Recent studies have suggested we spent just under 50% of our waking lives on autopilot. The rest of the time we are problem solving. Does your coaching reflect life?
A tennis match involves so much problem solving from start to finish and our goal is to help players be able to solve a large chunk of them on autopilot. The rest of the time they will have to be consciously solving challenges that are staring them in the face. That’s right, every solution to every problem you face on the court is staring you right in the face. The biggest issue is most players play the majority of the match in a tiny bubble inside their brain. We need to find ways of our players seeing what is happening on the other side of the net.
Let’s list the problems our players face once they step on the court.
Coin toss (racket spin) – 4 choices – they serve, opponent serves, choose ends, give all choices to opponent. Even this one choice can involve a number of factors; sun, wind, confidence on serve and mind games with opponent.
Serving – Figuring out what serves your opponent hates versus loves returning is something most players don’t really consider. They have their favourite serves and it doesn’t matter who is the opponent they will continue to serve their favourite serve. Do you prepare your players to understand the effect of their serves?
Serve patterns – Understanding percentage tennis is critical if our players are to increase the percentage of autopilot time on the court. There are high percentage returns for each serve and understanding these will help players plan ahead in each point. I will highlight these main percentage options in a separate article soon. Do your players understand the main percentage options for each situation they find themselves in?
Momentum after ball 3 – It is very common to see players reposition to the same position after any serve regardless of how effective the serve has been. A lot of work is spent on lateral recovery but I don’t see as much emphasis being put on depth recovery. I do believe the awful surfaces we have in the UK can be a factor. Artificial grass and indoor carpet are awful surfaces to learn point construction. Do your players alter their position after serve depending on the impact of the serve and return?
Now we can simply reverse all of the above for when your players are returning serve.
Returning – It is often thought the best players raise their game at the end of set and break regularly to serve it out. I believe the reality is the best players are learning the patterns of the opponent with each service game. This results in them being able to make more returns nearer the end of the set. Then if you add the amount of information the top players can gain, you can see why they return amazing serves under pressure. Do your players study the patterns of their opponents serve on the deuce and advantage courts?
Serve patterns – Every server will have preferences as to what they do on ball 3. I am surprised with how many servers will serve wide on the deuce court, the returner will hit back up the middle and the server will go back to the deuce court. Normally this is due to the server picking the most natural shot back to where the ball has come from. Do your players read the set up and timing of the server on ball 3 and remember their preferences?
Momentum after ball 3 – As with the depth repositioning after serve, I will often see players recovery to the baseline when they have played a defensive return. It is vital a return player understands the effect of their return and positions themselves in the appropriate up/back position as well as the lateral position.
After ball 4 – The holy grail for our players is they play on autopilot for the majority of the point. However, this takes years of practice and, in my opinion, this practice has to simulate the game. Conditioning points so your players can start from a problem solving situation straight away is vital.
Example – Put your player in the appropriate lateral and up/back positioning for the opponent hitting an inside-out forehand just inside the baseline. You can then have a player (or you as coach) feed that ball fast into the backhand corner. From here your player can figure out what is the best option to take the sting out of the forehand and get back to a 50-50 situation. From here you can work on counterpunch options and also just staying in the point with great defensive skills.
There are so many different situations you can set up to test your players problem solving abilities. Believe me, they will enjoy this type of training more than the monotonous repetition drills. Don’t get me wrong, we have to do these repetition drills but there needs to be a balance of within our training. At the end of the day, our job is to help the players become better at playing the game and not just better at hitting the ball.
From here, there are so many different factors our players have to learn as the match goes on. These are just a few:
- Score pressure – what preferences does the opponent have under pressure? They all have preferences and everyone feels pressure.
- When fatigued – does the opponent alter their game when they are physically tiring?
- When mentally frail – how does the opponent react when irritable, frustrated, angry etc? Do they speed up, change their patterns, become impatient etc.
- Different weather conditions – how does the player play in wind, when serving into sun, when weather is changeable etc
- When distracted – how does the opponent react when something different happens? A lucky net cord, a snapped string, distraction from crowd or from the next court, when a call is challenged etc.
- When in lead – does the opponents game change when they are in leading the score? Do they take their foot off the gas, increase pressure or maintain their levels?
- When playing catch up – how does the opponent play when losing? Many are better when they losing as it can make them focus more as they know what they have to do to catch up.
- When near the perceived finish line – how does the opponent play when they think they are nearing the end?
There are so many factors to take into account on the match court. Of course, our players must be aware of what they do in all of these situations but, in my experience, it is healthier to put the emphasis on the opponent as it takes them out of the bubble in their head and places the focus down the court. This can help decrease the stress and turn your player into an excellent match player.
Scouting opponents can help your players gain valuable information to help with all of the above. However, consider helping them to scout their opponents. They can then do this when you are not present. It is incredibly empowering to go on the match court with some facts on your opponent.
At the end of the day, you don’t win any points for style or power in tennis. It is all about how your players play the game.
In my next blog I will write about the problem solving that takes place off the court. When you put these two blogs together you will realise just how adept our players have to be both on and off the court.
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Thank you for taking the time to read and enjoy the rest of your day.
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