Do you Get it?
Red, Orange and Green!
How the Game changes as the court, players and skills change!
The concept of using modified equipment to make the game easier to learn is at the heart of programs like LTA Mini Tennis, USTA Quickstart and the ITF Play and Stay campaign, but as you work more and more with the systems you will discover that it’s not just about playing the game quicker but also about creating a systematic approach to developing both technical and tactical skills.
By gaining a better understanding of the game on the Red, Orange and regular court you can understand how to gradually incorporate the different needs at each level into your training. In our last article we made reference to the four principles, court, ball, and movement and using two players. These are presented as the cornerstone for creating the right environment for players to maximise both conscious and unconscious learning. Now by looking at the player, ball and court in more detail we can explore how we can be more systematic in our approach to training and coaching.
Technical and tactical factors are described in a great many different ways around the world so first it’s useful to clarify our descriptions. All are closely linked but for the purposes of this article we will use the following descriptors.
Technique – the way in which the player uses their racket and body
Technical Skill – this is the ability of the player to make the ball do something in a given situation and time
Tactical Decision – this is the decision that the player makes in relation to the 4 on court awareness factors (Self- Ball – Court – Opponent)
All three of these are very closely linked, for example a player may find it easier to make the ball travel on a cross court angle (technical skill), because they are able to use a slightly open stance and have a semi western forehand grip (technique) and want to do this to take the opponent off of the side of the court in order to create an opening to hit to (tactical intention). There are a great many other ways for discussing tactics, strategy and technical issues but we will stick with these.
When we talk about Technique, Technical Skill and Tactical Intention we should not forget that these are focused on what the player can do but we must not forget that the approach of using modified balls and courts means that these also play a great part in determining what is needed to play the game.
On the Red Court
Set, balance, rotate
The red (foam) ball is bigger and flies slower than other balls. It has a consistent bounce which places it between the knee and the bottom of the rib cage on the majority of shots when players rally baseline to baseline. Most balls are hit around this area and it is very difficult for a player to make the ball bounce much higher for their opponent. The court is relatively narrow and so players need to move a little sideways and forwards but backward movement is a limited requirement and they can usually move, stop and balance in preparation for each shot. As a result the focus here in training should be exactly that simple early reaction and movement, good balance and rotation, and consistent contact points.
Consistent bounce of the foam ball and limited court size mean:
Most Balls will be hit mid Chest to knee height
Some open racket face skills are required on lower balls
Only volleys and serve are hit above shoulder height
Serve contact point height dependents on age and
Body Rotations will be made with shoulders level
Player’s tactical intention is limited as they are unlikely to have full awareness of their opponent unless they are at a very advanced level. This means that although they may be able to hit the ball away from their opponent they are unlikely to be able to fully understand how to make it difficult for their opponent
in other ways as their focus in on themselves, and the ball. In order to achieve the limited tactical intention that they do have, practices should be based upon the technical skills of directing the ball down the line and cross court and also redirecting the ball in order to hit away from the opponent. By creating this simple foundation of move stop hit recover and focusing on consistent contact point on the forehand and backhand players will have great foundations to move on to the dynamic demands of the …..
Time to really move
At Orange level the transition ball flies faster and also reacts well to increased speed so players will now have less time to position themselves and may have to hit more balls from a dynamic position (and must learn to hit off of either foot). Required movement as a result is much more lateral resulting in more shots hot off of a semi open stance, and there is an increased demand to move forwards, meaning that the player must be able to coordinate well into different hitting positions. Unlike at the Red level there will often not be the opportunity to arrive at the hit perfectly balanced. Players will now need to hit from a variety of different positions including contacting the ball at a higher point, scrambling for lower balls and hitting from further away from their body.
Increase court length requires and ball speeds mean:
Players hit at lower and higher positions
Also hit balls further from body (on run)
Serve moves higher
More dynamic use of body mostly on a horizontal plane
Rotations may require separation of the upper and lower body (hips and shoulder at different angles) as there is not always time to step into the court.
Technical skill now needs to be based upon making the ball move faster and this gives the added demand of creating more spin in order to maintain control of this faster ball. All this may require the use of grips that better facilitate this and allow for greater racket head speed. Obviously as one player seeks to hit the ball faster then they seek to use the kinetic chain more and this starts to result in better shoulder rotation off of a semi open stance. Equally as they receive the faster ball they must learn to hit from this stance, as the use of spin and speed allows players to hit more angles and move their opponent wider and wider.
Tactically players now should be developing a better understanding of court geography and starting to attack and defend at appropriate times. The court being longer and a little wider also means that they should use this space by changing the depth and angle of their shots to open the court. Due to a greater degree of cognitive development they will also now start to use patterns of play, understanding that if they can move the player wide then with the next shot they should aim to hit the space that they have created. All this means that the use of time has become more important than on the Red court and by taking the ball early and by hitting sequences of shots they can best take the time away from their opponent. Players should have experienced a dynamic environment where movement is key and the increased speed of the ball increases the visual and physical demands. This forms a great foundation for the next level which will help to create a Total Tennis Player…..
A whole new level
Moving on to the regular court whether you use the green (mid) ball or the regular ball provides the ultimate challenge to a young player. The court is now “adult sized”, and let’s not forget that in no other sport do players as young as 10 years old move to play on the full regulation field, so even though we have Red and Orange courts in preparation it is still a big step. Of course each time a player moves to the next court the first thing that happens is the players learn to adapt to the demands of distance and pace and so players who were technically and tactically capable of performing a skill will now temporarily regress as they focus on trying to regain this skill in a more demanding environment. But, this environment is not just about the size of the court but also greatly about the characteristics of the ball, remember we already have players who have got used to dealing with the “faster” ball at the Orange level and as a result have learned to move well in most direction. (Laterally, forwards and diagonally), but now the ball requires some more competencies that were rarely used before. On this court the ball is harder and energy transferred into the ball (spin, height, pace) has more of an influence when the ball bounces. So a player can now hit the ball with height spin and pace and make the ball bounce up at the opponent. This allows the player to move their opponent away from the baseline, and in opposition to this tactic the opponent must learn to contact the ball at a higher point on some shots, hit more balls off of the back foot as they are forced back and also adjust their body height to maintain a position of strength. Of course the counter to this is to take the ball early but this is still a challenge for some players particularly if they are smaller or have not developed the required racket head acceleration on the Orange court.
Court size and ball density now mean:
Players must hit in all position (use of height as weapon)
Serves move higher
Body used to align vertically to balls
More use of incoming ball speed to create pace
Tactically a player is likely to be able to integrate more information into their decision making process. They should now understand the geography of the court and how to create space and time, but in reaching the final level of awareness they will also be able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent and formulate a strategy to “beat” them by making it difficult for them. In being more aware of their opponent they are also likely to be able to use anticipation cues to determine what their opponent is doing and start to link shots as part of this plan. For example then will understand that if they can hit a ball crosscourt with pace, height, depth and spin to the backhand then the likely response will be a defensive shot back crosscourt or a weak shot that they can move forwards to and attack. Continued use of different court shapes to stimulate tactical and technical skill on all previous court shapes plus the following is now encouraged. Players need to be strong and quick to play on this court, but many players will undoubtedly move to this court before they are ready. As a coach you can deliver the ball at a lower height and so this does not seem so apparent but as soon as a player competes against someone with the technical skill to make the ball move then the nice balls that you were feeding start to become irrelevant. The important message is that a players ability to hit with a coach is not the same as a players ability to play the game. Tennis is a dynamic and demanding sport at the highest level of junior tennis and by understanding the tools that you have in front of you through Quickstart / ITF Play and Stay you can develop players with a much higher level of technical and tactical skill. Just hitting the balldoesn’t cut it anymore!
It may seem too much to hope for that our young players at 10 or 11 might be able to develop an understanding of the game that is so rich and in depth, but in reality the players that have moved through a Mini Tennis / Quickstart style program with expert coaches who focus on the details and understand the demands of each environment, can!! It is just a matter of being systematic in your approach and focusing on building skill and understanding in a logical order. Most importantly you must see this as a way of advancing the level of the game played by young players and as a consequence the level that they will then play as older juniors and adults. This approach is a 5 year development program where everyone gets to PLAY!!