Transition Tennis Balls: Great Tools for the Right Job
To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. ~ Mark Twain
Wayne Bryan’s Letter
This week Wayne Bryan, father of the Bryan Brothers wrote a great letter to the folks at the USTA critical of ‘another chart’ of player’s development. Bill Patton also chimed in with a letter, and now this blog post today is largely inspired by Bill and Styrling’s discussion on USATennisCoach’s stance on the use of coaching tools, using their 29 years combined experience in using these colored tennis balls. Bill and Styrling have been trained directly by Kirk Anderson, Judy Murray, Mike Barrell, Cameron Moore, and Craig Jones in the use of transition balls. More importantly they each have thought through and experimented with many different ways to support and promote student learning in this area.
Great Tools for Teaching
We at USATennisCoach (now under different names), believe that transition tennis balls are a great teaching tool. Transition balls, smaller courts, and smaller racquets are incredible tools for nearly every professional tennis coach and also for the multitude of recreational coaches at the front lines of tennis. When you use a tool, its only useful for a specific task, screwdrivers are different from hammers, and there is not a lot of overlap in what they can accomplish. If we think of players as though they were a performance sports car, we would want to use the best tools as stripping a bolt or over tightening an adjustment could lead to a major problem in performance or safety. While transition balls may look simple enough at first glance, in the hands of a professional, these tools can yield incredible results. Every coach can find a great use for them, not only with brand new tennis players, but also with accomplished players. As you will see from the rest of this position piece, that Styrling and Bill respect each others different uses of transition balls.
Coach and Player Freedom
We also believe in helping coaches learn to use these tools well, but we don’t believe in forcing coaches to make players play at a certain level with a certain ball in a cookie cutter approach. We also believe that not one coach’s creativity should be stunted by a top down bureaucracy that seems to have all the wisdom, even when it runs counter to the established art, science and track records of institutionally successful coaches. Additionally, we believe that organizations that ignore individual differences in young players developmentally, in their athleticism, intelligence and maturity forcing them to all play the same level ball are misguided. Recently the USTA hosted a tremendous webinar that showed the developmental tracks of the top 20 men’s players at that time. It was awesome to see the vast differences in the pathway each player took to the top 20, some played more USTA Pro Circuit Matches, others more Satellite Level, Challenger, and other levels. They did this of their own choosing and based on their personal goals for development and success. It was great information.
We take the above information about player development and generalize it, saying it’s true for all players. I started using transition balls in 1999, when I bought my first Champs balls from OnCourtOffCourt.
High School Tennis
For a strictly high school coach perspective, I look to a time when I got the orange balls out for 20 minutes, and let my top singles players on the team use them. After a round robin where all top players played each other, there were some surprising results. First, while the players might not readily admit it, they had fun. Second, while they might not have consciously known the effect of using the balls, they did use them to good effect. When Bill asked them, “What did you notice about the orange balls?” Some of the answers were “They suck”, “You can’t hit them as hard”, and other sophisticated responses. When Bill offered, “Did you see how many points were won with a deep/short, short/deep combination of shots?” The players responded with, “Oh,yeah! Yes, that’s true.” So, the experience with the transition balls drew out of the players an experience of leaning they might not have otherwise realized. Bill explained that the same effect is true with yellow balls, but just not as pronounced. This group of players, all of whom had been or would be ranked inside the top 20 of their section, learned something that would help them as a team to defeat two #2 seeds, and two #1 seeds in three playoff seasons. That lesson was learned fast, and it would not be advisable to repeat it, because making the players bored is not a good idea.
Junior Tennis Program Development
A few year years later, I was working as Director of Tennis at a club, where the junior program needed to be rebuilt from scratch. In the fall, he started three red ball classes and an orange ball class. Within a month the players in the red ball classes were improving rapidly. A few weeks later, the program featured two red ball classes and two orange ball classes. Before winter, the transition continued with only one red ball class as an entry to tennis for ages 4-6, then orange ball classes for ages 6-8 years old, but this time there were three orange ball classes with one of them being more of a competitive environment, and finally a green ball class was added. Bill and his staff proactively discussed the status of each player, and fielded questions from parents, as children were motivated to move to higher levels. Kids were beginning to protest being in a certain level class, but I and my staff were able to show parents why they should stay until they achieved some mastery. The criteria that was used to see if a player could move to a higher level was: “Do they maintain the integrity of their strokes while they compete? Or do they dismiss all the teaching they have received in order to simply win now?”. Once a player could prove able to compete and maintain a modicum of technique, then they were allowed to move up. I knew that initially players might struggle initially at their new level.
Back to the Future: Bill’s Start with Transition Balls
If we were to go back to the very beginning of my use of transition balls, initially I bought a handful of them to experiment with in my beginner tennis camps. It was a raging success, as kids who used to need to have many private lessons to compete could compete right away. Kids want to play, and they don’t necessarily want to be seen struggling to play, so the yellow balls would not have been appropriate in a beginner camp with a large number of 6 and 7 year olds. The camp grew to the point where there was a waiting list every year for he first few weeks of camp. It was known for being fun. One of the best aspects of this fun was the team match play that was created, and the end of camp tournament which featured transition balls through the first few rounds, then yellow balls when we reached a round where that was realistic for good match play. If you had to sum up USATennisCoach in one word, it would be the word ‘fun’.
Good for the 1%? Forced on the 1%?
Now the balls are great for the masses, but what of the Tracy Austin’s, Pete Sampras’, Andre Agassi’s, and Maria Sharapova’s of this world. They should not be forced to play with a ball that could affect their timing negatively. These players are part of the 1% of the greatest and earliest talented athletes ever to play tennis. Could transition tennis balls wreck their game? We don’t know. A lot has been made of a few professional tennis players who used transition balls when they were younger, but there is not a lot of detail given about how much time was spent that way. Judy Murray, a staunch proponent of the use of transition balls for most every kid has said something to the effect of, “Andy Murray at age 9 was playing with the men at the club. And did not use the transition balls much.” (Bill’s paraphrase).
I’ve been using this transition tools on court since 2005 and one of the main benefits for my players since has been the understanding and application of tactics and strategy. There are innate technical benefits built in automatically, the balls stay in the strike zone more for a smaller player as well as the weight of the ball and racquet are more manageable thus producing a smooth swing path time and time again. The tactical and strategic implications that give immediate feedback to a player are phenomenal and I will often here the same realizations from junior players regularly.
Developing Well Rounded Players
“Coach, the ball just doesn’t bounce as high giving me more time to react, so I must get in better position to receive the ball in my strike zone. I also have to use different types of spin to create angles and short and deep ball combinations to force my opponent out of position to win a point, I just can’t blast the ball down the middle of the court hoping my awesome power will force an error.”
These two learning moments I believe are crucial to the development of an independent thinker on court. A player who can learn to play, instead of just hitting the ball over the net one more time will be more successful in the long run. These players become the ones with pro-active strategy and on court problem solving during match play.
There are five great ways to win a tennis match, and transition balls take away the power aspect to a major degree, which forces players to use other strategies to win. This makes for a more well rounded player.
The weight of transition balls can speed up a player’s ability to learn different spins quickly and actually apply them in point play more often. Players then learn a certain amount of ‘automatic’ play, leading to the ability to consistently create the spins under pressure.
Pierce Strother – Patient 8
My 8 year old son started when he was 2 with a 19″ racquet, moved to 21″, then 23″, and now he plays with a custom Yonex DR100 shaved off at 24.5″. He is 4’4″ tall and weighs around 54 lbs., very small, but packs a big punch and most of all has an extremely high IQ on the court. He already has a strong understanding of court awareness and positioning. He is a little tactician who plays with a pro-active attitude, hitting different types of spins when he gets the opportunity, never shying away from using a drop shot. He uses the drop shot, because his equipment allows him the opportunity to do so. He can play with other 8 year old players, which frees him up from having to only play with his dad. If we played with yellow balls it would force me to hit in his strike zone repeatedly so that he doesn’t lose confidence.
My son loves the game and to me that is the most important for a tennis coach dad. The greatest gift to me as his coach is that he wants to play the game. Do we play with every ball color? Yes! Red, orange, green, and yellow – Pierce knows that every tennis ball is different, and what challenges he faces based on the color. He understands and experiences the different challenges with the court sizes along with the speed and bounce challenges that come with normal compression balls (IE. yellow). He loves the game, it’s not boring to him, we hit every shot, including speciality shots like drop shots and lobs. We use some repetition, some random methods of training, but we always end with the part he loves most – playing points. Pierce loves to play points, the challenge to beat me and be creative. I’m convinced that his love for game has been grounded in the fact that as his coach I’ve been able to use these tools in a creative way to shape a champion on and off court.
So you can see the differing perspectives within USATennisCoach, and the value of using transition balls, but systemically there are still problems. Styrling and Bill refuse to argue about this topic, but strive to learn from each other and develop more tools for their toolbox.
The Politics and Business of Transition Balls
One problem in the politics of transition balls is the agenda that people have to push this thing so hard onto coaches. Why do that? What motivates them? The most jaded say that it’s a way to sell more equipment. Others say that ‘It’s his baby, so he is going to push it through.’ We think people can be more self aware in their motives for doing anything that affects to many people. It seems some of the higher ups are motivated by something other than freeing up each coach, freeing up each player to maximize their own potential in the way they choose. Styrling likes the car analogy: “It’s one thing to take a Ferrari out on the streets around your neighborhood, but it’s completely something else to take it out on a track going full speed.” The point being that each player best develops at their fastest rate by being challenged more often to the edge of what they can handle. Under-challenging players is a major mistake. One of Bill’s mentors was an outstanding high school teacher who said, “Our biggest mistake in education is not challenging the kids enough. When they aren’t challenged, they become bored, complacent and they stop growing at the a high rate.” However you structure your program, and use of the balls, it’s a best practice to have a specific challenge you are creating with them, and strong criteria for how you advance players up levels. We don’t recommend using transition balls as a spontaneous event without a real plan in place.
Little Explored Issues in Transition v. Yellow Balls
The transition balls versus the yellow ball debate is a double edged sword. On the one hand yellow balls can be a developmentally damaging for younger players who have a hard time reaching up so high for the higher bouncing yellow ball, and they can develop chronic injuries to shoulders and backs. But, the yellow ball bounces more uniformly for players, so its more predictable. Transition tennis balls have a very wide band of performance tolerance. Many red, orange and green balls play well. The wind can make transition balls a bad idea to nearly impossible. The very uneven experience of transition balls can cause kids to lunge and stretch strangely, and when under challenged players can become lazy. Even among brands who make the best green ball for example, each of the three balls can play significantly differently. Smart coaches and players recognize that their can be a dead green ball among the two or three given and play accordingly. Some have not learned that yet. Some brands of red, orange and green balls are so poorly produced the manufacturers should be ashamed of the quality of the item leaving their factory. Even so, the mandate to play with these balls ignore that fact. Bill has received a full refund from one company when more than 50% of the orange balls had felt that separated from the rubber. Brand X red ball plays good under 75 degrees, but over that temperature it flies wild and over 90 degrees is not playable. Brand Y red ball is not as good overall as Brand X, but under 60 degrees the bounce of the ball becomes so low and unpredictable as to be worthless. The point here is not to get married to a certain brand, and be ready to research the balls and find which works for you. At this time we do not plan to endorse any particular ball. To date, we have not found a brand that makes great balls in every color. We are open to having companies send us samples to test. Speaking of testing…
Another great thing you can do is use a skills based test to have players show that they can make certain shots while participating in different situations. Bill has an 12 level test that starts with players standing still and hitting red balls over the net, and ends with yellow balls, and players running side and diagonally while hitting different spins to target areas on the court. Players need to make a certain number of shots in the target area in different categories to move up a level. At camp on the final day, players have cried because they missed by one shot, and jumped for joy when they passed on to a new level. Another great aspect of this, is that it makes it easier to group players for competition. Players also buy more into a growth mindset when their skills will be evaluated. The interesting thing that happens, is when players with lower skill set ratings beat players with higher ratings. It’s fascinating to ask why. The answer is that most often the player with the lower skill rating is usually a better, smarter, stronger competitor. So, then we must not get locked into using our skills tests too often and reading too much into the results.
In conclusion, it’s a complicated problem to use transition balls at the right time with the right players. We advise you to really think through what you are doing with the balls, and how do your players respond to them. Are they challenged and growing, or complacent, stagnant or bored? Ultimately, the fun of playing well, and the excitement of improving to gain a new level will a stimulating experience for every player in your program. Bottom line: Do what it takes to give your players a great playing experience, and they will be hooked.
Below is a response from Mike Barrell, Mike is a leading expert and coach for under 10’s tennis worldwide. He is well respected by many leading professional coaching organizations worldwide such as the ITF, LTA, USPTA, and PTR just to name a few. He is the Director of Evolve9 specializing in coach education and program management for tennis coaches and centres across the globe. For more information about Mike and Evolve9, visit http://www.evolve9.com and check out the great information, seminars, and workshops on this topic. Here is the excerpt sent in by Mike – thanks Mike for all your support and encouragement for coaches in the USA and the world.
“Some good points raised guys. Here are a few more that a worth a mention ..
Coaches who use these balls are not mindless clones. We didn’t get told to change and just follow meekly like lemmings off a cliff. Most of the coaches using the ROG balls have also taught without them in the past and they can see the additional benefits. My Nokia 3110 was great for making a call but now things have moved on and there is an iphone 6. The balls are indeed a tool and help us to find the right level of challenge to help players make progress, but there are also progress in themselves.
Most coaches quote the level of challenge as being merely based on the ball and court and ignoring the fact that someone is hitting it towards them. Tennis is not golf and so the ability of the player to get to the ball and do more with it (including speed, spin and angle – in fact in the Tennis Aus study the green ball rallies were actually played at a higher tempo than the yellow ball ones) is part of the challenge equation. A player that hits one more ball back to a player at the right speed and tempo is actually creating a challenge. Go play on a red ball court with a 21” racquet against a good opponent and see how challenging and creative the rallies can become.
The balls allow players to develop a wider range of tactics in a shorter timeframe. If you are expecting a kid to love to stand and shadow swing or practice without tactical play in today’s world then good luck to you. Kids want to play in a way that meets their needs. Even education has radically changed but some still think the formula used to make players 20 years ago will still work today. Good luck in opening the shop that only sells Nokia 3110.
Yes they are tools but also there are some things that still are not being explored. 1) a players should have the opportunity to train with different balls and not just the ones they compete with. 2) Kids can play competitions at different level if clubs did a better job of in house events and didn’t just rely on NGB events 3) ROG will put more kids into competition sooner and yet there are few examples of best practice in adequately preparing kids for the challenges of competition the balls will not be enough to grow the game until people start really looking at making competitions better for kids. Here is a good example http://www.sportimeny.com/worldtour/ ”
Mike Barrell, Director of Evolve9