Practicing Outdoors

For better or worse, here in dc we experience all 4 seasons. The weather is….errrr unpredictable (to put it mildly). This has caused a demand for indoor tennis courts, a demand that in my opinion has been sufficiently filled. To put it bluntly indoor tennis is a lot easier than outdoor tennis. On the surface this would lead one to believe that they should play all their tennis inside. Take away the elements so you can focus fully on the tennis (that would be the argument at least). However, tennis is still primarily an outdoor sport. In this little Op Ed I’ll discuss the pros and cons of indoor and outdoor tennis and the recommendations I have about playing/practicing in each environment.

Indoor Tennis The Positives

Indoor tennis (assuming the surface is relatively slow) is EASIER than outdoor tennis. It’s very difficult to put forth a contrary argument and more or less this is the sales pitch you’re given at most indoor facilities. It’s in their best interests that you succeed and/or have fun. You’re in a controlled environment and if the lights are good (vision) there are not a lot of external things you need to concern yourself with. For a beginner it’s great to take all the elements out of the equation so you can just focus on the ball, your stroke, and the instruction.

For the match player you get an opportunity to problem solve and work on strategy/tactics that you may struggle with outside. For example if the sun isn’t in your eyes on serve you can start to think about placement instead of just worrying about getting the ball in. You can’t blame the sun or the wind for your problems and that forces you to look within instead of always blaming beyond. Most players really struggle with game planning and to play indoors makes this process a little easier. Sometimes the elements genuinely do get in the way and it can be incredibly frustrating. When you’re dealing with 40 or 50 mph wind gusts it makes a lot more sense to practice indoors.

Indoor Tennis The Negatives

Positives can always be twisted into negatives and that’s definitely true here. As a beginner, is it better to learn in a controlled environment only to go outdoors and struggle immensely? Is it better for a junior player to “learn the hard way” out in the elements versus attaining some instant success inside?

Personally what I love about tennis is the fact that it is an outdoor sport and that the court conditions play just as a big role in the final outcome as anything else. Tennis is not only a battle against yourself or your opponent but also against the elements. Who can adapt best or figure out a solution in tricky conditions is often the X factor in many college or professional matches.

In some extreme cases the elements can force you to compromise form and that’s always something to stay away from. But for the most part I’ve always found different court surfaces, weather conditions, etc to be an integral part of the tennis playing experience… in a good sort of way.

You talk to most amateur players (league players, weekend warriors) and most of them are really positive about indoor tennis. You talk to most coaches worth their salt and they’ll say they really hate it. For whatever reason indoor tennis has almost this stale or clinical sort of vibe to it. I’ve worked with adults and kids both indoors and outdoors (a lot of the same people) and I’ve noticed some very interesting trends. Indoor tennis is very comfortable and people like to do the more comfortable (lazy) thing if it still produces “good” results. Since you know the ball bounce and virtually everything else will be consistent you don’t need to do as much preparation (foot work) and you can still have a very high % of “quality” shots. You should still do all the preparation but most people don’t (myself included when I go indoors). When you go outside this bad habit goes right out there with you and it can take a while before the “good footwork” comes back. People get really frustrated and want to go back inside during this transition. If tennis was 100% an indoor sport that would be one thing…but it isn’t.

The Recommendation

Top juniors and professionals from all over the world descend on Florida and California as their home training base for a reason. Tennis (at the elite junior, high school, college, and professional level) is still primarily an outdoor sport. It’s maybe 2 months out of the year that the tour goes inside. In addition most outdoor courts are FREE to use. You’ll never be able to walk on at indoor tennis facility without paying a decent amount of $ or having to schedule way in advance.

Obviously not everyone can pack up and go to Florida to play tennis outdoors all year and that’s not what I’m recommending. My recommendation is simply to maximize your time outdoors because it will give you an advantage if and when you need to go indoors.

If you’re an adult who plays USTA league tennis matches indoors getting the outdoor practice experience is valuable because you’re developing a skill (and a mental toughness) that your opponents may be ignoring because they just don’t want that challenge. Playing outside is tough and there are times when it’s beyond frustrating but these are valuable experiences that pay off long term.

Now if you’re a beginner I believe a healthy balance of both indoor and outdoor tennis is ideal. But one thing to be aware of is the acoustics of your indoor tennis facility. Some places are terrible… and if you can’t hear the instructor what’s the point? Another thing you could do if you’re taking a clinic that runs from September to January is ask the pro to move the class outside if and when the weather cooperates. Most of the tennis professionals I know prefer working outdoors whenever possible.

Likewise for juniors it’s REALLY important to maximize your time outdoors if you’re planning to make tennis a big part of your life. When I played in college I was very thankful for the freezing cold outdoor practices I had experienced in high school when we had to (conference match) play in 40-degree weather. That’s an extreme example but illustrates the point. Learning to deal with the variety of challenges you’re faced with outdoors will help you become a better “all around” tennis player. And when I say “all around” that includes mental toughness. So what if you can hit a 100 mph forehand consistently on a climate controlled indoor court… can you do that outside where most of your matches will end up being played? Can you adapt your stroke when the conditions are a major factor in a match? If all you do is practice inside you probably won’t be able to.

Normally the advice is to practice in the conditions that you play. If 90% of the matches you play take place in indoors than by all means spend a lot of your practice time indoors. But even so get outside a decent amount so you can learn and improve on different skills. The experiences and things you learn outside do translate when you go indoors. The same thing can’t always be sad of the inverse.