(This one is a little rough)
Purposeful practice is elemental.
Practice can be rote stroke work
It can be point play without scoring
It can be point play with only points won
It can be pressurized to reduce errors
It can be incentivized to reward maximum performance
Having a purposeful productive practice is the missing element for many players. In my many years of team coaching, the secret sauce of my success was that we supported every major aspect of how to win a tennis match for success on court. We spent time every day with a mental game thought, a tactical instruction, fitness, game play with objectives, and all this after a good warm up to make sure we were ready to go all out. To maximize your game you will want to spend time on each of these things on court, off the court, and in the gym. Since you are a reader, you may also want to find some great books on the mental game, and on tennis specific fitness. If you are someone who hasn’t practiced much, which is the vast majority of tennis players, you are not alone. The great news is that if you include one more practice a week, or even a few more in a month, you can really climb the ladder of success. When you go out to practice serves for 30 minutes three or four times a month, hit against the wall and work on hitting targets, do some drop hits to practice perfect footwork, there is a lot you can do on your own. You can give yourself an amazing workout simply by tossing the ball away from yourself in every direction before pursuing the ball. You don’t even need a partner for that!
Practicing with a friend or team is even better, because you get live ball play, but you need at least a simple plan. Prioritize the under practiced shots and combinations, and you gain an edge faster. Serves and returns of serve, the serve +1, and return+1 are not often practiced, because people simply go to rally, because that seems like the most fun thing to do, and they are obsessed with their ‘consistency’. The most common thing that will happen in a match is that a player will make their serve, and the opponent will miss. That means you want to practice well enough so that you are making more of your serves and returns, that that the other player misses first.
Additionally, you can work on a particular serve, or return. The server might ask the returner to stand further back, because they want to work on their flat serve. The returner can work on returning the ball right back at the server, as this is a best practice anyway. If you can’t find a friend who will practice serves and returns for 10 minutes, then find a new friend. Practicing the serve +1 is vital, because the second most common thing that happens is that the server misses the serve +1 shot. Practicing should be realistic to the task of winning the match, and if it doesn’t include serving and being ready to make the next ball, then you are trying to race in a leaky boat. Working progressively in your practices to increase their validity and relevance to real tennis can be the key to victory.
When you practice with others, there should be some give and take, be a great practice partner for them, and they will more likely be one for you. Of course, you might want to ask them what they want to practice and you will also be a good practice partner for them, maybe equally so.
Lobs and overheads are under practiced, and it’s really amazing how much more confidence you can gain when you spend some time on those. At first, it might feel a little clunky, you and your partner might fail to hit the ball well enough to make it great practice, but struggle along anyway, because once you get it going, your confidence will go way up. You don’t have to have a long drawn out practice, but if you have the right intentionality, you can get a lot done. The most important part of the whole procedure is to not get frustrated in the early going. For instance when I first teach people how to practice with me, they feel an inordinate amount of pressure and tension to perform, by placing the ball where I want it. They then start judging themselves, overthinking and pretty soon their performance falls apart. Instead, keep coming back simply to what you want to do, you want to get the ball to go in the area where the opponent wants it, that in itself takes practice, give it time, go through the process of learning.
One Shot, Practice ONE Shot
So when practicing serve and return, you might pick a certain location to serve to, let you opponent know, then they can practice hitting a certain kind of shot from that location. Lobs and overheads can be tricky, because you don’t want to train yourself to always hit your overhead to the opponent, so you can make a rule where on the third consecutive overhead you will hit it away from them. Another way to practice is to have the lobber standing in the area where you want to hit your overheads. Using a ball machine is nice because you can set it up to give you perfect lobs, but then you will need to change the settings so that you get some higher, lower, topspin, short and deep lobs. Otherwise, if you are only practicing shots that come nicely right to you, then their is not enough realism in that. One of my favorite tennis experiences of all time was when I set the machine to hit high lobs all the way to the baseline, and I worked very hard moving back quickly, working on my leaping overhead. I did that for almost an hour and left exhausted. The next day I went to a job interview to be a club pro, my first ever club pro job, and when the interview was over, the Director of Tennis asked me to fill in as a fourth for doubles with a group that was one full level higher than me. I said yes, and my overhead was absolutely on, and that impressed him enough that I got the job.
It’s now mystery how top performers do so well, like a Steph Curry, who has insane shooting rituals, and also gets in the gym, and is amazingly strong for his stature. If you do a fraction of that kind of practice for the shots you want to add to your game, you can find some very good success.
Start Easy, Go With Mastery
If you want to practice coming to net, you might start with some easy volleys where they opponent hits it to your volleys, then they can start to stretch you out, so that you have to move. Then you can have them try to pass you on the 2nd or 3rd shot. After that, you have your opponent feed you a nice short ball, so that you practice your approach and volley, because it’s a completely different animal coming forward to volley and split stepping than it is to be standing at the net already moving sideways or slightly diagonally to the ball. A nice progression of taking the ball in the easiest form for warm up, increasing the challenge level slightly, then drilling your game in the most realistic way, before heading into point play situations can help you build it in. You might play a game where you play to 11 points coming to the net, then give your opponent the opportunity to do the same. If playing for points is making you lose confidence, you can simply play 11 points until you start to gain some comfort in playing the points out. Recently I was hitting with a former college player, and I was very rusty from having not competed much in recent years. So we simply played 6 points at a time on each other’s serve. It was a good work, and I am sure he won two thirds of the points, but that didn’t matter, because we were getting the work done.
Avoid The Punitive
When you play games, you will want to incentivize maximum success, and not necessarily punish failure. An example of this is that I regularly play Rule The Court which can be adapted to any number of point play situations. For instance, I can feed a player a short ball, and they must come to the net. If they win the point against the player in the back, then they get one point, but if they lose, nothing bad happens. The first of those players on that side, when they win three points, they become the new champion. Sometimes I will also add a bonus point for hitting the first shot within a target area, or another bonus point for making a winner. Sometimes we put pressure on the champion by saying that if they make two consecutive unforced errors, then they are immediately replaced by the player with the most points. There are so many ways to get creative with scoring to help you get good at pressure situations, but also to foster confidence, you can only win points, not lose them. For some reason, it’s a positive and uplifting situation when you can only win.
Why Not Bonus?
When coaching teams I will sometimes give 3 points for a winning volley, or 5 points for a winning overhead, but some of my intermediate players play it safely, and don’t want to risk losing 1 point, in order to go from 3 or 5. As a coach, you might need to stop and do some work in regard to how you weigh out the risk/reward ratio. Part of the problem may be a lack of a process orientation when it comes to improving your game. You have to be ok with risking a mistake. Mistakes are not failures, they are simply part of the refining process until you learn what to do correctly to avoid the error. Doing many reps helps you to start to see patterns in your game, and the most common error you make. Once you identify the one most frequent problem in execution, then you can work on that one aspect, until you clean that up, and that can mean a quantum leap in ability to win points. From there, you will want to spend some time mastering that, but later you will find the error that was the second most commonly occurring, solve that and you may not need to do much more work on that part of your game. You can move on to another part of your game that needs work.
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