Brain or Technique?

Posted: October 27, 2011 in Coaching Concepts, Teaching & Learning
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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.


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