Your Brain Will Trick You (Into Missing)

Sometimes, it’s amazing now “lucky” Novak Djokovic gets. He hits line after line without missing, appearing to aim to targets not even 6-inches wide, and yet never hitting the ball out. But what’s really happening here?

Even players who frequently hit the lines are not aiming for them.

They are aiming well inside the line, and missing their target wide.

Finding Your Target

You shouldn’t tolerate many misses in your singles game at all. Adjust your targets accordingly:

  • If you’re missing wide, move your target in until you aren’t anymore.
  • If you’re missing deep, move your target shallower until you aren’t anymore.
  • If, when you do that, you start hitting the net, increase your height over the net, and decrease your rotation speed, until you aren’t missing into the net anymore.

If you can’t beat your opponent with those adjustments, you’re almost definitely not going to win. You can try playing more aggressively than you’re capable of, but the end result will be an unforced error count that prevents you from being competitive.

Hitting the Lines

When you miss your target, you’ll sometimes hit the line. That’s what we want. We do not want the ball to go out when we miss our target, because we’re going to miss a lot. This is the idea of fault tolerance applied to strategy – we need to select shots that can tolerate a small mistake in execution, a small fault, without leading to an outright miss.

I saw a practice session recently where a student hit 5 lines in a row, but I could tell by the rest of the forehands he was hitting that he wasn’t aiming for them – he was just getting lucky. That’s awesome. Roll with it. The goal is to hit a lucky winner when you miss your target, rather than losing the point.

Your Brain’s Deception

On the 6th short forehand, this student hit the ball 2 feet into the ally.

I asked him, “Where were you aiming on that shot?”

His answer, “Only like a foot inside the line.”

He’d let his previous hot streak get inside his head, making him believe he had been aiming to that small target all along. He hadn’t. He was aiming farther than a foot inside the line, and had just happened to miss wide a few times in a row.

The player in both images hit a wide forehand winner that landed close to the line. Were they aiming for a conservative target, and merely missed their target wide (left), or can they consistently attack that spot on the court while rarely missing (right)?

Your brain will try to reverse engineer your intent from the outcome. It desperately wants to have tried to hit the line when the line is hit, because that validates you as a great tennis player. When you hit the line, or hit any shot you’re not aiming for, for that matter, your brain will often rewrite the past and make you feel like you were aiming there, even though you weren’t.

You’ve got to prevent this if you want to maintain your level throughout a match. If you don’t, here’s what will happen:

  1. You start out aiming to appropriate, large targets.
  2. You get on a hot streak, missing to the outside of those targets, resulting in winners.
  3. You adjust your target closer to where those winners were landing.
  4. Those same shots that you accidentally hit wider than you were aiming, which used to be winners, are now wide errors.
  5. Frustration and confusion.

Heat Check

Sometimes after you hit a few winners, you’ll start to get a little anxious, psyched out by your own performance. Am I really this good? Should I really be going for these shots?

First, remind yourself that you are not “really going for these shots” – you are merely missing your targets wide, and the result is that you’ve hit a few winners in a row by chance.

Your brain will try to reverse engineer your intent from the outcome.

As for “am I really this good?” – go ahead and test yourself. It’s possible that, today, you really can succeed while aiming at smaller targets than usual.

In basketball, a “heat check” is a colloquial term for a pass you throw to a teammate who’s made many shots in a row, with the goal of letting them shoot again, just to see if they’re still hot.

Feel free to heat check yourself in tennis. Go for a smaller target, accelerate a little more than you normally do. Who knows, maybe it works, but make a plan. If you miss a few heat checks, go back to your tried and true targets. Chances are, you were actually aiming at those larger targets all along, but your brain just reverse engineered history to make you think you were aiming to smaller targets, even though you weren’t.

When you hit an upswing in variance, during which you frequently miss wider than you were aiming and pile up the resulting winners, you’re going to feel like a million bucks. Accept it, but don’t be fooled by it. Feel free to heat check yourself, but understand that you’re probably just getting lucky. If you move your aim closer to the lines because you’re “on fire today,” you’re probably in for a frustrating conclusion to the match.

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