and Everthing Else
by Ed Collins/2016
OK, let’s create a pie chart for your tennis. Your wheels are spinning and you need an improvement plan.
First, split the graph in two. Designate one side for technique, the other side for everything else. On the technique side, create slices for grips, footwork and balance, groundstrokes and volleys, overhead, and serve. On the everything else-side, create slices for motivation, practice, concentration, patience, competition, tactics, resolve and problem-solving, anticipation, decision-making, common sense, courage and humility. Oh, and make a big slice for confidence.
This article is about the everything else half.
What you’re up against, I believe, is not a lack of ambition but a lack of direction. You need more theory, you need to understand more, to practice smarter, to play more thoughtfully, with an eye on your future development. You must know how to get from here to there.
Start by understanding that the 3 Ss––strokes, shots and strategy––improve when your mind is engaged. The hurdle is human nature’s default mechanism, laziness, which results in practicing and playing by rote, only vaguely aware of what you’re doing, all the while making errors. I’m convinced that your computer-like brain records the result of every shot you hit––so best practice making shots, not missing them.
I feel that by trying to hit the ball hard you have slowed your development. And at your level it’s nearly impossible to hit the ball hard and control it.
You learn something about tennis when you aim at something. Here are examples of what I mean: When teaching the novice player, I challenge him to just make a total of 10 forehands, in the court; the intermediate tries to make 5 deep crosscourt backhands (but he loses a point w/an error––ooh, the pressure); and the advanced player is challenged to make 5 wide slice serves (in a row!).
By making shots, not only do you solidify technique, you strengthen your nervous system.
Strokes and shot-making improve just by mentally drawing a line to the target, then (deliberately) making the racquet face follow that line. In doing so, your head and body assist you by staying still, balanced, quiet. (Bend your knees and imagine holding a glass of water in your left hand while you play.) It’s an endless search for that feeling that comes when you’ve done it correctly; it starts in your hands, then goes right up to your brain. It’s so pleasurable.
Practice makes perfect, but not any kind of practice. Nothing, I find, is more beneficial than playing mini-tennis. Put it this way: When you can control the ball within the forecourt––hitting so softly that you can almost see the racquet strike the ball––you demonstrate true, working knowledge of the strokes.
Another suggestion is to spend time watching better tennis. By focusing on one player, subtle lessons are revealed, lessons such as how to anticipate, how to modify strokes, put the right arc on lobs, disguise drops shots, stuff like that.
The objective is to put the ball where you want; the wall provides the practice. When you err, it speaks: It can’t tell you that you made contact too late, or too close to your body, it just doesn’t send the ball back to you. By counting your consecutive hits, it quantifies your success. And like a good teacher, it lets you figure out things for yourself.
The ball has a mind of its own––it wants to go right back to the opponent, where it came from. And it also wants to find the net, or land short, near the service line. By not imposing your will over it, you play predictably and ineffectively. The not-so-secret(s) to success: (1) Practice making your groundstrokes land beyond the service line (rising as they clear the net), and (2) Make your volleys bounce annoyingly low (with underspin).
Your goal to play better doubles requires that you improve at midcourt, where it takes special set of technical skills, along with the concentration to anticipate and respond to what’s coming. (There are visual clues!) In time you’ll get good at recognizing, and executing, volleys, half-volleys, chips and drives. Time will slow down for you.
Besides winning, the best source of confidence is knowing that you can do something that you once couldn’t. You’re wise to pick one stroke, one shot or one playing situation, then focus on it long enough to see improvement.
Some sort of internal mechanism enables quick decision-making: crosscourt or down-the-line; slice or topspin; lob or pass; volley or half-volley; attack or defend; come in or stay back; on the descent or on the rise. It’s as though tennis exists in a part of the brain that needs exercise by competing.
Tennis is similar to chess in that it requires concentration on the shot at hand, and the one that likely follows. Or, as Robin Williams once said, “Tennis is like chess at 90 miles an hour.”
Shots typically come in combinations. The simplest one is forehand followed by forehand volley (fundamental is a grip change). A few others are volley and lob retrieval; serve and volley (Slow down!); return and pass; lob and come in; serve and attack short return; drive and drop shot.
Do yourself a lifelong favor by broadening your definition of winning. Obsessing over the outcome of the match, to the point that the only shots you attempt are the ones that enable you to beat the players you already can beat, will prevent you making continued improvement. My suggestion is that you ponder a famous quote on the subject: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
Patience and consistency are required to get to the end of the point, where the fun is. Think of it: Once you get the point started (by making serves and returns), then play with a margin-for-error (as if you’re gambling––with the odds in your favor), eventually you arrive at the point’s conclusion, where the action is. I’m referring to the thrill of making putaways and passing shots. You’ll stress less about the score, who wins/who loses, by just trying to play dramatic points.
With consistency comes pressure, which must be embraced. Choking is a real and persistent part of the game; it’s managed through humility, knowledge and, of course, practice.
A tennis formula is what you need––one that guides you, tells you what to do when, so you don’t have so many decisions to make. The formula should be based on common principles of percentage tennis––but, as I’ve mentioned previously, you musn’t be afraid of taking the momentary trip out of your comfort zone. Take soft short angles, or drop volleys, for example; when others hit ‘em, you’re so impressed––but you always choose the safe route, (over)-hitting the ball right down the center. Evidently you’ve convinced yourself that the loss of the point will result in the loss of a game (set and match). In the event that you do lose, the loss will be softened when you make the shot/tactic you’ve been working on.
My last piece of advice on the subject(s) of everything else is this: Play well or play poorly, but play with integrity. In other words, don’t quit before you lose. As you’d want for yourself, give it your best so your opponent can enjoy beating you. •