One of the most underrated ways of improving your tennis technique and other skills is hitting freely with your partner.
Having a free-hitting session means that you simply rally with your partner down the middle and look to control the ball so that they receive a nice, comfortable ball inside their strike zone which will allow them to hit the ball back with high consistency.
Some players might say that playing tennis like that is boring and that they don’t see the point in just hitting down the middle.
They would prefer to play for points most of the time or at least do very specific drills with certain shot patterns since that makes the game more exciting.
Yes, it may make it more exciting for your ego, but if you’re serious about improving your game, then you have to spend a considerable amount of time working on your tennis skills. That’s what a free-hitting session allows you to do.
The main reason why you should practice by hitting freely is that there is no pressure.
You’re not playing for points. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about the score or what your opponent is about to do.
No one is poaching at the net like in doubles, which tends to distract you a lot. Additionally, there are no emotions involved (hopefully) just because you missed one shot and so on.
In other words, your mind is calm and clear.
ONLY NOW can you actually become more aware of the constant feedback you’re receiving from your mind and body.
And secondly, when you are calm you are also relaxed.
And only a relaxed body can start to make corrections of your existing technique.
Most of the tennis instruction online and on court revolves around correcting your strokes – which is the visible part of your skills.
Even so, there are also many invisible skills that you need to master in order to play tennis well and that I shared throughout this website.
Some of these invisible (or less obvious) skills are:
When you’re not under pressure, you have enough time to be aware of the feedback you’re receiving from your last shot.
This can occur when you don’t feel rushed immediately after your shot because you don’t have to recover and look at your opponent to see what they are up to.
Only then will you become aware of all the things I listed above.
You will feel whether you hit the ball too late, whether you were balanced, whether you saw the ball clearly just before contact, whether you hit the sweet spot, and so on.
And this feedback will allow you to constantly adjust for the next shot and gradually improve your skills over time.
When your technique is not yet at a high enough level that it’s stable, effortless and allows you to hit consistently, then playing for points is the worst thing you can do.
That’s because you will constantly have to improvise.
In the process, you’ll make a lot of short, jerky movements and not really execute the stroke like you’re supposed to.
You cannot do that because your technique is not grooved in yet – it’s not ingrained yet.
You also won’t execute many other skills in those rushed situations that higher-level players still do – like staying on balance, seeing the ball well, hitting the ball cleanly with a smooth swing, and so on.
And that means that you are just reinforcing bad habits and making it much more difficult for you to acquire these skills and techniques when you do eventually take lessons or work on your strokes.
When I played as a teenager, I would hit with my friends and fellow tennis players for hours just down the middle, sometimes four to six hours per day.
We would rarely play points, and I would say that my ratio of free hitting vs points play was around 10:1.
So, for every ten free-hitting sessions, I would play one time for points.
That allowed me to really RELAX during my practices and become aware of all the weakness and flaws of my technique and skills mentioned above.
This approach also allowed me to work on each of these skills for prolonged periods of time which, of course, improved them a lot.
I remember hitting the ball late and focusing on hitting it more in front for months in all those free-hitting sessions until my timing and rhythm adjusted to the point that I was almost never late.
I remember not seeing the ball clearly after the bounce and not keeping my head still and then working on that skill for many free-hitting sessions during one summer.
I practiced hundreds, if not thousands, of hours under no pressure, simply hitting down the middle with my fellow tennis players.
During these sessions, I worked on my skills and techniques until they reached a point where they were so stable that they didn’t break down under pressure in match situations.
The #1 problem with recreational tennis players is that they are all too tense and that they muscle the ball, which paradoxically doesn’t fly fast then.
And this problem that I have spent over twenty years trying to fix daily originates in players engaging in competitive tennis playing matches WAY before they are ready for them.
They experience pressure in matches, which causes them to tense up. They play in that tense state, constantly improvising their strokes.
Their mind and body simply store that as a habit since that’s the state they play most of their tennis in.
If you’re serious about improving your tennis game and reaching another level, then you have to practice much more in no-pressure situations and work on techniques and other skills so that you can reach a higher level.
Once your skills are better, your competitive results can improve, too.
Sidebar: Of course, if one never plays matches and then starts to play them, they will experience a lot of anxiety since their ego will suffer if they lose.
It takes quite a few matches before one become more desensitized to pressure situations and learns to play more freely.
But, as in every sport (or learning to play a musical instrument), the ratio between practicing and competition is way more in favor of practice sessions.
There are two ways you can work on your game in free-hitting sessions:
I highly recommend that you start with the first method where you focus on one thing at a time for 5-10 minutes.
If, for example, I have three main flaws of my forehand like:
Then I need to work first on movement and split step for 5-10 minutes and not think about anything else.
The thing that worries tennis players when they focus on only one thing at a time is that other flaws and mistakes in their strokes are still there.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT!
That is a normal process of improvement as we can completely focus on only one thing at a time – that’s how our brain works.
So, if I focus on split step only and still do an incorrect backswing and hit the ball late, that’s ok!
Each skill is being improved by a certain amount as we work on it.
If my movement is at level 2 out of 10 (2/10) and of course my goal is to reach 10/10 at some point, then as I focus and work on this skill for a couple of sessions, I will raise that skill to 3/10.
And even though I will not focus on the movement and split step in the next few minutes as I work on my backswing, the improvement process has already started!
As time goes by and you repeat working on each skill separately, you will realize that each skill becomes better and better even though you work on them separately.
Only when you have that laser focus of correcting that one single flaw will you really make a change and bring it to a higher level.
It takes laser focus to overcome bad habits as it is a hard battle between old and new movements or old and new timing of your strokes.
If you let go of your focus just a bit, there’s a good chance the old habit will win again.
Only when you have improved your skills to a fairly high level, let’s say to 7/10 or higher, can you try to work on two or even three of them at the same time.
But, as you saw in the video above, that also requires a very high level of concentration to constantly remind yourself of all three things you work on on every single shot you receive and in the short amount of time between your opponent’s stroke and yours.
The second method of working on your strokes is to get feedback from each stroke, be aware of what was not right and try to adjust for your next shot.
I suggest you try this approach when you reach at least 3.5 NTRP level or when you are able to play a lot of tennis during the week in non-competitive situations.
That means at least two to three sessions per week when you just rally with a partner or hit against the wall or against a ball machine.
When you practice in this way, you simply hit one shot and quickly realize what was not right.
Perhaps you felt that you hit the ball too late, and on the next shot you focus on hitting the ball more in front.
Then, as you do that and you hit more in front, you realize that you didn’t hit the sweet spot because you weren’t really watching the ball well.
So, on the next shot, you remind yourself to watch the ball. Perhaps you stay focused on that for a few shots, and then you again empty your mind and see what feedback you’ll get from the next shot.
As you can see, your focus is jumping from one skill to another in a very short amount of time.
You can do that only when your skills are at a quite high level and when you are able to process information that fast.
This is, of course, possible only in non-competitive situations where you receive steady, nice balls from your opponent.
If your opponent cannot provide you with most of the balls coming towards you at a similar speed, height, depth and amount of spin, then you’ll struggle too much to adjust to each different shot.
You can get in a groove and stabilize your technique only if you receive very similar incoming balls in a row.
Why else do you think coaches feed balls from a basket in all tennis clubs and academies?
Because it takes a certain time before the stroke technique and other skills stabilize in easy conditions.
Once we see that the stroke is stable in easy conditions – which means on a very similar incoming ball – only then do we start to vary our feeds and have players play more with each other where the incoming balls will have more variety.
When you practice on your own, you must follow the same principle of learning as that’s how you will achieve the best results.
One more very important point: whenever you engage in this kind of practice with your tennis buddy, keep in mind that you cannot focus only on yourself and your flaws without knowing at least in general what kind of ball you want to hit.
You must have an intention present most of the time that you want to send a nice ball to your partner. After all, that’s the final goal of your training – to be able to send the ball where you want.
So the “want” part must be present most of the time.
You can get lost in the technicalities of the stroke and forget what exactly you want to do with the ball. That’s like driving a car without looking out on the road.
By having a clear intention of how you want the ball to fly so that it comes nicely in the strike zone of your partner, you also allow them to get into a groove and therefore have a higher chance of receiving a nice ball from them again.
You must see and be aware of what happened on the other side and what kind of ball your partner received: Was it too short? Too high? Too fast?
By being aware, you can adjust for the next shot.
Not only do we work on technical flaws and other tennis skills in training like this, but we also work on feel.
Working on feel simply means that we try to figure out the right direction, amount of speed, height and amount of spin we will impart SO THAT the ball will fly roughly how we want.
Some players say that a free-hitting session is boring and that they prefer to play points as it’s more exciting (and rewarding).
Yes, it’s more rewarding for your ego as you beat someone and you feel superior for a while.
But, if you want to master tennis technique and other key skills needed to play at a higher level, then you have to work on them as does every serious athlete in every sport.
And if you watched the video above where I said what I experienced after each shot, you can see that, in about three-quarters of the shots, something was not right.
Even though my strokes looked fine and I didn’t miss the court much, I was still aware that:
That means that I am constantly unsuccessful in what I am attempting to do.
If I am motivated to improve my game and I realize that, on more than half of the shots, something was not right, that surely isn’t boring to me!
That knowledge is highly motivating, and it only increases my focus!
And with a high level of concentration, time flies very fast. You can hit like this for an hour, and it will feel like only 20 minutes.
That’s why I could do this for two hours at a time with short breaks for resting and drinking.
By playing with many different tennis players, you will also receive different types of incoming balls to which you will have to adjust again and therefore challenge your current skills to reach a new level.
Hopefully this explains the one part of tennis practice that is the foundation of general tennis training that should be done a lot but is in fact done the least.
I know that I improved my technique and other tennis skills mentioned in this article mostly through free-hitting sessions which I have done far more than playing for points or practicing certain drills.
I also know that most of you don’t spend enough time hitting freely and don’t have the time to calm your mind.
Only when your mind is calm will you realize what your mind and body are signaling to you all the time (which you can’t “hear” when playing a match). Then you can start working on all the skills necessary for higher level tennis.
So, hopefully this shows you how to make the best of this seemingly “boring” practice and lets you see the beauty and challenge of it.
The last and possibly the biggest benefit of practicing in free-hitting sessions is that, when you practice without pressure, your body relaxes more.
As your body relaxes, it can start adjusting. Tight and locked joints don’t allow any movement, and therefore your technique cannot change!
Only a relaxed body allows change, and it also starts to move more harmoniously and more smoothly.
My best buddy Urban and I have experienced many times that this harmonious and smooth movement of body affects our mind.
As the body moves more harmoniously, it starts to influence the mind to function more harmoniously.
In other words, you start to experience a very quiet mind, which is totally absorbed with the ball and is therefore present.
My buddy Urban and I played over a 1000 times like this (just hitting) since we were 14 years old – and this process made our strokes so smooth.
When we are in the now, we are in a different state. It is what meditation and other mental techniques try to help us experience.
I believe that harmonious movement of the body causes harmonious function of the mind – you enter a different state in which you experience no stress, no worries and no real emotions, just peace and some kind of bliss.
And the more times you experience that on a tennis court, the more it transforms you as a person because you carry that state more and more outside of the tennis court.
Isn’t that worth striving for more than spending all that time trying to figure out how to beat someone?
The ball is in your court. 😉