Sunday, October 7, 2012


Several years ago I was on a practice court with Tamarine Tanasugarn. She was part of a team that had traveled with me overseas to compete. It was 7am and everyone was taking time to adjust to the unfamiliar conditions. Everyone except Tamarine that is! This was our first practice session after the long flight. Tamarine was striking the ball as cleanly as ever.  Her timing was perfect from the first ball until the last.

What created her ability to adapt so well to the conditions and thrive? Later Paradorn Srichaphan, who reached a career high of #9 ATP had the same adaptability. I began to ask myself what this quality was and more importantly whether I could actually teach it to my students on-court.

I began to formulate what I called “The 3am Theory”, the ability to play your best tennis at anytime, anywhere, on any surface, any, any… even at 3am in the morning.  

Imagine you were woken from a sound sleep at 3am and asked to play a tie-break against a tough opponent. How well would you play and what would be the factors that hurt your performance? My belief is that those factors that hurt your performance are the exact same factors that cause you problems when competing in tournaments.

How do we uncover the key factors that hurt our game in competition? How do we constantly expose the player to these factors in practice so that they can be improved on? Certainly not by practicing in a predictable manner, incorporating repetitive hitting and drills unrelated to match-play. Certainly not without including stress and correct decision making in your drills.

By committing players early in the practice session to dealing with targets, directions, stress, technical discipline and correct decision making you will uncover many things. After training the 3am Theory for many years I can see now that 3am determines the ability of players in competition and separates good players from very good players.

Here are some notes on training the 3am Theory.

Rules When Training 3am

  • Eliminate long warm-ups

You see these players at tournaments all the time.  They are the players who are on the practice courts constantly, trying to perfect their strokes and develop confidence before the first round starts. The problem with this philosophy is that competitive tennis is exactly the opposite. Competition is never about predictability and feeling comfortable.  It’s about stress, unpredictability and being taken out of your comfort zone. So why prepare that way?

I like to have my player’s warm-up physically before hitting but as soon as they are warm we begin simulated points. This forces the 3am mindset.

  • Eliminate “closed” skill repetition drills

Closed skill repetition drills are drills such as hitting cross-court forehands for 30 minutes. Closed skill drills are predictable and are mostly void of pressure. Players love these drills because they can feel comfortable and “groove” their strokes without the stress that comes with competition and unpredictability.

Eliminate them from pre-tournament practice sessions because they do not prepare a player for competition.  Worse still is that drills of this nature feed the insecure players in your group and make them even more insecure and needing “confidence” to perform.

  • Implement “open” skill & skill complexity drills

Start making your players adapt quickly to conditions by adopting Combination Drills and the Nominated Player Drill. Start points soon after stepping on-court through the use of the First Ball Cross-court Drill (these drills are explained here).

Soon you will begin to watch your players go into complicated patterns minutes after starting the practice session.  This is a sure sign that the 3am mindset is developing.

  • Force players to adapt through targets and peer pressure

As you incorporate complex patterns and drills to their practice early, look for ways to complicate it even more by adding other factors such as scoring, and peer pressure. Play points in groups so that the players are forced to play offensively sometimes against weaker players and sometimes defensively against superior players. Just try to keep it related to the competitive environment you want them to thrive in.

Open Skilled and Skill Complexity Drills to Help Train 3am

  • Combination Drills

I instruct my players where to hit the first 3 strokes of the rally, the serve, the return and the first ground-stroke. If a ball is hit to the wrong target the player must change. Keep changing the combinations so that all the options are practiced. Once the 3 targets have been achieved both players can play the point out.

This drill incorporates peer pressure, executing the three key strokes in a rally, technical and mental discipline.

The serve has 4 options
1.    Wide to the Deuce court
2.    Down the middle to the Deuce court
3.    Down the middle to the Add court
4.    Wide to the Add court

The return has 8 options
1.    Return (#1) cross-court
2.    Return (#1) down the line
3.    Return (#2) Cross-court
4.    Return (#2) down the line
5.    Return (#3) cross-court
6.    Return (#3) down the line
7.    Return (#4) cross-court
8.    Return (#4) down the line

First Ground-stroke

1.    Change direction by hitting cross-court
2.    Change direction by hitting down the line
(there are 8 variations for the “First Ground-stroke”)

  • Nominated Player Drill

Two players play a tie-break while reserve player sits out, you can also have a reserve player sitting out at both baselines.  At the coaches discretion he can nominate the reserve player to play a particular point. The reserve player is obviously playing points “cold” which is the purpose of the drill. The toughest skill to develop with the 3am Theory is the ability to play “cold”, without sufficient preparation.

Bring the reserve player in for points when it will help them to overcome a problem with their game.  Examples include:

·         Serving under pressure
·         Hitting quality second serves
·         Returning serve on a big point
·         Rally under pressure against a good baseliner
·         Playing proactively

  • First Ball Cross-Court

This drill can be employed when you want to take the serve and return out of the rally.  One player starts the point by hitting cross-court, the other player must also hit cross-court, then allow the point to be played out.

It’s never easy to simulate the various qualities present in match-play. Try training the 3am Theory both as a means to change a players mindset and to prepare for up-coming events