The effects of scaling tennis equipment on the forehand groundstroke performance of children.

Author:Larson, Emma J.
Position::Research article - Report


In recent years, the game of tennis has seen equipment modifications emulate the growth and physical development of children, which is similar to other sports scaling the field, baseball diamond, or gymnasium to the young athlete (Benham, 1988; Martens et al., 1984; Pang and Ha, 2005). However, little research has been conducted to provide evidence of the benefits of using LC tennis balls. Only two experimental studies (Farrow and Reid, 2010; Hammond and Smith, 2006) pertaining directly to the modification of tennis balls and courts could be found during a current review of the literature. Hammond and Smith (2006) assessed the transfer of learning that took place with the use of LC tennis balls compared to standard-compression (SC) balls over the course of 8 weeks, and found no significant impact on skill development due to the use of LC balls. The authors used 14 participants aged 5 to 11 years old. Both the participants' ages as well as the number of participants were factors that may have limited the validity of the researcher's findings.

Whereas Hammond and Smith (2006) produced inconclusive results, Farrow and Reid (2010) observed a significant difference in beginner tennis players' skill acquisition on the standard court with the SC ball when compared to skill acquisition on the scaled court with a LC ball. Throughout the experiment 8-year-old children's skill acquisition was recorded over a 5-week period using a rally design. The combined court modification, along with the use of LC balls, allowed for more opportunities for the children to rally within the lesson. The children studied also hit more LC balls into the court, had more fun--as measured by the Steen Happiness Index--and were more successful with the modified court and balls (Farrow and Reid, 2010). Considering the previous work done, one might argue that Hammond and Smith (2006) initiated the examination of the influence of LC tennis balls on improving skill development, whereas Farrow and Reid (2010) continued that line of research, examining specific effects of modified balls and courts on skill acquisition and physiological responses of children 10 and under.

Despite the previous work which has focused on the influence of equipment modification on skill development (Farrow and Reid, 2010; Hammond and Smith, 2006), such approaches still need to be refined to incorporate a more comprehensive game approach. Our research differs significantly from that conducted previously in that it observes a child's forehand groundstroke performance during two different scenarios: a standard ball and court condition and a modified ball and court condition. Performance testing in the field of tennis appears to be slowly evolving from what was exclusively skill-based testing to what we see now: a more dynamic rally-based performance test.

Thus far, few tennis-specific performance tests have been available and readily used for testing an athlete's performance. Up until the late 1960's the major disadvantage of performance assessments was that skill based tests did not simulate the true environment of a tennis match (Hewitt, 1966; Kemp and Vincent, 1968; Purcell, 1981; Vergauwen et al., 1998). The Kemp-Vincent Rally test was the first of its kind to include a game-based approach through a rally-based design where two people are dynamically exchanging the ball back and forth over the net (Kemp and Vincent, 1968). Speed, or stroke firmness, was an added variable measured along with ball control in an attempt to better simulate real game situations (Purcell, 1981). As technology advanced, so did the capabilities of quantifying ball speed and placement within the dynamic environment of a tennis match. Vergauwen et al. (1998) quantified the precision and velocity of each tennis ball hit, by using video images and a radar system in what they dubbed the Leuven Tennis Performance Test.

Follow-up work led Vergauwen et al. (2004) to develop what is now known as the ForeGround test, which has been shown to be both reliable and valid when assessing the performance of young, low-to-intermediate level tennis players. The forehand groundstroke is used in the rally based design of the ForeGround test to assess performance because of its dominance above other strokes in a given rally (Elliott et al., 2009; Vergauwen et al., 2004). Researchers have found that more advanced players scored higher on the ForeGround test in all of the tested variables, including speed, accuracy, and success (Vergauwen et al., 2004). Despite the ForeGround protocol's attempt to quantify the rally-based performance of the forehand groundstroke, the application of the test to tennis as a whole is limited in that it utilizes only one of the fundamental strokes (service, forehand, backhand and volley) used for low-intermediate players (Crespo, 2008). Although previous research has paved the way to performance testing using modified court sizes and ball types, there appears to be little data available that compares performance when using modified balls and court relative to performance using standard balls and court.

The modifications that have been made to equipment have slowed the speed of the game, which has made it easier for children to be successful and learn the skills required to play effectively (Farrow and Reid, 2010; ITF, 2009). Previously conducted research using adults supports the notion that the ball size and type used within tennis influences the speed of play (Cooke and Davey, 2004; Haake et al., 2000; Mehta and Pallis, 2001). When the ball speed is slowed, the player has more time to react to the movement, direction, and spin of the ball. The benefit of having a larger ball to slow the pace of the game has been revealed previously in an adult population (Andrew, 2003). Considering the previous literature indicating the use of larger balls in order to slow down the game of tennis, it seems plausible that similar effects might be seen when children use lighter, LC balls. Intuitively, children should not play with balls that bounce high above their typical groundstroke impact zone or travel too fast, as it may be detrimental to the biomechanical development of their strokes (Barrell, 2008). LC tennis balls thus have great potential for the training of young tennis players, as the rebound height is much less pronounced; however, there is minimal research indicating the specific benefits that LC balls may elicit on tennis performance.

Considering the fact that a child's response time to a particular stimulus is generally greater earlier on in childhood (Haywood and Getchell, 2009; Kiselev et al., 2009) it typically takes them longer to respond. Therefore, it is important that the speed of sports slows down in order to meet the physical limitations of the children playing them. Because of their slow motor response time, children often have difficulties playing the fast-moving game of tennis. The skills necessary to play the game, such as executing a serve, returning a serve, and hitting groundstrokes back and forth over the net in a dynamic rally setting, are difficult for beginning children, especially if ball or court modifications are not made. Most children that are coached in tennis on a standard court using SC balls are limited to learning skills rather than the actual game (Anderson et al., 2009). The 11.0m and 18.3m scaled courts diminish the court area to a size appropriate to capabilities of the children playing. With the modified court there is less area to cover, and correspondingly a child is able to move to more balls and in turn, keep the rally going longer; the modified...

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