Marginal Gains in Tennis

Posted on April 09 2018

Anyone in professional sports has heard of marginal gains or has probably had some involvement in trying to make them. Over the last decade, marginal gains has become a strong strategy for succeeding in sport; whether it is a football team making the away changing rooms that little bit grottier or a top-level cycling team fastidiously testing every single aspect of their program down to the dust particles in their lorry, everyone is looking for that extra 1%.

So how can we look to gain that extra 1% as a tennis coach and not only help our students in the short term but also help introduce a way of thinking that has been adopted by the top 1%?

Why Everyone Doesn't Succeed in Implementing Marginal Gains

The problem with the opening paragraph is the word professional. Unfortunately, the majority of us aren’t professional, we don’t have a ten man strong team to analyze our sweat to look for potential mineral deficiencies.

You’re probably thinking the whole idea of marginal gains is that anyone can do it; anyone can analyze what they do and make improvements based on the data available, which is true to a certain extent.

What Barriers Stand in Our Way?

But it’s not that easy. There are many aspects at play; specifically, time, bias and ability. The largest and most obvious obstacle is time. It takes time to gather data, of which tennis coaches have very little of. We need to be able to pay the bills as well as teach tennis and there are only so many hours in the day.

The second is bias; as human beings, we are tremendously bad at overcoming bias. If we’ve been working on a forehand all week with a player, it’s most likely we’ll believe their forehand is looking better on the weekend matches, despite the fact each one is hitting the back fence. Bias becomes even stronger when the player is analyzing themselves.

Lastly, we always have an ability flaw at some level; maybe we lack the technological skills to properly analyze data and present it in the right manner to the pupil. Perhaps we lack the technical knowledge. Regardless of what it is, everyone has a flaw somewhere and this can potentially impede marginal gains.

How We Can Overcome Barriers

The good news is that each barrier or obstacle also presents a potential advantage or possibility.


Tennis lessons always seem so strict on time; you have a half an hour slot, an hour slot, an hour and a half slot. It’s said that the average attention span for an adult to concentrate on one action is 20 minutes.

Yet how many kids have two-hour lessons all the time with little to no variation? Why not throw in a 20 minute short, intensive lesson. Explain to your player about the benefits of self-analyzing for the last ten minutes and try and prompt them into a mentality of improving themselves, and becoming their own coach.


Although as coaches we have our own biases, these biases are nothing in comparison to that of players or even worse, parents! We are their best chance of objective constructive criticism or encouragement. If there are areas to improve upon, think outside the box for ideas that can improve your player. If your player isn’t the type of character to show up 20 minutes early to warm up (insert 90% of all people) try and think of a game they can play with someone that they enjoy to warm up.

See top ten outside the box ideas for marginal gains in tennis


This is the hardest obstacle to overcome but it also provides a very obvious opportunity and that is to learn new skills! In the main, I don’t mean learning new technical tennis skills as we do this anyway. I mean think creatively about ways in which you can approach your player, encourage them to adopt healthy habits, and a good mindset. Ideas could include reading psychology books, researching on youtube for different ideas and searching for new reporting methods.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below!


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