It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop. ~ Confucius
Do we work on the shots that really matter, in the order in which they matter? Do we teach players how to find a way to win? Do we equip them with effective mental and emotional skills to help them through a difficult match? The serve is the most important shot in tennis. The foundation of high effort level and self-belief are more important than a serve. Do our players know how to serve different spins and speeds to different locations in the boxes? The ability to problem solve in a match, working to make one more shot is more important. The return of serve is the second most important shot in the game, but proportionally practiced far less than it should be. The ability to reset and make the most out of the ‘+1’ ball can be even more critical to the outcome, when one player feels overmatched by another. Can our players bunt back a big first serve? Can they attack a second serve in a variety of ways?
And now, a pop quiz: What is the third most important shot in tennis? When I ask this of my players, they normally say: The forehand, the backhand or volleys. The tricky part is that the third most important shot could be any one of those, depending on the situation. The answer: the third most important shot in tennis is the +1 ball, right after you serve, the next shot. The fourth most important shot is the +1 ball, after the return. These four shots account for 55-70% of all points based on your game style. Players who are marginally more effective in the first four shots have a very large advantage over those who are not. So, where are the techniques in the +1 balls? There are a myriad of them, so our focus, as coaches, should be much more on preparing players to take full advantage of offensive opportunities, and on the ability to defend against an immediate attempt at a first strike point. How do our players respond to a ball they can put away right after the serve? How well do they defend against a ball right at them, or one that forces them to hit a passing shot right away? Can they turn defense to offense, or at least defense to neutral with one shot? Arming our players with a full arsenal of weapons and defensive capabilities will surely embolden them, giving them confidence to find more than one way to win.
All of this reflects an athlete centered approach, as we discover our students styles, preferences and abilities. We ask them how they want to play. As expert consultants, we also prod them outside of their comfort zone to try out new possibilities, allowing them to grow into them. One of the key principles in the USTA Player Development philosophy is patience. We need to be very patient, but also to work as fast as possible to achieve all we can.
The Outcomes of Overly Technical Instruction
Do you know about paralysis by analysis? What do you know about chunking? When we throw more than 2 bits of information at our players, we will have created at least 2 zones of confusion in the transition from one bit to the next. To avoid these areas of confusion, the time tested truth of coaching is to provide the chunk of an overall concept. Demonstrate the full stroke and/or the full range of strokes, so that players can players can see the complete concept, before breaking down one element and one only. In reality at any given moment our minds only focus on one thought. It’s a mistake to multi task, jumping in quick succession from thought to thought. Stay with the one piece of the larger chunk, until there is some mastery in the player’s performance. Work on a specific shot in a specific situation or combination, then move on to the other shot or shots, before pairing them all together. When teaching a combination of shots, its also important to demonstrate the full sequence, for chunking to occur. Chunking allows people to move more smoothly mentally into the full process, rather than trying to run through a patchwork sequence, where they never know when one phase ends and another begins. When people are trying hard to instruct themselves through these steps, you can almost smell smoke coming out from their ears.
Incrementally Challenging Higher Levels of Competency
I think we all know people who on a tennis court, standing still have great strokes that when the ball comes into their strike zone can deliver an amazing ball. However, the demands of movement increase to get the ball in the strike zone, and different kinds of shots are needed from a tactical perspective is that players technique scalable? Can it take a different and appropriate shape for the incoming shot, or the outgoing objective?
Last week we talked about how people teach technique too great a percentage of the time, neglecting other very important factors in winning a tennis match. Some people immediately made a knee jerk reaction, dismissing what we had to say as though we were saying technique is not important. In, fact technique is probably the most important overall factor in helping players win, and this week we are going to focus on how to get the most from technique. Mainly it has to do with taking a holistic approach to helping players develop a well rounded game, minimizing weaknesses and helping to facilitate strengths.
Learning to Find a Way to Win
Peter had not yet won a match when overmatched by a physically superior player with much better serve and forehand technique. It was his turn. Many of my players have won these matches where on the face of it, the other player seems to be the clear favorite. Peter’s opponent was 6’1 190 with a big first serve, and a strong second serve. The other guy could also hit his forehand much harder, often overpowering Peter. The first set was predictably 6-1, but at 5-love, Peter and I talked on a changeover. “Just bunt that serve back the best you can, don’t try for a special placement, just make it in the court down the middle if you have to, then work really hard to take the next ball cross court. Use shorter backswings to try to control the power of the incoming ball.” Peter, 5’3 and 30 pounds overweight, began to play a bit more evenly with the opponent.
At the end of the set we talked about that very thing, and simply focused on having him use high percentage play, and move his serve around in the box, mixing up spins, because he couldn’t overpower the opponent. Peter’s opponent got up a break, but was frustrated that the second set was more difficult than the first. He served for the match at 5-4, and 6-5, but Peter broke him. Peter won the Tiebreaker.
We expected a battle for the third set, but because the opponent had never been trained in how to handle adversity, and how to beat a player who played a high effort, high percentage game, he became very frustrated that he had not already won the match, and began to rush, going for too much on his shots. Peter won the final set 6-1. Even though Peter was overweight, he still had very good explosive movement, since we trained that often. At the end we saw that three different matches had taken place, up to 5-0 in the first the superior player with strokes and athleticism dominated. The player with the superior tactical perspective and self belief then found a solution to even things up. Finally, while Peter’s well trained explosive movement held up, the opponent fell apart. Ultimately, the more well rounded player with a good mental game, and trained specifically for tennis came out on top. Peter was the tortoise, his opponent was the hare.
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