The premise behind a game-based approach to learning is to define the intention of the act (what needs to be accomplished) before an explanation of how to execute the act (what is required to accomplish the act). In the game-based approach to learning, the tennis professional or facilitator outlines the rules and parameters of the game or goal to be accomplished and then allows the individual player (through a process) to find the best and most efficient way to make it happen. What drives the process is intention and motivation. At the purest level, the game-based approach to learning assumes the body if not hindered by doubt or tension will through trial and error eventually find the most efficient way to achieve the desired result. Modern technical innovations and advancements in tennis are driven by the intention and motivation of players to solve specific problems as defined by the pace and flow of the game. It is the challenge of the requirement that fosters efficiency of movement, tactical adjustments and creativity. There are a number of examples of how specific development can be targeted by manipulating the score, adjusting the parameters of the game and/or setting different ground rules and requirements. Here are ten examples of games or point situations that can benefit your game.
- Establish a game where you and your opponent (practice partner) are only allowed only one, two or no bounce(s) on your respective sides of the net during the course of each point (usually played with a hand drop-hit feed to start each point). This requirement forces players to take the ball on the rise (should it bounce) and close quickly (hitting only volleys and overheads) to ensure the ball does not bounce more than is allowed by the rules. The game fosters good volley skills, quick hands and footwork closing movement patterns.
- Conversely, establish a game where players on each side of the net must take the ball on the bounce (no volleys). This game requires players to adjust the height, net clearance, pace, spin and direction of each shot to buy time for recovery back to the baseline and to force opponents out of position and unable to respond to the ball (other than with a volley). The game helps players develop up and back footwork skills and a better understanding of how to “work” the entire court.
- On the same vein as the first two examples, establish a game where players must play from within the court lines (meaning that players may not step past the baseline or outside the singles sidelines). This game develops quick hands, mid-court volley skills and an ability to hit the ball on the rise.
- Want to slow things down? Set up a game where the ball must bounce twice (within the court lines) prior to contact for each and every shot. This game gives players more time to set up and prepare. Hitting with soft hands and a complete extension and finish make this game a great way to perfect stroke technique.
- To isolate a specific stroke, establish a requirement for you and your playing opponent (practice partner) to hit only with your forehand groundstroke (backhand groundstroke) or with your outside stroke if playing half-court only cross-court or down-the-line points. This game can be modified to require players to hit with their inside strokes in an inside/outside cross-court pattern.
- You can sharpen your serve return skills by having the server start each point serving from the service line.
- My favorite game to develop better consistency and rhythm is to require a rally of X number of shots prior to the start of each and every point. Beware the “nudge” response in which the player with highly developed “nudge” tendencies will hit the ball “lights out” on the Xth shot of each rally (nothing ventured, nothing gained).
- To improve your quickness up and back, set up a game with the following requirements. Narrow the court boundary to one service box on each side of the net. Establish a requirement for all shots to be hit softly. One option is to require both players to only hit the ball up (and not down at the feet of the opponent). Position an object (such as a cone) half way between the service line and baseline or back as far as the baseline. Require you and your opponent (practice partner) to retreat back to touch the cone with your racquet after each shot. Start each point out with a drop-hit groundstroke (courtesy feed). Rotate service every five points or have the winner of each point start out the next point.
- Raise the height of the net (using PVC piping or extender poles plus string or rope) from six to 15 feet. Require players to hit above the new raised height for all shots or require players to hit above the raised height only when hitting from behind the baseline. Players who develop the capability to hit with heavy, high arcing topspin have the best success in the game.
- Manipulate the risk-reward dynamic of tennis. Reward players with more points with the execution of a positive action and/or penalize players by taking away points with the execution of a negative action. As an example, if your goal is to promote more risk-taking and bolder initiative, establish a game where you and your opponent (practice partner) are awarded bonus points for hitting outright winners.
There are a countless number of other examples of how to incorporate a game-based approach to improve the quality and purpose of your practice time.