Putting Players in Boxes

Posted: October 17, 2012 in Coaching Concepts, Teaching & Learning
Tags: , , , ,

Putting Players in Boxes

The philosophy of creating opportunity and possibility to allow players to explore the game from many situations is not only, governed by the coach or facilitators ability to create the environment for this to occur but also the open mindedness and the willing of the players.  I now refer to this thanks to a good friend in football “Acceptance” (Mariman). Acceptance runs wider than players and extends to parents and coaches within the team and possibly the committees and owners of the clubs.  In this context it refers to players unless otherwise stated.

From the very beginning young children begin to develop awareness of their surroundings, actions of others and formulate perceptions of these things and in many cases these perceptions are grossly misplaced.  As a coach, it is not possible to consider a particular child in every situation that they experience in their life, but it is possible to consider their journey in tennis.

The expression “putting players in boxes” is one that is used to describe a closed mind or a mind that is less open than not being in a box.  Without venturing around a Socratic reasoning loop I am going to suggest that everyone is in some kind of box but the size of the box and whether it has ways to enter and exit the box are where they differ.

I believe that true development routes itself in the box being as large as possible, full of experiences both positive and negative and that it is ever expanding, as new possibilities and opportunities present themselves and are experienced.  This is particularly true and relevant for players U12 including mini tennis and only post then do players begin to specialise more with their game style.

I heard recently that personality begins to solidify itself during puberty.  Given this, a player’s personality must be made up of all past experiences, positive and negative and also include routes taken, via decisions made, during situations where opportunity and possibility were possibly possible.  The outcomes of these experiences are what make players the players they are.  Therefore in order to develop a player beyond the current is to simply create the opportunity and possibility to experience something new and potentially improved, and for the player to reason as to whether they see the future possibility and opportunity in order to allow themselves to persevere.

As a side note, this philosophy can extend to the complete game of tennis to from the physical (physical considers the management and usage of one’s body and does not refer to “fitness” or “conditioning”) to the higher order strategies.

To illustrate some examples of some areas where players can be put in boxes that restrict the development of their personality and therefore tennis may illuminate the philosophy and the thinking previous.

Example 1 – A player who has achieved competition success at a young age.

In our club we are fortunate to have facilitated the development of a young girl (11 years old) who in the later stages of mini tennis (green) earned the right to enter and be accepted into Grade 2 (National) events.  Since transitioning into the full ball (yellow) age groups she has also had recent success.

Due to this success she is reluctant in training (group) to experience new possibilities that are created due to a suspected fear of losing as the new situation is out of her comfort zone and something that she doesn’t necessarily need or use in her current matches.  In addition to losing there is more to it than that in that the children she could lose to could use their success to elevate their confidence and reduce that of the girl in question.

The theme of the session was to use the forehand from as many positions on the court as deemed appropriate as it was decided collectively that the forehand does and would be in the future a weapon and possibly the overriding strength.  Therefore it made sense to consider where we could exploit the fact that we have a weapon.  It was also agreed that it is acceptable to hit a forehand from the backhand side of the court both down the line (inside in) or cross court (inside out).  Inside out was favourable due to error margins, and importantly the recovery position being closer to the player than if they went inside in.

Simply players were asked to play points with a scoring system that rewarded shots that win (as opposed to winning shots) i.e forehands from the backhand side are worth more points and forehands from anywhere else are worth more points than the conventional 1.

Back to the girl previously mentioned.  It was noticed that she would rarely take any “risk” or exploit a potential opportunity to attempt to score more points but was content ignoring the game and play as she would a match.  This was primarily, one suspect’s, due to the winning and losing part of point play but of course this defeated the objective of developing and expanding the player’s opportunities. When asked, she made the statements that

“I can’t do that shot”

“I don’t use it when I play”

“I always lose when I try it”

“I don’t know if the pro’s do it”

Is this player in a box? YES! A box that does not allow new experiences to enter and also blocks the possibilities that may or may not be useful.  How is she to know whether this is useful to her if she never experiences it to the fullest?

The box unfortunately in this case is cast iron.  The statements she made suggest that she is not even open to recognising that there may be some merit in what the exercise is suggesting and so the practice itself is completely useless.

I would suggest that the fact that it is currently not in use in her match play is what is preventing her from accepting.  Without this buy in there is no moving forward.  The solution therefore is to open her mind up to its possibility.  This can be done by showing professionals doing it, showing her peer group doing it (if possible), demonstrating the merits on the court in a more comfortable environment such as an individual lesson and possibly providing strategies to cope mentally with the negative perception of failure when in fact it is developmentally positive.


Example 2 – Closed drills with no open play

Every type of drill has its place if the purpose and the context are understood and agreed.   Where there is no relation to the actual game is where the drill is just a drill and nothing else.  In my mind the purpose of practicing something is to then put it into the game where it is appropriate or at least have the possibility of using it in the game if the opportunity arises.

Some drills, however, are there to support another drill which in turn translates to the game.  For example, a volley to volley practice could be designed to improve hand skills that in turn will allow greater possibility when approaching the net which will be used as a strategy to win points in the game. The question is does the player understand this?

One thing that I advocate around the club (to those that are prepared to hear what I have to say, which incidentally in most cases I am prepared to listen to them) is that where possible drills should be designed with the game in mind and therefore should take place at the relevant positions on the court.  This may seem obvious and I am happy if it does.  As an example take a practice that is fed out of the basket that works on hitting rally balls to keep the opponent in a neutral position behind the baseline. The key parts are where is the player standing? Where is the coach feeding from and what constitutes success.  Depending on age and state and there are court dimensions defined.  Let’s take an orange court.  This for me does not mean that the player stands on the baseline or in some cases inside the baseline closer to the service line.  For me the sign of a good quality orange player is one who can rally from between the orange baseline and the real baseline (i.e. a step or two back from the orange baseline).  In a purist mind, there is no logic in a player practicing rally from the service line (unless for a warm up or a support drill) as this is not the appropriate position.  At some point in the practice the player must experience rallying from the correct position and have it confirmed that this is the goal of the development (if they can’t already do it).  In summary, the context must be correct!

If the player is finding it difficult then the coach employ’s various strategies to aid the player in achieving this goal.  The beauty is that the player has experienced what is required and has the choice to strive towards it.  If the player was never to experience rallying from this position they will be unaware that it exists and of course all the physical, technical requirements to achieve from this position rendering them a bit useless when this situation undoubtedly presents itself.

The same could be true about drills such as “2 cross 1 line”.  A player would become competent at this pattern but may be placed in the box of “2 cross 1 line” and not ever expand into other possibilities.  Is it unheard of to play line first?  If it was then I personally, would never have done anything in tennis. Within “2 cross 1 line” I ask myself the question what constitutes cross and what constitutes line?  Is it not true that there are many ways to achieve this pattern and ultimately doesn’t the choice to go down the line depend on player’s decision to do so?  In addition, shouldn’t players make decisions out of their own curiosity and evaluate the success or possible future success?

Closed practices in themselves run the risk of placing players in boxes that dampen creativity, personality and development.  Variation, context and experimentation make a seemingly closed practice more “open” and of more interest in a curios mind that is that of a child.

There are probably other examples of ways to put players in boxes and I leave some thoughts behind,

  1. Does teaching to the test (for example maths) put a person in a box rather than prepare for real use?
  2. Is this what the talent id tests do?
  3. Is this what the competition structure does?
  4. Do parents and coaches get sucked into these schemes?
  5. Would we better off with less structure and more freedom at younger ages?

My philosophy is one of growth through experience and my job is to create learning possibilities and opportunities within the game of tennis.  This extends into the world of biomechanics providing opportunity for the body and subsequent techniques providing possibility for tactics and tactics possibility for strategy.  All of which can work in reverse to aid understanding.  Open play and conditioned, themed play are integral for players to try and experiment thus creating new possibilities and opportunities.  These new possibilities and opportunities that are currently their learning are experienced in conjunction with expressing their inner personality and growing as complete person.  It provides focus and desire to learn the new skills that are required to succeed in the new situations.  This will only lead to more opportunity and possibility and a more complete experience and development of the player.





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