How To Improve Your Tennis Through Free Hitting

Apr 11

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 #1 Benefit Of A Free-Hitting Session

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.

free hitting tennis session

Rallying without pressure calms your mind and relaxes your body

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.

Why Playing For Points Doesn’t Improve Your Technique (And Other Skills)

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.

hitting with tennis buddy

I used to play for hours just hitting down the middle

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.

How To Improve Technique And Other Skills In Free-Hitting Sessions

There are two ways you can work on your game in free-hitting sessions:

  • focusing on one thing at a time, or
  • getting feedback from every single shot and adjusting.

1. Focusing on one thing at a time

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:

  • not moving and doing a split step,
  • not lifting the racket head in the preparation, and
  • hitting the ball late.

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.

focus on tennis technique

I only focus on one element of technique / skill at a time

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.

2. Feedback and adjusting

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.

missing the sweetspot

I am aware for each shot whether I hit the sweet spot of the racket or not (this one is off center)

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.

rallying tennis with intention

Regardless of the position and the stroke I play, I know exactly where I am aiming (towards my partner)

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.

Why A Free-Hitting Session Is Not Boring

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:

  • my shot was shorter than I intended,
  • my shot was higher than I intended,
  • I was late on the shot,
  • I didn’t hit in the sweet spot, and
  • so on.

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!

hitting tennis shot too high

Every shot I make tells me how to adjust on the next one

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.

Harmonious Body And How It Affects The Mind

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. 😉

Leave a Comment:

(52) comments

Arturo Hernandez April 11, 2017

Very nice post. It brings up two questions.

1) Would drills also make people tense in that it requires lots of fast hitting?

2) If one wanted to play with the same sense of calm during a match, how would we achieve that? Is that a later stage so that first it is to hit calm and later to play points? Or can we learn that in parallel.

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    Good questions, Arturo.

    1. Yes, drills with fast hitting also make people tense. In fact whenever there is a drill there is an outcome.

    And as soon as we have an outcome we can become tense because there’s a chance we’ll fail.

    Sure, there is an outcome in free hitting too – make the ball go in and towards your buddy – but it’s more vague.

    And when you play for longer periods of time you (hopefully) get used to missing shots as a normal part of tennis.

    Here’s my mindset:

    http://www.feeltennis.net/how-to-be-at-peace-with-mistakes-in-tennis/

    2. How to play with sense of calm during the match – is a perhaps a whole new video or even a video course. 😉

    Your first step is to find this calm state when you’re just rallying.

    In my experience most rec players don’t come even close to it because they are so burdened by just missing a shot.

    Every shot they miss causes stress and emotional pain to them – as if missing one tennis shot makes them unworthy.

    That’s why one needs to rally for free for hours and days and months and years to realize that mistakes never go away even in free hitting sessions and are part of tennis.

    Even on ATP and WTA no one plays with 0 unforced errors in a match.

    Once you reach that stage you need to simulate some points while free hitting. (don’t keep score)

    That means that I might hit 4-6 balls down the middle and then start moving my buddy left and right and see if I can create an opening.

    The KEY here is that you are not forcing or looking to finish the point but you maintain same moderate rally speed.

    It’s just that you are now introducing direction and depth changes so that you can place the ball differently.

    Even this stage causes many players to tense up even though they were relaxed in the free hitting down the middle.

    As soon as you introduce any kind of outcome they tense up as they don’t want to fail.

    The ego is so fragile that it’s sad. And people’s self criticism and harshness towards themselves is sad too.

    Once you get through this stage you do the same but you keep score – again you’re playing with your buddy just for fun.

    It’s best to play to 11 or something similar as playing a normal set already causes too much match associations and tension creeps back in.

    Once you get through this stage you can play practice matches with peers that don’t count.

    Meaning there’s no ranking loss or points loss of you lose, only ego hurts.

    And once you can play relaxed playing practice matches then you have a chance of playing real matches relaxed.

    It still won’t happen at first but not you do have a mental foundation that allows you to possibly experience relaxed mind and body while you play a match.

    If the above makes sense than now you understand why it’s no wonder everyone is so tight during matches – they haven’t gone through this process which starts with a simple free hitting session where you wouldn’t get down on yourself for missing a shot.

    As if it’s possible to play for extended period of time with no mistakes. 😉

    Reply
      Arturo Hernandez April 12, 2017

      Interesting! This fits in with some Russian junior methods that work on technique even with no racket before there are any tournaments. My son Nikolas played a lot of tournaments when he was young because I was told this would toughen him up. But I am introducing tournaments to my youngest very slowly. And I only think about whether she hit nicely, meaning smoothly and with good rhythm. For example, her serve appears “weak” at 11 compared to other girls who it completely flat hard serves. Thanks to great advice from an unknown Slovenian coach, Kamille focuses only smooth and loose as much as possible.

      So in your view, the tournaments should come very slowly. Just focus on looseness and hitting.

      But the common view is that they need to get used to tournaments and pressure.

      Your view is that first they need to learn to play without pressure.

      Besides hitting yourself, what other evidence do you have from watching players, even at the pro level?

      It is a very contrarian view so you must have some evidence from other sources besides you and your buddy. 🙂

      Reply
        Tomaz April 12, 2017

        Hi Arturo,

        The above article is geared towards recreational tennis players and not juniors so much.

        When it comes to juniors they need to do everything and the process is quite “messy”.

        They need to play tournaments somewhat regularly, I would say around 1-2 per month, depending on the period of training.

        The rest is technique and fitness development.

        When they play tournaments their technique will break down and we as coaches have to put it back together.

        This goes on from around 8-12 years of age, sometimes even a bit longer.

        We cannot make this a “clean” process by first developing perfect technique and then playing matches because the kid must not fall behind their peers in terms of results.

        If they fall behind too much they will lose confidence and belief in their abilities and even though they have good technique they can’t win. Also don’t learn the tactics and mental game that way – so they must play some tournaments.

        It’s more the question of the ratio – again I would say maybe 1 tournament per month on average and around 2 in the competitive season.

        They need to train with no pressure and with pressure and time they will get used to it.

        Evidence? 😉

        Here, listen to Tomas Berdych – he plays a pattern with his coach but it’s so simple that it’s basically free hitting for him.

        He doesn’t keep score, he is just hitting. And he says that he uses that drill the whole year in many practice sessions.

        Reply
Bob April 11, 2017

Right on, Tomaz! Thank you for this reminder. This was my approach when I was bowing a lot and needed to work on certain shots – such as picking up the 10-pin for a spare. Thus, I would go to the bowling alley and shoot at nothing but ten-pins or the 10-pin spot regardless whether the rack was full or I had already knocked the 10-pin out on the first ball. Thus, when I got into a bowling match, I was clutch at picking-up the 10-pin when it was a win or lose shot.

It’s easy to forget this key practice point when it comes to tennis or anything else at which we want to improve, but it’s a very key process for developing muscle memory and feel.

I always appreciate your instruction. Bob

Reply
Anita Castagna April 11, 2017

Yes, your right I don’t like just hitting, but I will try you technique, it makes sense.

Reply
Beth April 11, 2017

Your videos are the best I’ve ever watched. The way you explain things is so clear.

You’ve helped me a lot. I’m a high 3.5 low 4.0 player.

Thank you for your clear, concise teaching methods! Beth

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    You’re very welcome, Beth.

    Stay tuned, more tennis videos on the way…

    Reply
Ged April 12, 2017

Thanks Tomaz, for teaching us how to be teachable!

In our church we are taught about the gift of the pastor/teacher.

I think of you in this way, that you have a gift to be a great teacher.

We can all read books about everything that can be known about tennis, but you do more.

You help us to be better Learners.

Sometimes you teach in specifics, step by step process, and other times you give a seed thought on a principle like “momentum”, which began an evolution in my serve.

I am looking forward to 90 minutes of free hitting tomorrow where I’m going to work on my forehand lag, also applying lag to my single handed backhand.

I also love the stable wrist, which is giving me a more consistent, forehand.

I am trying to apply laid back stable wrist to forehand volleys.

Is that correct?

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    Thank you very much, Ged.

    I do my best to share my experiences and what worked for me over the years.

    Yes, there is stable wrist on the forehand volley too.

    Reply
Sinchai DeLong April 12, 2017

Free Hitting video.
Really good work and does make a huge different in learning how to play tennis.

Sinchai DeLong

Reply
John M April 12, 2017

Tomaz,

Yet another fantastic blog post! Thank you.

Many players refer to what you call “free hitting” as “cooperative hitting”, but the concept is the same.

One of the hallmarks of higher level players is their willingness and commitment to cooperative hitting. Not just on groundstrokes but also with volleys.

I often use the ball machine as a substitute for a free hitting partner. About the only thing I can effectively practice during competitive drills is movement and footwork.

I don’t worry at all about stroke technique during group drilling because every ball is too random.

One thing that I love that you do is verbalized what you are working on while you are working on it. I am working on keeping my head still through contact, so I am now saying “head still” at contact.

Verbalizing like that really helps when working on one thing at a time.

I agree with Ged that you are gifted teacher, and we are blessed to receive your insights on tennis.

John M

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    Glad that it helped, John.

    I know that what goes on in the mind can become very messy so I wanted to share my process and how simple it is most of the time.

    But it does require a great deal of focus and that seems to wander often for most players.

    That’s why I use the words “laser focus” to really emphasize the importance of sticking to one correction at a time for a longer period of time.

    Reply
Zac April 12, 2017

Hi Tomaz,

What would you suggest for intermediate players who can only play a couple of times per week? If they spend the little time they have grooving their strokes through free hitting, will they ever actually play tennis?

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    Hi Zac,

    For one, just hitting the ball and adjusting to feedback is playing tennis.

    That’s what I did for thousands of hours as I was not driven by ego but by my desire to master the sport and by my enjoyment of simply hitting a tennis ball.

    If you don’t do that you can never reach any much higher level of tennis no matter how much you try to learn online or how many courses you buy.

    It’s impossible so it’s best to stop bothering and trying super hard and then being disappointed when it doesn’t work.

    It’s not you, it’s that little amount of practice you put in. The amount of training is way too little to produce any significant results.

    So it’s better to just enjoy your game.

    If by playing tennis you mean playing for points, you can try to make periods in the same way as the juniors have their 4 major macrocycles:
    – preparatory period where they work a lot on technique for about 1-2 months,
    – pre-competition period where we start to introduce more point situations in the practice and technique is 2nd priority,
    – competition phase where it’s all about tactics and mental game and we basically don’t work on technique,
    – and active recovery or transition phase where they player needs to rest and recharge the mind and body after the competitive sesason.

    So you can spend about a month or two mostly fine tuning your strokes with free hitting sessions until they stabilize more and then “play tennis” for points for the next few months.

    You can of course rally for 20 minutes first and the play a set but keep in mind that playing for points breaks down your technique.

    That is actually the main purpose of your opponent – NOT to let you into a groove!

    So I recommend that reserve 5 minutes of tennis at the end of the session and after playing a set go back to nice and easy rallying so that you can refresh and re-assemble your technique back.

    Reply
Charlie April 12, 2017

Hi Tomaz, as always, intellectually and practically stimulating!

The role our EGO plays in tennis is just a continuation of our everyday life in modern society where winning and outcomes seem to matter most and ” losers” are not welcomed!

When I get home from a tennis match, the first question my teenage daughter asks is : DID YOU WIN DADDY?”, and we all know what follows if you lost, it’s as though there is shame attached to losing…

So your article is important and very deep indeed, and I feel , that us tennis players must believe passionately in our own tennis journey and stay strong mentally and have gurus like you to remind us: TENNIS IS SIMPLE, BUT IT’S NOT EASY!!!

Thanks again for your guidance, cheers Charlie from sunny London

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    Thanks for sharing, Charlie.

    I am aware of the outside world and its pressures that’s why I am giving a different perspective.

    As for your daughter, you need to be a role model and explain to her that one is not in control of the outcome of the match and cannot be judged based on that.

    One is in control of their effort and attitude though so if you never gave up, behaved respectfully to your opponent, played with integrity and self respect never getting down on yourself despite the challenges of a tennis match, then that deserves an admiration and respect as this is something that IS within anyone’s reach if they overcome the weaknesses of the mind and ego.

    You can always win as a person worth of respect regardless of the match outcome.

    Tennis is just a skill and one must not tie up too much of their self-worth to it.

    Reply
Mark April 12, 2017

Hi Tomaz,

This is great for me as it is confirmation that I am doing the right thing! I use a ball machine to practice with and I bought a structured practice course a while back after hearing online that “just hitting” will not help you improve.

I haven’t yet used the course though as I feel that in order to follow it properly I will need to have my strokes and the technical elements that they are comprised of more grooved without thinking so then I can concentrate on following the training patterns involved and keeping score of how many times I am successful, which the course advocates.

If I try to do it now and keep track of my “score” I believe will get too tense and try too hard or be disappointed at lack of success in doing what the online coach demonstrates so easily. I also find that with a ball machine there is no worry that you are letting your practice partner down by making too many mistakes and not “performing” well enough.

I have found that it’s hard to find practice partners other than coaches (expensive) who can hit nicely as needed. Hitting consistently with partners is difficult, either from lack of skill or the desire within each player to start hitting a bit more competitively during the practice! Unfortunately, my ball machine doesn’t feed consistently as some come low and short, some high and deep.

People tell me that’s good because it simulates real play but I believe as you said that when trying to groove your strokes it’s better to have a more consistent feed.

In my eagerness to make progress I have been trying to concentrate on 2 or 3 things at a time, the main focus being staying relaxed (always have to remind myself not to “try” and hit it hard), feeling the sweet spot and smoothness, hitting out in front (always been a problem for me), and trying to find the down up rhythm with the legs into the shot. I will try focusing on one at a time as you suggested.

I use a Sony Tennis Sensor and film myself from the side to see the contact point and call out long, short or good with the intention of using the information from the sensor and from what I can deduce from the video to see if there is a connection and a pattern between what I am doing on each shot and the resultant ball. Can’t say yet that I see any distinct pattern though but perhaps that’s because I haven’t taken enough time to really study close enough.

As you said, I don’t find practicing this way boring at all and it’s good to hear from someone that it is actually productive and useful.

Sometimes just for variety’s sake though at the end of a session I will turn on the oscillation feature to finish with more of a real play simulation rather than feeds to one side only.

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    Thanks for sharing your story, Mark, it’s always nice to see that as then other players reading this can relate.

    As for “just hitting” not improving your strokes, Urban and I got to 5.5 level, perhaps even 6.0 in terms of tennis stroke technique by just hitting for thousands of hours.

    Perhaps the coach of course considers “just hitting” when the mind is blank and one is just whacking balls.

    That surely won’t help one improve very fast but I would argue that even then the subconscious and the body will do many many adjustments to improve the technique and timing.

    That’s like saying that “just skiing” won’t improve your technique and yet I see thousands of skiers skiing with very nice technique down the slopes.

    Or like saying that just “just driving” won’t improve your driving skills and that you should race to become a better driver? And yet all of us who have been “just driving” a car many times have become very good at it.

    “Just hitting” and being present and tracking and adjusting what’s going on is in fact one of THE MOST effective ways of improving your tennis game.

    Reply
      Don April 15, 2017

      Fantastic tips on feel and making practice interesting and challenging Tomaz. Any drills when you are alone with the ball basket. Especially want to work on feeling the right level and ball position to hit more solid strokes. Thx.

      Reply
        Tomaz April 19, 2017

        Hi Don,

        If you’re alone with the basket you can choose different targets but also practice hitting from different stances.

        I’ll try and make a video on that…

        Reply
JOHN April 12, 2017

Hi Tomaz,

Thanks for another great video. I think time spent on court practising what is learned in lessons is definitely the way forward for the improving average club player. Too much is at stake when playing competitive points for improvement. We become so preoccupied with winning (or not losing) that is is virtually impossible to focus on technique. The mind kicks in and is only thinking about how to win the next point. The body reverts to old established incorrect and unhelpful habits.

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    Exactly, John, thanks for posting this in such a concise and clear manner.

    Reply
JonC April 12, 2017

Tomaz, a philosophical question: does trying to improve technically (trying to get perfect form through lessons and slow-mo vids of pros let’s say) sometimes lead a player down a bad path? Can a person become good by hitting only? Like hitting 2 hours everyday in the focused way you describe? Perhaps me and others should just go out and hit everyday and stop worrying about perfection.

Jon

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    Hi Jon,

    When I was learning tennis there was no internet yet but I had a VHS recorder and I recorded tennis matches. Then I could move the tape frame by frame so I watched for example Andre Agassi’s forehand frame by frame many times.

    Then I would go in front of the mirror and copy that. I did shadow swings for a few minutes.

    I repeated that many many times.

    When I was on the court free hitting I did not have an idea that a forehand has to be EXACTLY like “that” (what I saw Andre Agassi do) but I had an idea that forehand is SOMETHING like that.

    His forehand technique is a GUIDELINE for me since you can see that no two players swing exactly the same.

    Therefore perfection is hard to define. What is correct?

    What Federer does or what Berdych does? Is a perfect backhand what Djokovic does or what Murray does?

    They are all similar but always different.

    So you look at the broad picture of the stroke and imagine it SOMETHING LIKE THAT and then you hit thousands of balls in free hitting sessions.

    Those thousands of strokes in no pressure situation will allow to relax and start to FEEL the little nuances of the stroke that we can’t really explain.

    Or some coaches do explain in every detail and then you expect to be able to pull that off in the exact few hundredths of a second when you have to.

    I did not have a single lesson in my life nor did Urban and yet see how we play.

    90% of tennis in our lives has been free hitting.

    Reply
      Daniel Moldovan April 12, 2017

      You are right, as an adult you don’t need tennis lessons from pros to learn tennis. Especially when today we have so many great online resource like yours.

      If you have some physical abilities you can learn it by yourself. It may take more time then if you pay for lessons.

      For me it took approximately 8 years to get from 0 to 4.5. It will be much harder to make progress from now on just by myself and without a 5 days a week regular practice schedule.
      Until now I played with friends as much as I could but I also used a ball machine, which BTW is a very good partner for free hitting sessions. 🙂

      Reply
Nagraj April 12, 2017

Hi Tomaz:

Thanks for the excellent lesson. All the points emphasized in this lesson are well-taken.

Ideally, one requires several hours of free-hitting in each session with a clear focus on aspects of the game that one wants to work on (technical, tactical, footwork, mental, etc.).

In reality, our busy schedules or limited court time (e.g., indoor courts in winter) may require us to be more efficient with the available practice time.

Using more tennis balls during such sessions (e.g, 6-8 instead of 3), warming up ahead of the scheduled start time, and having a structured session plan should all be helpful.

Since the serve and return of serve are the two most used strokes in the game of tennis, I am wondering if a significant fraction of your practice time (50 per cent) for the free-hitting session should always begin with these two strokes followed by the free-hitting drills (assuming second serves and easy returns).

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    Good points, Nagraj.

    I don’t think serve and return are most used strokes in a match.

    Assuming on average 6 points per game and playing 10 games per set you will serve 5 times and with 50% first serve percentage you will serve 3×5 first serves and 3×5 second serves (+15 first serves missed).

    So that’s 45 serves. As a returner you won’t return missed first serve so you’ll hit around 30 returns.

    But in a typical recreational tennis point you will hit the ball on average 5 times. Forget the pro stats that say average rally lasts 4 shots (for both!)…

    So playing 6 points per game x 10 games x 5 strokes = 300 strokes

    So 300 strokes against 45 serves and 30 returns.

    I mostly used to just hit and not practice much serves since I played volleyball and serve came naturally to me.

    But I agree that you should try and incorporate serves and returns in the free hitting practice session although I would use perhaps 10-15 minutes for that and 45-50 minutes for free hitting.

    Reply
Dave Smith April 12, 2017

Hi Tomaz hope all is well in Slovenia , a great article, yes I agree to a big extent about the benefits of free hitting. I have been trying this the last few years with partners , and especially the last year. It has helped my game both singles and doubles.

Above all its helped with my fitness, endurance, concentration, focus, feel, self correction and technique development, strengthening /conditioning and injury avoidance.

The benefits from free hitting in my opinion are immense, and even better when it is done before point games, point challenges and even sets. Many thanks Dave Smith Belfast.

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    Thanks for sharing, Dave, nice to hear from someone else how many benefits they find from free hitting.

    Reply
Daniel Moldovan April 12, 2017

You are so spot on about the “ego” of human beings.

But what contributes to this idea of having to play points and matches is that most people try to emulate what they see on TV. And on TV they see only matches. They never broadcast a practice session.

Even in other sports it’s pretty much the same. As kids, we never played soccer without a goal and without keeping score.

Thanks for all these great tennis instructions!

Reply
    Tomaz April 12, 2017

    I agree, Daniel. That’s why I try to share my views and show another side of tennis and how to practice.

    Reply
PAtrick April 12, 2017

Tomaz, Excellent presentation. What is your opinion with using a ball machine as a free hitting partner? Thank you, Patrick

Reply
    Tomaz April 13, 2017

    Hey Patrick, ball machine is fine for quite a while especially if you can make it change direction a bit.

    It does help you groove in the strokes and find those little adjustments needed through repetition.

    The only problem in the long term is that you don’t get different types of incoming balls which happens all the time in the real game.

    But to stabilize the technique the ball machine is fine since a coach would also just be a “ball machine” for a while and feed you balls in that stage.

    Reply
Austin April 12, 2017

Very well wriiten Tomasz.

Hard to argue with all you have said. To my mind, improving technique requires hours upon hours of practice and your write-up gets this spot on.

The one danger about recreational tennis is the absence of an unstructured training program that leads students of the game to develop bad habits that stay with them and take forever to eliminate.

I also agree with you that the ratio of practice to point play should be skewed in favor of the former.

Cheers

Austin
Nigeria

Reply
    Tomaz April 13, 2017

    Hey Austin,

    If one just hits mindlessly not being aware what’s going on and not adjusting then technique may just stay the same.

    But this “unstructered” practice with awareness of what’s going on and adjusting corrects technique over time.

    Reply
Joe Sach April 13, 2017

Great video as always Tomaz. I think your mindset during the session is one of the most interesting areas.

How many of us do that little micro analysis of the shot. Not worrying about the outcome, but a quick thought on the cause and then adjusting.

Reply
    Tomaz April 13, 2017

    Hey Joe,

    Yes, that mindset is easy to practice in free hitting sessions but it has to be there also in match play so that one can learn to analyze the game with a clear and calm mind and not be affected by emotions that cloud the judgment.

    Reply
Kevan April 13, 2017

Hi Tomaz. 100% with you on this. I’ve only been playing for 12 months or so and all most of my other club players of similar ability want to do is matchplay etc. I on the other hand, love free hitting, for exactly what you mention in video.

I try to tell aforementioned players that free hitting is not boring, but great for learning your strokes. They don’t believe me.

Well, I’m going to show them that you Tomaz, who is obviously far and away more accomplished than I’ll ever be, that they might just be wrong.

Reply
    Tomaz April 13, 2017

    Good idea, Kevan, just send them a link to this article. 😉

    Reply
pahh April 13, 2017

Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I truly enjoyed it. What a timely email.

I have just decided to play high percentage tennis with focus on staying away from the lines in hopes to establish a rhythm and enjoy the groundstrokes and be patient to allow a point to present itself. thanks again!

Reply
Roger April 16, 2017

Hello Tomaz, I did the project in the summer to look at the ball and the contact zone and this contributed a lot to the evolution of my game (NTRP 3,5 at age 40 and playing tennis for 18 months), however when I try to improve one I feel that I lose the ball.
What do you mentor me:
Do not care about mistakes and focus on each skill?
To persist a little more in this project of the zone of contact, as Gallwey says about the relationship with the ball “fascination of the mind”?
Work skills alone, including the contact zone?
On the other hand, starting the game, during the point, I should focus on the ball, zone of contact and intention, as you say in your book The Tennis Strategy Encyclopedia “80% is Playing a Good Tennis”?
Thank you and congratulations for your work.
Hugs from Brazil.

Reply
    Tomaz April 19, 2017

    Hi Roger,

    As for mistakes, you shouldn’t get upset by them but you should see and know what happened – so that you can adjust for the next shot.

    And yes, when you play points, then play points, focus on tactics and making sure you play good tennis.

    The skills from free hitting sessions will be there automatically and then longer you do this the higher the skill level will be in matches.

    Reply
Jawahar April 17, 2017

Good morning Tomaz, this is Jawahar from Hyderabad, India. I have gone through the entire article which I missed earlier. It is so useful for a guy like me who always think of continuous improvement.

Your article on improving skill is so comprehensive and I fully agree with you in respect of spending as much time hitting down the middle in order to not only improving skills but also consistency.

Yes I certainly feel spending more time in practice is far more beneficial than playing for points. Taking a cue out of your lessons I’ll definitely try to improve my game in a holistic manner.

I hope you are doing well there at Ljubljana and I would like to say thank you lot from the bottom of my heart.

Regards, good day,
Jawahar, Hyderabad, India.

Reply
    Tomaz April 19, 2017

    Much appreciated, Jawahar, enjoy the free hitting sessions.

    Reply
Liz April 17, 2017

Wow, what an excellent article. I have been playing since September and started having coaching in October, playing two or three times a week. And it was only the day before yesterday that it clicked! I found that laser focus and cleared my mind and served more consistently than I had ever dreamt of! So now I have read this I have a path to follow going forward. Thank you

Reply
john April 17, 2017

Great- this video is soo important in the learning of the game- so right- many people just want to play play play – its like learning the piano- do you have a lesson and then go play in the Albert Hall??

No practice practice practice- but not only practice- practice with a purpose- I sometimes tell my pupils as I watch them practice- there is nothing like good practice- and THAT was nothing like a good practice.. great video Tomas..

Reply
Bo April 18, 2017

Thanks for the help!

I practice like this with a ball machine and highly recommend it. My partner gets a live ball back from my machine feed, which I try to hit ‘nice’. We switch off. This allows the live ball person to practice transition shots, volleys, and ground strokes again working on individual techniques. Sometimes we have three and go live to live.

I also like free hitting but practice partners often cannot send a nice ball back, especially when working on weak shots. A machine feed keeps this going.

Reply
Evie Seifu April 18, 2017

Thank you so much. This is great yes I do believe it..and luckily for me i have once or twice experienced that “zone”.

For me it’s best against the wall as there are no distractions and it’s very hard to find someone who wants to just hit.

What is great for me is that you help me to bring attention to and verbalize the steps I need to take with awareness.

Ever grateful!
Evie

Reply
    Tomaz April 19, 2017

    Thanks, Evie.

    I know it’s hard to find people to just hit with that’s another reason I posted the article above.

    Hopefully more will understand the benefits of free hitting.

    Reply
Kumar April 20, 2017

Tomaz, Fantastic explanations. Thanks for making my passion for Tennis so meaningful. I learn a lot watching your presentations. You give so much to people who love Tennis.

Reply
Luca April 24, 2017

Hi Tomaz,

I am pleased to see a video from yours about free hitting. I would like to share my experience about that.
When I started playing Tennis, I spent some time in group lessons for adults, where all the other partecipants wanted to do was playing for points, and the instructor let them have their way! I felt like playing much worse than I knew I could, and that my tecnique was going backwards. Frankly, I did not understand why the others wished to do just that. I left that school and went for another one where we spent most of the time doing drills, while also playing free hitting with a friend of mine. Soon I felt that my tennis skills were slowly coming back even better than before.

Reply
Add Your Reply

Leave a Comment: