The Art of Tennis Coaching: Guided Discovery

Learning the skill of problem-solving

After describing the physical aspect of tennis, i.e. hitting a ball over the net with a racquet, how would you describe the sport of tennis to someone from another world? Here’s my shot at it: “The tactics of playing tennis have been favorably compared to chess, the required endurance to running a marathon, and the lessons learned to those offered by life itself.”

Most of the skills of our sport are learned from others. And, just like there’s a range of quality in tennis teachers and parent-coaches, there’s also a wide range of teaching effectiveness in general education. First, there’s old-school education, where children are lectured to, barked at, and nagged into either submission or pushed to the point of rejection and rebellion.

On the other end of the spectrum is free-spirited, progressive education. Here children are put in a room with some books and learning tools with minimal supervision. They seldom learn the self-discipline to excel on their own. Somewhere in the middle lies a better way to learn. One of the components of optimal learning is “guided discovery.” No barking military-style commands. Sufficient personal concern to encourage. And, enough fun to keep them coming back for more. Here’s how guided discovery works.

Ask Don’t Tell

It sounds simple. But, it’s not. Try it with your own children or little brothers and sisters. For an hour or an entire day, don’t give instructions; just ask questions to get your point across. Many people in a position of authority get in the bad habit of barking commands. This includes teachers in school, parents at home, and coaches on a tennis court.

The much more effective option is to ask questions to elicit the right answers and actions. An example on a tennis court is to ask a player who is just about to return serve, “So, what are you planning to do against this next serve?” More often than not, the receiver will have no plan at all. However, consider that besides the serve itself, the return of serve is the most frequently hit shot in tennis.

The point is that the coaches or parent-coaches have choices. They can either give the answers first or just confirm the right answers last. Giving the answers first may appear like it saves time, but in the big picture it doesn’t. We need to help young players develop decision-making and problem-solving skills. I always liked the phrase, “Talk less; communicate more.”

The Benefits of Making Decisions

Tennis players have to follow the rules of the sport. And, the rules do not allow coaching during and after each point. Therefore, the players who develop independent problem-solving skills will always come out on top, all other things being equal.

The skill of solving problems involves the ability to identify choices and make decisions on every single shot. Consider this. In an average set of singles, each player will strike the ball about 150 times. Therefore, an alert tennis player has to problem-solve on a total of 300 situations per set, both for the 150 shots hit by their opponents and the 150 hit by themselves. And, to make it even more challenging, tennis demands that every single one of those decisions must be made in a fraction of a second!

If you have ever hesitated to embrace the importance of teaching problem solving and decision-making skills, these facts should make you a believer.

Decision Training

Here are some basic exercises to help athletes of all levels make the two types of decisions all players face.

Incoming ball decisions:

Here’s a sample exercise to practice identifying whether the incoming ball is hit with topspin or backspin:

Rally from the baseline with someone who can vary hitting topspin and backspin on both forehand and backhand groundstrokes. The idea is to call out what you identify as soon as possible and well before the ball crosses the net onto your side of the court. In this example, just call out “top” or “back” depending on the incoming spin. With a little practice you may be able to call many shots before your opponent even strikes the ball merely by watching their swing path. I.e. A high to low swing will be backspin and low to high will be topspin.

Try the same exercise to identify not only the ball’s spin, but also its other qualities. For speed, call out slow, medium, or fast. For arc, call out low, medium, or high and recognize that arc and depth are related, moving back for higher arcing balls. And for placement, call out cross, down the line, or center. To work on recognizing dropshots, call out drive for a normal groundstroke and drop for a dropshot. The idea is to initially practice identifying and making incoming ball decisions with one variable at a time.

Outgoing ball decisions:

The other half of decision-making is making smart choices yourselves. This is commonly known as playing high percentage tennis. But, there is much more to tennis than just keeping the ball in play. At higher levels, players need to develop the skills to vary rhythm and placement to keep their opponents off balance. Here’s a sample exercise to add variety and disguise into your own game.

Hit with a steady partner, tennis coach or a ball machine. Try to set up your racquet as similar as possible for all shots. When the ball bounces, call out whether you are going to hit with topspin or backspin. If you’re hitting with an opponent, have them try and guess by calling out the spin you are going to hit. Have them call it out right before the ball bounces (just before you call out “top” or “back” yourself). If your shots are perfectly disguised, they will only be correct 50% of the time.

Note: The most difficult variation is to disguise spin. You may find that starting with varieties of arc, direction, or other variations as explained in the previous paragraphs will be most helpful.


Twenty years ago, I conducted interviews with 150 tennis students at a facility I worked at in Dallas, Texas. One of the questions was to have each person list the three things they disliked most about tennis lessons. Being shouted at from across the net, shadow swinging, and standing in lines during group lessons topped the list. Tennis coaches and parent-coaches integrating the principles of Guided Discovery will avoid these disliked pitfalls. And, on the bright side, they will create an environment where students learn problem-solving skills that will help them both on the court and off.

Check out the next article in this blog series right here “The Art of Tennis Coaching: Kinesthetic Learning


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