Cognitive abilities Scaling Children's Sport

Game-based tennis lessons & executive functions

Does game-based training effect cognitive functioning differently than technique based training? This is the question that Japanese researchers – Toru Sugasawa and colleagues – aimed to answer.

The acute effect of a single bout of exercise is often improved performance on tests of executive functions. Notably, exercise that involves the coordination of complex bodily movements coupled with heightened cognitive activity is thought to enhance the acute effect on executive functions.

Game-based sports training emphasises problem solving whilst coordinating complex movements. This varies from the more traditional approach to sports training whereby technique and repetitions are the focus. Given the additional cognitive demands of solving the tactics of game play, it was hypothesised that game-based training would have a larger positive effect on executive functions than technique based training.

The study

81 junior tennis players aged 6 to 12 years participated in the study. Participants were allocated to one of three groups:

  1. Game-based training (n = 39). This was based on the Tennis Play and Stay programme launched by the International Tennis Federation. The programme scales the task and equipment for children so that game-play can take place.
  2. Technique-based training (n = 32). This was based on a traditional tennis coaching lesson, whereby children use adult equipment, and repeatedly practice skills in isolation.
  3. Control group (n = 10). This group watched TV instead of engaging in tennis practice.

NOTE: Participants were not randomly divided into groups. Instead, participants were allocated into a group based on the type of training that they were typically exposed to.

Testing took place over 2 days. On day 1, participants completed baseline tests of executive functions as well as an assessment of cardiorespiratory fitness. On day 2, participants completed their respective training followed by the executive functions tests. Heart rate data was collected during the training.

Executive functions tested included the Stroop Colour and Word Test (measures inhibitory control), 2-back task (measures working memory) and Local-global task (measures cognitive flexibility).

The results

Game-based training resulted in greater performance improvements in inhibitory control and working memory compared to technique-based training and the control group.

Importantly, there were no differences in cardiorespiratory fitness levels between the groups. Nor did either training lead to differences in mean heart rate. The key differences between the 2 tennis training groups were:

  • Game-based training = 26% non-activity time, 40% games, 24% rallies, 5% coordination training, 5% collecting balls.
  • Technique-based training = 32% non-activity time, 5% games, 19% rallies, 27% ball feeding, 5% coordination training, 12% collecting balls.


Lots of research in skill acquisition supports game-based practice from a learning perspective. This study suggests that there are also cognitive benefits associated from emphasising game-play. This should also act as another key reason why games in physical education can be valuable in primary schools (i.e., the acute effect on executive functions from playing games in PE might facilitate better performance in the subsequent class).


Ishihara, T., Sugasawa, S., Matsuda, Y., & Mizuno, M. (2017). The beneficial effects of game-based exercise using age-appropriate tennis lessons on the executive functions of 6–12-year-old children. Neuroscience Letters, 642, 97-101.


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