Practice ‘Hacks’ by Mark Gellard from UKT Magazine #29
Article taken from UK Tennis Magazine Edition #29 – To see this article in its original format Click Here
Time is valuable. Creating a practice that not only optimizes your time but that also prioritizes fundamental components of the game is paramount. Instead of adopting a ‘monkey see, monkey do’ approach on the practice court, having a specific plan that purposefully addresses weaknesses while simultaneously improving strengths will undoubtedly yield desirable results. This article provides 5 practice ‘hacks’ that will not only maximize your on court training but will provide you with a significant competitive advantage.
Serve – ‘Think outside the box’
When practicing service placement the vast majority of players place a visual target at a designated position inside the service box. While this is not incorrect, there is a significantly more efficient way to measure your serves accuracy and effectiveness by placing serving targets on the baseline. The critical factor to consider with service placement is not necessarily where the ball bounces in your opponent’s service box but rather where the ball intercepts the baseline (this is where most returners stand to receive the oncoming ball).
For example when serving ‘T’ in the deuce court a player will often hit a desirable target within the service box but due to unwanted spin imparted on the ball it may end up crossing the baseline adjacent to where the opponent is positioned to return serve. A simple fix is to reconsider your targets and their placement. Placing a target on the baseline (diagram 1) will allow you to see the full effectiveness of your serve from the returner’s perspective while providing instant feedback.
To begin, position yourself on the service line and hit ten serves to both a ‘wide’ and ‘T’ target ensuring that your ball crosses directly over the cone placed in the service box and on the baseline. Once this has been successfully achieved take two steps back and repeat the process. Continue until you reach the baseline remaining mindful that an effective server can create a distance in excess of 15 feet for the returner to cover (diagram 2).
Return – ‘Not knowing is best’
A recent sports illustrated article written by Eric Butorac provided some keen insights on practice habits and how the best players in the world optimize their training sessions, particularly when perfecting the return of serve. Eric who achieved a career high doubles ranking of 17 in the world, described how he was summoned to the practice courts by Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open and was instructed to serve so as Novak could work on his return in preparation for his impending match against Feliciano Lopez. Below is a short transcript of how their conversation went;
Eric Butorac: Sure. Where would you like them? (In my hits with other top players, they like to get a rhythm off the slice serve first, then maybe a few kick serves, etc.)
Novak Djokovic: Doesn’t matter.
Eric Butorac: You want me to hit some second serves to start, or start hitting first-serve speed?
Novak Djokovic: Whatever
Eric Butorac: You don’t want me to tell you where it’s going at all?
Novak Djokovic: Do you think Feliciano will tell me?
“I knew that practicing your return was really important, but not more important than the way in which you practiced it” (Eric Butorac, career high #17 ATP doubles)
Eric immediately learnt a valuable lesson about practicing this crucial part of the game. NOT knowing is best. The return of serve is arguably the most important and complex shot in the game (along with the serve) due to its specific split step and movement patterns, various spins and abbreviated swing. However when training this shot most players begin by asking the server “are you serving wide or T?” Once this information has been divulged the effectiveness of the training becomes almost obsolete as players sacrifice the ability to train their anticipation, split-step, movement skills and ball reading ability. As Novak wisely noted, at no point in a match do you get told where your opponent plans on serving, and this in itself, is what makes the return so difficult.
When training your return ensure that you are oblivious as to where the server intends to serve as this is an occasion where knowing more is detrimental. Additionally, the server will also benefit as in a match situation they will not be afforded the opportunity to groove 30 or 40 balls to the same target anyway, so next time try implementing this simple adjustment to your training protocol.
‘Prioritise your priorities’
What is the most important shot in tennis? The serve. What is the second most important shot in tennis? The return. So why do we almost exclusively practice these two shots at the tail end of practice when we are the most tiered and least concentrated. Almost as an afterthought. Humans tend to behave in certain ways based on observation and imitation which is part of our culture. However just because something has become embedded in a culture does not necessarily make it practical.
At the beginning of practice you are the most mentally engaged, physically fresh and coachable so this is the optimum time to work on your priorities. Serve and return. Craig O’ Shannessy (The Brain game Tennis) who is a tennis analytics specialist discovered that during the 2016 U.S. Open’s first week of matches, 69% of men’s points and 64% of women’s points were over in 4 shots or fewer. That means that each players serve or return and proceeding shot accounts for over two thirds of the strokes a player will typically play. Statistics don’t lie. Following this basic principle of ‘prioritizing your priorities’ will help you to improve practice court efficiency while simultaneously improving the most important shots of the game.
The Basket ‘lies’
Using the ‘basket’ is an excellent option for those attempting to improve technique, groove a certain shot or eliminate extraneous variables. However, many players and coaches become obsessed with basket drills/feeding as it provides them with a feeling of confidence and consistency. Unfortunately this confidence and consistency is fake. Tennis is a game which requires radical changes of direction, anticipation, ball tracking and ‘on the fly’ decision making which are almost completely non-existent when working with the basket.
As previously mentioned the basket can be extremely useful for technical work or when attempting to perfect new skills, but its ability to replicate match conditions is limited. It is important that you allocate an appropriate amount of ‘live ball’ hitting before and after basket drills have been executed in order to evaluate effectiveness and transferability. If you do prefer basket training over ‘live ball’ hitting or match practice then ensure that the drills you perform are not only purposeful but are also varied as they can easily become monotonous and mundane. Additionally, research in to motor learning has shown that even when one desires improvement in a specific shot, such as their cross-court forehand, performing said task from different locations and with varied heights, spins and speeds is far more effective than attempting to master it with no variables.
‘The golden rule’- Point play
Despite the vast array of innovative drills and exercises that are available to players, remaining mindful that point play is the ultimate goal is fundamental. All too often players become proficient at specific exercises but lack the ability to transfer their skills on to a match court. For example a common misconception is that when working on technique you should refrain from point play. Quite the contrary. Engaging in point play such as a full match, set or conditional situations will afford both the coach and yourself with the opportunity to measure progress (or lack of) and make necessary adaptations to future training.
Due to the wealth of information available online, in books and from modern day coaches it is easy to become seduced by ‘drills’ but the ultimate goal of most players is to maximize their abilities when in a competitive environment. Anyone who intends to compete in tournaments should ensure that they attribute at least one third of their practice time to point play each day.
Years of experience, technological innovations, statistical analysis and an improved understanding of cognitive and motor learning has vastly improved the level of coaching and efficiency on the practice courts. However, being tempted to imitate others or simply practice what we think is necessary is quite possibly the biggest mistake any player can make. Using the 5 ‘practice hacks’ discussed in this article will facilitate an improved training environment that will undoubtedly evoke success.
By Mark Gellard
A PTR Professional, USPTA Elite Professional, and NSCA-CSCS certified strength and conditioning coach Mark has worked with players, such as Martina Hingis, Nadia Petrova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Danka Kovinic. Former Head Female Development Coach for the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation and currently working for China’s prestigious Star River team. Mark played Division 1 college tennis for the University of South Alabama and earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. Mark’ welcomes you to visit his website -www.firststriketennis.us