Sampras is to Agassi as Federer is to Nadal as Technique is to Live Ball:
The Classic Battle

There seems to be a constant discussion between tennis coaches over which specific areas our teaching efforts are best served (no pun intended).  Most every tennis coach, player, or parent is familiar with the discussion over technique versus live ball play.  As a coach, I have been involved in a great many of these discussions.  Some coaches swear by technique. Others swear by live ball and point play. So which is it? The answer is both. As tennis professionals, we all have a certain amount of time that we are allotted with a given player.  We all want to maximize our time and produce the most effective results in the shortest amount of time.

There are many components that make up a complete player, ranging from physical, mental, emotional, strategic, and environmental factors.  I am going to focus on the physical component.

Hard Skills (Technique)

Within the physical component, there are two types of skills when learning how to play tennis: hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are the repeated movements that are absolutely necessary for the development of a player. This is the technique side of the equation. A player needs to be shown how to hit a stroke with proper technique over and over and over again until it is engraved into the muscle memory.  This is the foundation of a player’s game. Doing simple hand feeding drills on the same side as your player, in a very slow and deliberate manner, is a great way to build the hard skills they need. When a player masters one aspect of a hard skill, another, more complex part should then be added until the entire motion is perfected. This can and usually does take many hours of repetition. The coach needs to immediately address errors so the student makes sure they are engraving the movement exactly right. This takes very deliberate and detailed practice by the coach and player, which is usually best done in a one-on-one environment. The technique that is developed is what that particular player will have to build off as he or she graduates to the other type of skill, the soft skills.

Soft Skills (Live Ball)

Soft skills are an acute awareness to see patterns, anticipate, and recognize what is most likely to occur in different situations.  It is the ability to recognize and respond effectively to a quickly changing environment, in our case, a tennis point. This is where the hard skills are put to the test. There is no guarantee that any match will move along in a predictable pattern that we can teach. What we can teach, however, is what is “most likely” to happen in specific situations. The ability of our players to effectively respond to an ever-changing environment is a soft skill that they have to learn.  Doing fast paced drills with a lot of varying situations and types of feeds, which depend heavily on how quickly a player can react and respond to make the best decisions, is an example of how to help tennis players hone their soft skills.

We have all been in the situation where we are running a drill and the level of consistency necessary to teach and hone the soft skill is just not there. At that particular point, we usually implement a rule that will result in a consequence of some sort if a certain level of consistency is not met.  If the players are skilled and are simply not as focused as they should be, this simple correction will usually work. If the players have not developed the necessary hard skills that the soft skill drill requires, it can be a nightmare. The coach, at this point, needs to literally “go back to the basics.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It makes no logical sense to persist in a soft skill drill that requires hard skills to be used if the hard skills have not been learned well enough.

The Catch

Here is the catch; the hard skills are much less “fun” to learn, while the soft skills are much more “fun” to learn. Hard skills are simply repetition with a very deliberate attention to detail. Even the best players in the world spend the beginning of their practices doing simple hard skill exercises to hone their strokes before moving into more complex soft skilled tasks.   By the same token, we cannot produce players who can hit beautiful strokes only off of feeds or in practice situations, as they would rarely perform well in real matches. Players have to be able to successfully use their perfected hard skills in soft skill situations that are ever changing.  In general, beginner players are the ones who need more work on hard skills, while more advanced players need to work more (but not exclusively) on soft skills.  As coaches, we need to pay particular attention to how we are developing our players when they are first learning.  Teaching the players the right technique and foundation from the beginning will make teaching those soft skills much easier and better later on. This does not mean we should ignore soft skills early on. Soft skills bring a certain level of fun that every practice should have.

The Conclusion

To develop our players in the best way, we need to be coaches who can teach both hard and soft skills, technique and important live ball and point play strategies. Most practice sessions should combine skills from both ends of the spectrum. In general, the more advanced the level of the player the less time we need to be spending on hard skills. The more beginner the player is, the more time we need to be spending on hard skills.  As coaches, it is our job to figure out where our students need the most work in order to create the most gain for our players, while maintaining an atmosphere of fun.  By creating practice sessions that are both beneficial and fun, and work both hard and soft skills, you will be giving your players tickets to success. For being an excellent coach, you might get one too.