The Pusher’s Strategy is Better Than Yours

The pusher's strategy depcited as a probability distribution with its center at the center of the court

The pusher’s strategy isn’t very good – hit the ball back into the court and never play offense. Clearly, the pusher is wasting at least some opportunities to get ahead in rallies at very little cost. You’ll often observe a pusher handle a short ball by putting it high and slow over the net, and then running back to the baseline. Yuck.

But, for many players, even the pusher’s mediocre strategy is still far better than theirs. So many players play their shots with absolutely inane frequencies and targets, using such an ineffective strategy that, actually, they too would be better off using the “hit every ball somewhat deep and over the center of the net” strategy.

Recreational players, especially, choose targets which create distributions including far too many misses and end up wasting tons of equity every shot. And it’s doubly wasteful because, more often than not, their opponents are using those same, terrible targets, and thus if one player could just keep the darn ball in, their opponent would quickly spray it out for them.

Why It’s So Frustrating

Offense in tennis is difficult. There’s a reason that pushers dominate the lower age divisions.

This recreational strategic inaccuracy is part of the reason “pushers” get so much hate. Pushers are visibly playing a strategy which is not optimal; they routinely sacrifice equity by wasting offensive opportunities. The non-pusher can so clearly and vividly identify how the pusher’s strategy is lacking; how can their opponent be any good if they never play offense? The non-pusher loathes the fact that the pusher doesn’t really do anything during the rally, that he simply waits for them to miss.

And yet, even still, pushing is a far better strategy than the typical rec adopts. It’s just that the strategic flaws in their game are far more opaque than the pusher’s simple refusal to play offense. They don’t realize they’re aiming to terrible targets, and instead just bemoan how often they’re missing.

The result is that you feel like you’re losing to someone playing a terrible strategy, and in a way you are, but you’re losing because you yourself are playing an even worse strategy.

Finding A Better Strategy

First, understand that offense in tennis is difficult. There’s a reason that pushers dominate the lower age divisions. Consistent offense is hard to play, while competent defense is proportionally much easier. A quality offensive player must hit a huge variety of different shots, from different positions, effectively. From slow, high balls at all parts of the court, to transitional volleys, to low volleys and half volleys, to high volleys and swinging volleys, and of course, quality overheads – that’s a ton of different movement patterns to master in order to play effective offense.

The pusher has one goal – get the ball back into the court. His target is huge.

Contrast that with defense. You need a forehand, a backhand, a forehand and backhand slice, and maybe a couple lobs. That’s it. Defensive situations are far more similar to each other than offensive situations are. Further, the offensive player is aiming to smaller targets than the defensive player is. The pusher has one goal – get the ball back into the court. His target is huge. If your goal, unlike the pusher’s, is to hit the ball away from your opponent, you’re placing a much larger burden of execution on yourself than the pusher is on himself.

Humility is Your Weapon

The key to beating a pusher is self-awareness. First, understand that the pusher might just actually be better than you. If the pusher can make 10 shots in a row, and you can neither make 10 shots in a row, nor consistently win the point with offense in <10 shots, then guess what… you’re going to lose, and the pusher doesn’t need any offense to beat you.

But assuming this isn’t the case, if you’re losing to a pusher, you are selecting shots which are not conducive to winning at your current skill level; you’re throwing away equity with every decision. Most players over-estimate their shot-making ability, and thus end up aiming to targets they can’t actually consistently hit. I’m not talking about your self-perceived skill level here, I’m talking about your actual, statistical skill level. Impartially observe the results of your shots. When you aim for a certain target, where does the ball actually land, and how often?

The 80% Rule – A Starting Point

To beat a pusher, you need to dramatically increase the amount of shots you hit into the court. Start with 80% as a threshold for how often neutral and offensive shots need to go in (though it really should be more). Pick targets for which the ball will go in at least 80% of the time.

An intuitive target (left) that is actually far too aggressive for the depicted player’s skill level; too much of the distribution is out. Using a more conservative target (right) will lead to far better outcomes on this approach shot.

If you can meet that 80% threshold and play offense, go for it, and your offense will actually work. At first, It may feel like you’re "not being aggressive enough," but that is incorrect. You’re being as aggressive as you’re capable of effectively being.

And here’s the thing – you’ll still hit winners. Sometimes, you’ll miss your target by hitting wider or deeper than you intended, and the ball will go screaming past the pusher with a satisfying whiz. More importantly, though, you’ll stop missing.

By choosing a target you can routinely actually hit for each offensive shot, your percentage of offensive shots made will skyrocket. You’ll stop missing your approach shots, or missing your volleys, or missing the last ball, and instead you’ll consistently (and satisfyingly) be running the pusher around.

Now for some tough love. Not every recreational player can meet this 80% threshold with offensive shots. If it turns out you don’t possess any offensive shots that you can execute with over 80% consistency, then you simply are not skilled enough to execute the offensive strategy that you’re trying to play. The pusher should beat you. It’s time to head back to the practice court.

And in the meantime, if you really want to win, maybe you should consider pushing, too.


  1. RA Cueva
    April 1, 2022

    This is an insightful post. However, I think there is a more foundational flaw the pusher is attacking in the non-pusher’s game: fitness.

    At a high level, this is not apparent: Wilander vs Lendl…both were spectacular athletes. When Lendl won points, it was because his construction was superior AND, when the rally was at shot number 7,8, or 20, Lendl still had enough gas in the tank to put the ball away.

    At the recreational level, I see fitness as being the crack in the non-pusher’s foundation. Even if they can construct a rally using “80%” shots that puts the pusher in a compromised position, that pusher will put up a lob…if there is not enough gas in the tank, the non-pusher will lose that point.

    The stroke mechanics you describe should enable players to play in a more energy-efficient manner and increase their shot tolerance. At a sub-elite level, fitness determine match outcomes. I know that sounds obvious but no amount of strategic or tactical improvement will help you beat a pusher until you can match their fitness level.

    1. Johnny (FTF)
      April 1, 2022

      Oh, interesting insight! You’re, right, I neglected to mention fitness.

      Fault tolerance requires significant footwork and patience, but when you put those things together, that adds up to a lot of moving around on the court. Thanks for pointing this out, I’m really glad this comment is here.

      Sometimes, it might feel like you should beat a pusher, but the truth is that, in reality, you’re not fit enough. The reason it feels like you’re fit enough is because you aren’t moving with enough intensity, or you aren’t patient enough, to actually win the rallies. If you move in the way you really need to move in order to win, you simply won’t have enough gas in the tank.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *