July 21, 2016
I recently had a discussion with a 4.0 tennis player trying to improve his game but was frustrated with what his team has been doing. He mentioned that the players on the team all want to play matches to prep for their upcoming adult team matches. This may sound like a logical thing to do but it depends on what you're striving for.
Getting Match Ready vs. Improvement
When the pros are about to play a match in a tournament, they will make sure they are "match ready" by playing out points in different situations or playing matches against players with similar styles of play that their upcoming opponent will have. This is to prepare them for their match. They are not trying to work on improving a certain stroke. Their main focus is to have a lot of confidence that they will do well in their match. This mindset makes sense but is a far cry to what got them there in the first place. The level they reached was not based on them getting "match ready" but rather taking their lumps now during practices and tournaments early in their career to get better. That was their main focus. The ironic thing is that recreational players tend to skip the practice or they will play matches that their main focus is to win. How can you improve your game when all you're doing is staying in your comfort zone to win? There is a great article written on Dominic Thiem (Top 10 player in the world) on the idea of getting worse before getting better. The next time you play a match, I challenge you to not worry about the score but work on something that you believe will make you better in the future but not at that moment. It takes a lot of confidence in yourself to be ok with losing for future gains!
My View on the Difference Between a 3.0 vs. a 4.5+
Ignoring the stroke mechanics, footwork and strategy; there is something less obvious about comparing a 3.0 player and a 4.5 or even a 5.0 player. That is how they view practice vs. matches. The graph below tells the story but basically a lower level player will use a match as their way of practicing, which puts them in a "must win" mentality which takes away their opportunities to improve. The higher level players practice much more to work on their weaknesses or improving their strengths to get that much better during upcoming matches. Matches are for performance and practices are for learning. The next time you set up your weekly matches, consider adding more practice into your schedule and watch how you improve.