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Progressive Development

Part 1

Paul Lubbers, PhD

Printable Version

Research gives us a model timetable for developing tennis mastery.

Research tells us that there is a 10-year model in the development of expertise in almost any field. The development of mastery of any performance based skill, whether it's art, music, surgery, or tennis, takes about 10,000 hours of development. So that's about 1,000 hours a year for 10 years.

The implications of that model are pretty clear for our sport. If you want somebody to become a master of tennis, it's a long process. At the very start, you have to realize that it will take 10 years and 10,000 hours of systematic, focused practice to reach the goal of developing a player's true potential.

This is why it is so important for coaches to understand how progressive development actually works. It affects everything: learning technique, learning tactics, developing weapons, developing physical skills, developing mental skills. It dictates when to teach certain aspects of the game and why.

What is the process to mature as a player at age 18 or 19?

When do you want somebody to mature as a tennis player? You want a player to mature in their tennis game when they are physically fully developed. In men and women that's a bit different. A man normally matures physically at 18 or19. For a woman it may be a couple years earlier, 16 or 17. So if that's your end point, then you can calculate the starting point. When does the process start? Serious training shouldn't begin until a child is at least 10 or 11 or 12..

Hanging a tennis ball in the crib or giving your kids intensive private coaching at age 4 is probably not going to give you that head start in developing a champion that many parents believe. In fact it's the opposite. Focusing too much too soon on tennis can actually retard the development of the basic physical skills a player will need to reach their potential and possibly become a champion.

Tennis mastery requires the development of basic motor skills.

Tennis is not an early specialization sport. Tennis is more of a late specialization sport. This is very different than gymnastics for example. Female gymnasts need to peak before their bodies change when they go through puberty. So for female gymnasts their careers end at 15 or 16 or 14. This means that they can start when they're 3 or 4 and begin developing specific motor skills and learning how to perform much earlier than in a sport like tennis.

For a sport like tennis it's different. You want young athletes, young children, to play multiple sports, to develop the agility, balance, and coordination that's needed to become a great athlete. If you specialize too early in tennis you can end up with someone who might be a good tennis player, but is not as a good an athlete as they might have been, and this can effect the long term success of their career.

Learning to use the kinetic chain pays off later in tennis development.

Young athletes need to learn how to jump and how to land and how to catch and how to throw and how to kick and how to use their body appropriately. This is nothing more than learning how to use the kinetic chain, which links to biomechanics, which also links to technique. They need to learn these thing before puberty. This is incredibly important to understand, because after puberty, the window to develop this basic athleticism closes down. But if players maximize these skills when they are young, then as they physically develop they will develop better movement, and develop better technique. At the same time they will move more efficiently so that they'll more than likely avoid injury.

One thing most coaches had growing up was physical education class. What did you do in physical education class? Everything! Tumbling, climbing and sprinting. Throwing and catching all kinds of balls in all kinds of games and contests. And that doesn't exist anymore in most schools. So the question is where are kids going to learn these things? And if they're coming to a tennis program, the program needs to incorporate some of these things in addition to tennis because young children are missing that.

Tennis programs also need to incorporate basic physical education.

There is a great example of how this affects the development of even world class tennis players in some new research on muscle activity in the serve of top men and women players.

The research showed that men are using the lower body more. They have more muscle activity in the legs. Women are using their legs less and have higher abdominal muscle activity.

So you have men using the lower body and using the ground force and pushing up. Women are engaging the lower body less and are pulling with their upper bodies. What this means is that women may be using the kinetic chain less efficiently.

Culturally young boys tend to develop throwing skills.

Now you can ask a lot of questions about why this happens. One possibility is that men have more muscle strength than women. There bodies are built differently, which means there bodies moves differently. Another explanation is that men have an understanding of the kinetic chain women do not.

And we can ask, culturally, what are some of the things that boys learn at a young age? They learn throwing skills. They are more apt to learn these skill and practice them over and over in childhood and girls are not. So throwing is a great example that is a skill that kids should learn that links to long-term development. Developing a great, natural throwing motion may be far more important than learning the service motion per se at an early age.

And it's not just a gender thing. It's more cultural. If we look at male players from South America or Spain their service motions tend to have less push and more pull. Throwing skills are just something that they're missing at a younger age. These children typically play soccer but not baseball or football.

The bend forward is an indication of pulling, not pushing.

If we look at Venus Williams motion we can see an example of how this happens. We can see extreme pulling her motion, the greater use of the abdominals. Venus has a rather extreme pinpoint stance. There is little knee bend and almost no shoulder rotation away from the ball at the start of the motion. So the power has to come from somewhere else and it's coming from her stomach. Her legs are basically in a straight line, and she is bending over at the waist with her butt also moving back. That's an indication that there is more pulling going on than pushing. And what is one of the injuries she has had over her career? Abdominal strains. When there's a lot of bend forward at the waist I think it's an indicator that that athlete is not using the kinetic chain properly. It's not just Venus. There is a butt back syndrome you can find throughout women's tennis.

Leg drive, hip counter rotation and the body in line.

If you compare her to Roger Federer serving you will see a platform stance. You will see more knee flexion. You will see hip counter rotation--the hips coming backwards at the start of the motion and then rotating into the hit. As that ground force goes upwards you will see a fairly straight line from the legs to the shoulders, and little or no bend at the waist.

That's just one example where basic athletic skills come into play later in a player's development, and if the young athlete does not have them, you may not realize the negative impact of that until it's too late to do anything about it.

A great example of a woman who uses the kinetic chain in her serve is Justine Henin-Hardenne. Unlike most women who serve with some version of pinpoint stance, Justine uses a platform stance. If you look at her motion, you can see all the same components in her serve as in Federer or other top men who also use the platform.

A platform stance, counter rotation, and a similar body alignment at contact.

So again, when you look at development in terms of 10 years and 10,000 hours, it really starts to affect your curriculum. In the beginning stages of development it's really important for players to develop multiple skills, to understand their body, to develop agility, balance, coordination, to understand how their body moves in space, jumping, throwing. And that is more important than tennis itself.

Introducing Tennis

So when do you introduce tennis? And how is it mixed with everything else? I think tennis can be introduced when kids are as young as four or five. You can introduce tennis to them with small rackets and restricted balls that don't bounce as high. And you can start to develop great swing paths with a young child. But that should be done in short bursts. And then you can play other sports and work on balance and have fun and run around. And that can all be part of a tennis program.

And when does specialization start? I think specialization starts when a child wants it to. It shouldn't be forced from above. Ultimately the players that are successful have passion and love for the game. When the child indicates, whether it's in words or in deeds, that they want to be a tennis player that's when you can specialize. Typically this happens when the child is 10 or 11 or 12. That's when you can find a coach who can help lead the way and help develop a plan.

Roddick and Fish played high school basketball together.

At the start, technique can be over emphasized because players are growing and their bodies are changing. Their center of gravity is changing. So if you're working on technique exclusively during this time you're actually teaching against nature. Different errors are going to be popping up all the time because of coordination issues and the fact that the length of limbs is changing.

During growth spurts you have to accept the fact that technique will almost tend to disappear. When that is happening, it tells you that you should work on technique a lesser percentage of the time. Now you can work start to work on competitive skills and tactical understanding. The young player can start to understand offense, defense, neutralization, and how patterns fit into their style of play. They can do this because cognitively they have reached a point where they can start putting those things together. Again, this is based on a model of development in which you understand the beginning and the end. This makes what you teach and when and why really important.

I think if you start intensive specialized tennis training before 10, 11, 12 you're running the risk of burnout, a risk of the young player ending up not enjoying the game. If you start at age 6 and that's all you do there is a real risk of burnout from the research that we see. Many pro players played other sports through high school.

Andy Rodick and Mardy Fish played high school basketball together. John McEnroe played soccer and never played tennis year round until he went from the qualifying to the Wimbledon semi-finals. These players had other outlets. For young women players it's the same. We did a parent study and found that elite junior players participated on average in three other sports or more during their early years in tennis, and even on through high school. Again, the implication is that it is important to do multiple sports to develop athletic ability as fully as possible.

Paul Lubbers, PhD is the Director of USTA Tennis Coaching Education. He is responsible for overseeing the USTA high performance coaching program, which has trained hundreds of elite American coaches based on the latest research in the sports sciences and advanced video filming and analysis techniques. He is a member of both the USPTA and PTR and speaks internationally at teaching and coaching conventions. His articles have been published by tennis organizations around the world.

Before coming to the USTA, Paul was a working teaching pro for 5 years in Atlanta, Georgia. He was also a Division 1 college tennis coach for 8 years at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where he received his PhD in exercise and sports science. He lives in Key Biscayne and is known as the finest bonefish fisherman among active teaching pros in South Florida.

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