Tennis not best understood as a single, uniform skill. Rather, tennis exists as an interconnected set of different, related skills. For any given tennis skill, once a certain level is reached, practicing on a live ball becomes much more efficient than dead ball drilling.
Ultimately, our live ball tennis will be in the form of match play, but matches aren’t a great tool for practicing a specific skill. During a match, our chosen skill might only come up once every few minutes, giving us far too few repetitions to meaningfully improve it.
How can we isolate and practice a specific skill, while still maintaining an environment similar enough to the match environment that the practice carries over?
Enter, the tennis mini-game.
What Makes an Effective Game
In order to ensure your skill practice carries over into matches, gamify that practice. When I refer to games, I am referring to practice competitions with score keeping, winning, and losing.
During your practice, the inclusion of score keeping, winning, and losing will force you to problem solve as you play. No one likes to lose, and the spikes of negative emotion that come from losing will show you where your weaknesses lie. By keeping score, you force yourself to notice why you’re losing points, whereas when you’re just hitting, certain misses may sneak by, just below your level of awareness.
Games increase pressure, and they also strain your limited mental resources. Due to these factors, as well as the fact that both players are trying to win, game play resembles match play closely enough to constitute effective practice. Even though no game is exactly like a match, the tracking, decisions, movements, patterns, strokes, etc that you produce during games will be similar enough to those you produce in matches to help you improve.
Effective mini-games reward one or two specific or related skills, at the expense of other skills.
Take a simple game where players feed the ball in and play out the point normally, but are awarded 3 points for finishing the point at net. In this game, approaching and volleying are rewarded at the expense of baseline grinding and passing – a player would need to out grind or pass their opponent three times to make up for just one good approach/volley.
All mini-games sacrifice some of the realism of a tennis match on the alter of practicing something specific. The best sacrifice as little as possible, while getting the most dedicated practice in return.
A Few Examples
Below are a few common situations for which dedicated mini-game practice really, really helps.
Approach Shot → Approach Volley → Finishing Volley
You hit a deep forehand, get a short ball, attack that short ball with a great approach, come to net, and then mess up the first volley. Sometimes, you execute the first volley well, and then lose focus and shank the “easy” winner after that.
In order to drill this scenario, we design a game where nearly all of the points transpire as this situation. My favorite is Offense-Defense, which is laid out in The Fault Tolerant Forehand:
There’s one offensive player and one defensive player. Both players start at the center of the baseline. This is important – to maintain the realism of the drill, neither player should move from the center until the ball is fed. The defensive player feeds the offensive player a high, short ball to either side. Then, the two players play out the point cross-court. Any shot that doesn’t land cross-court (as indicated by extending the center-service line to the baseline) is out. The doubles alleys are out.The Fault Tolerant Forehand. Offense-Defense, How It Works in Practice. pg 142.
Over the course of the next month, play 100 rounds of this game to 7 points. Hopefully, by the end, the offensive player is winning almost every round easily. After doing this, your execution rate in these approach -> volley -> volley winner patterns will be much higher.
Even serving itself can be a mini-game.
Some players struggle to execute the offensive patterns necessary for an elite service game. Maybe they’re forgetting to split step after they serve. Maybe their first step up the court is slow. Maybe they attack balls that shouldn’t be attacked, or fail to attack balls that should be.
Whatever the reason, if your serve is lacking, find a hitting partner who wants to work on their return and play 100 service games against them. Do not return in between service games. Play out your sets with only you serving. This will allow you to spend 100% of your focus and self-correction on your service game – the thing you’re trying to fix.
After those 100 games, see where you’re at. By the end, you’ll probably be winning most of the serving sets 6-0, and you’ll have made massive improvements in your ability to focus and execute on serve.
Attacking from the Middle
Some students have trouble distinguishing a short, attackable middle ball from a deep one that should be played in neutral. This causes them to either miss offensive opportunities, or to make too many errors, depending on which side of the incorrect spectrum they fall on.
To drill this, play a game where a certain number of balls up the middle are required before players are allowed to hit out of the middle. I prefer 2 or 4, but you can do 6, 8, or 10 if you want to add a grinding/consistency/patience component as well.
At first, students will fall into two categories: students who always attack the first ball they’re allowed to attack, and students who never attack the first ball they’re allowed to attack. This drill will punish both.
To win this game, you need to make sharp, clear, correct decisions about when to pounce on the middle ball, and then you need to execute your attack by picking a side and committing to it. Most times a player picks wrong, they’ll end up losing the point, giving their brain a useful spike of negative emotion, thereby improving future decision making.
Mini-Games Will Solve Your Anger
Anger arises when reality doesn’t meet your expectations. If you find missing a particular shot especially frustrating, it’s because you expect to make that shot. Maybe you miss the same shot multiple times in a row, and you hate being a player that makes the same mistake over and over.
Whatever the situation that’s causing your anger, design a min-game around it and play it 100 times. Suspend your expectations until you finish – take a dispassionate, scientific approach to your game during the 100 runs of the mini-game.
We’ll make a deal. After you’re done with your 100 games, if you miss on round 101, I’ll give you permission to be frustrated. Before that, it doesn’t make sense – your expectation of success is simply miscalibrated.
Here’s the thing though: after playing the mini-game 100 times, you aren’t going to get frustrated anymore, because you’re going to be so much more aware of the nuances of the situation that was frustrating you. After the 100 games, it’ll be clear to you why you miss, and how often you miss. There won’t be a mismatch between reality and expectation anymore, because the 100 runs of your game will cement your expectations firmly in reality, as well as making you better.