Why is it that so many players feel like they play great in practice, and yet can’t produce that same level of tennis in matches? In two words:
In a match situation, there’s so much more to focus on than in practice, which puts a strain on your limited attention. Often, the things that work great in practice, but fall apart in matches, are the things that you focus on in practice, but don’t have the mental resources to focus on in matches.
Let’s say you have a bad habit that you’re working out of your game during practice. For this example, we’ll use a common one: you under-rotate on your forehand. You and your practice partner grind cross-court forehands so that you can practice fully rotating into contact.
Within 20-30 shots, you’ll be rotating properly, because you’re able to focus on your rotation as you swing. Further, this focus won’t demand 100% of your mental attention; you’ll also be able to focus on whatever else it is you typically focus on as you go to hit. Whether it’s your feet, your contact, your breath, etc. – whatever it is that you typically spend your attention on when you strike a forehand, you’ve got enough mental resources to keep focusing on that and to add in the extra focus on proper rotation.
Now let’s change to a match. All of the sudden, there’s way more to focus on:
- Where is your opponent?
- How are they defending?
- What shot are you going to hit?
- What happens if you miss?
- How big should you go?
Etc, etc, etc…
You also have to serve before you play your forehand, which adds yet another novelty to the match situation, and adds another list of items demanding your mental attention.
Movement in a match is different. With your practice partner, you were grinding forehands out of the forehand corner, but in a match, you might have to sprint that way before contact, further complicating the footwork and preparation.
Under these conditions, you do not have the mental resources for everything, and the first thing to go is going to be the thing that’s most novel – in your case, proper rotation. In practice, you thought you’d gotten rid of that bad habit, but the only reason you were rotating properly in practice was because you had enough mental resources to focus on it. Once you get into the match, that’s no longer the case.
This means that, in order to really break a bad habit, you need to practice the correct version so much that you can perform it properly without mental focus, because, in a match situation, mental resources are so limited.
1. Practice Until Unconscious Competence
Our first key insight into playing better in matches – practice your good habits until you can do them without thinking. If you can perform your good habit correctly while focusing on it, that’s great, and it’s definitely better than reverting back to your bad habit, but until your newly minted good habit has moved into the phase of unconscious competence (you perform it correctly without thinking), it’ll always demand mental attention during matches. Since mental attention is so limited in matches, there’s a good chance it won’t get it.
Newly formed habits aren’t the only things that get forgotten during the mental attention squeeze that occurs during matches, though. Here are some other things that often get the axe, and for which just a little bit of extra focus goes a long way.
2. Split Step After You Serve
I know, I know, it sounds trivial. But are you sure you always actually prepare for the next ball after you serve? Especially if your serve is in flux right now – maybe you’re tweaking your mechanics or you’re dealing with an injury – it’s extremely easy to become so distracted by your serve that you forget to prepare for the point after you strike it.
A few days ago, I was hitting with a friend of mine who hadn’t played a match in a while, and he was making this exact mistake. I’d chip the return, not a drop shot, just a short slice, and he wouldn’t even move for it, despite only needing a couple steps to hit it back. It might sound strange, but this is actually a pretty common problem.
Definitely look out for this if you routinely play against returners who miss your serve (if you’re male, mixed doubles is a killer for this). If you hit 5, 6, 7 unreturned serves in a row, your brain will get lazy. Your subconscious will ask you: why do I have to split step when the serve isn’t coming back anyway? Don’t let yourself fall into this habit.
3. Prepare Early
In practice, there’s so much less to think about that most players naturally take the racket back on time. In matches, this isn’t always the case. If, as the ball comes over the net, you’re thinking about 10 different shots you can hit, and how you’ll recover after each one, chances are what you’re not doing is beginning your preparation.
Turn early, and then wait until the ball gets there, rather than waiting to turn away until the ball is already close. In The Fault Tolerant Forehand, the last section of Preparation is titled “Inhale and Wait.” An entire section is dedicated to this idea because it’s so often overlooked that waiting is a critical piece of proper forehand preparation.
It’s very tempting to only start your preparation once you feel like you’re basically ready to swing, but that’s too late. In order for the stroke to be fault tolerant, you need to prepare extremely early. That way, even if the ball comes at you quicker than expected, or if it takes a bad bounce, or even if you just execute the stroke improperly, you’ll still have plenty of time to adjust, and therefore the stroke will succeed anyway.
Do not try to time your preparation such that preparation and swing is one continuous motion. Start immediately once you recognize where the ball is coming. Move to the ball with plenty of time to spare, inhale, and then wait until you see the ball reach the zone at which you want to begin your swing.
4. Margin, Margin, Margin
Especially in singles tennis, you need to use higher margin shots than you think, and it’s common for a player’s sense of what is an appropriate level of aggression to be miscalibrated during practice.
During practice, missing doesn’t really matter. Sure, your brain will hit you with a little bit of negative emotion, but it’s nothing like losing a point in a match. If you try to hit a forehand winner in practice, and you convert it 60% of the time, the positive emotion of the successful winners may outweigh the negative emotion of the missed shots. In a match, of course, this emotional response is incorrect: if you have an opportunity to hit a forehand winner, your equity in the point should be far higher than 60%.
5. Practice Your Offense
We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. You have to practice offensive tennis if you ever want to be good at offensive tennis. This is a huge issue with many practices. In many contexts, it’s actually impolite to attack your practice partner’s short ball and blast a winner by him.
The solution is to add in dedicated offensive drills to your practice sessions like Offense-Defense. That way, when you get into a match and you attempt offensive tennis, it won’t be so novel. Again, when a typical player goes up to smack a short forehand in a match, there’s a good possibility this is literally the first time all week they’ve attempted that shot. Of course it’s going to be low percentage.
In a match, you won’t have nearly as many mental resources at your disposal as you will in practice. Here’s how to play well anyway.
- Practice until unconscious competence.
- Split step after you serve.
- Prepare early.
- Aim to bigger targets.
- Practice your offense.
Also, I’ll leave you with one more: Play matches!
Whatever kind of match you want to be good at, whether that’s singles, doubles, mixed doubles, or something else, you’ve got to play that kind of match many times over in order to master it. Doing so will allow you to practice the specific kinds of shots that are common in that format, and to grasp the nuances of what makes a player good at it.
May 29, 2021
I always enjoy these posts. They are clear, precise, and practical. Anyone wanting to improve their game needs to read and practice the methods included here. I look forward to reading more. Thank you for your expertise and instruction.
August 13, 2022
Great article..one critical typo in Summing Up item #1
August 28, 2022
Oh boy, good catch!
For anyone reading this, it used to say “practice until unconscious INcompetence”