Serve is Out = Great Return, Explained

Your opponent hits their serve long.

“Out,” you say, as you swing at the ball anyway.

Lo and behold, the shot you produce on this return, a return that, by all accounts, should be more difficult than a typical return (because the serve was out), turns out to be excellent. You make clean, solid contact, and effortlessly send the ball flying deep into your opponent’s court.

And then the second serve comes, and you hit the frame. Or you hit it wide. Or you miss into the net.

What’s happening here? Why do we seem so darn good at returning serves that are out, and yet, when the ball lands in, everything falls apart?

Self 1 and Self 2

In The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey distinguishes between two “selfs” when it comes to the human mind as it relates to tennis.

  • Self 1 – the narrator, the logical thinker, the analyzer, the “you” that you generally consider you
  • Self 2 – the self that controls the body, the subconscious, the animalistic self

It’s a very similar concept to the idea of System 1 vs System 2 thinking from Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

A useful way to understand the human mind is as two distinct processing apparatuses mixed together as one. First, there’s the mind we’re familiar with – the one that narrates our life, chooses between goals, mediates, judges, etc. When most people attempt to answer the question, “who am I?” it is this part of the mind with which they identify.

But the second kind of thinking, the second “self,” is equally important in your functioning. It’s the part of the brain that controls your heartbeat, regulates your temperature, and makes you walk. It’s the part that allows you to flinch away from danger before “you” have even noticed the threat, the part that notices movement in your peripheral vision, listens for danger while you sleep, or wakes the mother when her baby cries.

It is this second self, self 2, that is the master of controlling the body.

Sure, self 1 can order simple movements – order your hand to move up, and it’ll move up, but that’s about the extent of the complexity self 1’s orders can produce. Even for an act as simple as typing, self 1 does not order the specific movements – “type ‘yt, now type ‘y’, now type ‘p'” – but rather merely orders the hands to “type the word ‘typing'”, and then allows self 2 to take over and control.

Ceding Control to Self 2

When your opponent serves a fault, and you swing anyway, you often naturally and automatically cede full control to self 2, without even thinking about it. On the other hand, when they serve the ball in, self 1 is typically occupying much of your mental capacity while you attempt to strike the return.

Here are some of the consequences of giving self 1 too much control while playing tennis.

1. Added Tension

When the serve lands out, you naturally loosen up. Since no consequences will arise from the swing, not even the untrained mind has any reason to be tight. No muscles that shouldn’t be firing fire.

Almost everyone tenses under any amount of stress, and almost all tension impedes tennis swings. Even the small amount of stress of “hey, don’t miss this one” can cause subconscious tension in the rest of your body, interfering with stroke production.

2. Worse Subconscious Adjustment

Your body does a lot of things without self 1 noticing they’ve happened until after the fact. If self 1 is in control, though, those things can’t happen.

Making small, improvisational adjustments on something like a serve return is one of such things. When someone serves the ball at you at 120 mph, there’s not enough time to go, “oh, I’m too close to it. That means I need lean away. Careful not to break my 90 degree racket angle, or I’ll shank the ball, etc, etc.”

Instead, you need to have trained the habit of how to adjust in practice, so that, in a match, you can just let it happen. Otherwise, self 2 won’t have the mental resources to actually execute the adjustment.

3. Hidden Habit Interference

The more conscious you are, the less your body can naturally resort to its ingrained patterns of movement. There are things your body does that are happening below the conscious level, but, counter-intuitively, if you try to pay attention to them, they can’t happen anymore.

If you’re really “on” one day, chances are you are letting self 2 take over more than usual.

Back in high school we had combination locks on our lockers. Every day I’d show up and open my locker out of pure habit. Even though my eyes and my hands were being used, they were being used by self 2, not by self 1. One day, I looked down and… I’d forgotten my combination. I had no idea what it was. Unlocking the locker had been so fully taken over by self 2 that self 1 actually didn’t know how to do it anymore.

This happens to a smaller degree in tennis, too. If you’re really “on” one day, chances are you are letting self 2 take over more than usual. Your body is implementing subconscious habits that you’ve built, that you can’t consciously control, but if self 1 takes back over, these subconscious habits disappear.

The Limits of Self 2

Almost every tennis player in the world would benefit from ceding more control to self 2. What, then, is the function of self 1?

First, on any particular stroke, there might be a small, simple way self 1 can influence the movement – one clear, concise order self 1 can send, and then let self 2 handle the rest. “Drive with the upper back” to initiate the 1-handed-backhand is one example. For players who have a habit of driving with, say, their triceps, the added tension from giving the “upper back” order is well worth the change in stroke mechanics. Once this drive is mastered and automatic, the player can go back to fully relaxing into the shot.

Almost every tennis player in the world would benefit from ceding more control to self 2.

Tactically, again, self 1 can jump in for quick, concise orders. If you’ve decided to play something like, say, 20% drop shots, self 1 can jump in and order “drop shot,” and then step aside and allow self 2 to execute. The tricky part here is that if self 2 decides to attempt a drop shot, and self 1 jumps in and says “hey, that’s way more than 20% drop shots you’ve been hitting!”, self 2 will lose control, the body will tighten up, and the shot will almost certainly fail.

As you can see, even when trying to offer what is correct strategic advice, self 1 can actually impair your chances. We’ll discuss more of the interplay between self 1, self 2, strategy, and tactics in the coming weeks.

For now, see what happens if you clear your mind and allow self 2 to take over while you play. It’ll be difficult to do, but occasionally you’ll get it, and those shots will feel freer and better than all the rest.

1 Comment

  1. Tim Lever
    October 22, 2021

    That is a great insight, I have often experienced hitting a good “out” serve return and long suspected that it was because I was relaxed and chilled about it.


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