There are three critical, broad skill classes you need to master in order to be an elite tennis player. In order, they are:
If you’re good at these three things, you’ll be an elite tennis player, and if you’re missing any of the three, you won’t be. You might be wondering, what about strategy? Tactics? Strength? These are all subordinate to the big three listed above.
Take tactics as an example. Karue Sell made a fun video beating up on a 4.5 player using an intentionally handicapping tactic – Karue would not hit any winners. The result? A 6-0 set, of course, because tactical prowess doesn’t come anywhere close to closing the ball striking, vision, and movement gap between the two players.
Strength and fitness are in a similar boat.
It’s great to be strong, but if you don’t know how to properly recruit that strength to generate racket head speed, then the extra muscle is just dead weight.
Similarly, it’s great to be fit, but your fitness doesn’t matter unless your vision is also adept. If you’re fit enough to grind, but you miss every fourth ball due to tracking mistakes, then, guess what, your fitness barely provides an advantage.
The Limiting Reagent
In a chemical reaction, the “limiting reagent” is the first chemical to get fully consumed, thereby preventing further reaction. It is the thing that, were more of it added to the reaction, would spur the reaction to continue.
If you want to improve in tennis, you need to focus on your limiting skill class, because it is your limiting skill class that’s preventing you from improving. Importantly, this means first identifying which of the skill classes is limiting you. If you find yourself in a plateau, despite extensive practice or training, chances are you’re working on a skill class which is not your limiting skill class.
Skill Capped Bottlenecks
A very common bottleneck for aspiring players is the 4.5 USTA level (between 7-9 UTR, typically), because it’s typically the level at which players who are only good at 2 of the 3 skill classes get stuck.
- Elite grinders (like the YouTube (in)famous MEP) are solid 4.5s. The grinder has great vision, pretty solid movement, and no real stroke production to speak of.
- Players with great stroke production and vision are also solid 4.5s, but they don’t move well enough to advance further.
- Players with great stroke production who move well are in such perfect position for most balls that they get away with their poor vision, but they lose too many points to random errors to compete at the higher levels.
You’ll actually see advice on “how to get to 5.0” for each of these cases.
Some will say “the difference between a 4.5 and a 5.0 is athleticism and fitness.” True, if that former 4.5 had great vision and strokes.
Others suggest that, “5.0 players just track the ball way better.” Also true, and a 4.5 with great movement and strokes should work on vision to improve.
Finally, the least true of the three: “5.0 players just hit harder.” Stroke production is the most important of the three tennis skills. There are many, many 4.5 players with the 2/3 combination of:
- stroke production + vision
- stroke production + movement
The MEP’s of the world are rare, because it is quite difficult to succeed with just movement and vision (you’ll probably need to master secondary classes like tactics as well). Rare as they are, though, they are still solid 4.5s, and like the others we discussed, they only need to master one more skill class to advance. Slap a typical 4.5 forehand onto MEP, and he’s a 5.0, easily.
What I’m Good at Is What Matters
Human beings like to be good at things. Human beings really like when the things they’re already good at turn out to be the important things. But this bias towards thinking things you’re good at are important interferes with tennis practices everywhere.
The ball-striker with sloppy vision sees the player across the net with mediocre technique.
“Ugh, I’m so much better than this guy, how am I losing to him?”
The player with great vision sees the ball-striker across the net and thinks:
“This guy can’t even make 5 shots in a row, he’s just hitting lucky winners.”
The young athlete losing to the 45 year old fat 5.0 can’t understand it.
“This guy can’t even move, I should be winning every point!”
The answer to to each player’s confusion is simple: they are all focusing only on the skill classes that they are already good at, while dismissing the other skill classes as unimportant.
If the ball-striker worked on his vision, he’d improve tremendously. If the grinder worked on his ball-striking, he’d improve as well. (The fat 5.0 is very self aware of his movement liability and just likes beating up on players who think they’re better than he is.)
We don’t like to admit that the area in which we’re deficient is important. The grinder does not respect the ball-striking of the player who can’t make 5 shots in a row, even though that player’s kinetic chain really is better than the grinder’s.
The ball-striker does not respect the ability of the grinder to move efficiently and to track the ball cleanly into the strings 50 times in a row, even though the ball-striker, despite his stroke production, is likely months away from being able to do this consistently.
There exists a natural human aversion to admitting we’re bad at something that really, really matters. If we’re bad at something, we desperately want that thing to be unimportant. This kind of thinking creates plateaus. It prevents us from seeing fundamental flaws in our own game, leading to stagnation despite our practice time. And even as this mode of thinking impedes our development, it continues patting us on the back, telling us we’re doing a great job, while we take repetition after repetition working on the skill classes we’re already good at.
Misplaced Emphasis on Secondary Skill Classes
In order to smash through a plateau, you need to first correctly diagnose its cause, and a big pet-peeve of mine is when coaches mis-diagnose deficiencies of stroke production, vision, or movement as issues of secondary skills instead – specifically as issues of tactics, fitness, or effort.
Here are some good examples.
Telling the grinder to hit harder.
This is tactical advice, but it is almost definitely misplaced. The grinder is probably not capable of producing a fault tolerant, powerful forehand. If this player blindly tries to hit harder, it will eradicate all of their fault tolerance, causing their miss rate to skyrocket. As a result, they’ll quickly abandon their “powerful” stroke and go back to grinding.
Their lack of power is not a tactical issue. It is a stroke production issue. This player will dramatically improve when, and only when, they learn to better coordinate their kinetic chain.
The inverse is equally annoying.
Telling the ball-striker to “go for less.”
Again, another piece of bad tactical advice. The ball-striker is perfectly capable of producing the shots they are attempting… when they’re in position, and when they watch the ball. Which they never are, and they never do.
The issue with this player’s game is that they have glaring deficiencies in movement, vision, or both – their shot selection decisions are a secondary factor.
This player can be very tough to work with, because they tend to think they’re much better than they really are. The player is unaware of their own vision/movement deficiencies, and thereby also unaware that most of their ball-striking capability is next to useless during a match. The way for this player to win a match is to tone the ball striking way, way down to match their (low) movement and vision capabilities, but the way for them to improve is to bring their vision and movement up to the level of their stroke production, not to play more conservative tennis.
Telling the bad mover to get fitter, or to “stop being lazy.”
Most of the time, the bad mover just doesn’t know what they’re doing. They don’t understand how to activate the muscles in their calves, hips, core, back, etc in order to efficiently move around the court. Before calling the student lazy, first actually show them how to orient their body to move explosively.
This might even need to be done in the gym – some players have little to no proprioceptive understanding of what their hamstrings or glutes even do.
Movement technique, like stroke production technique, needs to be practiced. If a student doesn’t move well, teach them how to move well, and then have them practice moving like that over, and over, and over again, and eventually it’ll become habit just like everything else.