Sunday, July 22, 2012


I recently had a player, “James”, who was going through a rough period. James was struggling in practice and in competition. He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself on-court, becoming over-stressed and making poor decisions while executing strokes and tactics.

It would have been easy to point the blame at his faltering ground-strokes and poor on-court execution, but I felt that spending time working on the details of his game would not have helped.  It seemed to me that the problem was mental and not technical. 

Sometimes players lose sight of the real reasons they love to play tennis and compete. Often I ask players “Why do you play tennis”?  The answers are mostly the same.  Players say they “Like to Win” and “It’s fun”. But if that was true we would all play against opponents that we could beat easily.  Obviously playing against opponents that can be beaten easily would not be satisfying at all, therefore “winning” is not what brings us back to competition. Sometimes even a loss can be extremely satisfying and rewarding.

If the reason we compete in tennis was for fun, why is it so stressful for most of us during matches? I don’t think I would describe facing a break point as “fun”.

I believe we are attracted to tennis by the challenge.  Humans do extraordinary things to challenge themselves. We climb mountains, swim the English Channel, run long distances and continually try to beat previous best times and distances in sporting events.  Our passion for challenges have produced amazing feats, and also gotten us killed. We seem to never tire of going beyond our limits.

Therefore I believe we play tennis to be challenged, the tougher the task the better the feeling.

Some players however, lose sight of the reason they play tennis.  The challenge becomes the enemy and something to be avoided and blocked out. This leads to a player reacting like James.  If things didn’t go well during competition James became angry and sulked.  Often after losing a long point he would look skyward for divine intervention.
My talk with James involved explaining to him that he needed to take ownership of what happened on-court.  He had been missing shots and failing to execute on-court because he couldn’t accept responsibility for what was happening. He continually blamed outside factors. Every time he lost a point he would think “see, mistakes are beyond my control”.

After our talk James began to take responsibility for his actions, and any time he made mistakes he had to get honest with himself and acknowledge that the fault and the solution were in his hands. He could either continue sulking or take immediate action to remedy the problem. He chose to take ownership and confront the challenges that came alone in his matches.

The transformation was immediate.  James began to play as if a heavy weight had been lifted off his shoulders.  He began to execute perfectly whatever he decided to do, whether it was a change of direction, decisive offense or staying in the point through gritty defense.  If James does make mistakes now, he acknowledges the problem calmly and honestly… and remedies the situation without the previous theatrics!

Players must understand that the reason we play tennis and enjoy it so much is because of the challenges we must face. Giving a player a better insight into the nature of competition could be the catalyst to a much improved mindset and improved results.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Beating superior opponents sets you apart from the other players

There is nothing more satisfying than beating an opponent who is, on paper at least, better than you.  Achieving a win against a superior opponent sets you apart as a genuine competitor.

Here are three ways to overcome a stronger opponent.

1.     Do Your Homework First
Playing someone who is better than you suggests that your opponent is perhaps technically, physically OR mentally stronger than you. They could even be technically, physically AND mentally stronger than you! Don’t panic. You need to isolate where their true strengths are.

Look at what they do best. Ask the following questions:

Speed: do they prefer the ball fast or slow?
Direction: do they prefer the ball wide or into the  body?
Height: do they prefer the ball high or low?
Position: Do they prefer to play at the net or at the baseline?

That’s the technical part finished. Next you must look at their mental make-up. Don’t always assume that they are confident people just because they win lots of matches, are experienced and are intimidating you by the way they are walking and talking. They may well be all those things but nobody until you has devised a systematic plan to beat them yet!

2.   Play With a Plan
Devise a plan based on understanding what type of ball your opponent prefers, and giving them the opposite.

If they are timing the fast ball perfectly and are sending it back with added power and accuracy, feed them slower balls to take them out of their preferred option.

If they are taking big swings at the high bouncing balls you give them, add under-spin to the rally to limit their potency.

If you are hitting wide in the court and your opponent replies by hitting offensive winners, start to target the middle of the baseline to take away the angles.

If your opponent is dominating the rally, coming forward on your short balls and finishing with a volley or an overhead, get to the net before them and stop them dictating the point in this way.

I will repeat again… Devise a plan based on understanding what type of ball your opponent prefers, and giving them the opposite

Sometimes the conditions will assist you. Conditions may make it easier to implement your ideal game plan therefore factor-in court conditions, climatic conditions and physical conditions.

I once played a match indoors.  One court was particularly close to a wall, so close that this court should not have been used during the tournament. During my match I kept serving wide towards the wall and winning the point each time. Fortunately my opponent didn’t seem to have practiced his slice serve enough to be able to use the same tactic!  

3.   Believe and Keep Believing
Once you have done a good job of scouting your opponent, and devised a clever strategy, you’ve got to go into the match with strong determination.

Here’s a great quote from Vince Lombardi, the late coach of the champion Green Bay Packers…

“Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or fitter man, but sooner or later, the man who wants to win the most, will win”.

Many things will happen to dent your spirits but you must continue to implement your strategy no matter what happens. Sometimes the strategy takes time to develop.  The majority of your tactics are based on:

·         Creating errors
·         Creating frustration
·         Developing a loss of confidence
·         Destroying your opponents composure

All these things take time to develop so be patient.  Your job is to maintain your self-belief throughout.

The more often you develop game plans in matches to help against stronger opponents the better you will become at creating the “up-set” win that sets you apart from the majority of players.