By Tom Allsopp

(the character’s names in this article have been changed)

After watching Jonny perform in his latest tournament, his father, Dave, had noticed that Jonny rarely does a split-step, causing him to be slow moving around the court, unable to get into position to hit shots effectively. Dave asked me to improve this element of his son’s game.

Dave explains, “he has the ability to do a split-step and move fast, I have seen him do it many times, but you just have to make him do it throughout the entire session until it becomes a habit.”

The effects of matchplay can cause a player to shift their attention from executing such skills as footwork, to simply reacting as they focus their attention on trying to win. This can be magnified in junior tennis when long and unimaginative rallies down the center of the court are so prevalent and naturally require less readiness and footwork. However, rather than elaborating on this element of the game I will attempt to have the player understand the benefits of better movement, and motivate them to want to do a split-step for their own benefit, not because I have commanded them to do so.

In order to improve upon his split-step, my options as a coach are as follows:

  1. Work on his split-step through repetition, with constant reminders and drilling.
  2. Create fitness and footwork exercises to develop this skill.
  3. Demand that he does it through command style vocabulary and possibly forfeits.
  4. Find ways to get him to want to do a split-step.

Hopefully you have already identified number 4 as the highest value teaching method. Given that the player already knows how to do a split-step, and the skill is relatively basic in execution, the challenge is to have him see the benefit of using better footwork and want to perform at a higher level for their own benefit.

After rallying for a few minutes I use the following vocabulary to start to improve his attitude towards his split-step and movement:

Coach: On a scale of 1 to 10, how much energy would you say that you are putting into your movement right now?

Player: About a 6 or 7… (Quite often players will say 6 or 7, rather than a more realistic 3 or 4, as it is a low enough number to express poor energy while not low enough to land them in perceived trouble.)

Coach: Yes, there isn’t any real reason for putting a lot of energy into your movement as we are just beginning to rally, mine was about a 5… But what benefits do you think there would be to doing a split-step and being really ready?

Player: I could get to more balls…

Coach: Yes. Good… Aside from reaching more balls do you think anything else would improve with more movement?

Player: I’d probably hit better shots when I got there too.

Coach: Yes, your balance and coordination chain (technique) would likely improve. If I start to move you around a little more, see if you can get that number up to an 8 or 9 in the next few minutes and we’ll see what happens…

Please note:

  • I have not complained about his low level of effort, or told him that he NEEDS to move better, or that I WANT him to move better.
  • I have not challenged him to explain WHY he is not putting in effort, rather I was understanding of this.
  • We discussed, as a team, the benefits of applying more energy to his game and movement.
  • By telling him that I will move him around more I am coaching within context. This gives him a greater reason to use his split-step and assert more energy.
  • I threw down a challenge to ‘see if he could’ raise his effort level/number in the next few rallies.

Creating this cooperative environment allows him to be responsible for his own learning and performance. As a coach I am not here to make him do anything, that is his choice, I simply work with him to help him see the benefit of specific skills, and help him to improve upon them.

After the next few rallies I stopped him and asked:

Coach: What rating from 1-10 would you give your energy in those last two rallies?

Player: An 8…

Coach: Great! What did you do differently to get it up to an 8?

Player: I did a split-step every time and moved quicker to get to the ball.

Coach: Excellent! Did you notice a difference in the quality of your shot?

Player: Yes, I was a lot more balanced and hit it cleaner and harder.

Coach: That’s fantastic. I noticed that too. See if you can keep that going, or maybe even get it to a 9 or 10!…

Please note:

  • I ask him to analyze his performance after he has done something well. By ‘catching him when he’s good’ I maintain a positive environment that encourages more effort as he learns from his successes.
  • He got to see and feel the benefit of his actions rather than being told if he was doing things wrong or right.
  • We have a clear reference point to come back to. If his level drops I can draw his attention to his own findings of better footwork equals better tennis. If his work rate drops I can make him responsible for his own decisions and actions.

I believe that when in the right frame of mind players will always want to perform well, and will therefore exert the required energy. By creating an environment in which players are eager to learn and are deeply involved in their development they will excel at specific skills, and ultimately love playing and learning the game of tennis.