on the subjects of teaching concentration, shot
development, game playing and the like
by Ed Collins
When Graham reached into the ball basket and came up empty I had had enough.
Picture this: I was trying to teach the six-year-old the simple task of drop-hitting the ball.
I demonstrated, I took him by the hand, I led him though it, I explained, repeated, walked, talked, tossed and hoped. Still, he wouldn’t or couldn’t pull it off.
Usually it was the toss that was wildly off course, but occasionally when the toss was within reach, the strings wouldn’t find the ball.
“Try again,” I said, over and over, holding out hope that, if not by skill, then sheer luck would get the job done.
I stood in front of him and demonstrated once more. “Toss…bounce…and hit.” I repeated, trying to key into what I hoped was his sense of timing.
It was when we were down to the last few balls in the basket that I watched Graham stick his hand in the basket and come up without a ball. I couldn’t believe it: His fingers had missed the dozen or so balls.
“Graham!” I said, in a raised voice that startled him. “How can you miss the balls when they’re just sitting there?!”
I had reached into the basket and put my hand over his. I couldn’t stand it anymore. His failure was my failure. Graham’s eyes got big as he looked up at me. He had never heard me raise my voice nor speak to him sharply. For a split second I questioned if I had gone too far—that he would burst into tears and run to his mother’s arms. At that moment I realized that my pa-tience had been exhausted, so I drew a deep breath before speaking again. For a long moment we looked at one another, him waiting to hear what would come next, me planning what I would do next.
“From now on,” I began slowly, “each time you take a ball from the basket, you must not touch another; if you do, put it back and try again.”
I could see immediately that he could take it, that he had had to take it, that he was used to hearing voices laced with frustration when it came to his physical edu-cation.
Graham slowly reached into the basket, and, with two fingers, carefully lifted a ball, then turned, dropped it in front of his left foot, and tapped it across the net.
Immediately he turned to see my reaction.
“Do it again,” I said, trying not to show any sign of surprise or satisfaction.
And he did.
He did it over and over again, until the basket was emptied.
I squatted down so I could get eye-to-eye with the six-year-old. “See Graham, you can do this. All you have to do is go slowly and think about what you’re doing.”
In subsequent days I’ve recounted Graham’s story several times, and in doing so it’s prompted me to think about how one learns, and the role of the teacher/coach.
It’s so true that only a precious few are driven to success; the rest of us subscribe to the philosophy that good is good enough. So as to not be disappointed, I suppose, we set personal standards that are easily met. Performance is so much about concentration and the good habits (and confidence) that follow. In tennis the eventual winner is usually not the flashy shotmaker, but the one who makes a first serve at 5-4, 30-15, or a second serve return when down game point––it’s the player who, with his consistency and/or accuracy,
relentlessly applies pressure on his opponent.
To think for oneself
Over the years my teaching methodology has evolved in numerous ways. I notice these days is that I offer less feedback, I ask more questions, I provide fewer an-swers, I even give fewer compliments.
I’ve come to believe that the less said, the more the student is challenged to think and problem-solve. When the student routinely makes the same error, or when he can’t describe technique or explain a tactic, or when his groundstrokes seldomly pass midcourt, I know that he is not totally engaged.
My objective is to make him thoughtful and ac-countable. He needs to know the why and how of things, but most importantly, he needs to know that the final proof is in his execution. It is, of course, all about winning (and gaining confidence).
“Show me what it’s supposed to look like….Explain to me what we’re learning here….I’ll give you four chances/balls to figure it for yourself….Good. Now how did you do it?”
Learning is more likely to be permanent when it comes with a struggle.
He plays not so much to please others, but himself.
Not before, after
The beginner learns technique by following the teacher’s directions: “This is how you do it….Now you do it.” Besides motivational theory, in the early stages there’s a lot of listen and learn, watch and imitate.
Once he possesses a few fundamentals, I stand at the T and play a game of keep-away. The student wins when he hits the ball beyond my reach (around or over), and may lose when I can reach it. Soon he begins to develop two of the requisites of tennis success: ball control and spatial awareness.
Later on I feed balls, and, afterwards, describe the shot that he either executed or attempted. Dialogue may sound like this: “Topspin forehand crosscourt drive….Soft underspin backhand crosscourt….Flat forehand lob over the backhand....Forehand drive down the line––with no margin for error/shape/spin….Drop shot….Forehand passing shot down the line….
By describing the shots after the fact, the student is required to think, plan and execute.
At the most beginning level of play, the student is taught that tennis is physical, as in technique, and mental, as in concentration, tactical planning, execution and confidence. On his first lesson, played within the service box, the student may be expected to (simultaneously) carry out the following: (1) Hold the racquet with the proper grip; (2) make contact with the ball away from and in front of the body (not a whole stroke, just a tap); (3) balance the body’s weight on the balls of the feet (hand-eye coordination and ball-striking skills begin with balance); and (4) return to the correct ready position after each shot (it’s a matter of relaxing the hand, and learning to change grips). A match is played where the student wins points by making 4 technically well-produced shots within the service box (he loses a point when he doesn’t).
Spin and accuracy
When the student can effect spins, I feed balls and sup-ply feedback. When the ball goes in, with (appropriate) spin, I say “Point.” When it doesn’t I say nothing. As he progresses to higher levels, he makes points when his shots are struck well, shaped properly, and accurately placed. A topspin forehand drive down-the-line doesn’t elicit a point unless the ball is hit on a rising line (think line-drive single), landing in the backcourt. A backhand chip crosscourt doesn’t receive a point if the ball floats. And the drop shot only works when it is shaped properly and bounces at least twice before the service line.
I know my teaching is going well when I don’t have to say much. After all, the essence of the sport is that you play by and for yourself––that you solve problems of your and your opponent’s doing. It’s a body/brain/ spirit thing where the idea is to stay positive, alert and responsive, calm and loose, resolute and adaptable.
You win, you lose
Repetition has a place in the process, but the tendency is for it to become thoughtless and unproductive, or worse, counter-productive (solidifing poor technique, grooving predictable shotmaking and erratic tactics). Call it lax or lazy, the brain tends to go into some kind of sleep mode. The goal is to be calculating and manipulative, executing a game that is based on high percentage shots hit with just enough variety that anticipation is foiled. Besides technique, this requires an engaged brain and some game-playing skills.
One method of developing these skills is to feed balls and give feedback; I call it the You win-you lose game. The student responds to feeds with his choice of shots; when the student misses, or makes an ineffective shot, my response is immediate: “You lose.”
When he plays a forehand crosscourt approach, that lands short, I say “You lose.” A confused look elicits an explanation: “Not deep enough, not effective.” When he loops a ball deep, steps up and successfully flattens out the following short ball: “You win.” When he combines four shots that pass the service line: “You win.”
Observe results, make adjustments
To get good involves a lot of work of a particular type.
Many people learn quickly at first, then more slowly, and then stop developing completely. Some improve for years; a few go on to be great (by that I mean they realize their potential, whatever it is).
It’s nice to believe that if you find the field where you’re naturally gifted, you’ll be great from day one, but that almost never happens. A high level of performance comes only with experience and practice.
It is practice that makes perfect. But not any kind of practice. For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls does not guarantee improvement. But, hitting a hundred wide slice serves that land within 5 feet of the sideline 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing it a few times per week, does guarantee improvement. (If there’s a secret, it’s sustained effort.)
Can you toss and catch it?
To explain the concept of purposeful practice, I ask the beginning student to put the racquet down and simply practice catching the ball. I explain the technique, then demonstrate, then I explain it again, then demonstrate it once more. Few, however, get it right. So I break it down. Toss: (1) with ball in the fingers, hand follows the release point. Catch: (1) hand descends with the ball; it’s a coordinated––soft––catch. Eyes: follow the ball up, momentarily stare at it when it falls into the hand. Tips: take your time, do it right, do it over and over again.
Now jog around the court, practicing your soft catches. Go quietly, so your feet don’t make any noise.
Focusing on the point’s first two shots
The boys play a game where points consist only of the serve and return. When the return passes the service line, and his hit on a line, the receiver wins the point; otherwise, the server wins.
it bounce higher and lower
To compete at higher levels shots must carry some weight––topspin needs to bound forward, slice needs to stay low. To draw the student’s attention to the effect of his topspin groundies, we measure the distance of the first bounce: reaching the fence is the goal. The underspin objective is to make the ball bounce twice inside the baseline.
“The first four are easy; it’s the fifth one that’s hard.”
That insight came at practice today from one of our lower-positioned freshmen players. He was doing a drill I call Make Five. In this case he and a partner were taking turns attempting to make five consecutive wide serves on the ad court land within 4 feet of the sideline. (When he can routinely make that fifth ball he’ll begin to work his way up the ladder.)
In tennis it’s all about finishing: winning the 30-love point, holding serve at 4-1, putting away the sitter. In the court, somewhere
The following feeding drill helps students focus on groundstroke accuracy. Two sets of two cones are placed 6 feet apart in no-man’s land. From the baseline, the instructor feeds random balls to 2/3 students who alternately attempt to make 7 points. Two points are scored when ball lands between one set of cones (crosscourt or down-the-line); 1 point if the ball lands behind service line; no points if it lands short of the service line. The player attempts to make seven points before missing, in which case he’s out. If the player makes 7 points in first 4 shots, the on-deck player runs a lap around the court (and player A gets another chance). Make a smart mistake, replay the point
To learn strategy we play points where I distinguish between what I call smart and dumb mistakes. Smart mistakes result in the point being replayed, dumb mis-takes count. Examples: If the student strings together a few good shots but misses the short ball, I’ll call that a smart mistake, in that he worked the point to get the shot; but if he hits a ball wide from well behind the baseline, I’ll call that a dumb mistake.
To see how their tennis brains are developing, today I had two promising 10-and-unders play what I call Mid-court Softball.
A two-on-one game (I’m the partner), played from no-man’s land, there are three rules: (1) the ball must be hit softly (but it can be spun); (2) players are allowed only one step inside the service line; and (3) no steps are allowed behind the baseline. (It’s good practice for volleying, half-volleying, taking the ball early in the bounce.)
The boys quickly figured out that the drop shot was a good tactic; neither, however, hit any deep drives into a corner. Later, after I hit consecutive winners, softly, deep and with topspin, I stopped the game and made a point of it. One of my next soft drives was returned with a floater which my partner intercepted at the service line, hitting an angled volley winner. “Now we’re getting the idea,” I said.
More effective shot-making
We play a game within the service box where, as the defending baseliner, I can’t step across the service line. This gets the student to do two things: (1) see the length of the court, and (2), by relaxing his grip, feel the soft volley. The follow-up game is played on the full court (still half-court). (Consider yourself a groundstroking master when you can control the ball within the forecourt, hitting softly. By playing mini tennis, you develop court sense, balance, relaxation, fluidity, feel and timing, among other things.)
Can you try to hit the ball long?
You try to hit the ball deep; you don’t avoid hitting it short. That distinction became clear to Kevin today when I placed a line of cones in no-man’s land, then challenged him to hit ten balls beyond it. For each suc-cessful shot he received a point; he lost a point when his shot landed short of the line, or wide (long mistakes are forgiven).
A physically talented junior, Kevin started well, but when he couldn’t pass five, he mumbled something about how it should be so easy. “You’re start trying not to hit short,” I said. “It’s a simple matter of trying to hit the ball deep, of hitting the ball beyond the line, through the baseline, actually.”
The heart of the issue with Kevin, and many others who struggle to achieve, is that he has yet to learn that in tennis there’s a unique pressure to accept total re-sponsibility for one’s performance. His talent has actu-ally confused him––some lessons have come so easily that he doesn’t practice well enough to gain the neces-sary confidence to regularly call on them during (meaningful) points in his matches. Eventually, I expect, he’ll appreciate how much more concentration and effort is necessary to know something thoroughly.
(Tennis is impossible to master. When you see it as a challenge, all experience is good.)
Special rules teach these lessons
For example: (1) Unforced errors on the game’s first point are worth two points (making score 30-love). (2) Untouched winners are worth two points (a consolation in just getting your racquet on the ball, which, of course, promotes better court coverage). (3) Drop shot winners and points won at the net are worth two (encouraging players to take calculated chances). (4) You can only win the point on the first serve (second serve points won are replayed).
From offense to defense
In anticipation, the student stands a few feet behind the service line, and on each ball chooses between ground-stroke, volley, half-volley, smash or chase down a lob. Feeding or rallying, it’s the simplest drill, challenging him to pay attention, respond and execute. (You don’t want to develop a student who can rally but can’t play, or one who can serve but can’t volley, or who can at-tack but can’t defend….)
We call it ‘structuring’ the point
The following game was born out of frustration at watching a few talented guys on one year’s team waste so much of their time over-hitting in practice and under-hitting in matches. It’s an exercise that promotes the playing of sensible tennis: Points are scored only when a player makes a combination of shots (either by forcing an error or hitting an outright winner); otherwise, mistakes, and winners don’t count. (Players alternate arbitrating.)
Play too offensively and one risks critical errors; play too defensively and one can only win on the other guy’s mistakes. A compromise leads to better tactics, fewer mistakes and, needless to say, more wins.
Bend it like Beckham
After setting a ball basket at the deuce court service line, six feet from the sideline, I direct Axel to make his forehand rise above it, and make his backhand hit it. These are the two shots that the 13-year-old is focused on these day––a high-bouncing crosscourt forehand and a flat down-the-line backhand.
There are three elements to any effective shot: shape, spin and placement. It’s hard to space out when you understand precisely what you’re trying to do.
Learning from a loss
A lesson is in order when a student writes off a loss by saying “the opponent was just too good.”
To provide Lindsay insight I suggested we play points where I stand in no-man’s land and not run after the ball. As I expected, most of her shots were shallow and not well placed, which allowed me to control the ball.
“Never give your opponent so much credit,” I ex-plained. “You lost because your shots were ineffective against a better player. Improve your shot-making and she won’t hit so many lines.”
A matter of making, not missing, shots
“I’ll give you a quarter for every overhead you hit within the ad-court service box, if you’ll give me a quarter for every ball you hit outside the entire court.”
Finally Zach begins to concentrate.
When the ball goes in he gains confidence, when it goes out he doesn’t. In the process he learns two impor-tant lessons: (1) It’s difficult to hit the ball excessively hard and find the target, and (2) developing strong shots must be done within the framework of the stroke.
You are getting better
Among the teacher’s goals: (1) Establish trust: The student must not only believe that you know what’s best for him, but he must believe that you’re giving him an honest appraisal of his effort and performance. Then he’ll feel good when you say “You’re getting better.” (2) Plan lessons: Knowing what to teach when is a big deal. You want to challenge the student but you don’t want him to fail too often. (3) Orchestrate success: Place student in situations where he can succeed. Regularly over-match a player and he’ll forget what he knows. (Confidence is the player’s lifeblood.) (4) Sustain focus/effort: We’re all a bit scatterbrain. Stick to one subject until progress is made; the accompanying feeling of confidence will enable the student to learn an-other lesson, and so on. •