Tennis is a sport within which people of all ages and backgrounds can compete in, varying from playing in local courts to the four Major Open competitions throughout the world. This sport incorporates a dynamic set of skills which encapsulate audiences when performed at the highest level. There are two significant classifications of the game; singles and doubles. These different varieties each encompass their own set of rules which is followed when playing.
The tennis serve is the starting point for each set, therefore becoming vitally important for the entire match. An ace shot is the most effective play in the game; this is where the ball is hit within the service box and is not returned by the opponent. Although seemingly impractical, a player could not lose a tennis match if they were to successfully hit an ace with every serve. [Whiteside & Reid 2017]
In tennis, the serve is a sequence of motions referred to as a ‘kinetic chain’ [Elliott et al, 2003] which begins with actions in the lowers limbs which precede movement in the trunk and upper limbs. The biomechanics behind the serve control the speed, spin and bounce of the ball off the racquet. When young students are learning how to serve, they become easily frustrated in their attempts and continuous errors. An effective and dependable serve is difficult to learn compared to ground strokes and volleys because the target area for the serve is much smaller and its stroke mechanics are more complex and difficult to perform. [McGehee 2013]
The serve has been the subject of a large number of literature and research papers. They encapsulate a variety of aspects including biomechanics such as Whiteside and Reid in their paper on the ‘Spatial characteristics of professional tennis serves with implications for serving aces; A machine learning approach’. Contrasting this, some papers focus on the development of the tennis serve as a motor skill. This can be seen in Fery and Morizot’s paper ‘Kinesthetic and Visual Image in Modelling Closed Motor Skills: The Example of the Tennis Serve’.
Careful manipulation of constraints within the context of interacting task, individual and environmental constraints, facilitates the emergence of functional movement patters and decision-making behaviours in learning. [Williams & Hodges 2012]. In order to learn the tennis serve, the movement pattern needs to be broken down into a series of separate positions until the basic technique is formed. Once learnt the constraints can then be manipulated to influence the learning and performance of the participant. Based on Schmidt’s Schema Theory, the learning and ability of the individual is enhanced when practising a variety of movement within invariant spatial and temporal structures in an environment. Once movement is learnt by the central nervous system and the body, we can then incorporate changes to the environment to further improve the developing motor program.
The aim of the training program is to learn how to complete the tennis serve from the beginning. It is hypothesised that through the manipulation of task and environmental constraints to promote the formation of new attractor states and an improvement in the acquisition of the skill will occur.
A participant will conduct a 20 hour training program to learn how to complete a tennis serve shown in table 1 (In the appendix) . Preceding the program, a pre-test will be completed attempting to hit 5 tennis balls on both the left and right side of the court into the diagonal service box. Following the 20 hours, this test will then be repeated to determine if the skill has been acquired by the participant. Furthermore, every 5 hours the participant will complete a serving test, an example of the service test system can be seen in figure 1. The transfer test would be conducted by having the participant attempt to serve using their non-dominant hand to determine if this skill transferable.
A variety of environmental and task constraints will be manipulated throughout the program to encourage new attractor states to form from self-organisation whilst adapting to the new information, which the body must react to.
The results were measured by the ability of the serve to either land in or out of the diagonal service box, throughout 5 attempts on either side of the court. The scores of the serving test were also collected from the ability of the participant to either hit the ball into the net, onto the opposite side of the court or into the service box. The results were then tabulated following the pre, post and transfer test for the skill acquisition program. The scores after the serving test were also added and compared to the results.
The results display an increase in the ability to successfully hit the ball into the service square. Despite this increase, the transfer test indicates the limited ability of the body to convey this skill to the non-dominant hand. This can be seen in the large amount of out shots, and minimal number of shots which landed into the service square.
Furthermore figure 3 displays a linear increase of skill acquisition through the ability to hit more balls onto the court and into the specific service square. The results do not plateau at a high level and are varied due to the increase in difficulty of the skill, as more components of the serve were introduced over the 20 hour training period. This variation can be seen in video 2, displaying the altered constraints of the program.
The results clearly reflect an increase in the ability of the participant to hit a tennis ball into the service square from the base line within the pre and post test data. Despite this, it is difficult to determine if the participant was completely able to acquire the specific skill due to its complex nature. Through the manipulation of task and environmental constraints the participant facilitated the emergence of new attractor states in order to hit the ball over the net. Specifically using accuracy drills and targets to aim at, encouraged the learner to transform their body positioning and the way they hit the ball in order to get it as close to the target. Through practice and experience the participant is able to adapt to more varied game like situations and unfreeze the degrees of freedom.
Playing with a partner initiates information movement coupling in which the players must adapt to their opponents movements creating a cyclical relationship between perception and action. This was implemented into the program to broaden the participant’s perceptual motor landscape as they developed greater attractor states which become engrained into the individual’s brain. When combined with specific tennis shots, the attractors will develop over time and evolve into a self-organised coordination pattern.
The transfer of the skill to the non-dominant side, was poor translated by the body shown in the results. The sequence-specific knowledge was unable to compute the motor skill in an unfamiliar sequence context, such as serving with the opposite arm.
This training program strongly and effectively manipulated specific constraints to elicit changes to the participant’s biomechanics. It created a simplified step by step procedure to learn the skill which allowed for easy translation into movement. The drills throughout the plan allowed for straightforward movement patterns to emerge allowing for a better serve technique.
Despite this, there were a number of limitations for this program design, involving the specific technique of the skill. The learning of the biomechanical technique was compromised by the knowledge of the testing protocols, with the ball just having to land anywhere within the service square. The limited feedback available in regards to positioning and technique adjustment negatively impacted the acquisition of the skill.
The aim is fulfilled within the results displaying the correct completion of the tennis serve. The hypothesis states that through the manipulation of task and environmental constraints, the formation of new attractor states and an improvement in the acquisition of the skill will occur. This is shown through the development of skills within the serving test and the improvement in the ability to hit the ball over the net.
In conclusion, although the data showed a clear improvement in results, the correct technique of the serve was not completely acquired. Despite this the aim of the program, to be able to serve a tennis ball into the service square was fulfilled, indicating that the constraints both task and environmental elicited the targeted response. Thus proving, the manipulation of constraints facilitates the emergence of self-organising movement patterns to acquire a new skill.
- Elliott, B., Fleisig, G., Nicholls, R. and Escamilia, R. 2003, ‘Technique effects on upper limb loading in the tennis serve’, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, volume. 6, issue. 1, pp. 76-87. < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12801213>
- Fery, Y. & Mortizot, P., 2000, ‘Kinesthetic and Visual Image in Modeling Closed Motor Skills: The Example of the Tennis Serve’, Perceptual and Motor Skills, volume. 90, issue. 3 part 1, pp. 707-722.
- Hernandez-Davo, H., Urban, T., Sarabia, J., Juan-Recio, C. & Moreno, F., 2014, ‘Variable Training: effects on velocity and accuracy in the tennis serve, Journal of Sports Sciences, volume. 32, issue. 14, pp. 1383-1388. < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24702059>
- McGehee, R., 2013, ‘The Virtual Wall: A Key to Learning the Basic Tennis Serve’, Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, volume. 68, issue. 7, pp. 10-12.
- Schmidt, R. & Lee, T., 2011, Motor Control and Learning, 5th edn, Human Kinetics Publishers, Champaign, Illinois, USA.
- Whiteside, D. & Reid, M., 2017, ‘Spatial characteristics of professional tennis serves with implications for serving aces: A machine learning approach’, Journal of Sports Sciences, volume. 35, issue. 7, pp. 648-654 < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27189847>
- Williams, A. & Hodges, N. (eds) 2012, Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory and Practice, 1st edn, Routledge, London, UK.