by Ed Collins
Don’t let anyone convince you that success is a mysterious gift, handed only to a few; it’s achieved in a step-by-step manner that produces not only physical improvement, but psychological reinforcement as well.
Lessons are cumulative––one is built upon another. It’ll help you to understand how the strokes and shots are developed, the stages of learning, and the necessity of practice and match play.
Tennis is more fun when you possess technique. By that I mean you need a half-dozen strokes to become a strategic all-court player (you could choose to play only from the backcourt, but that takes away a lot of the enjoyment). You’ll need to learn how to produce topspin, for driving the ball and hitting passing shots; and underspin for drop shots and handling short balls; and volleys, half-volleys and an overhead to play from the forecourt.
Teach yourself how to play
Many of the mystifying finer points of tennis can’t be forced on the student; they come in due time, when he’s ready. Sometimes they come after the student has spent time watching better tennis. Sitting courtside (focusing on one player) reveals how to move correctly, anticipate, vary shot-making, put the right arc on lobs, disguise drops shots, and respond after shanking an overhead, etc., etc..
Practice takes many forms, but none more beneficial than playing mini-tennis. Put it this way: When you can control the ball within the forecourt (hitting softly!) you demonstrate true knowledge of the strokes. Regular practice assists you in developing court sense, balance, relaxation, ease of movement, grip changing, stroke improvisation, feel and timing, among other things.
Another useful self-teaching method is to practice without the ball. Watch a professional player and you’ll note that occasionally he follows a mistake with a shadow stroke. With his racquet (or just his hand), he rehearses the stroke with corrected technique. For good reason, top players practice the strokes with, and without the ball, more than you can imagine.
Developing your tennis brain
Human nature being what it is, without a little push, you’ll do what you can, avoiding what you can’t. In time your tennis may get repetitive, even boring. For this reason I teach the beginning player groundstrokes and volleys–– topspin and underspin––simultaneously. Besides laying the groundstroke for variation, offense and defense are integrated into one, so to speak.
My expectation for the student is that he be able to focus on the ball and be aware of the vulnerability of the person on the far side of the net. I want him to eventually learn how to hit and respond to drop shots and passing shots, deep balls and wide balls, etc..
The difficulty of certain tennis skills can keep a player from venturing off the baseline. Playing from the fore- and mid-court takes special technical skills and practice. For this reason alone, doubles is a great game.
Most everyone learns the hard way––by making all of the mistakes, and then correcting them, one by one. What happens is this: An annoyingly high percentage of serves are netted (but the idea is to hit up and out, for depth); groundstrokes fall inoffensively short (the solution is to make the ball rise as it clears the net, for depth); volleys are hit flat and down, then bounce up, allowing the scrappy opponent to reach them (the answer is hitting out, with underspin, so the ball sits); and enough angled shots are hit wide that your heart skips a beat even when contemplating one (a healthy margin-for-error guarantees confidence.
Points constructed here
The following game was born after watching a few talented guys on one year’s team waste time over-hitting in practice and under-hitting in matches. 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.
By playing too offensively you risk critical errors; play too defensively and one can only win on the other guy’s mistakes. A compromise leads to increased concentration, wiser tactics, fewer mistakes, more fun, and, needless to say, more wins. (This is your formula for success. Focus your attention on combining shots to make points; in the process you let the score take care of itself.)
All experience is good
It’s by playing that you learn how to play. Among many other things, it’s by playing matches that you learn how to resolve problems, fix strokes, counter strategies, and adapt to conditions. It’s by competing that you learn how to finish a point, game, set and, of course, a match. And it’s by playing matches that you gain experience from which you can learn. (This point must be understood––that all experience is good; even what feels like your worst performance, or loss, can be beneficial––but only when you see it that way.) Simply put: You need experience. And you need to get a handle on losing, which is less a reflection of skill than a player’s state of mind. We achieve less because that’s how much effort we’re willing to expend. Besides advising you to raise your expectations, the coach helps by making you aware of two essential lessons: (1) When you lose, try again––without making excuses, and (2) Don’t quit before you lose.
Why did I miss?
You respond to an unforced error by answering three questions: (1) Did the ball land in the net, wide or long? (2) Was it shaped properly? (3) Was the appropriate amount of spin applied? The point is that these “elements”––placement, shape and spin––are fundamental to a successful shot (not to mention, of course, solid contact with the ball). Needless to say, when you understand precisely what you’re trying to do, your chances of doing it are improved.
Your own style of play
The physical part of tennis consists of technique, shotmaking and fitness; the mental part involves tactics, concentration, motivation, work ethic, pride (and a dose of humility). Put together, it all contributes to your gaining confidence. And with confidence you’ll play slower, more methodically, intuitively. You’ll anticipate better, you’ll be more of an opportunist. You’ll breathe between and during the points. You’ll play with a looser grip, you’ll even feel lighter on your feet.
Everyone plays differently––their skills, strokes and personality lead them to interpret the game in a unique way. While some develop into cautious counterpunching baseliners, and others into high-risk attackers, I believe it’s important that everyone, when forced, be able to keep the ball in play. I subscribe to the concept that a solid game is based on a foundation of defense. (I like my students to first develop a reliable second serve, a consistent return of serve, a trusty lob, and an ability to chip and scramble and endure a lengthy rally.)
Patience––it takes time
On good days, against an erratic player whose game is manageable, you’re buoyed with confidence; other days, a superior player makes you question that you know anything.
Hang in there is more than an expression of encouragement; it’s sound advice for anyone intent on reaching a high level of play. With measures of persistence, practice and good humor, over time you’ll get to where you want to go.
Lastly I recommend that you always hold this thought in your head: The key to success is enjoyment; if you’re having fun you’re on the right track.