Practice Design Scaling Children's Sport

Manipulating constraints in children’s tennis to improve the backhand stroke

Over the past 10 years it has become the norm to see young children learning to play tennis on smaller courts and with softer balls. Modifying the game in this manner simplifies the task for children, therein allowing children to serve and rally.

However, when young children play tennis in a modified environment, they tend to play considerably more forehands than backhands. This is likely because the softer ball provides children with the time to move onto their forehand side. Anna Fitzpatrick, a PhD student at Sheffield University, demonstrated this in a recent study.

Of course, this is not an issue if playing forehands is the focus. However, if a coach wants to also develop other strokes, such as the backhand, other constraints might also need to be manipulated.

The study

Fitzpatrick and colleagues developed a training program that required children to play tennis in a modified environment (smaller courts, lower compression balls). The training program also included the manipulation of additional constraints that aimed to encourage children to play backhands. The constraints manipulated included:

  1. Internal playing space dimensions. The mid-line was altered so that it was off centre, therein reducing space on the forehand side. Participants were asked to play a backhand when the ball landed on the backhand side.
  2. Recovery box locations. A box was positioned slightly off centre on the forehand side of the court. Participants were asked to return to this position after every shot.
  3. Matchplay rules and scoring format. Bonus points were awarded when participants hit a winner or forced their opponent out of position using a backhand.

8 children participated in this training program (referred to as the “experimental group”). A second group of 8 children participated in a training program that did not include the manipulation of these additional constraints (referred to as the “control group”).


There were 4 key outcomes. The experimental group displayed:

  • More backhands during matchplay in the post-test compared to the pre-test. Comparatively the control group showed no change in the number of backhands performed from pre- to post-test.
  • Greater backhand success rate (i.e., fewer errors and more winners) during matchplay in the post-test compared to the pre-test. The change in backhand success rate from pre-to post-test was greater for the experimental group than the control group.
  • An improved ability to sustain a rally with a coach during a skills test. The experimental group showed greater improvements from pre-to post-test compared to the control group.
  • Enhanced technical proficiency of forehands and backhand during the post-test compared to the pre-test (measured subjectively by two Level 3 coaches). The control group showed minimal change in technical proficiency from pre- to post-test.

Take Home Message

Coaches can guide children towards practicing specific skills by changing the conditions (constraints) of the task.

In this study, participants were encouraged to play backhands via the manipulation of three constraints: playing space, recovery location and playing rules. This consequently led to children improving their ability to perform a backhand.


Fitzpatrick, A., Davids, K., & Stone, J. A. (2018). Effects of scaling task constraints on emergent behaviours in children’s racquet sports performance. Human movement science58, 80-87.

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