Category Archives: Tennis

Skilled Performance at Wimbledon: Pimms, Strawberries and Movement Variability

By Ben Langdown

Week 2 of Wimbledon is in full flow, as is my second week at The OU having taken on the position of lecturer in Sports Coaching within the Sport and Fitness team. As is customary at Wimbledon time, I am sat here typing this with a punnet of strawberries and cream and a glass of Pimms in hand, flicking my eyes left to right, and back again as a pressurised ball of yellow fluff gets whacked across a taut net and to within millimetres of a chalked line at the back of centre court! Murray is through to the quarter-finals for the 9th consecutive year after beating Nick Kyrgios comfortably in Monday’s last 16 match. This was despite Kyrgios achieving 90% accuracy on his first serve through the first set, 84% over the whole match and averaging 124mph! Murray wasn’t quite as accurate with a mere 64% of his first serves finding the service box, but did clock up an impressive 130mph fastest serve. So how are these top players able to serve the ball so fast but also be so consistently accurate?Sliced strawberries

First, let’s go back to my refreshments, the strawberries and Pimms are very relevant here I must add…Successfully picking up the glass of Pimms and guiding it to my mouth to have a swig without spilling any has resulted from me developing the ability to self-organise hand-to-glass and then glass-to-mouth movements when I was much, much younger! However, novice movements aren’t this smooth and successful. At first new movements are often robotic in nature, consciously controlled and performed using rigid coordination. This is the beginner’s attempt to simplify the skill as much as possible by freezing some of the possible movements in their joints. This is what we call, freezing degrees of freedom (the number of possible movements available at each joint involved in the movement) which allows a beginner to limit the amount of movement variability and achieve more success when first learning a skill. They may not use the most efficient or effective technique but they can achieve an outcome i.e. having a drink!

Whilst novice performances are characterised by this freezing of movements, dynamical systems theorists suggest that the variability in movements, in response to task goals, is an intrinsic part of skilled motor performance and as a result allows performers to adapt and be flexible in their dynamic sporting environment. Often there is a lot of ‘detrimental movement variability’ that impacts upon our success as a novice learner and this is why a lot of mistakes will be made (in my example – drinks spilt!). As we progress, we learn to “unfreeze” our joints’ degrees of freedom, allowing an increased number of movement combinations to be effectively self-organised in response to the goals of the task. So, in my example I can successfully drink from the glass by moving it from the table to my mouth on a variety of trajectories / movement paths, the glass may be at different angles each time, my hand may be holding the glass lower down or higher up, there is no set “motor programme” as was once thought, variability is a part of movement and as long as I am aware of how to adapt my movements to reach the end goal then I will get the glass to my mouth successfully. Through practise we are then able to use this ‘functional variability’ to become successful at performing the task in different environments and with varying constraints imposed on us as performers.

Tennis Serve

This also applies in tennis; the elite players we witness over the fortnight at SW19 are able to benefit from the practise they have put in to allow successful 1st serves to emerge from constraints in three interacting areas: the task, the environment and the player:

Task Constraints (the 1st serve): e.g. where they want to hit the serve, what spin do they want to place on the ball, the rules governing the service, how high has the ball been thrown etc.

Environmental Constraints (Centre Court): e.g. the crowd, the wind – irrelevant when the roof is closed on centre court!

Player Constraints: e.g. how much range of movement do they have in their shoulder, are they carrying a niggling injury that’s causing them pain, what state of mind are they currently in, are they focussed on the task in hand or have they just thrown away an easy point etc. The second set of Monday’s match demonstrated this point nicely where Kyrgios appeared to give up!

Figure 1.0 Dynamical Systems Theory adapted to the 1st serve in tennis: The serve emerges from the interacting constraints.

So how does a novice progress to the level of skill we see at Wimbledon? When attempting a serve, beginners may miss the ball, or hit into the net as they try to coordinate all the movements available at their shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Excluding the movements in the hand (which will be gripping the racket), there are 7 degrees of freedom in the arm:

  • 3 possible movements in the shoulder
  • 1 in the elbow
  • 3 in the wrist

Coordinating these can be a tricky task, hence why variability in the movements of these joints can lead to unsuccessful serves. It is also possible to see why beginners would freeze the lower body and even the wrist and elbow movements to make the serve easier to control (coaches often call this a frying pan service with just the arm moving and no turn of the hips!). In order to hit the ball like Murray and his peers at over 130mph the rest of the body also needs to be self-organised…for now though, we’ll freeze that discussion and just stick with the arm and racket!

Research (e.g. Bootsma, & Van Wieringen, 1990; Betzler, et al., 2012) has shown that when performing the same task over and over elite performers are able to “zero in” on contact with a ball and in this tennis example, serve the ball from the centre of the racket. This means that as the ball is tossed into the air the player can utilise functional movement variability to adjust the position of the racket as it moves towards the ball. Then, as they approach the critical moment of the serve (i.e. impact between the centre of the racket and ball) the amount of variability is reduced to produce consistency from serve to serve. Novice players do not demonstrate as much ‘funnelling’ of variability which is where the mistakes and unsuccessful serves emerge from. Ok, it’s easy for me to say this sat here at a desk munching on strawberries…but try achieving a 90% success rate at over 120mph for a whole set in front of a centre court crowd, the majority of whom want you to lose to their British hopeful!

I don’t want to fool anyone here, elite players do still suffer from detrimental variability in their movements and this is evident when double faults creep into their game, but let’s face it, it doesn’t happen as often as us mere mortals when on the court playing much slower serves!

So, back to my strawberries and Pimms…the constraints on the goal of getting them to my mouth are currently far less daunting than being out on centre court, racket in hand, with 15000 people watching on, and trying to serve at 135mph into a 283.5sqr.ft service box! I feel the environment and my own ‘performer’ constraints alone would be far too imposing, and that’s before I even consider the task!

Enjoy the rest of Wimbledon and look out for those service stats! Cheers!

Useful references:

Bartlett, R., Wheat, J., & Robins, M. (2007). Is movement variability important for sports biomechanists? Sports Biomechanics, 6(2), 224-243.

Betzler, N.F., Monk, S.A., Wallace, E.S., & Otto S.R. (2012). Variability in clubhead presentation characteristics and ball impact location for golfers’ drives. Journal of Sports Sciences, 30(5), 439-448.

Bootsma, R.J., & Van Wieringen, P.W.C. (1990). Timing an attacking forehand drive in table tennis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 16(1), 21-29.

Davids, K., Glazier, P.S., Araújo, D., & Bartlett, R.M. (2003). Movement systems as dynamical systems: The role of functional variability and its implications for sports medicine. Sports Medicine, 33, 245-260.

Gurfinkel, V.S. & Cordo, P.J. (1998). The scientific legacy of Nikolai Bernstein. In M.L. Latash, (Ed.), Progress in motor control: Volume one, Bernstein’s traditions in movement studies (pp. 1-20). Champaign: Human Kinetics.

Langdown, B.L., Bridge, M., & Li, F-X. (2012). Variability of movement in the golf swing. Sports Biomechanics, 11(2), 273-287.

Newell, K.M. (1986). Constraints on the development of coordination. In M.G. Wade & H.T.A. Whiting (Eds.), Motor development in children: Aspects of coordination and control (pp. 341-360). Boston: Martinus Nijhoff.

Will Davis Cup victory spur on a new generation of British tennis stars?

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss

After a 79-year wait, Great Britain’s Davis Cup win was an emotional day for the country’s tennis fans, players and, in particular, Andy Murray. Having won all eight of his singles matches in the tournament – a record that matches the likes of John McEnroe and Mats Wilander – he was instrumental in ensuring victory.

Murray’s Grand Slam and Olympic success has without question raised the profile of British tennis in the last few years. While the former golden boy of Wimbledon Tim Henman was popular, he didn’t have the success of Murray on the court. It would be easy to think that this would have led in turn to higher participation rates in the sport, but that has not been the case.

In general terms, sport participation figures have been failing since the London 2012 Olympics, with tennis one of those hit the hardest. This led to a cut of £530,000 for the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) in 2013.

Trickle-down effect not assured

The LTA, the governing body of tennis in the UK, has been criticised for failing to capitalise on Murray’s Wimbledon victory in 2013. But LTA chief Michael Downey said that victories such as the Davis cup “are very, very special and emotional moments that can drive interest in our sport”. He went on that the sport has “a couple of great weeks of coverage now” which could help increase participation.

Great Britain beat Belgium 3-1 in the Davis Cup final.

But this “trickle down” effect in sport is one which some researchers have dispelled as fundamentally flawed when success and participation rates are investigated more thoroughly.

In the case of tennis, timing may play an issue. Unlike Murray’s 2013 Wimbledon win, December is most certainly not a time of year when tennis is at the forefront of people’s mind, so the LTA already have a challenge on their hands.

A good contrast can be made if we rewind to London 2012 Olympics. One key legacy goal for the games was “to inspire a generation of young people”.

Heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and cyclist Chris Hoy were fundamental in fostering the enthusiasm of a nation and providing excellent role models to a raft of young people – in turn participation rates jumped for both cycling and athletics.

All about access

But tennis may have different drivers. Murray is very much on his own when it comes to raising the profile of British tennis, unlike athletics and cycling which have multiple successful athletes. While the Davis Cup win was a team event the success was in the main down to Murray – and the other players have a much lower profile.

Tennis also carries with it some unique challenges which in part are deep-rooted in the sport’s culture. It is an expensive sport, in which early specialisation is often encouraged. It is also a huge commitment for parents and families both in terms of financial and logistical demands.

It is this combination of commitment, cost and a middle-class image that has led to the current situation within British tennis, with only two British men (Andy Murray and Aljaž Bedene) and two British women (Johanna Konta and Heather Watson) in the current top 100 players in the world. Add to this the funding issues which have impacted on the sport’s facilities, and it becomes a challenge just to find a venue.

As Andy Murray’s mother, Judy, says of her two sons’ access to facilities locally: “If that centre wasn’t there and we’d had to drive 40 or 50 miles to Glasgow or Edinburgh then Andy and Jamie may never have gone down the tennis route.”

Even with the challenges of cost, and facilities, perhaps the bigger issue comes down to the man himself. Andy Murray is unlike Ennis Hill who embraced her role as an ambassador for athletics and identified the impact of role models on athletes.

Murray is at the other end of the curve and has made it clear he thinks his role is on the court. He has attracted some criticism for this from former player and David Cup captain David Lloyd who has accused him of not doing enough to promote the sport – to which Murray responded by posting a video of himself training on Instagram.

Yet while Murray rightly is highly focused on his performance on court, there is an unwritten code that athletes are also role models for the next generation and therefore fundamental to the process of increasing participation rates.

But if the LTA, with Murray’s support, can capitalise on the Davis Cup success there is potential to begin the path towards galvanising a new cohort of future British champions.

The Conversation

Candice Lingam-Willgoss, Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.