The Proper Warm Up

When we see the pros warming up for their matches on TV, we often forget that they are already warmed up!  Their bodies and minds are ready to take on their opponent as they are shifting into the last few minutes of preparation.  Through my experience with recreational players, I have rarely seen a player take their warm ups seriously enough to give them the upper hand in their upcoming matches.  Let’s take a look at what you could do to improve your pre match warm up.  I’m going to divide this into your mental and physical warm up as they are both different yet equally important. 

Mental Warm Up

Former Chess and Taiji Push Hands Champion Josh Waitzkin has a lot to offer in his book “Art of Learning.”  He describes the mental preparation to get “into the zone” that is often considered a relaxed and present state of mind.  Waitzkin argues that it is possible to get into this type of zone at will during anytime leading up to a big event (such as a tennis match).  However, the preparation to build this model takes many months.  Here’s how it goes:

1.     Figure out activities that get you into a relaxed and fully present state.  Waitzkin uses an example from his work with a client by saying that his was playing catch with his son. 

2.     Add other activities to this action you found.  For Waitzkin, he had his client play some music and have a smoothie before playing catch with his son. This allows your brain to associate the new actions to the one that gets you into the zone. 

3.     Practice the new routine and start taking away the original action that got you into the relaxed and fully present state.  This is important due to the fact that it is most likely that your action that gets you into the zone is not ideal to do before a tennis match.  For example, you can’t always count on playing catch with your son to get in the zone! 

4.     Condense the time of the routine.  Cut the time of your routine.  For example, playing less of the song you use could help.  Getting better with meditation is also helpful.  The easier you can calm the brain the easier it is to enter “the zone.” 

This whole process is described in great detail in the “Art of Learning” if you would like more detail on it.  The idea is to use that precious time before your tennis match to improve your state of mind so you can be mentally sharp on the tennis court. 

I personally like to visualize the match in my head with all the errors and tribulations I will be going through during the match.  Getting used to these emotions that come with failure allows me to be ready for them and also to overcome them.  At the end of my visualizing, I will make sure I end on a positive note; imagining myself able to overcome those obstacles to prevail in the match.  If you are expecting great execution from your tennis match, you’re setting yourself up for failure.  Be humble and expect mistakes.  But also expect a good reaction towards those mistakes.  I remember telling players that in 2016 Novak Djokovic made 100 errors in a single match and still won.  Without a positive mindset throughout that difficult time he would have no chance at that winning that match. 

Physical Warm Up

Regardless of what your warm up entails, everyone should be doing dynamic warm ups.  This involves you moving through certain exercises to expand your range of motion and improving the chances that you stay injury free in your match. There are plenty of videos out there for this.  Doing some side shuffles, high knees, butt kicks, skips and jump roping are all good movements to consider doing. 

As far as hitting before a tennis match, do not just plan on hitting with your opponent.  Try to get someone to hit with before hand.  In Grad Gilbert’s book “Winning Ugly,” he mentioned that a lot of players would hire a pro at the local tennis club to hit with them right before a big match.  For me, I take a long time to get into the match so I try to hit as much as I can before hitting with my opponent.  Whatever the case, make sure you’re ready to rock before your warm up with your opponent. 

Warming Up With Your Opponent

This is often a missed opportunity to get a feel for your opponent.  At the recreational level, there are plenty of patterns to take note of while hitting with him or her.  I will first feed a ball directly in the middle of the court.  I pay attention to what side they cheat towards.  If they are running around their backhand, this gives me a good indication that I should be aiming for their backhand most of the time, especially during big points.  How do they handle high balls, slice, short balls, etc are all important questions to figure out as you are hitting.  Do they hit volleys or overheads?  Even when they are serving do you notice some “tells” with their toss and body language of where they are serving.  Basically, the warm up is not about you it’s about them.  The more you know about your opponent the more you can avoid their strengths and make them play “plan B.”

Conclusion:  Use Your Time Wisely

The one thing that you and your opponent have in common is time.  How you use it before your match is important and may be the difference between winning and losing?  Consider tweaking your pre-match rituals so that you have no regrets in your preparation for your match.  You will not only have a higher chance of winning but also you will have a higher chance of staying injury free!

How To Make Your Opponent Play Bad

Ever play a match where your opponent can’t miss?  I have and it often seems like you’re helpless in doing anything about it.  This is often not the case as I would like to discuss two big factors that you have somewhat control of that could get your opponent from playing so well.  Let’s take a look.

The First Element:  Your Opponent Doesn’t Fear You

When I say “fear,” I’m not suggesting you need to intimidate your opponent.  Rather I am referring to your ability to do two things.  Hit the ball deep and punish the short ball.  These both relate to the ability to put pressure on your opponent.  For example, if you are constantly giving weak balls to your opponent, they know they don’t have to be too risky with their shot selection due to the fact that no matter what they do, you will not be putting pressure on them to hit anything special.  Basically they feel in control of the point.  I have been on both sides of this situation.  When an opponent doesn’t pressure me I make sure to be patient with my shots and wait for the opportunity to hit into the open court before being aggressive.  The opposite situation is where my opponent is not feeling pressure from my regular shots so I find myself trying to go for more than I normally would to put pressure on my opponent.  As you can guess, that doesn't end well for me.

The other factor is the most important one to look at.  It relates to your ability to punish a short ball.  If you cannot take advantage of this, your opponent will feel that they have a lot of margin of error on their strokes.  On the other hand, if your opponent knows they will most likely lose the point if they hit it short, you will see a lot more unforced errors as they are constantly putting pressure on themselves to hitting the ball deep. 

The Second Element:  Getting Your Opponent Back Into Their Mind

It’s often called “playing out of your mind” when you play really well at something.  When players are asked about their recent spectacular performance, they just shrug and basically say they have no idea why they are playing so well.  This is because they are ignoring their inner voice that is often trying to take over during a tennis match.  Whenever you lose a point, that voice comes up to try and take over to analyze and criticize you in your playing.  Listening to this voice makes it near impossible to play well.  Your strokes that should be automated (not thinking about form) are now being analyzed by yourself.   This creates a situation where you try to fix issues in the mechanics of your swing AND try to win a match.  This is the art of choking.  When someone takes a critical look at the parts of their game that should be automated.  This leads to choppy swings and an inability to assess your opponent and come up with a strategy to win. 

Knowing this can allow you to try to get your opponent’s inner, critical voice to show up again.  Simply ask, “hey Sarah, you’re playing awfully well today, what gives?”  Usually your opponent will fall for this and start assessing their game to come up with a reason for this to happen.  When that happens, their automated strokes are now under the watchful eye of their critical, inner voice.  This often leads to them performing worse and giving you a shot at the match! 

The Big Picture

The main idea of this blog is to get you to think outside the box to assess your opponent more.  Are they tall and like high balls?  Slice!  Do they hate short balls?  Drop shot!  Thinking about your match as more of a chess match allows you to gain an upper hand on the strategy that is taken place during the match and gives you a leg up in giving you the best chances of winning!

Nature Vs. Man: Playing The Elements To Your Favor

I want to take a moment to give out a big THANK YOU for all of you that have subscribed to this blog.  I have enjoyed trying to come up with new topics to blog about that would give you an opportunity to improve your tennis game.  With Thanksgiving approaching, I find this a good time to show gratitude to you all and wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving!  Enjoy the blog! 

Introduction

We have all been there before.  The sun is in your eyes during a serve.  The wind howling to your back as you try to lob your opponent.  Or you’re playing a tough match during a hot day, leaving you drained before the first set is even over.  Weather can create havoc to your game....if you let it.  Knowing how to handles these conditions can allow you to have the right mindset and clarity to do your best in the least favorable of conditions.  Let's take a look at the different weather situations that you might encounter and how to handle them.  

Playing In The Sun

Here you are doing a beautiful job of setting up a point where all you have to do is hit an overhead smash to finish it.  And then you look up.  The sun’s glare in your eyes can be paralyzing, keeping you from reaping the rewards of finishing a point you worked so hard in setting up.  There are a few things to consider when having this situation.  I first look at the angle of the sun with my toss.  Do I need to adjust the toss so I’m not looking into the sun when serving?  Where is the sun moving throughout the match?  Are their clouds that can eventually block the sun out?  All of these questions help me prepare for playing with me facing the sun.  I also suggest warming up with the sun in your face so you can see what adjustments you need to make before the match rather than making adjustments on the fly.  Lastly, I suggest trying out sunglasses.  I used to be against this but after living in Colorado with the sun being so bright, the sunglasses are a staple for me during my lessons and even during matches.  The key is to get some comfortable and secure ones that you won’t notice them that much. 

Playing In The Wind

This is the biggest issue tennis players seem to face during matches.  Windy conditions seem to bring players to a more even playing field.  Often the player with the better strokes does not necessarily win, as strategy is more important than anything in these conditions.  In general, the wind can impact you differently depending on how hard you hit the ball.  Remember the slower the ball travels across the net, the more susceptible it is to being impacted by the wind.  If the wind is blowing across the court (sideways), it’s imperative to be aiming even more down the middle of the court.  Also know that you might be hitting your weaker shot more than you would like.  For example, if the wind is blowing to my left and I’m a righty, I won’t be able to run around and hit my forehand as much as I would like.  If the wind is blowing towards or away from the net, spin (or the lack thereof) is essential.  If the win is to your back, keep the ball from sailing long by hitting a lot of topspin.  Otherwise you risk the chance of hitting the ball long as the wind will take it longer than you want it to go.  If you have the wind to your face, flatten your strokes so that you can keep the ball deep.  The wind will keep the ball in the court so you don’t have to worry about hitting it long as much as with the wind to your back.  Also, hitting the ball flat will help you keep the ball deep, which is essential in your chances of winning. 

Playing In The Heat

Heat not only impacts you physically, it also impacts how the ball bounces.  The extra heat makes the ball have more air pressure, causing the ball to bounce off of your racquet at a higher rate, making it harder to control.  Combat this with a short backswing and possibly having a racquet strung with higher tension for more control.  The ball will also bounce higher off of the ground, making topspin king in this situation.  Use topspin serves and groundstrokes to get the ball to bounce high, leaving your opponent to do one of two things.  Either they have to take the ball on the rise (risky) or move back and let it come down a bit before they strike it.  Pushing your opponent past the baseline when they are hitting their groundstrokes keeps them from pressuring you and giving you ample time to react to their ball. 

Playing In The Cold

See this video on some tips on how to play in the cold!

 

Why And How To Serve And Volley

In Brad Gilbert's book, Winning Ugly, he mentions that the serve and volley player is the only type of player that there are no defenses for if they are playing well.  This should put things in perspective of how effective it can be.  It also is intimidating to do it so having a well versed education on the serve and volley will help.  Let's begin!  

Why It's Effective

With racquet technology making it easier than ever to hit a hard ball from the baseline, the game has transitioned to a baseline to baseline exchange for the majority of rallies.  We forget that the the racquet technology also gives more power on serves, allowing for weak returns to be put away into the open court via a volley.  This also is a great strategy to keep your opponent from getting to comfortable on the return of serve.  By mixing in serve and volleys, you are able to put more pressure on their returns and not allow them to just block the ball back.

When To Implement It

As mentioned before, using it as a surprise tactic can keep your opponent on guard.  You can also use it when you see a return pattern that you can exploit.  For example if your opponent chips the ball back on the backhand every time, you can come in and have a easy floater to take advantage of.  This will also make your opponent try to come over the ball on the return, prompting more return errors and free points for you.  Lastly, if you are getting tired during long points, this can help shorten points up and allow you to stay fresh on the court for a longer period of time.

Serve And Volley Training

One thing I do not recommend is to just start serving and volleying during your upcoming matches.  It takes some time to get this down.  In fact, don't expect this to be easy if you haven't tried it before!  Let's look at all the elements of a good server and volley.                   

The Serve:  I would highly recommend warming up your serve or even practicing it with the mindset that you are going to go to the net after the serve.  This means you should be taking a few steps into the court after your serve regardless if it goes in or not.  Often players will warm up their serve and then try to serve and volley but miss horribly.  This is because you have to toss the ball more in front of you and think about having poise with not rushing the serve but also get to the net quickly.  It's not easy so make sure you practice accordingly!                     

The Footwork:  Check out the clips below but you'll notice that the top players will never make it to the service box before they stop and adjust to the return.  This is because they must stop right before the return is hit so they can make the proper adjustments (forward, back, side to side) to hit the volley in a controlled body posture.  To pull off a great volley after a serve, you must use quick feet to make those adjustments mentioned above.  This requires you to be in good shape as you have to stay low (to change direction faster) and react quickly with your feet to the ball.  Try sprints, side to side suicides and jump roping.  Anything to get you to the net faster will give you a better chance of winning.                                                                     

The Volley:  This blog isn't going to talk about the technique of the volley but rather on the correct placement of the it.  For example, if your opponent hits the ball at your feet, do not hit it at an angle.  Keep it in front of you deep or short (drop volley) to allow you to cover most of the court.  In fact, do not hit crosscourt on your volley unless you have a high chance of hitting a winner or strong enough volley that your opponent has to be defensive.  If you do not do this, you will most likely leave the court open for an easy pass.  Try thinking of hitting drop volleys to pull your opponent in on your terms.  This makes them have to hit up on the ball and give you a great chance of winning the point.  Think of it this way:  how many times does a player practice running forward for a short ball when their opponent is at the net?  Very rarely.  The less reps they have had it gives you the upper hand in winning the point.                                 

The Overhead:  When you start getting good at this style of play, opponents are most likely left with trying to get you off the court by lobbing the ball.  This is their last ditch effort in trying to win the point.  Don't let them off the hook.  Make sure you practice the overhead as much as you volley.  It's going to be hard for you to keep your confidence up to continue serving and volleying if you're missing overheads.  

Common Mistakes

There are a few things to avoid when you are serving and volleying.  Here are a few.                     

Not moving towards the ball: a lot of players tell me that the faster balls are easier to handle as a volleyer rather than the slow ones.  This is the case because the player doesn't move forward.  Always look to move towards the ball.  It takes time to practice this.  This connects to your side to side movement as many players do not move forward as they go sideways to the ball (In a "V" direction).  Try this drill if you want to work on this: 

Lack of Anticipation:  Your opponent has only so many options when they are trying to give you a tough volley or get it by you.  Watch their body language.  Most often they give away that they are lobbing the ball or hitting down the line vs. cross court.  If you hit a weak volley, don't just stand their, guess or just move to the side where the open court is.  Most often you will guess right and will have a play on the ball.  This will also get your opponent to think about where you're going rather than focusing on the ball.  Consider the situation as well.  If you hit a strong ball to their weaker side they will most likely try to lob you.  Also, cross court is four feet longer than down the line so watch out for the lob to go in that direction.                                     

Shot Selection: There tends to be a common mistake for volleyers to just hit deep into the open court, which usually is cross court.  Remember, that leaves the down the line shot wide open for a pass.  Consider keeping the volley in front of you or if you do hit it cross court, hit it short.  As mentioned before, it will put your opponent in an awkward situation that they haven't practiced before (coming forward on a short ball while you're at the net).  This can be the same case for the serve, meaning consider hitting your serve at the weaker side of your opponent to get an easier volley to handle.  Also if your opponent is hurting you crosscourt on the returns, hit your serve down the middle, limiting the angles your opponent can have on the return.         

Mindset: A lot of times, players think the volley is for them to hit a winner.  Don't think like that.  Instead pressure your opponent into hitting high risk shots.  This is easier to do than to put pressure on yourself to hit the perfect volley.  Just think of it as if you were gambling.  Try to put yourself in a position that you will win over 50% of the points when you serve and volley.  This is a winning strategy and keeps the risk out of your play.  

Want to improve Your Movement?  

Want to work on your movement?  Check out the video below on my top 3 favorite exercises to help you move better on the court! 

The Small Things Matter

Find a successful tennis player and they often describe a long process rather than a sudden "epiphany" that was the reason for their success.  So it is no wonder that there are so few successful tennis players out there.  The obsession for instant fixes and promises of easy transformations plague the advertising industry.  It's hard to blame them for delivering false promises of easily acquired tennis skills.  If they would say that their method would be tedious, time consuming and does not guarantee success, they would probably be out of business.  Unfortunately, that is what it takes to keep improving your game.  So instead of getting into the habits that allow us to get to that point, let's dive into why it's so hard to keep these habits in the first place.  Then maybe we can see the obstacles to our improvement before they come into view.  We will then look at habits that you can acquire on and off the court to improve your game.

Don't Confuse Goals With Habits

James Clear recently wrote about how people often confuse goals with habits.  This often happens due to the fact that goals are a lot more fun to talk about than habits.  Who doesn't want to envision the end product of hard work rather than focusing on the hard work itself?  This fogs our view of what all the sacrifices are needed to achieve those goals.  Many of us got on the court dedicated to improving their game after seeing Federer do it in this past season.  The problem is that this goal cannot be reached without the necessary habits to get there.  So how can we focus on the little things that matter? 

Plant The Right Seed

BJ Fogg, a professor at Stanford and founder of "Tiny Habits," says; "If you plant the right seed in the right spot, it will grow without further coaxing."  The main idea is to incorporate habits into your game that can become effortless rather than resented and eventually neglected.  Let's take a look at a few ideas that will help you on and off the court.  

On The Court Habits

There is a reason why Nadal (See below) has his quirky routines.  It keeps him in the same mental state between every point which keeps him unfazed from what his opponent is doing and also gives him the best chance of playing the next point to the best of his ability.  Many recreational players miss this golden opportunity to improving their game.  The fact that anyone can set up habits for their matches makes this the "low hanging fruit" of increasing one's tennis performance.  Brad Gilbert touches on this in his book "Winning Ugly" by saying that too many players walk right up to the baseline to serve rather than going to the back fence and finding a moment of clarity before their next point.  It takes a lot of discipline at first but once you can establish your on court habits you will notice how much more focused you can become in your matches. 

Off The Court Habits Ultimate Filter

This is the route of all player's successes.  What are the things that a tennis player does on a daily basis gives them either the strengths or weaknesses that they will have on the court during their matches.  Instead of thinking about all the things that you need to do on a daily basis to be a good tennis player (or for that matter, a good husband, wife, coworker, etc), envision the player you want to become and use that as a reference guide for what decisions you should make.  For example, if you have a big match tomorrow, what are the things a winning player would do at that moment to prepare for that match?  Those constant questions can guide you to the right actions and make life a lot simpler to navigate through as you try to set a foundation of habits that will be your guide to a more improved version of you!

A Video To Check Out

Here's a video that is a simple yet effective drill to increasing racquet head speed on the forehand side.  Check it out!

Practice With Purpose

I thought I would share a blog I wrote a few months ago for a local tennis friend of mine.  I hope you enjoy it!  

How Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

According to the Department of Transportation, the average American drives 13,476 miles a year.    This should mean that people are getting better at driving as they get older correct?  The best way to look at if this is true is through the number of accidents based on age group.  Here is what the stats look like from the insurance company, AAA through 15 years of data.

As you can see, there isn’t much difference in driving ability once you get in your mid 30s.  So this begs the question, why are we not improving at a skill that we practice almost every day?  With all the cumulative practice, we should be professional drivers by the age of 40!  This isn’t just for driving either.  Many of us can relate to feelings of plateauing in our tennis game too.  If you are not improving at your game as much as you would like, this is the article for you! 

The Path of Least Resistance
It is within the chemistry of our brains that makes it easier to focus on the instant gratification rather than the satisfaction coming from dedicating a large chunk of time towards a long-term goal.  Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that communicates with neurons in your brain, is responsible for the drive towards instant gratification.  In fact, there are many addictions of drugs, food and money that are directly related to the dopamine released in your brain. 

Even without knowing the details of how brain chemistry works, you can see how this relates to practicing as an adult.  Most adults that I’ve seen on the court practicing will either hit balls from the baseline or play a practice match.  Although these practices can be beneficial, most of the time we turn into auto pilot while doing them, losing valuable opportunities in improving our game. 
Think of it like this; if you’re hitting baseline shots back and forth, you’re putting yourself in a situation that is comfortable and easy.  This is very similar to driving.  We don’t improve in our driving because we are doing the same actions over and over again without any concentration towards those actions.  If you are not focusing on certain elements of your game while hitting, you might as well stop hitting as there will be no opportunities for growth and a chance to improve your game.

Change the Environment to Change the Behavior

The best way to improve your practices is to change the types of drills you do.  This will instill a behavior conducive to learning.  For example, if you have trouble with hard balls to your backhand, have your hitting partner hit inside out forehands to your backhand.  If you struggle with volleys, play baseline points where any groundstroke your partner hits into the service box you need to come to the net on.  There are plenty of purposeful drills available for you to try but the main idea is to isolate the problem you have and set up a drill to work on it. 
 

Books To Read On Focused Practice 

If you are interested in learning more about the importance of focused practice and how it relates to other aspects of your life; check out the following books:

·      Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness

·      Bounce by Matthew Syed

·      Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

Here's A Tennis Player Working On Faster Racquet Head Speed.  Check It Out!

The Best Shot Vs. The Perfect Shot

I often see recreational tennis players looking for the technique that will give them the best looking shot.  They often describe this shot as fast, a few inches over the net and to the corners.  Their quest for this perfect shot leads them to a path of self destruction.  Now this is a point that many have heard over and over but I want to consider something a bit different.  Instead of describing the perfect shot in terms of where on the court it is hit, let's relate it to your opponent's strike zone and go from there.  Here's what I mean....

Let's Play Baseball

I loved baseball as a kid, especially the position of the pitcher.  It wasn't about the speed of the ball but rather the location that got the player out.  Think like a pitcher when playing tennis.  Start with the question of: "where do most players like to hit the ball?"  The common answer to this sounds something like: "between the knees and shoulders."  Just like baseball.  The ironic part of this is that the "perfect shot" in tennis tends to bounce right into a player's strike zone.  Maybe there's a better way...

Defining The Perfect Shot

So let's define the perfect shot as a shot that gets outside of the player's strike zone. That would mean you need to hit a ball that stays low (aka slice) or that bounces high (aka top spin).  If done consistently, your opponent would have a much more difficult time hitting a clean ball.  They would have to either hit the ball on the rise (high risk) or back up and hit the ball as it bounces down into their strike zone (less danger to you).  Either way you're in a good position!  

Creating The Perfect Shot

To hit a ball outside of someone's strike zone, one has to be more observant of what is going on with their opponent on the other side of the net.  Does your opponent like the ball low or high or neither?  The more you can see the struggles from you opponent on a low or high ball, the better you can exploit their weaknesses.  It's very similar to a baseball player.  For example, if I know my opponent hit's a lower percentage ball when I give them a slice, then I should be hitting a lot of slices!  Same for high balls in regards to top spin.  Keep an eye on where your opponent is hitting the ball and see if you can change this so that they are hitting more balls out of their strike zone, creating weaker balls for you to exploit.  

Have All The Shots In The Book

For you to be able to be a "pitcher" in tennis, you will need to be able to hit all the shots that will disrupt your opponent's rhythm.  This means you need to have the ability to hit a high top spin shot, a slice and a flat ball.  All of these shots will help you keep your opponent off of a rhythm and make it harder for them to execute their shots. 

Trouble Learning New Technique? 

Check out this video to help you understand what it takes to learn new technique, especially as you get older.  

Feel The Tension

Simplifying strategies in technique for tennis is difficult.  There are so many variables that can influence the quality of a tennis stroke that the effort of trying to simplify an explanation often has the opposite effect.  After recently watching a lot of adults and juniors play in one of my drills, I tried to find something that everyone could benefit from.  This posed a difficult challenge as there was a variety of ages and levels on the courts.  After watching for a good half hour I found a common theme that the players all could benefit from.  As far as the degree of help it would provide depended not only on the level but also the situation.   Let me explain.

Racquet head speed is essential for players to hit the ball hard in any stroke from the baseline, including the serve.  Without racquet head speed you are unable to create a shot that your opponent will be challenged to hit.  High racquet head speed, if done correctly, can also be a way to prevent injuries as well.  It all boils down to tension.  How much you have and when you have it.

Tension While Learning

When learning gets difficult, we tend to try harder, making our muscles tighten.  You can even see that in someone’s face when they are focusing hard on something.  This is exactly what I see when players are learning a new stroke or trying to improve an old one.  To combat this, try to isolate the stroke and limit the variables.  This will allow you to focus on one thing in your swing; relaxing.  To do this, have someone feed (or use the ball machine) to the stroke you are working on with a consistent rhythm and pace.  This will help you relax more and get you to focus on one thing rather than multiple elements that can occur when you are hitting with someone. 

Tension In Crisis

For the more experienced players, tension happens more in situations rather than the average stroke that they use during their matches.  For example, I have a hard time relaxing when someone hits it hard to my forehand.  The natural response of gripping tight deters my ability to consistently hit a deep ball back to my opponent.  The only way to conquer this is exposure.  They say that “time heals everything.”  That may not be true for all things but for this situation it definitely is.  Expose yourself to whatever bothers you.  Put your hitting partner (or again, use the ball machine) in situations to expose your weaknesses.  When you feel the tension happening, try to work on relaxing while striking the ball.  Do not worry about where you hit the ball but rather how relaxed you are when hitting it.  If you stick with it, you should start seeing more fluid and relaxed strokes. 

Use Your Sense Of Feel

To get rid of tension in your swing, or at least to understand it, there must be a degree of understanding that you have with your body.  Use your sense of feel to get a better understanding of where you feel tension the most.  As you experiment with this, you can then narrow your focus to specific strokes and/or situations to try to relax more during that stroke.  This will help relieve pressure on your tendons and produce a more fluid and reliable shot.  Repetition is the king of acquiring new skills.  There will be a learning curve when exposing your weaknesses but with consistent focus and practice, you will see a much better stroke for you to rely on in times of stress during your matches. 

Need More Help With This?

Try this video on creating a “C” swing in your groundstrokes that will help keep momentum going and allow a more relaxed swing to give you effortless power. 

Improve Your Court Positioning!

Often times I see recreational players with good solid strokes but unable to win matches. After watching them compete it is clear that it has nothing to do with their strokes but more about their position on the court and how it relates to where they hit the ball.   Let's look into some common mistakes to avoid. 

Sit Where You Hit

This is a classic mistake where players are more concerned about their stroke then competing. I see a player hit a ball and stand where they hit it to watch where it goes before reacting to the next shot. To combat this, practice hitting a ball and while watching it go across the net, move back to the middle of the court to be in position to hit the next shot. If you are already at the middle of the court, work on shuffling your feet as you prepare for the next shot.  This constant movement is essential to get to more balls and feel faster on the court. 

Lose To a Short Ball

Another mistake I see in court positioning is when a player hits a great shot against an opponent that creates a weak reply, giving the player a short ball.  The player either fails to hit the next shot as they are unprepared and they rush the shot or they give their opponent a weak ball that they can easily be beaten on.  This is a problem beyond missing the opportunity to capitalize on a weak ball. This also gives your opponent less pressure to hit deep balls.  They now feel that they can win on a weak ball, giving them a much easier time getting balls over the net.  Work on moving forward more often than usual to start creating pressure on your opponents.  You will start seeing a  dip in their game when they know that they cannot get away with hitting a short ball. 

No Defense

 f you see a professional tennis match it is quite obvious who is in control and who is on defense during a rally  just by looking at the court positioning of the players. The player on defense is many feet behind the baseline, giving them an opportunity to retrieve the next ball as their opponent is hitting hard and to corners of the court.  Try to see a strong shot coming from your opponent so that you are able to defend it better by backing up and allowing yourself more time to react to the ball.  This will give your more time to get to the ball and keep you in the point. 

Being Reactive Rather Than Proactive

There are some common places that a recreational tennis player will hit to in certain situations.  If you can guess correctly in the place where the ball is hit, you are able to be in position much faster and most likely have an open court to hit into. Due to technique that I will dive into and a video for the future, players will hit crosscourt on their short ball groundstrokes and high volleys.  See if your opponent does this often and then try to move to that spot on the court before they hit it.  Even if the player you are facing does not do this type of pattern, most players have a tendency to hit to certain parts of the court when facing specific shots (short, deep, left or right side of the court).  This also relates to the serve.  Not only will this get your opponent to question the direction of their shots but also make them hit balls to parts of the court they are not as comfortable doing. 

Watching Rather Than Moving

This applies mainly to doubles.  There is a strong urge to stop moving and watch as your partner is hitting a ball.  This mistake keeps you from being in the right position to hit the next shot.  For example, if you know your partner has a strong forehand and he or she is about to hit it, you need to be moving forward and towards the middle of the court to be ready for the weak reply.  This is the same for when your partner hits a lob.  There should be a quick reaction to where you need to go before your partner is striking the ball.  I recommend players to not only have signals for where your partner is going to go on your serve but also for the second serve return.  Let your partner know if you are going to lob, hit crosscourt or down the line.  This allows both players to be in the right position before the ball is hit.  This takes practice but it will make you faster on the court without improving your overall speed.  ‘

Know Your Role

In doubles, there are too many times players go for balls they have no business of going for. When you know your roles as a doubles team, the movement and court position becomes much easier.  The best rule I can give a doubles team regarding this is related to the two holes in tennis.  The first hole is down the line.  If the ball is in front of you on the other side of the net, your job is to cover the line.  If the ball is crosscourt of you on the other side of the net you have the middle of the court.  The sharp cross court angle is very difficult to hit into with any pace, allowing you to cover that too by moving there once the ball is hit.  This shot is difficult and rarely hit at so ensure the middle is your main priority when you are in this crosscourt position.  This is hard at first as the person at the net with the ball in front of them wants to jump and take the middle but this is something that should only happen if the ball is a “sitter” that can be put away.  Practice this by having someone hit groundstrokes on the deuce or crosscourt side with you and your partner at the net.  If you are in front of the baseline player, let the ball go by if it’s going down the middle.  This takes some trust for your partner to be able to hit that ball but once you have that trust, your court positioning will be much stronger and allow you to win more matches.

Conclusion:  Think! 

I remember subbing in for a 3.5 men’s doubles match and after the first set the guys were saying how fast I was.  Although I wouldn’t call myself slow, I’m definitely not known for my speed.  The reason they said this is I anticipated the next shot and focused on my court positioning rather than my strokes.  This allows me to move and be in position ore often than not which gives me more options for what type of shot I will hit and where I will hit it.  Start thinking about your positioning and watch your speed increase too!

How Sociology Can Help Your Tennis Game

My favorite books to read often relate to human behavior and interactions with our environment.  Books like “Social Animal,”  “Your Are Now Less Dumb” and “Bounce” all have great components to how we think and react to situations.  I recently read a blog by James Clear that depicts some great info on some behaviors we often do that can keep us from improving our mental state and outlook in situations.  I found some similarities in tennis that I would like to share.  I hope they are useful for you.  Enjoy! 

Survivorship Bias

This is one of the most common means of bias we see as recreational players trying to improve our tennis game.  We see a professional player or instructor give advice about training and never think about how many other people that did that same training but fail.  I often warn players that are using some sort of diet or exercise regimen they got from a high level player that the player might have gotten to that level despite their training, not because of it. 

Although this can be inspiring to think there is a magic bullet out there that can get you to the next level, consider thinking of being more critical with your praise towards someone’s methods of accomplishments.  Experiment and see what works for you.  Consider finding patterns in training that multiple players share to ensure you are using the right methods for your own improvements.

Loss Aversion

This way of thinking is probably the biggest obstacle to improving ones tennis game.  Loss Aversion in tennis relates to avoiding things in practice that you’re uncomfortable with.  This happens because we are much more comfortable with the feeling of gaining something rather than losing something.  For example, research has shown that someone who gets $10 does not feel as much of a high from gaining that money compared to the low feeling when losing $10.  Although the amount is the same the mentality is not.  This keeps us from wanting to improve our game since it will mean we will be losing points and even matches for awhile until we get good at the changes that will overall improve our game.

Avoid this tendency by finding hitting partners that are willing to train for the long term.  This means you may want to avoid the players that only play matches or hit for fun.  Find the ones willing to think outside of the box and train with a purpose to expose potential weaknesses for the future improvement you will get from it.  

The Availability Heuristic

This refers to the focusing on the examples that are easy to notice that will help solidify your stand on something.  This relates to tennis when players will be selective with what they notice in a match to confirm their bias.  For example, I was running an adult drill recently and it involved the players to move forward on one side with the feed going to their opponents on the other side at the baseline.  The player coming to the net refused to do it after getting lobbed once.  She claimed that happened all the time and after four more points that were played, she pointed out again that it happened.  She didn’t mention the four points between the two lobs that would have given her a great position to hit a winning volley.   Not only does this happen in match play situations but also with our own self-criticism.  I’ve seen it too many times when a player will self implode as they focus their attention on any bad shots they are hitting.  They will literally wait until a point ends on their mistake to then criticize themselves on a poor performance. 

Tennis isn’t won by being perfect.  The ability to see the big picture in a match can help keep a positive outlook and mindset that can help with your chances of winning.   

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is similar to the previous flawed mindset in that they both look for confirmation on what they saw previously without being critical about it.  In a tennis scenario, confirmation bias refers to a player seeing a pattern and ignores anything but the examples that confirm that pattern.  A great example of this happened two years ago during regionals. My #1 girls high school doubles team was playing regionals.  As their coach we were talking after the first three games to see what was going on as they were down 0-3.  They immediately told me they were getting beat down the line and that is why they were losing.  I was watching the match from a distance and I counted two times out of three games that this happened.  Once we think a pattern is occurring it is hard to notice anything BUT the points that prove that pattern which keeps you away from seeing anything else that is going on in the match that could be useful for strategy purposes.

Try to have an open mind to what is going on throughout the match so you can see anything that might help benefit you.  A great example is in Brad Gilbert’s book, “Winning Ugly.”  He mentioned that an opponent he was playing was crushing him but noticed in the middle of the match that the guy didn’t hit very strong approach shots that allowed him to beat his opponent when the guy came to the net.  Brad intentionally led the player to the net to do this and ended up winning the match.  He didn’t let the other possible patterns impact his outlook on the match to find a weakness he could exploit.

Be A Better Thinker

All of these examples help show how we can be pretty irrational thinkers, especially as tennis players.  Overcome this by first being aware of it and then having an open mind to think “outside of the box.”  You may surprise yourself with what you can notice and change during a match to help swing the outcome your way!

Want to see how the pros turn during a match?  Check out this video and help unleash some potential power you have in your groundstrokes!