May 24, 2017
It happens more than we like to admit; coming into a match with high expectations of playing well and finding ourselves in a constant battle of tying to just keep the ball in play. What happened? How could we go from playing so well during our hitting sessions and so poorly during our matches. Let's take a look.
Setting Ourselves Up For Failure
Think of a car. The higher the gear, the faster the speed. Your game has gears too. Think about the gear that allows you to play your best. I bet it's not the highest gear but rather a gear or two below that! You need to connect your strokes (serve, rally ball, return of serve, volley, etc) with the gear that allows you to play with less risk. My last blog showed that even professionals do not hit balls close to the lines unless they are forced to go for it. They know that this strategy gives very little reward for how much risk you have to do.
The other reason professionals do not go for the lines at the baseline is that they know that at the baseline, their job is not to lose rather than to win. This is because the player at the baseline must hit up on the ball for the ball to go over the net (regardless of what type of ball you are hitting except the serve). When you hit up on the ball, you cannot be aggressive so the only way to play successfully at the baseline is to hit the ball away from the lines and keep it deep so your opponent will have to do the same. Then it becomes a short ball drill where the player who hits the short ball first will now be on the defensive as the court opens up for the other player to hit the ball harder and closer to the lines. Having this mindset will help you stay calm at the baseline and realize that you just need to keep the ball deep and hope your opponent thinks they need to win at the baseline and hit risky shots which will ultimately become errors in your favor.
During practice, have someone serve at you so you can return the ball at them. Before you swing to make a return of your partner's serve, say "out." Feel what happens during your swing. Did you suddenly relax and hit a good ball? This happens all the time during matches for many players. They often laugh at how great of a return they hit when the serve was out. This is because we are playing without expectations or internal criticism. By calling the ball out, you have now entered a state of mind where you are playing for the right reason; enjoyment. This also naturally loosens your grip and muscles to have a nice, fluid swing. Try this out during your matches but just don't call the serves out when they are actually in :)
Best Words of Advice: Don't Try So Hard
The most common mistake we make during matches is playing too hard. I learned this before a league match that I was about to play with very little preparation. I didn't get to hit a ball all week. During warmup I decided that I would just "get the ball in" since that is probably all that I could do anyways. That meant all my first serves were hit with spin and more like my second serves. I sliced my returns in to give me more opportunities to get the ball in play. I aimed for the center of the court during ground strokes and was conservative with my volleys as well. The result? I won 6-2, 6-0. It wasn't even close. I realized then that my effort has impeded my ability to play well. My past self misinterpreted what was needed to be successful on the court. A perfect ball is not necessary to win a point but rather a ball that you hit and will be surprised if you miss. I told this to a student of mine and he said it changed his whole life on the court. He realized that a normally struck ball that he hits is good enough for him where his opponent can't hurt him so why go for more? He started playing looser and with less stress as he knew that he didn't have to hit a perfect ball for him to play well.
Less Ego and The Art Of Competition
So the first step towards enjoying your matches more is having a realistic view of what you can and cannot do. If you're missing a lot during a match, chances are that you are trying to hit shots that are above your ability. Take something off your shots and accept that if you want to hit the ball harder during matches, you will need to do more practice outside of match time. In the moment of competition, you have to use what you have not what you would like to have. For example, maybe your serve that you can hit at 100+ mph needs to be used in practice and not your matches if you can get it in only 20% of the time.
Also, remembering what competition is all about will help you have the right mind set. Competition means to strive with your opponent, not against. So your job is to play well so your opponent has the opportunity to play well too! During the state tournament after a girl on my team lost, her opponent shook her hand and said, "that was fun!" Exactly. This is not a test of your identity rather a way to enjoy striving towards your best with someone. In your next match, try to have that mindset and see how much it changes your game!