When you’re learning to play tennis or looking to improve your game, there is a place for technical and even mechanical instruction.
Unfortunately, most people feel that this is the only thing there is to work on.
But the desired end result – meaning that you play tennis well and control the ball well – is not achieved by giving technical/mechanical commands to your body.
The end result is simply playing the ball – in your mind, you visualize how you want the ball to fly and simply do it .
It’s exactly the same as driving a car – when you want to turn left, your arms move the steering wheel in a way that achieves that result.
So, what variables do you need in tennis to simply »play the ball« and not give your body commands as to how to move each specific limb and other parts of your body?
As you saw, the first two basic variables, which we call »ball controls«, are direction and height. They are very natural and almost unconscious in your mind when you throw the ball with your hand.
For some reason, once we hold the racquet in our hand, things become much more complicated – even though they don’t have to be!
Play exactly the same – »send« the ball toward your chosen target and obviously aim above the net.
This is playing now based on Self2 – your Self1 chose the end result, meaning how the ball should fly – and left Self2 to figure out what commands to send to the body in order to achieve that.
What I am explaining is no magic – it’s exactly the same process you’re using when throwing the ball with the hand – you’re obviously not thinking about a backswing or a follow-through.
Once you do that, you’ll have a much clearer mind, and you’ll see the ball well. After all, the ball is the only thing that matters, since now you want only to make the ball fly the way you decided.
In order to control the ball, we need:
In real game, we control speed by rhythm. We don’t look to adjust speed by a mile per hour for each incoming ball – leave that to the pros.
Instead, we rely on a rhythm – a certain speed of shots that practice and play have shown us we control well.
So, we simply hold that tempo, and we focus on other ball controls/variables.
(The article on speed of shots is coming soon…)
Depth is determined by height (or the angle at which we play the ball), speed and spin. While you might have certain depth in mind, you need to be aware of the height and spin – since your speed is more or less constant (unless you’re attacking).
So, you’re not really aiming at a certain depth – rather, you’re focusing on speed and height and spin that create that depth of shots.
Why is focusing on depth dangerous for your game? Most tennis players, when looking to change depth of shots, will change the rhythm of their strokes. They will slow down strokes and stop rolling the ball and therefore start playing something that they haven’t practiced, which also disconnects their arm from their body. Therefore, they will have very poor control of the shot. So, you need to keep your rhythm of strokes – which means keeping a good racquet head speed while changing height and spin to control depth.
In reality, your rate of spin is also more or less constant, so you roughly have constant speed and spin, and you adjust the height of your shots in order to control depth.
Since most of your shots need to go deep (except for short cross court shots), you’re basically trying to find the right speed, spin and height, which will remain constant, and you simply change the direction of the ball for most of the baseline rallies.
I suggest you start and finish every tennis session on court with these drills.
The start is important so that you don’t flood your mind immediately with tons of mechanical commands and so that you learn to engage Self2 into the playing process.
After all, that’s how we play tennis eventually!
The finish of the lesson is again important since you want to return from technical thinking (if you had such a lesson) to a more natural way of playing tennis – which is to simply play the ball.
Follow this progression:
1. On mini tennis and at the start of rallying on the full court, focus only on direction and height and start rallying with a good height above the net.
2. After a minute or two, lower the trajectory of the ball and add rotation to the ball. Don’t just »spin« the ball, but hit the ball by pressing and rolling it. Of course, use feel to do that, and don’t be rough or forceful.
3. Keep those three parameters in mind – direction, height and spin – and work on changing them and adjusting them to each incoming ball.
Direct the ball slightly away from your partner while knowing exactly at what height you want to play it. Choose the amount to spin you want to put on the ball, and try to find the right amount in order to have good control of most incoming balls.
4. Look to get into a good rhythm, and after about 5-10 minutes, proceed to other tasks and things you want to work on.
5. Finish the lesson with 5 minutes of rallying (cool down) by focusing again on the 3 parameters of natural tennis: direction, height and spin.