Archive for October, 2011

I have been asked this on many occasions from friends and colleagues and so I am going to share it with readers of this blog.

I was lucky enough to play college tennis in the USA and the experience was incredible.  If playing college sport is in the grasp of anyone I recommend it!  I went to Stony Brook University under Coach Glassman and played and trained among some fine people.

It was all a bit of a shock to me when I arrived there as players had much more experience than I and the expectations from coaches was much higher and dare I say more professional than what I was used to in the U.K.  For the first time I entered a weight room with a proper program.  Gladly this seems to be more common in the U.K now.

I improved drastically in the USA due to the program that I was following, however, there were still some issues.  In doing conditioning work (speed, agility, plyometrics etc)   there was no way of knowing improvement.  There was the obvious in racing others and the “feeling” of working hard but nothing tangible.  There was also the questions of accuracy, repeatability and cheating!

I was studying electronics and had worked a bit in Motorsport.  I had seen and worked on systems for other sports that were in fact trying to get data on certain things that were deemed important.  The thing was products of this type were expensive and in a lot of cases hard to work with practically and also spat out almost to much data.

This is what was needed in our tennis program.  A way of knowing if individuals were improving, preventing cheating and added motivation and enthusiasm for conditioning training. The other thing that was in my mind was that this system must be simple and affordable to all in sport.  There is the added problem that was added in that it is very difficult to measure multi directional movement drills as we cannot guarantee where athletes are in space and have to added in things such as cones and lines to achieve the accuracy and precision.

Post university I played a few “futures” events in Europe and during this time I was in hotels and on trains or planes when not competing and so had plenty of time to think.  I drew and wrote and the idea of simple trigger points started to formulate.  On my return home I spent any spare moment designing the simple system that is today the Hotspot.

The system consists of Wi-Fi dots that simply send a “I have been hit” message to a base unit that controls simple timing and counting.   The dots or “Hotspot’s” can be positioned where ever to create drills and interestingly have a positive effect on how one moves to touch a dot and the added control forced as athletes know they must touch the dots in order for the drill to count.  With this forced control requirement it becomes increasingly obvious to see areas that can be improved.

Anyway…that is pretty much where the idea came from.  The system remains simple and easy to use but the applications and training options continue to grow.  We are starting to see an increase in specificity in  designing drills etc and the hotspot makes for the perfect tool to monitor these drills.  There is evidence to suggest that by doing this the complete exercise program (strength, power, flexibility, speed etc) can be seen to work and directly influence the overall sporting performance of the athlete.

See the Hotspot System website and the Hotspot in Action

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The Performance Enhancement tool kit is a simple and effective way to personalise training.  Whether it be for a specific game style in an individual sport, a certain position or improving certain muscle groups this approach will get you on the dot faster.

Again there is a 360 degree approach to this and it is important to consider options and potential solutions from many angles.  For example a right back in football will have certain things in common with the vast majority of right backs but with deeper investigation there could be slight variances due to the manager setting the team up differently or a certain style of play and also not to forget the individual flare and personality.

Moving through the process the movement patterns and variations that can be applied must be set and of course every thing linked back to game day.  What can we expect the player to do on the field and for what reasons?

Within each movement pattern there will be physical obstacles to over come.  These could be in the form of muscles not functioning as well as they could or technique at certain points within the movement pattern.  This could be down to the brain having not been educated, a strength issue or some other issue.  The point is that we can find it fix it and work with it all the time in and out of the movement patterns.

With this approach we have a detailed overview of the actual requirements from all angles. We have designed specific patterns and drill variations to enhance the players performance.  We have given the body a well rounded view of what we want and how to get better and finally we monitor every time and all the time.

In monitoring we build up players confidence with the movements (maybe after and injury), we demonstrate the point relevant to the tactics so we get buy in and we have a much better handle on whether the drill, activity works within the game played at the weekend.

Simple really but very effective

Example case coming soon…

Make it count x

Tennis  Movement Training – Phase 1 – Vector Training

Download Phase 1 Simple Tennis Movement 

Introduction

Tennis is a dynamic sport requiring a host of skills in order to play the game well.  Alongside techniques of strokes, tactical understanding and mental abilities is that of movement and footwork.  These would come under the heading “physical” but is more than simply going to the gym and crunching weights or running on a treadmill.  Tennis movement is specific and in phase 1 the aim is to introduce you to simple movement concepts that you can improve and that will also double up to improve your fitness.

3 Vectors

Movement in tennis can be broken down into 3 vectors.

  1. Forward & Backward
  2. Lateral
  3. Diagonal

Vectors must have direction and a magnitude.  In this case we look at direction and 2 “magnitudes,” distance and speed. 

Movement Steps

Tennis movement can be simply broken down into 3 or 4 distinct types.

  1. Side steps / shuffles
  2. Cross over steps (X overs)
  3. Running (fwd/bwd)
  4. Dynamic Cross overs (combination of X over / side step)

Within the game you will be required to use all of these either in isolation or in a complex combination.  Within phase 1 of Tennis Movement Training there will be drills to develop and enhance all vectors and movements

Download Phase 1 Simple Tennis Movement 

Hotspot System Setup

To know if you are improving you need to measure the drills. Hotspot can help you do that and provide accuracy and repeatability so that you have the confidence that you are improving.

To use the Hotspot system with the drills outlined is simple.

  1. Use the mode button to select “COUNT” mode (Press start to confirm)
  2. Set the number of dot’s to be hit in your drill
    1. Remember if you use the “0” start mode the first dot starts the timer and is not included in the total count
    2. You can return to dots after 0.5s, be sure to include all of the hits in the drill
    3. Press start to confirm and use the mode button again to select the “0” remote start
    4. Press start and go!

Download Phase 1 Simple Tennis Movement 

Well so far on this blog I have posted my archive of articles. This is content I use when I demonstrate the Hotspot Training System in how to maximise its use.

Now, interestingly enough all this developed from a simple question..How do you know? How do you know you are getting better at certain things?

Answers to the question such as
“I lift heavier”
“I am winning more” are valid but there is more to it..isn’t there?

How do I know if I am getting better at the agility drill or the tennis movement drill or that movement pattern. How do I know if that extra weight I am lifting is helping me get faster and hit harder? The answer is you don’t!

The only way to know is to measure. Now that is tough because off technology costing so much or in fact it dosnt exist.

Well it does now..

Whilst at University in America I trained in the gym to improve my tennis. I could see strength gains and I could run for longer but I had no idea whether I my foot speed was improving, or my agility was improving or my speed around the court. Vague attempts at measuring were made but we used to make it up (don’t tell coach van dyke at SBU tho!).

As a result of this the Hotspot concept was born. It is affordable, simple to use, can measure agility drills accurately, does force good mechanics and control and is repeatable for monitoring improvement.

So why don’t you take a look at http://www.youtube.com/gelcrooks to see it in action and check out http://www.hotspottraining.com

Why put your improvement down to chance? Take control and make it count with Hotspot

Hasta luego!

Skill vs. Application Training

So having discussed the performance factors and there networked relationship we have discovered that an association between them and the activities we ask of our players.  There is an overall goal of the work, whether a single session or a block and that there must be drills and exercises that relate to and are part of the overall goal in terms of the factors.

In coaching there are discussions and theories that have been shown to work and this is not to dissimilar.  For example in teaching a skill one can break the skill down into a number of parts that progress from the isolated simple through to the complete and complex.  Along the way players add more and more to the skill until it is complete or satisfactory.  In another model a skill is taught as a complete whole execution and then areas are identified to improve and then put back into the whole motion.  This is referred to as the “whole, part, whole” approach.

In this approach I use some of both (I think).  The method is simply broken into two distinct areas, skill training and application training.  As I mentioned in the performance factors article there are activities that are useful to develop one or more of the factors and that the association is important in the understanding of the player.  Here I take the notion of learning a skill or set of skills that impact the overall desired outcome.  For example in learning the forehand to achieve over an in at high quality one must have a variety of skills including physical strength and coordination, body manipulation, footwork and movement capability, racket control both backswing, forward swing and through contact and an appreciation of court position and aspects of the received/sent ball such as spin, flight and pace.  This is a whole host of requirements but as we have seen from our endeavours on court not out of reach.

Simply put I have created these areas (skill / application) that implies building a skill set that can be isolated such as footwork, functional body movements (related to technical requirements), ball control that are tools for use.  Progressing through drills and activities that move closer and closer to play encourage use of the appropriate tools and of course mastery of the skill set.  Each tool that is provided in skill training has its use in open play and drills in between are there to further encourage the use of the correct tool.

In an attempt to be clearer a drill may have emphasis on footwork and that this is the primary learning objective.  Attempts are made to improve footwork or the skill and that the rest is of lesser importance.  In the same drill the emphasis could be on racket control to generate certain spins and flights.  This time the footwork is of lesser importance.  It is important for the player to understand the focus and whether the goal is skill based or application based.  If application based the payer is requirement to focus on outcome i.e. depth or number of balls in for example and that the tools the player has must be recruited in the best way possible.  The coach may notice that certain tools are weaker or are not functioning as well as they should and create a skill exercise to target that.  Of course these activities are interlinked with the performance factors and associated with the overall desired outcome.

Cognitive Vs. Physical Player Development

This idea has come about due to recent experiences in the development of some of my younger players in addition to the desired outcomes of the mini tennis structure.

I would firstly like to mention that this is not a critique of the mini tennis concept as I believe personally that it has a great place as a coaching tool.

I have found that the ability for a young player (aged 6-8) to develop technical and physical competencies on the mini red court and increase these abilities through the mini tennis ball and court progressions is readily available.  The degree of technical ability is high and I personally believe that this should be the main goal the early stages of mini tennis.  The interesting development of tactics and strategy are not as obvious and this is where I think the competition structure and ratings etc come into disrepute.

We have all seen players who demonstrate great technical capability struggle to win matches against players who are not as technically developed and we put this down to lack of tactical awareness of mental factors.  I am speculating that the tactical options available due to the high degree of technical ability are not cognitively understood by such young players.

I have seen players who can simply retrieve the ball due to the slower game and by luck or judgement (mainly the foremost) the ball’s result is one that is not common in the game in older age groups exactly what the aim of developing a player long term is.  As a result of players who win we see players with high rating’s that have serious work to be done later but who gain a false understanding of their ability and in fact the opposite is true where a player who is deemed to have a high degree of technical ability believes they are in fact rubbish (for want of a better word).

The conversation of long term development with players and parents is a constant one to reassure players and parents.

Another aspect of this is that when working with a player of this age and wanting them to experiment with learning objectives in competitions the outcome is one of wanting to win irrespective of development (understandably).

The question of the slower ball and smaller courts encourage tactical awareness and creativity is true to an extent it falls down massively in practice.  I think in theory this is a reason to have players compete however the results based ratings contradicts that of development.

The tactics that we see are the basics such as “over and in”, “move your opponent” and play to the weakness namely the backhand side.  This is comprehendible by a young player but moving the play from one situation to another to allow this seems to be not as obvious.  Since in education there is a progressive learning model i.e. we don’t study calculus in primary school for a reason, it could be that the tactical expectations are simply beyond the understanding of a 6-8 year old player.

There are obviously other aspects of sport to be gained by competing but potentially the emphasis of winning (ratings) should be lost until players are able to understand how to use the tools they have or are developing.  This would in the long term develop a far greater and higher quality of player as they are able to experiment and explore the game without the pressure of winning or losing.  Just because a player wins at young ages I am sure does not correlate with success at the older ages or in fact guarantees participation.

All in all I adopt the philosophy of high degree of technical development at a young age and later maybe U12 bring more of a tactical focus to the development using and tweaking the current tool set.  As players find areas more and more difficult or become aware of the needs for the game players are then subjected to techniques to achieve desired results and tactics.  This doesn’t mean to say there are no tactic’s at all at young ages as there always must be a tactical element to learning but it is appropriate to the learning age (not chronological).  Players are then expected to try and experiment with these learning objectives free of outcome expectations.

Performance factors – Association training.

We have all heard or know about the 4 performance factors in sport.  These are namely; technical, physical, tactical and mental.

Some interesting questions come about when we start to think about these practically;

Where do we start?

Do we isolate performance factors in developing players?

Does one come before the other?

Can one occur without the others?

Should there be emphasis on certain factors during long term development?

I am not going to address these questions directly but I am going to try and provide a thought provoking piece how these factors are networked.

In the game based approach one argues that a tactical outcome or desire must be present and that the rest fit as tools to achieve the tactic, function over form.  I have adopted this for the most part but, (and there is always a but) the degree of quality in simple tactics are limited by the other performance factors.  As an example consider the “over and in” tactic in tennis.   There are hugely differing qualities in that a player can hit with poor technique and get the ball over and in.  A player of the same age can try and hit with pace, spin and flight to achieve the exact same tactic but clearly there is a differing quality factor.  We may think that this is just progressions and can be done as players mature.  This is true although consider the highly technically and physically competent young player who can hit good quality.  Shouldn’t we all strive for this?

The issue now becomes that arguably the tactic has moved on from simply over and in and now it involves taking time away from your opponent, keeping your opponent neutral to name two.  This could be cognitively too advanced for our young player (see previous article) and remains over and in just we have entered into a situation where the degree of technical and physical (and mental) capability limit the outcome or tactic.

Logically we can now see that yes technical and physical factors limit ones tactical quality and that the tactics can remain very simple as we strive to increase the quality.  Obviously there are mental factors such as a desire to reach this quality, concentration and focus and a work ethic that constitutes the overall potential of the player in question.

This is just one example of how the performance factors limit each other.  Technique compromises of physical sequential movements and without this coordination one cannot execute and therefore indirectly cannot execute the desired tactic.  Suddenly everything is reduced to physical factors as this precedes all of them.  At this point I will mention that this is not to imply that one should work physically until sorted, then choose another factor and move on in this manner.  This is suggesting that the performance factors limit each other in an intertwined network and it is that as coaches we must be able to locate the limiting factor(s), improve it or them, understand how they are linked in each individual case and enhance the overall performance (the game hence tactics).

In the case of a new player at a young age one can assume that there is limited physical capability and that a portion of time should be spent here.  Under the physical umbrella I place functional movements such as arm spirals to aid in racket manipulation, footwork, large muscle group function and of course our hand – eye work.  I have found that players are able to move the racket and sequence complex movements at a very young age and that this enables them to strive for the tactical quality regardless of how simple.  Movement itself, as an isolated entity also plays a huge part in executing tactics (see emergencies and opportunities) that simply states if a players positioning to execute a skill or action is compromised then the player can fulfil the complete tactical opportunity available.  There are things such as reception and reaction that precedes the movement but which performance factor does this fall into?

Now assuming that a player can be in position so that the movement into position is not a limiting factor and player now has technique and mental factors to use as tools to execute the desired tactic, in this case “over and in”.  So we begin to look at shape, contact point, racket path/angle/speed all of which resort back to physical competency and the “brain continuum” which demonstrates how a human’s movements become autonomous.  So once again we are limited by technique and physical attributes.

The overall aim is to bring up or increase the level of quality associated with the tactical desire.  In examining this we can logically see that our physical and technical (which is physical just minus the play) ability limits us.  Similarly, mentally, if the movements are not yet autonomous we have a brain learning process to master.  The point is that within a session or learning component a player needs to associate what they are doing with the overall outcome.  If we are learning to physically rotate our arms from the shoulder or rotate the core we need to understand why and what the effect should be in relation to the tactic.  This extends to movement training in that we move into positions to execute skills and there are a number (infinite in theory) tactics to consider from that position.

We can use this theory/model at any level of player imaginable, purely because each of the factors are interlinked and networked to achieve the final outcome.  In observing GB level sports I have used this approach in terms of movement training to enhance performance.  There will be article on this approach but in short looking at a player’s tactical desires from positions of strength and weakness and designing drills and associated rules in terms of technical/physical factors.  This stems further in attempting to condense the game into bouts of work and rest that can replicate intensities.

In summary the 4 performance factors are networked and closely related and have limiting effects on desired game outcomes and that the degree of quality is compromised.  In development or performance enhancement associating these factors with the exercise and the teaching and learning is key for maximised improvements.