Exploring the value of game plans
In the higher echelons of competition, game plans are considered essential. In fact, one of the primary responsibilities of the coach of a professional player is to scout an opponent and to formulate a game plan for the player to execute.
At this level of the game, technique is rarely discussed because most players wisely just do not want to go there; mental is ignored or glazed over because of a lack of understanding; fitness is a long-term issue and so the only thing left to really focus on, on a day-to-day basis, is strategy. Consequently, my feeling is that players and coaches strategize far too much.
This is not to say that there is no value in knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a prospective opponent; there are obvious benefits from recognizing a weakness and then developing a plan to exploit it. I just think that a lot of this is not rocket science and if developing players are taught correctly, they will be able to do this by themselves during the course of a match.
My feeling is that by far the single most difficult aspect of competitive sports is execution. Execution is not a technical, tactical or fitness issue, it is a mental issue. Most matches at every level of the game, I would suggest, are decided by how well a player executes at crucial junctures of a match. Of course, this is not a black or white type of issue; there are other factors involved, but if execution is not there, then other factors become increasingly less relevant.
The side benefit of focusing on the tactical side, and ironically this is where the real value of developing game plans may lie, is that it can distract players from thinking about the consequences of winning and losing, which is the main cause of tension and nerves during competition. It can draw players into the process and it is this complete absorption in the process that can allow players to fulfill their athletic potential.
However, having no game plan draws players into the process at a much deeper level. Now they are going into a match with no preconceived notions at all and they will have to be alert to each and everything that is happening on the court and then process that information during changeovers or between points. To see intently what is happening on the court and taking the time to look at the opponent in a fresh light regardless of how often you have played her before will draw you into the process of playing more than anything else and it is this ‘mind-set’ that peak athletic performance happens.
While on the professional level the value of going into a match with a game plan will be a hotly disputed topic, with many top coaches defending their primary purpose vehemently, let us examine how this argument holds on a more grass roots level: the club level or for the developing junior.
Tennis is an individual sport. Certainly coaches can be instrumental in helping players develop (although perhaps not as much as they think they are!), but when the umpire says love all, the player is all by himself on the court. Consequently, it is essential that players develop certain qualities; qualities such as independence, self-reliance, the ability to compete and to take personal responsibility of everything that happens.
Today’s article is focusing on this quality of being able to compete from a tactical perspective so what are the qualities necessary to learn how to compete well?
Tactical play is dictated by assessing one’s own ability, the ability of our opponent and the prevailing match conditions at a particular moment in time, which is constantly changing. It is essential a player understands his own strengths and weaknesses and how best to manage these in a match. This is probably the main focus of every player and something that is trained consciously or unconsciously every time he or she competes.
For players to accept and understand the prevailing match conditions usually takes more time to learn; the frustration of trying to control that which is out of our control is a difficult lesson, but one which an individual must learn if he or she is going to reach her peak athletic potential.
Finally, if club players or developing juniors wish to develop the skills of competing they will also need to evaluate their opponent’s game and develop a general strategy to use and then formulate tactics to implement this strategy.
Consequently, this skill can only develop in players if they are given an opportunity to practice the skill. This skill is practiced by playing lots of matches against different players and developing the ‘eyes’ to see what is happening in the middle of competition and through trying different things to deal with what they see.
A coach’s role should be limited to discussing the player’s tactical choices after the match is over and the decisions have been made and tried by the player. After all, a facilitator is helping his student to learn how to fish, while a coach is feeding him this one meal.
So this is the first and major problem of an over reliance on game plans, they do not allow the player to develop the skills necessary to be a smart player.
Another problem with going into a match with a fixed game plan is that the game plan could be ‘wrong’. Players are not machines; consequently they do not perform in the same way every day.
Developing a game plan should be a dynamic process. A player needs to be sensitive to the natural ebb and flow of every match. He or she needs to be aware of what is happening and how an opponent is playing throughout the match because players not only do not play the same every day, they do not even play the same throughout the same match.
So even if you go to a match with a game plan that you have formulated together with your coach or by yourself, do not be attached to it. Realize that is not etched in stone and that you will have to be aware and open to seeing what is happening on the court as you play. Constant adjustments will be necessary to keep pace with the ever-changing conditions that occur in match play.
However, while it is important for developing players of all ages to nurture this skill of competing, it is equally important not to put too much emphasis on our opponent and tactical play. A balance has to be found between obsessing about how we are playing and focusing totally on tactics and not enough on the relaxed execution of our own game.
Conventional wisdom dictates that beginning players should focus more on developing their own strokes and less on finding ways to beat the opponent. At the other end of the spectrum professional players are focusing less on their own game, which is basically solidly in place, and much more on finding ways to win.
In between these two extremes, players will need to find the balance that will allow them to transition from one to the other depending on the needs of the situation in front of them.
However, one thing is clear, regardless of the level of the player when it comes to execution there cannot be any thought going on, the player must be totally present and ‘right there’ all the way through contact while the ball is in play.
Ultimately, players need to develop flowing game plans by themselves; plans which may change every few games depending on what is happening. These skills can only be developed by players if they are given opportunities to make decisions; even wrong ones. Through trial and error they will become more adept at recognizing things and adapting to particular circumstances.
Coaches must allow players the opportunity to fail through encouraging decision-making rather than simply telling them what to do and how to do it because that is how learning takes place. This is especially true for those players who feel more comfortable taking instructions and who find it difficult to make decisions. This happens predominantly with the ladies, but men or boys can be like that too.
Players must realize that it is important they make their own decisions rather than look to outside ‘authorities’ for too much guidance; because it is through the process of making decisions, even wrong ones, that they will eventually become more adept at this skill.