skills with live hard ball drill. Technic is key for beginners but it become less of priority while improving one’s tennis level. For sure, teaching basics like a continental grip for serving or topspin forehand are important for beginners, but my experience shows that it takes time to be efficient in a hard ball rally, and even more in a match. Why ? Because it is extremely difficult to coordinate upper body movements together with an adapted footwork to the ball pathway.
Soft balls are the solution to work on technic with a live ball drill. The bounce is lower, the pace is slower and accuracy and consistency from players can increase, keeping them confident. They have more time to improve what is taught, and the coach is free to make some interventions closer from players. Every ball is hit more than one time, which decreases the time to pick up balls. Working on technic while rallying allows the integration of technical skills and pathway’s perception. Because your technic is meaningful only if you are located at the right place at the right time!
In 2014, the French Federation (FFT with more than 1 million licensed players and 10% of the TOP500) introduced 2 new types of balls, the white ball (from 5 year’s old) and Purple ball (from 6-7 year’s old). This has enabled the development of rallies and matches for young players.
Let’s take a look on a picture taken in our tennis holiday camp, it could be better than a long explanation :
This player (6 year’s old) is hitting a white ball (Cf our academy program) with his two handed backhand. We can see that he hits a big stroke because he find himself how to do: hitting out in front of him, body weight on his right toe, moving in, keeping eyes on the hitting point.
It was the second hour working with the white ball and already showing sign of going through the ball.
As we can see, technical skills can be learned really early if coaches use the full series of adapted balls and court’s sizes. The ball basket is not the only tool to use by a coach, and my point of view is that it should be used shortly during a tennis lesson. Live ball drills with soft balls are better to mix a good perception of pathways, a right footwork to be well located and a good upper body that give consistency.
Constantly using a basket makes a coach feel comfortable since it requires less body engagement but it is not necessary the best way to teach efficiently a student. The idea of a high number of strokes fed from a basket should be balanced by the time necessary to pick up the ball, by the rate of successful strokes and the low potential of improving pathway perception and anticipation, which become a key in true game. Some players might feel they play very well against their coach but once in a game, they loose all their technic. Indeed, playing against “a trolley” does not improve your game understanding, tactic and mental aspects like the angles theory.
It is a bit sad to see today in Singapore, the orange ball is 20 years old, and a lot of coaches do not considerate it like a true coaching tool. For sure, soft balls solutions are still today under used and the closer trainings are from real game, the more you will learn how to master this amazing game!