My tennis teaching outlook and approach boils down to 2 words…Affordable Results. This expression implies a couple of things. One, that results are attainable but typically aren’t affordable and/or two, that affordable options are out there but rarely get you results.
My method is simple in theory but requires a decent amount of dedication and willingness on the part of the student. It’s applicable to any age group (juniors and adults) assuming you’re committed. If you’re an adult it’s unrealistic to assume you can get on the court 5 or 6 times a week. Even just once or twice a week should be enough but the cruel reality is the less time you spend on the court the longer it takes. I wish there was a shortcut but like most things in life that require hard work there isn’t.
Everyone plays tennis and takes lessons/clinics for different reasons. This article is about making improvements (seeing results). Not everyone cares about that which is totally fine. If you play tennis just to get some exercise and have a little fun that’s awesome too!
The Current Model
Most of you already know the current model because you’ve gone through it or are currently a part of it. That model states you go to a clinic or two, sign up for a USTA team, start playing matches immediately, and maybe take a handful of private lessons. This is the model that makes everyone in the industry happy. Tennis instructors usually don’t want to teach from 9-11 pm and conveniently that’s the time of most USTA matches (hard court time to sell). Tennis instructors want to maximize $ from a private lesson and so they charge $90 an hour knowing that means fewer lessons but more $ for less work. If this model resulted in maximum improvement I’d be all for it but it doesn’t. We’ll explain why throughout the article.
Really anytime you’re on the court you should, in theory, be getting better. More balls = more practice = more experience = more consistency = better results. That’s the theory at least but unfortunately in the current model that theory, when put into practice, is flawed. The stage that really gets you into trouble is getting into match play too soon. It’s what’s pushed on you/sold to you from the beginning but sadly it can be very dangerous to your future development. Virtually every 1.5 hour or 2 hour clinic features at least a half hour (sometimes more) of match play or point play scenarios. Basically this is done solely to kill time and/or because it’s the expectation (the status quo). This would be totally fine if everyone had sufficient practice and a basic understanding of technique and the dangers of compromising said technique. The reality is a lot of people don’t and so you end up with drastically different skill levels on the same court which forces many to compensate in order to compete. BIG PROBLEM/RED FLAG. No one likes to lose and everyone wants to be competitive when they’re playing a match. Fair enough I get that. The problem is when you get partnered up with either the same skill level (when you’re a beginner) or different skill levels (as in a clinic) you’re forced to compensate if you want to stay in points. And when I say compensate I literally mean jeopardizing technique and developing bad habits. You might think if I’m with other beginners or advanced beginners this won’t happen. Unfortunately I’ve seen the vast majority of beginners compromise form in a million different ways to keep the ball in.
Bad habits formed as an adult are very difficult to break…. I mean VERY DIFFICULT to break especially in the current model. The current model would say go get 1 private lesson and you can fix it. Ughhhhhh, highly unlikely. In a 1 hour private lesson I’ve never seen anyone break a bad habit for good. Maybe I’m just a terrible coach but I’ve never seen it happen with anyone with any coach. Even with the pre rehearsed “resource videos” with “all star” coaches the “student” doesn’t have some kind of miraculous turnaround at the end. Why? It’s impossible. If you’ve hit 10,000 balls with a hitch in your stroke it’s going to take at least 10,000 balls to permanently break it. The 1 hour lesson can give you the information but when will you have the time or opportunity to apply what you’ve learned? Will you remember what was told to you next time you’re on the court? Are you scheduled to play in a match within the next 7 days? Are you willing to make an adjustment when you know you’ll end up missing a lot? We could go on and on with these questions but I hope you’re starting to get the idea. The point is it’s very likely that you’ll fall right back into the bad habit. It’s not your fault it’s just how the model works.
Not a Tennis Guru
I don’t profess to be some kind of all-star or expert tennis coach. I’m not; but you don’t need one to get better.
What I do know is that getting better (really getting better) requires a lot of balls and a lot of reminders. If you’re an adult playing leagues, going to group clinics etc. when will you have the time to focus on actual improvement? In the current model you don’t and/or it’s not financially viable. There are a lot of opportunities to be on the court but not a lot of opportunities to get better. I hate to say that but I’ve seen so many players wanting to improve end up plateauing or regressing. And I’m talking over a period of many years not months. Some players are OK with this and that’s totally fine. If playing matches, going to clinics, and so forth is something you really enjoy don’t stop.
If you really love working with your tennis pro once a month don’t stop. I just want you to be aware that if you’re going for an hour lesson on an infrequent basis it’s probably not having a significant impact on your game. You’ll definitely learn a lot and hopefully have fun in the process. If that’s good enough for you who am I to argue.
Stage 1 – Technical
You need the information first. Whether you’re brand new, need a refresher, or need a drastic stroke adjustment there’s no avoiding the technical. You need to understand what you need to do or what you need to adjust. For players who’ve developed some serious “compensations” you might want to undergo a stroke analysis. Sometimes it’s very useful to see what you’re doing as compared to someone just telling you. And you don’t need to hire someone to do that. If you take a lesson and hear what the instructor is saying go out later and have a friend film you hitting. When you sit down to review the footage you’ll know what to look for.
Stage 2 – Repetition
Point Blank….This is not always fun but is absolutely necessary. There is no reason to rush into match play or a clinic on “doubles strategy” before the “proper” muscle memory develops. For juniors (younger kids) things are a little different because they can develop “the strokes” pretty quick. Unfortunately the older you get the harder you need to work and the more time you need to dedicate to repetition. Like learning a new language it gets harder with age. This is the grueling stage that you’ll have to keep coming back to. You literally will need thousands of balls fed to you in a controlled environment. A really good ball machine can also work as a substitute but the really good ones (consistent) are VERY expensive (around 2k), cumbersome, and will eventually break down and die. Finding an affordable coach or a friend/family member that can feed well is a must.
There are healthy and unhealthy forms of repetition. I break them down as follows… good repetition, lazy repetition, and fatigued repetition. Hitting your strokes with good form can be pretty tiring (mentally and physically). It doesn’t take long to starting burning out resulting in lazy, or even worse, fatigued repetition. When this happens you compromise form. Typically an hour session works the best for most adults. Too little and you don’t have a chance to develop the muscle memory; too much and you run the risk of fatigued repetition. Fatigued repetition can do just as much harm as it does good.
This process can take a decent amount of time. If you want to play matches during this stage feel free. However, you need to keep coming back to the repetition so bad habits don’t “override” the proper ones.
Stage 3 – Match Play and Adjustment
Once you feel pretty good about your stokes it’s time to start playing matches (either practice or official), practice sets, point scenarios, etc. This could be done with a coach, with a friend, or formally through an organization like the USTA. Now the trick to this is trying your hardest to keep the proper form you learned during the repetition stage. This won’t be easy and don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss a lot or start to compensate a little. It’s inevitable and a part of the process (Growing Pains). After you’ve played a match or two really try and think about what’s giving you problems. About 80% of the time it’s going to be footwork. You can hit the ball really well in a controlled environment (fed balls) but are struggling to move efficiently to live match balls (real world). OK, no problem back to the repetition stage where the drills will are nowt footwork orientated and less about the stroke (which you already have). You get back out there, play more matches, discover something else, and repeat the process.
This model works whether you’re a complete beginner or a touring professional. The pros on tour have all the shots (you’re not going to be making significant stroke adjustments by the time you’re 18 or 19), have the footwork, etc. So they have to ask different questions. Is it my match strategy, is it my fitness, etc? Now the gym or “film room” becomes the repetition stage. They might look to hire a better “tactics” coach to help with scouting and match strategy. Or (if your Andy Murray) you hire one of everything (sports psychologist, nutritionist, trainer, physical therapist, personal stringer, masseuse, etc). What does he do with all those people? He develops a routine (repetition) and expects adjustments to be made based on his performance. For example if he keeps fatiguing at the end of lengthy 3 set matches his team will need to concoct a new routine to address the problem.
I’m well aware of the fact that tennis doesn’t just have to be about “improvement” or “development.” Everyone plays for his or her own reasons and that’s totally fine. This article is about improvement but that doesn’t mean you need to go into super crazy tennis obsession mode. If you enjoy the way the current model works (have fun and get what you want out of it…social or otherwise) there’s no reason to change that. I just wanted to share with you a model that does work if improvement is something you’re interested in.
One thing I would recommend to everyone is to ask the following question… What’s the main reason for playing tennis? Or, more specifically, what’s the reason I’m signing up for this lesson or clinic? If the answer is for exercise…for socializing…to get better (improve)… or something else entirely I think it’s important to verbalize that with your instructor. You want to get your $’s worth and that means different things to different people. If you have a group of 4 people and you want to socialize (have fun) more than you want to learn technique the coach needs to know that. This way they won’t spend too much time lecturing the group about stuff they could care less about.
Improvement is possible for anyone. It’s just a question of whether or not you’re willing to put in the time and effort required to reap the rewards of your labor.