Situational awareness- the now and future of tennis practice and match

The main purpose of learning is to be able to predict what is coming. Eventually through learning, we become experts through changes in our brain to perform so well but also to predict what would be an outcome of the particular movement.

There have been lot of talking about the anticipation and how to develop the anticipation in tennis. Anticipation skilled players are having a big advantage comparing to the plain tennis hitters. They can read the game cues which enables them to be one step in front of the opponent during the point. They react faster (less thinking) and position faster (they don’t move faster but it seems like that) which leads to more efficient technical and tactical execution. They are in the control of their game!
Anticipation is a part of the situational awareness. One of the meanings of the anticipation is “the expectation of”. But a player can expect something ONLY if a player is ready for that something to happen. A player can be ready for something to happen if a player have similar past experience of happening or if is trained to be ready for it to happen. In this way, the player can recognize the cues and elements of that same situation that happened before.

There are four elements of the SA:

1. Knowing where you are at the court,
2. Being aware of your environment (opponent, surface condition, weather, audience)
3. Anticipation of the play (expecting and be ready for the expected)
4. Make decision and deliver the execution under time pressure.

Lack of awareness is a product of:

1. Not being aware of the clues. Not being aware of the clues from the environment and of own momentum will lead to mind and body confusion. Mind confusion is related to player being undecided due to having too many thoughts at the same time. Thoughts in tennis present too many potential decisions related to the one true action. Directing attention to clues such are player’s current position on the court, opponent’s body language and ball trajectory are the some of the most important ones that players need to understand if they want to perform at the highest level. These clues are developed through the meaningful practice and game experience.
2. Wrong type of focus. Having a broad attentional focus can be very counterproductive for the player. Having narrow attentional focus on the important cues can make a huge difference in the game. The importance of the cues is that they are changeable variability as the focus in tennis is constantly changing from the ball to the opponent and court. Understanding the timing of those cues can raise the level of the play drastically.
3. Being trained in a wrong way (without a clue why). Every coach have a different tennis philosophy but the practice should be meaningful. Having practices with long rallies are productive to some point but very limited as the tennis game situation is very changeable. Practicing while being aware of the game situations will make players better in understanding their surroundings. Using situation-based practices puts the players in the environment where they have to understand the relationship between the time and space as they have to constantly perceive and react to the different situations that are happening throughout the game. Creating a more competitive environment with the time and space pressure will enable players to be more concentrated, attentive and react faster to the relevant cues.
4. Concerned about the outcome (anxiety). Anxiety is related to the changes in the feelings of the player such are worrying, nervousness and apprehension. These feelings are the consequence of the feelings of performing into the unknown and uncertainty. To prevent the feelings that the game challenges are higher then their own abilities, stepping to the court with the full awareness of own capabilities, built match plan and expecting the expected will place the player in the position of having the control over the situation and complete awareness of the game itself.

Awareness and anticipation built through practice

1. Player knows his own physical and mental strengths and weaknesses (know his limits in performance). Knowing it’s own capabilities is a crucial element around tactics, strategy or plan should be built upon. If the player has low opinion about the forehand, his/her confidence in the stroke will be low, so there would be no point of building a plan around the forehand as an aggressive and offensive stroke. Knowing own limits is crucial element when there is situation of transition the skills from the practice to the match. Reaching above the limits will lead to the inconsistency, losing points, losing confidence and self control and eventually losing the whole game.
2. Practicing the attention zones and recognizing cues (mental/reaction attentive practice). Practices should be developed and implemented to narrow the focus of the player’s attention to the important timely cues. Using the central and peripheral (the ability to see action to the side without having to turn the head) vision field when needed, will enable the shift of the attention from the ball to the opponent in time which will allow the player to react faster to the changes in the environment. Placing the players at the practice in a match like situation when they are pressured by time and space to make the right decision is the most efficient way to improve the attentional skills.
3. Practicing the technical tactical patterns (physical/reaction attentive practice). Having a game plan and building the technical/tactical patterns will enable the players to speed up their positioning at the court towards the incoming ball. Tennis is a game in time and space and using efficiently these two elements can bring huge advantage to the player. Positioning ahead of the expected is the skill which the best players possess. Knowing what kind of stroke the player should use in what kind of situation (technical/tactical plan of the game) will definitely enable player to anticipate the reaction of the opponent and the type, placement and pace of the ball to expect.
4. Developing pre competition and competition attention plans. Knowing the opponent’s game and type of surface should definitely be a part of the preparation plan. Understanding the key attentional cues on which the player should be focused on will give the player completely control of the game situation. These key attentional cues will enable player to react faster on the court and to make much faster stroke and movement decisions. Using the technical-tactical patterns that the player mastered through practice will develop the feeling of the match control as the player should be focused mostly on reading the cues that come from the opposite side of the court.

Awareness and anticipation built through match experience

1. Through building the game IQ. A player can master most of the elements of the game but sometimes the skill transfer to the game situation is not efficient as the player does not have much real match experience. Focusing too much on the points rather then the game plan itself is the characteristic of the inexperienced players. Game IQ is much higher the more players can put themselves around the game in any way– it gives them a better understanding of the game. Observing the game and focusing on the important elements of the game rather then following the ball from left to right, can improve the player’s game understanding and experience.
2. Focusing on tactical cues based on practice. Experienced players tend to be less pressured by the points and they can focus on the technical/tactical patterns of their game. Their transfer from the practice to the match should be more consistent and efficient. Experience and feeling of being there before, makes then less anxious about the competitive element of the game focusing on the implementation of their pre competition plans and technical-tactical patterns mastered through practice. They can narrow their attentional focus on the important cues that come from the other side of the court rather then anxiously fixing their attention to the trajectory of the ball (at that moment the attention should be on the cue as the opponent’s body language reaction)
3. Identification of the changes in cues and making adjustments. Even if tactically prepared, less experienced players do not recognize the changes in cues that come from the opposite side. They will still perform the patterns that they are prepared for but usually they adapt too late to the changes (opponent, environment) of the game. More experienced players understand when to keep using the patterns of the game and when to change them based on the awareness of the changes in the opponent’s reactions to the game flow. Reaction to the changing cues during the game is the ability of the very concentrated and confident players.
4. Understanding the reasons for successful performance and maintaining. Being aware of the point situation and what kind of tactical routine is contributing to the successful performance is of crucial interest for the player. Some of the players, due to not being aware of what brings them advantage in a game keep on changing their technical-tactical patterns which makes their game unstable. Being aware of the successful patterns and keep on using them until they bring results is a characteristic of the concentrated and match experienced players.
5. Understanding the reasons of stress/underachieving and changes. Not being aware of the reasons for the underachieving will lead to the high levels of stress and anxiety. Even in some cases complete burnout. Finding and defining the core values of the athlete personality, the goals of the match and practice performance will contribute to much deeper identification with the whole training and competition process of the athlete. If an athlete is fully self-aware and aware of the limits of the game elements will enable the changes in competitive behavior.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.