With so much emphasis on tennis technique and important skills like watching the ball, staying on balance, hitting at the right contact point and so on, it’s hard to know what the most important factor is in order to play well.
And this factor that I rarely see mentioned anywhere when it comes to tennis instruction is something that most likely you don’t do well.
What I am talking about is intention.
In this case, “intention” refers to the decision you make about what you want to do with the ball. It is the most important part of tennis, and proper intention increases your chances of hitting the ball in the court.
When I work with tennis players and they miss a shot, my first question is always whether they knew exactly what they wanted.
I can see that they’re checking in their mind what technical mistake may have caused their error, but technique is rarely the cause of a missed shot.
You may ask then: why are we learning better technique?
The main two reasons for improving your technique are:
Keep in mind that having better ways to control the ball does not necessarily mean that you will apply these approaches on autopilot.
If, for example, you learn to spin the ball, that doesn’t mean you’ll now play more balls over the net.
The technique for spinning the ball simply gives you the ability to spin the ball. But, in order to hit the ball over the net deeply and accurately, you’ll need to judge each ball very quickly.
You have only a split second to decide how much spin you’ll apply, how fast you’ll hit the ball, how high above the net you’ll aim and in which direction you plan to hit it.
That’s a lot of variables that need to be in the right place, and it is these variables that eventually make the ball go in the court.
In other words, you can hit a technically perfect forehand stroke with exactly the right amount of topspin right into the net because you weren’t really aiming high enough – in fact, many times players don’t have any idea about the height of their strokes when they hit the ball.
They keep thinking about technical elements of the stroke, wrongly thinking that correct technique hits the ball in the court.
It doesn’t. It simply enables your body to swing the racquet more efficiently and possibly enables you to control the ball more easily – but you still need to control it!
The best analogy I can give you is that improving your technique is like boosting up your car’s performance.
You can upgrade your engine and change the tires for a better grip, but that doesn’t mean the car will automatically drive better by itself.
The driver will, in fact, have to be even better in order to be able to control a more powerful car and keep it on the road!
It is the driver’s intention and his quick and early decisions that keep the car in the lane – not the car’s better specifications.
And what I see often with tennis players is their only concern with how to improve the car’s performance (meaning their technique) but not their driving performance (meaning their ability to decide correctly and early enough on what do to with each ball).
What baffles them later on is when they lose to someone with a “weaker car”, but who obviously was a better “driver”.
In order to hit the ball in the court, we need to know:
But instead of thinking of 5 variables as the ball is approaching us, we can simply imagine one thing, which is a trajectory into a certain target area.
Once we have a clear trajectory of the ball flight in our mind, our body will start to align and adjust its position and the swing of the racquet in order to find the most efficient way of achieving what we want.
Here’s how you work on a clear intention in easy conditions first:
Now that you’re aware how clearly you are able to imagine the ball’s flight, meaning how clear your intention before the shot can be, attempt to create such clear intention while you’re rallying with a partner.
See if you are able to “see” the trajectory of the ball in your mind before you hit it, even though you now have only a good second of time to make your intention very clear.
If you are not able to see the ball flight in your mind before the shot in such clear detail, you need to work on this part of the game.
The ball must be “told” where and how to go, and you do that through intention and not through technique.
Technique is way too “rough” to be able to control the ball accurately.
We do that through feel, meaning through minute changes of the racquet’s angle and its path at contact, which are all a consequence of our intention.
We cannot consciously control and change a degree of the racquet’s head angle or change a few degrees of the racquet’s swing path, but our subconscious can!
What we – meaning our conscious mind – need to do is to create a clear intention of what we want, and then allow the subconscious to adjust the swing in order to achieve what we want.
You must form your intention, or what you want to do with the ball, as early as possible.
That’s because, once you make your decision on how you want to play the ball, your body needs time to align properly for the ball and possibly adjust the swing of your stroke.
If you don’t give your body enough time, it won’t complete all the “preparations”, and you’ll most likely miss.
Inexperienced coaches and players will see the consequence of that miss as some improvisation of technique; therefore, they will keep correcting the technique.
That, of course, won’t work because the cause of the mistake lies in a late decision.
The best way to realize how early or late you are making your decision is to play a simple triangle game where one player covers only one half of the court while the other one covers the whole court.
The player covering only one half of the court calls out his decision (cross or down) as soon as he makes it. His goal is to outplay his opponent.
The player on the other side, of course, has to play back to only that one half of the court.
You can start in a non-competitive situation but can eventually transition to point play, for example playing a tie-break to 7 with a point starting from a hand feed.
During this game, you will realize when you make your decision and most likely see that you are making it after the ball has bounced.
If that is the case, it’s too late for your body to properly align for the shot and also for your mind to really clearly “program” the trajectory before you hit the ball.
That will then be the main cause for a poor shot, but the only visible parts you’ll see are:
Again, realize that your mind and body are doing their best to handle the late decision and that it’s not their fault that they cannot execute the stroke correctly. Instead, the late decision is the cause of all problems.
What you can see in the clips above is that, at first, players that are slightly less skilled also make late decisions, whereas my friend Urban and I, who play at a slightly higher level, make very early decisions.
It is not a coincidence that this happens.
I’d like to point out briefly that one of the most common reasons for late decision is that players look at their opponent because they want to see where he is moving. Based on that information, they make their decision.
That is, of course, not necessary at all because even intermediate players – not to mention advanced players – always attempt to reach to the ideal recovery position. Then they split step in order not to be caught on the wrong foot.
No one is going to just run to cover the open court without making sure you don’t wrong foot them – unless they are really low level players…
So, you can look at their recovery a million times, and it will always follow the same pattern.
Therefore looking at your opponent’s movement is pointless and only distracts you from tracking the ball well and timing it well.
You must make your decision on where you will play your next shot based on your opponent’s LOCATION at the moment of hitting their shot.
Their location is the main information you need to make your decision on where to play your next shot – and in 80% of the cases that is to the open court.
You may adjust or change your primary decision only if your opponent’s shot is really difficult like very deep or skidding fast very low, and prevents you from hitting a good down the line shot.
In that case, you quickly adjust and play back a deep cross court shot or a down the middle shot.
In summary, decision-making skills are very often neglected in tennis because we can’t see them.
We see only technique and footwork, and those seem to be the causes of poor shots.
The reality is that poor technique and poor movement are usually a consequence of making late and vague decisions about what to do with the ball.
Surely you’ve seen many experienced recreational tennis players with not very impressive stroke techniques who regularly win matches.
They are the masters of early, clear and, of course, smart intention. As you now know, that helps them win many matches, even against players with shiny strokes.
I invite you to test the two simple drills shown in the video above and let me know what you realize when it comes to making a clear and early intention and how that affects your ability to play more accurate and consistent shots.