Howard is a USPTA Master Professional with over 43 years of teaching experience. He is the author of the Seven Deadly Sins of Doubles, a primer on recreational doubles play.
Howard is also the creator of the Perfect Practice video learning system
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pressure Creates Diamonds… and Champions
By Howard Chodak
There is much speculation about why the US is not producing more champions in tennis, and I believe the answer lies in how we are training our players. There are an incredible amount of great ball strikers everywhere you look who are super impressive to watch, but that does not necessarily translate to them being great players. Even I look good when just hitting balls with a strong player. I see so much time being spent in practice on dead ball drills with no focus on specific results, way too much time being spent on tossing balls to high-level players, and drills that are physically challenging but not emotionally or mentally challenging. Pressure is the missing component from how players practice. This is true for all levels of play, but it is especially critical for more advanced players who have already developed a varied skill set. This issue is not even limited to the US. For me, a drill that doesn’t re-create the pressure of competition is pretty much a waste of time in the journey to make someone a better player. Game-based drills based on very specific parameters for success are required to simulate the stress of competitive execution. Whatever time a player can spend on improving needs to be as impactful as possible, and I don’t believe that is happening. Whether it is 2 hours a week or 4 to 5 hours a day, time is precious.
Here is an example of a simple results-oriented drill progression that can be modified for different levels all the way up to world-class players.
The goal is to discourage balls being hit down the center of the court. Let’s create 2 hitting lanes starting several feet from the sidelines and angling closer to the sidelines as the lanes get deeper in the court. This can be done with throw-down lines, ropes, or 4 tennis balls spread out. The size of the target areas can be adjusted based on level.
Balls are fed from the baseline either by the pro or from a ball machine. Speed, spin, height, and direction can be adjusted to make it more difficult. I prefer to use a semi-live ball approach, where the pro is returning any balls he/she can to better simulate play. Games are played to 7. Players can choose which target to aim for and score a point for each ball in the target area. The pro gets a point for every error or ball out of the target area.
This is where you can get creative to increase the pressure. Specific errors, like balls in the net, can cost 2 points or more. You can require multiple consecutive shots to score a point. You can play shorter games where each shot means more. You can make the targets smaller. The point is to make it difficult. Find that sweet spot where success is possible, but so is failure. This is also where you can identify specific teaching points based on success and failure. If an error repeats itself, it can be addressed. For example, why the ball is always several inches wide or long or in the net. You, as the coach, also get to know your players' strengths and weaknesses more clearly, such as where their errors are most likely to come from when under pressure. Then, knowing how these things impact the player’s ability to compete successfully, you can focus on those things. You can also reinforce why some shots are working so that the player has a deeper understanding of his/her success.
While keeping the targets in place, the next step is for the player to only score a point when he/she hits a winner or forces an error. He/she still loses a point for any ball not in a target area. Throw-down lines are more desirable now for safer movement for the pro or another player. I prefer using another player whenever possible because there is almost always greater pressure playing against another player than the pro. This needs to be done a lot until it becomes second nature.
At some point, of course, the targets must be removed. Points are now played straight up, but hopefully, the player is continuing to aim for the target areas. The pro can especially try to penalize the player for hitting balls too much down the middle by hitting winners or forcing shots off those balls. Hopefully, the players are doing that to each other, as well.
What I have outlined is just one example of how to make practice more impactful by using pressure as the guiding principle. The same thing can be done to emphasize depth on groundstrokes, for serves and returns, approach shots and volleys, overheads, and drop shots. In other words, every aspect of the game that is currently being worked on must be exposed to constant pressure through specificity. Otherwise, it means very little in the real world of competition. So, let’s start using pressure in how we train our players in order to create more diamonds.
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