“Game” or “Skills” Based Player Development?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr. Brian Gordon and do not necessarily reflect the position of TCPR, it’s specialists or it’s partners.

Introduction

I would argue the skill set required to succeed in high-level tennis is more diverse and extensive than for any other sport. This is based on a long life of participation, observation and analysis of most other major sports. In any case I believe most would agree, at least, that it is very difficult to play tennis well.

The primary skills in tennis include utilizing appropriate technique to hit high quality shots, movement around the court, tactics and mental toughness. The main question for those in the player development process is: what is the best method to develop the required skill set in a way that will manifest itself in competition? This is an interesting and important question that has yielded two distinct theories – game based and skills (or model) based training.

The Difference

The game based approach could be considered top-down. According to this theory the skills required to play high-level tennis should be learned during match play or live hitting situations. The role of the coach in this approach is to correct errors “on the fly”. The game based approach to developing athletes seems to be more prevalent in tennis than in other sports. In tennis the approach is not universal, appearing to be most widely utilized in the United States.

The skills based approach could be considered bottom-up. The skills based approach views competitive performance as the sum of distinct skills combined to create the entire package. Looked at this way, the skills should be extensively developed in relative isolation and subsequently be integrated into play.  The role of the coach in this system is far more extensive and generally requires a much higher level of technical expertise and individualized attention. This is the most common approach to building athletes across the spectrum of sports around the world.

Why Does it Matter?

Those navigating the development pathway may not even know that two distinct philosophies exist in player development. The reason it matters is that development programs must, at the very core, build their curriculums according to the developmental approach they espouse and this can have serious consequences to the end product.

Now the unbiased observer might look at the methods and conclude this is a no-brainer. Obviously a great training system would combine the methods in optimal proportion. All programs probably strive for this and some accomplish it. But the reality is programs are pretty clearly skewed to one approach or the other for various reasons. The critical thing to realize is that there are very different approaches to development and one needs to understand the details of a program’s approach to decide if it fits with their development goals.

Which Approach is Better?

Pedological research points to strengths and weaknesses in each system. However In the absence of conclusive empirical evidence proving which is better (something probably not possible) we must rely on anecdotal observation. My experience suggests the  game based approaches favor a “win now” view while skills based approach favors a “build for the future” view.

The game based approach seems to have evolved as a developmental model when the academy system became a force in tennis player development. The academy structure depends on large numbers of players to thrive and game based development makes sense in that context because large numbers of players can be concurrently trained with relatively few coaches.

The viability of the game based system has been touted to the tennis world by pointing to the great players that were produced. Critics contend this system is biased in several ways favoring a few at the expense of the majority. Additionally, since the main skill trained is tactics, game based systems produce impressive “win now” junior results but not the tangible core skills required to play high level tennis for the majority of players – players without the elite genetics to succeed in any system.

Prior to the academy revolution, I think it is fair to say US programs typically utilized versions of skills based development. Currently, most of the sporting world and some tennis programs largely outside the US continue to use this approach.

An argument could be made that far more great players in the US and worldwide were developed in skill based programs than ever have come out of game based systems. Contrarians claim the problem with skill based training is that the skill sets developed don’t transfer to competition. This is a valid assertion but transference is a function of the sophistication of the skills based program – all programs are not created equal (more on that in a future article).

Where do We Go from Here?

As you may have gathered I am an unabashed advocate of skills based training. I firmly believe tennis is a game of skills and must be trained as such. My experience as a coach and training as a sport scientist drive that belief.  My program is designed explicitly on developing skills and that is the first thing I will tell anyone that expresses interest in training in my system. I am mindful of the integrational necessity of game based protocols and build those into my program but as a means and not an end.

The “school of hard knocks” tactical and mental benefits of the game based programs are evident and important but to what extent does it neglect meaningful skill development. I suppose it depends on to what extreme the game based model is implemented and at what developmental stage. The one thing that seems clear though is that advocates of the game based approach, including apparently the tennis establishment, have been successful in convincing the general public that in order to get really good you just have to play – a lot – with better players.

As practical matter there is no question that the game based approach is a better business model and perhaps better in terms of increasing participation in the sport for at least the following reasons:

  1. Training Enjoyment – skills training is hard, detailed and exhaustive work. Many players don’t consider this particularly enjoyable.
  2. Staff Expertise – skills based training requires more extensive expertise and diversity in coaching – this is rare, difficult and expensive to acquire.
  3. Player Retention  – the “build for the future” focus of skills based systems is a tough sell when a kid is getting their butt kicked by a “win now” pusher in a 12’s match. “Win now” is a much more viscerally appealing message.
  4. The Bottom Line – from a financial perspective the game based system allows many more players with less coaches – a great business model.

This debate rages on under the radar and I doubt there is a right or wrong answer. In the final analysis I suppose it is good to have options as a player but it is important to understand what the options are and their implications to becoming a truly great player.