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Structured vs Unstructured

Posted on February 09 2016

This subject of structured versus unstructured training is a debate that has become more and more relevant when you compare training methods today against training from 25 years ago and beyond.

The key question. How many hours of supervised coaching and training should take place in a players programme against unsupervised learning?

The key word in the above sentence is ‘learning’. How and when do our pupils learn? Is it just a case of the amount of supervised hours spent on the court (process) or does the learning also take place elsewhere (organic)..?

Taking my own development into account as an International standard junior my ‘made up’ weekly schedule was a blend of individual coaching, ‘free-play’ hitting (some form of matchplay 99% of the time), wall practise, watching tennis, a variety of home grown fitness exercises and occasional invites to county, regional or national training. You could say more unstructured than structured training and add into that a fair amount of it was outside too!

This type of approach was not unique in anyway and back in the 80s and earlier I would feel pretty confident to suggest most good level players had similar ‘home made’ programmes to mine.

Of course not for one moment am I suggesting that this was the perfect schedule however I do believe rightly or wrongly so that we have gone too far the other way. Virtually any player I come across today suggests that their schedules are high 90s if not 100% supervised and structured.

Although there are obvious benefits to having a good coach around a developing player we must not forget that this is a one on one sport, as soon as a player steps on to court they’re effectively on their own – no coaching allowed, no help allowed, it can be a lonely place with feelings of vulnerability unless you’re extremely mentally tough, still even then you will be challenged intensively…

As we know coaching is allowed on court in certain (very few) competitions at a high level but you could argue that in most cases these players are so good and experienced that having a coach out there with them can still be beneficial but less relevant than a young junior trying to get to grips tactically, physically and mentally with the toughest sport out there – that’s maybe a debate for another day tho…!

Surely if a player is out there ‘on their own’, trying to solve problems ‘on their own’, trying to make decisions ‘on their own’, trying to mange their own game to be better than their opponents ‘on their own’ then maybe they also need time ‘on their own’ to help them figure things out in their own way.. This is where the free-play aspect, whether it be playing practice points, hitting against a wall or even simply watching can become an important part of a players development. This integrated with good coaching will help shape the ‘all round’ player more.

If I were able to go back in time and use what I know now there would certainly be parts of my ‘old school’ training methods that I would change, however there would certainly be parts that I would keep and continue to value.

Nobody taught me directly when to change the pace down to hit a 3/4 pace, when to ‘ghost’ into the net, when to drop shot, when to throw in a slice backhand to change things up etc this was self discovered through free-play, not taught or told – getting it wrong and learning from it in my own time was allowed. It then allowed me to get it right more often.

Our developing players are great ball strikers these days but let’s also make sure they are great match players too.

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