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Ask the Lab: Footwork

PLEASE NOTE: The medical opinions in USTA.com's Ask the Lab are responses intended for the average player. Please consult with your primary physician before beginning any new exercise program.

From: Ivor S., Savannah, GA: As a fellow professional coach, I need advice on implementing good footwork drills into match play situations. I coach 12 year old juniors and they perform footwork drills very well in practice but when playing points, they just don't seem to step up to that level as performed in the drill?  Can you kindly advice what method you implement to solve this? Thank you for your advice!

Dr. Mark Kovacs: Ivor, thanks for your work developing our next generation of players. The question you pose is an important one, not only for coaches, but also for the players. This answer will not focus on specific drills, as I am sure you have many footwork drills that you currently use with your athletes: however, it will focus on how individuals learn skills, especially relating to the transferability of skills.

An athlete’s ability to transfer skills from different learning environments has been an area of great study from researchers as well as coaches. Transfer of learning can be thought of as the improvement in a performance of a task as a result of the practice of a different task. An example would be performing the “spider” agility test during training in the hope that this will translate into improving the athlete’s ability to run for a wide forehand at a faster speed. However, if a movement pattern is not similar to the movement that is seen on court during play, the transferability of that movement may not be seen in improved tennis movement. You probably have heard the term “sport-specific,” which is basically describing skills and movement patterns that are similar if not the same as seen during the sport – tennis.

The methods that individuals learn are varied and a coach needs to understand how best to train athletes to help them improve their tennis movement. Many athletes may perform certain footwork drills very well, but as a coach you notice that their on-court movement may not improve. Some relevant questions you should ask yourself when performing footwork drills are:

  • Are they truly tennis-specific?
  • Are they performed at match-level intensity?
  • Is their a time-pressure component which is similar to what they experience during play?
  • Do you incorporate a visual stimulus?
  • Is the drill focused on improving reaction time?

From the research on the transferability of skills, we know some very practical information that can help improve your specific challenge. The first area that needs to be a focus is on teaching the correct movement patterns. For a beginner the best way to achieve this is via block practice until the technique has been learned. Block practice is teaching an athlete how best to side shuffle and repeat the exact same drill multiple times, making slight corrections on each subsequent attempt. Once the technique has been learned, it is important to move to random practice. Random practice is not random to the coach (meaning you just hap-hazardously pick the footwork drill) but the athlete is performing very different movements each drill and the distances, time and movement patters are varied. This form of random practice has been shown to improve higher-level learning, while enhancing skill retention and the transferability of skill.

The second area that needs to be focused on is whether your drills are closed or open-based footwork drills. Closed drills would be defined as a movement that has start and finish that the athlete is aware of before they attempt the drill. Examples of closed drills are the “spider”, a 20 yard dash, a tennis-court suicide drill etc. Open drills would be drills where the coach knows when the drill starts and finishes and what happens during the drill, but the athlete is unaware of the exact nature of the drill. Many examples of this type of drill also exist such as tennis ball drop drills, shadow drills (where the athlete tries to shadow the movements of another player or coach) or even a 20 yard dash based on a verbal or visual cue that the athlete is not expecting.

Once appropriate technique of movement has been developed, the refinement of this movement (i.e. the speed, distance, ability to change direction and recovery) needs to be the focus. As tennis has an infinite number of movement patterns, speeds, distances and time-pressures during play it is impossible to train every possible situation. However, a key to developing tennis-specific movement can be explained in part by the Schema theory. The Schema theory is a model of learning proposed by Dr. Richard Schmidt, who is a motor learning expert. The Schema theory is based on the idea of generalized motor programs. The theory states that rather than producing a single motor program for each movement required, what is produced is a general program, which can be varied according to the precise requirement of each specific situation.

From a practical standpoint of coaching an athlete to move better during matches, we need to train them in practice in a multitude of movement patterns and make sure they are similar to those seen during tennis play, to optimize improvements during matches. Good luck with your training.

Please visit the USTA Player Development website for more information on specific footwork drills.

About the Author

Mark Kovacs, PhD, CSCS, is the USTA Manager of Sport Science and is a tennis researcher, certified strength and conditioning specialist and certified tennis professional. He was a former tennis All-American and NCAA champion. The USTA Sport Science department is responsible for testing, training and tracking top junior and professional tennis players as well as producing, evaluating and disseminating sport science and sport medicine information relevant to tennis.

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