It seems tennis has often times had the reputation of being stubborn in its adaptation of innovation and technology. I imagine this general feel is mainly driven by the game’s deep seeded traditions. Being a player, coach, and general lover of the game and a tech enthusiast I was naturally curious. So I dug.
I’d like to define what I mean by technology and innovation. It’s an uber loaded and often-overused term. I define it as any enhancement to the teaching and promotion of tennis. Yup, broad, I know. Examples of these innovations range from new coaching methodologies/standards to high tech gadgets that track every aspect of your game. In this piece, I’ll dive only into the latter.
We can all agree that changes to equipment, mainly tennis racquets and strings, have evolved tennis into the game it is today. How exactly? That’s still up for debate. It seems the whole modern tennis spiel (you know, the one about how lighter/larger rackets with strings that allow players to position the ball anywhere on the court has killed the traditional serve and volley game, making tennis a game of endurance and athleticism rather than one of tactic, finesse, and skill) is the general public consensus. I agree to a degree, but that’s a whole new discussion. Regardless, this “tech” changed how the game is played.
We’re on the cusp of another shift. Rather than a shift in how the game is played, it’s a shift in how the tennis is taught, understood, and analyzed. The influx of high tech gadgets, like Babolat PLAY, Zepp Tennis, Sony Tennis Sensor, Shot Stats Challenger, etc, is more and more apparent and will likely become commonplace in tennis curriculums all over the world. The question is: To what effect? I decided to solicit thoughts from a handful of passionate/influential tennis folk to get some answers.
What Do the Experts Say?
Wayne has been an elite level Tennis Australia certified coach for over 30 years. His main focus resides in the development of younger players and providing them with grounding for future elite progression. He is a highly reputable coach, helping to develop professional level tennis players.
Through Wayne, I was able to better understand the dynamic of the player-coach relationship, particularly in younger athletes. Other smaller areas of discussion included the Tennis 10’s tennis program, the adoption of innovation and modern equipment, and player health.
Geoff is a high level manager, at Tennis Australia, of talent development, overseeing over 3,500 coaches in Australia. He strong-armed the push for using smartphone and tablet applications to further improve tennis coaching. He was the lead on the business and interface development of Tennis Australia’s first video analysis application, “TA Technique”.
Through Geoff, I was able to better understand the motives around developing a video analysis tennis application, the physical/psychological implications of an application, and to understand the future outlook of tools for video analysis and quantitative metric analysis.
Phalkun is a professional tennis player and Davis Cup player (international tennis player representative). He has over 22 years of playing experience and is currently training with elite level coaches.
Through Phalkun, I was able to better understand the elite level player-coach relationship, self-coaching, use of innovation during training, player health/fitness, and player psychology.
Rod is an honorary physics professor at the University of Sydney, specializing in the physics of sports, mainly tennis. He has been researching for over 17 years. He is also an avid tennis player of over 66 years. He is a published author in this field. He wrote “The Physics and Technology of Tennis”, which discusses the physics dynamics of tennis equipment such as strings, rackets, balls, and court surfaces.
Through Rod, I was able to better understand the validity and integrity of new tennis equipment and its features, to understand the future direction of tennis, and to understand how the technical changes of tennis equipment has impacted tennis.
Steve is a board certified psychologist, specializing in sports psychology. He owns his own practice and has been practicing for 7 years. He, himself, is an avid, high-level tennis player. He has also published a book on anger management.
Through Steve, I was able to understand the depth of player psychology, particularly: motivation, anxiety, and confidence.
These interviews were framed around the idea of all innovation and tech. I wanted to gauge their inherit desire for change in the game, particularly with devices that offer stats and data. I learned quite a bit and made the following insights that helped me make conclusions on the current and future state of tennis innovation and technology. Some of these may be obvious, but worth emphasizing.
- Motivation and improvement come from a player’s awareness of what he/she did incorrectly and understanding ways of remediation. A coach can lay the foundation, but a player is the one and only person who can improve his/her own performance.
- Coaches should allow players to review their stats before providing feedback to help the players self-identify and learn.
- Back and forth dialog rather than one-sided conversation is beneficial in learning and building trust.
- The ability to see the game through numbers and not just feel and reflection is important.
- Social aspects enhance the comfort level while training and facilitate learning. It is important to make the experience fun in order to find and develop talent.
- Competing technology, such as video games and computer games, were a detriment to tennis, other sports, and fitness, in general.
- Conscious understanding is not as imperative as sub-conscious, automatic, and instant understanding.
- Tennis players are not in favor of change and quite particular about their equipment.
- The ability to receive and send, via email or social media, videos and stats of player performance, instantly and conveniently, while on court, is very important.
What About the Tennis Gadgets?
There are many different gadgets and devices out there in tennis currently but I’m mainly interested in the high tech rather than unique training tools. These high tech tools offer metrics like head speed, spin, stroke count, impact point, etc. This data is displayed on a smartphone and even times on the racket itself. Needless to say, access to this type of data will change how tennis is taught.
There will be lot of new applications within coaches. I’m sure if you’re reading this article you already have a bunch in mind. Two off the top of my head:
Head speed, head speed, head speed
This is a fundamental piece of my own coaching philosophy. Most things a player does technically in his/her swing are meant to optimize head speed (while on balance, of course). A subpar head speed within the player’s age group is often times obvious to the coach but not necessarily to the player. These gadgets will allow players to compare their head speeds and find any flaws physically and mentally that may be causing that head speed to drop. Some of the devices even have instant feedback. Say your head speed dropped below your goal speed, the device would have a subtle beep to make you aware. This guardian angel effect will become more and more common in sports with repetitive motions.
One of the hardest things to teach kids is the concept of spin. Words like “brush the ball”, “open face”, “closed face”, “lift”, “extreme grip”, etc, aren’t always the most impactful. I’m sure you’ve heard many more. With these devices coaches now have the ability to put a spin number behind every shot struck. Players can now experiment and test what grip and stroke type will help them develop a consistent stroke with spin.
What About My Coach?
Being a coach myself and having had a coach, I know firsthand the importance of one. Pulling directly from our Shot Stats mission:
“No hardware will ever replace the experience and intuition of a human coach. We developed Challenger not to replace a teacher, but to enhance the teaching experience. We want to provide more data for analysis — with or without a coach — to illuminate technique in a way that hasn’t been accessible to most players – until now. We love tennis; it’s really given us so much. We hope that Challenger and products like it can not only help us grow as players, but also help the game of tennis grow so that it can be cherished by future generations. We want this technology to help coaches teach rather than teach them how to coach.”
The last thing I want mention is motivation. Sadly, in tennis and close to every other sport, kids have become less and less interested. I’d wager it has something to do with the proliferation of smart devices. Oddly enough, I think the answer lies in those very same smart devices, through the gamification of sport.
Gamification is the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to encourage activity. This has been done wildly successfully in various other applications from choosing a place to eat to finding directions to the nearest gas station. Ways tennis can be gamified include offering badges for certain goals (longest rally, fastest serve, etc), or having a competitive ladder of who has the best stats.
There is something to be said about self-motivation. Players want to improve and more importantly want to see improvement (not just through match play). These devices provide that proof and validation. Many folks may say they don’t care, but deep down we all want to know we’re getting better. I sure do.
These next couple years will be the turning point for this type of high tech. I’m excited to see how it all pans out, not just for my company, but because of my love for the game.
With the advent of Shot Stats and other smart, connected devices, I see a bright new future for tennis that will increase fan engagement and bring new players to the game.Get 10% Off a Shots Stats Challenger
What do you think? How is the tennis tech revolution going to change the game?