Saturday, June 14, 2014



Everyone responds to events in different ways. Dropping a glass of water can make us angry, shocked and frustrated or could even become a catalyst for laughter. It all depends on the person and how dropping that glass of water makes them feel.  Like thousands of events throughout your day, dropping that glass of water is a CUE that creates an action. In his bestselling book “The Power of Habit” author Charles Duhigg calls the action that follows a Cue a Routine. He states that while the Cue is the same for everyone, it’s in the routine that you see the differences in people.

Watch a game of tennis and you will see all the same cues. You will observe a player who is fatigued, some matches are more important than others, poor line calls occur, a player will go down a break of serve and another will go up a break of serve. These are all cues that evoke a routine. Many of these routines are destructive and lead to negative behavior. Develop enough of these destructive routines and your game becomes a mess of negativity.


The reality however is that we have choices, the player who becomes fatigued can either give up, or fight harder despite the fatigue. Important matches can either stimulate a player to rise to the occasion or to suffer from nerves and under-perform. We can choose to get over poor line calls quickly or let them frustrate us so that we lose the match. A break of serve can either inspire us, or make us feel so deflated that we lose the match without putting up a fight.

Go through in your mind all the recent matches you have played and analyze the destructive routines you have had that followed a particular cue. You may be lucky enough to have just a few to worry about but if you have several very destructive routines that follow particular cues you may need the help of rituals. Positive rituals are positioned just after the Cue so that our responses’ are ones that help us rather than hinder us. If you place these improved, more positive rituals throughout your game at the important times you are creating a shield of protection for yourself.

People often comment on the unusual habits of Rafael Nadal during matches. The obvious one is his water bottle routine in which he must place and position the bottle in the same pre-determined position after every change of ends. In a recent article it was found that he had 19 other routines that he always followed during his matches. Andy Murray has a large whiteboard covering an entire wall of his apartment in Miami that details a host of topics such as diet, fitness, and training schedules for weeks ahead. This acts as a road map for Andy’s routines throughout the days, weeks and months ahead.

It is clear that rituals are critical to your pursuit of excellence and can also help buffer you from those things during matches that conspire to hurt your performance.

The first step in creating rituals is to analyze your game and come up with a list of things that are hurting your result at present. I recommend building two lists; the first list should involve the on-court routines that are hurting your game. These could include:

·       Being overwhelmed by the occasion
·       Playing against an opponent’s reputation
·       Response to fatigue during a match
·       Going a break up or down
·       Starting the deciding set of a match
·       Poor line-calls etc.

The second list should cover personal routines off-court. To reach your full potential you need to look at everything that could help and hurt your performance in matches. This list could include topics related to the following:

·       Sleep habits
·       Diet habits
·       Rest habits
·       Mental training habits
·       Match & Practice habits 

Your task is to choose just a few weak areas in your on-court and personal lists to start with (this can be added to in time) and to replace those weak habits with routines of excellence that will contribute to excellence in competition. Once you have established the areas to target, both replace poor habits with better ones and create good habits where there were none.

Just a few new or improved habits in your day will create a ripple effect in the way you prepare and later perform during matches.

Saturday, June 7, 2014



One of the scariest things you do in tennis is to change the direction of the ball and hit down the line off a ball coming from cross-court. You are attempting to re-direct the ball to another angle which requires considerable skill. It’s much easier going back cross-court because you are hitting through the same line.

If you can execute the down the line shot well during the rally it’s a big plus to your game because it stops your opponent getting too comfortable with your shot selection, they will now have to worry about the unexpected change of direction – something few players can do that well.

Here are the key things to focus on when going down the line (backhand and forehand).

1.       The position of your feet:
o   The best way to change direction, either down the line or cross-court, is to change your contact point. Many players try to change their swing to alter the direct of the ball but the best way is to take the ball earlier (cross-court) or later (down the line). 

    Anticipate where you want to contact the ball and set your feet in a position of balance and strength. Make sure that the late contact point is supported by footwork that will allow you to make the change of direction in a balanced position throughout the stroke, particularly the finish of the shot.


2.       Keep the swing the same:
o   Now that you have created the best possible base for the down the line change, keep your swing the same as if you were hitting any other backhand or forehand, it’s only the contact point that is changing.

3.       Select the correct ball to change on:
o   Always attempt to change direction when your opponent has hit a weaker shot in the rally. That weaker shot is a signal that it’s time to attack and take advantage of the situation. You will know it’s a weaker shot when several things happen (1) the ball lands short on your side of the net (2) the ball comes to you higher, and (3) the ball comes shorter and higher! 

    This is based on the DNO Theory which was published here in a previous article: 


4.       Hit 90 degrees through the far baseline:
o   To continue our theme of changing down the line sensibly and safely, make sure you cross the far baseline at 90 degrees. By disciplining your shot in this way you will be focused on controlling the ball rather than resorting to a “hit and hope” mindset. The 90 degree angle has been the method of choice for the world’s best players for many years. 

    For more information on this shot selection theory here is the link to a previous article where I explain "The Directionals" and how to train them;  

To practice each of these 4 suggestions you will need to include a repetition segment to your practice and a pressure segment.

For the repetition you can return balls down the line from a cross-court feed (basket feeding) and mentally go through setting the feet in position, delaying the contact point slightly and hitting through the far baseline at 90 degrees. Repeat this until you start to feel like the 3 elements are beginning to complement each other and you start to feel comfortable changing direction.

The second phase is to introduce pressure so that this will all come together in a match without you choking. Play points with your practice partner and work on not only executing the 3 technical parts you dealt with during the feeding segment, but also the DNO shot selection element. 

Spend a week changing the ball out of a cross-court exchange and striking your opponent down the line and this newly created ability will make you a far more dangerous opponent.

Saturday, May 31, 2014



The most important two shots in tennis are the serve and the return of serve. While many “modern players” today are extremely competent hitting ground-strokes, the very best players have also developed their serve and return games to a high level.

Unfortunately it’s normal that little more than 10-15% of practice sessions involve these two shots.

Serving practice involving a basket of balls is helpful to develop technique but it lacks those elements that would make it realistic. What you really need to help your serve and your return and make practice more realistic is to include the mental pressure, variable outcomes and spontaneous decision making of a real point.   We also need the serve and the return to be repeated many times so that they both become instinctive. The Combination Drill does all these things.

The Combination Drill will improve your “First Strike Tennis", meaning that you will become better at attacking and generally dictating the point earlier, something that can prove decisive in tennis at all levels.

Most points are won or lost on the serve or return, and by dominating your opponent with the serve or return you gain a huge advantage in the match.

Combination Drills give the player confidence in this critical early phase of the point. That confidence has a profound effect on the rest of your game.

Combination Drills can be practiced with 2-4 players on the same court. Designate where the serve, return and first groundstroke must go. For example the server must serve to the backhand side, the returner must reply cross-court and the first groundstroke must be hit down-the-line.  

·  If the players fail to find any of the designated targets stop them and start again.  This creates some healthy pressure on the player and adds discipline to the drill.

·  Start by achieving the 3 designated shots and then stop. The important thing is to repeat the combination many times for it to be grooved and for confidence and competency to build. Allow the players to focus solely on the 3 designated strokes.

· Once you feel the players are grooved, allow the players to play the point after the ground-stroke (3rd shot).

   Practice one combination per session. Don’t try to do multiple combinations in the same day. Again, it’s about grooving the combination to achieve confidence and competency.

· These are the options for combination drills:

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

The 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”)

There are many benefits to working on the various Combination options. It’s one of those drills in which you will see immediate results in competition.

Saturday, May 24, 2014



Good timing is important in every sport.  Timing can involve swinging an object at a ball such as a tennis racquet or golf club, or in the case of football; you must achieve timing in your leg and foot to successfully kick the ball.

Timing is also important when throwing something. When throwing a basketball you use a wrist action and skilled players can throw half the length of the court with ease. For the ball to cover that amount of distance there must be something else at work assisting the wrist. Wrists can't function that efficiently without good timing.

But what exactly is timing and how is it achieved? If you are like most tennis players you know when you have timed the shot well (or not), but are not sure what actually occurred to achieve it.  Without knowledge of how you achieved good timing how can you re-create perfect timing at will?

Timing involves the successful synchronization of energy into a ball so that optimum power is achieved.

This transfer of energy can involve a racquet, a golf club or a leg. It can even involve a wrist used to propel a basketball. 

In each of the above examples energy is created from your interaction with the ground through your legs. Timing is created by interacting with the ground, and bio-mechanically sending that energy, through your legs, into your swing and ultimately into the ball.  Sending that energy too soon or too late means inefficient energy transfer – poor timing.

Here are some suggestions to help you improve your timing.

  • Ground energy can be transferred through either the right or left foot so during practice try to hit off either foot as required. When the ball is short or deep you will probably need to use different feet. Practice becoming proficient using either foot.

  • Leave the ground when you make contact with the ball. By jumping to hit the ball you are practicing an extreme version of ground interaction. This exercise will help you become comfortable with the concept and will automatically improve your timing.

  • After hitting the ball maintain balance on the contact foot and lift the opposite foot off the ground. This will force you to commit fully to organizing a contact foot as you approach the ball.

Becoming proficient with your contact foot will have a direct effect on your timing which directly affects the quality of your game.

Saturday, May 17, 2014



The most important drill you do each day is the “drill” in your head.  The way your mind operates during practice will also be repeated during competition, therefore it’s critical to not only work on technical and physical aspects, but also practice the type of mindset that you need in order to compete at your optimal level.  

In many cases the technical problem you see when a player makes an error actually starts from a faulty mental mindset.

If you are a player who over-thinks when playing, chances are that you are making many unforced errors.  Over-thinking doesn’t allow you to play on an instinctive level where everything flows and your true potential comes to the fore.  As you make more and more unforced errors your confidence can reach an all time low. 

Over the years several players in my country were selected for special training because of their potential to be great players in the future.  They were given the best coaching and a regular hitting partner to spar with.  After 2-3 years of the best possible training and with considerable attention from the coaching staff each “designated player” failed to achieve success. 

There was a positive outcome to these “projects” however, in each case the project sparring partner went on to compete in Grand Slams!  How did the hitting partner achieve better results? If you examined what these Hitters did during those earlier training sessions you would find that they learnt to control the ball to specific targets and at specific speeds. They reduced their unforced errors to a minimum and they didn’t have any pressure placed on themselves from the coaching staff. They also had lots of opportunity to get to know their own game, while all the attention was focused on the player at the other side of the net.

The next time you practice, change your mindset to a “Hitter” mindset.  Focus on providing the ideal ball to your practice partner.  If the ball lands out or you have to run wide just to get the ball back, focus on helping the rally to continue.  If you can truly adopt the mindset of a Hitter a lot of your personal insecurities drop away and this frees you to play your natural game.

Here are some tips for your next practice session:

  1. Adopt a service (to your practice partner) mentality
  2. Strive to “feed” consistent and accurate balls
  3. Adopt the coach’s role during drills by being the player to direct the ball to the designated area
  4. If you make an error apologize to your partner rather than get angry with yourself

These small steps will unlock your game from the perils of being too analytical and self conscious. You will also become a very popular practice partner!

Saturday, May 10, 2014



The ball toss is one of the most common ailments with many players when serving.  Ana Ivanovic is a player who struggles with her ball toss constantly. 

For many years I have taught the importance of using an intelligent wrist instead of focusing on the ball toss. However the toss is important because the wrist can only operate effectively if the ball is within a reasonable range.  If you have to reach or in some cases step to reach the ball, as Ivanovic does often, your serve will suffer with inconsistency.

The usual cure for a wayward toss is to work on the toss arm so that the ball can be placed in the perfect position for the ball strike.  Ana Ivanovic told me that coaches have been trying to work on her left arm toss for years.  They had tried a variety of drills and gimmicks but the problem still persisted. It was after hearing this that I started looking for an alternative method of creating a more accurate toss.

The problem with players who have erratic ball tosses like Ivanovic is sometimes not a question of training the toss arm; with Ana it’s actually a coordination issue involving both arms. 

A simple drill I like to use to create coordination between the left and right arms is to have the player close their eyes and serve without the advantage of sight.  Think about what happens without sight.  If you can’t see the ball you are forced to resort to feel and timing to hit the ball.

What begins to happen without the advantage of sight is that the toss arm is forced to "find" the racquet arm.  For a few minutes the player will miss the ball completely.  Initially you will swing too soon or too late. You may also swing either too far to the right or too far to the left. With some feed-back from a coach or a friend standing beside you as to where the mistakes are occurring, you begin to calibrate your toss and your swing. Slowly you begin to make some contact, usually “framing” the ball, but soon you are coordinating the rhythm and placement of the ball instinctively.

Once you can consistently contact the ball with your eyes closed you have created true coordination on your serve. You will soon be hitting most of the unsighted serves into the service-box. 

Stop focusing your efforts on your toss arm and start spending time working on the coordination of both arms.  

Saturday, May 3, 2014



Many players suffer from high levels of stress when competing.  Overcoming the stress and performing to your true potential is sometimes the single most difficult task many players face.

It is a known fact that avoidance of stress is one of our strongest instincts.  Given enough time stress can kill us.

I have noticed on many occassions players willing to endure the continual frustration of missing easy shots to avoid the stress of playing one more ball. They will actually sabotage the point to avoid playing another ball. Do they admit this to themselves, never! This is all going on at a subconscious level and can be extremely frustrating for player's. Here's something that will also surprise you, it happenes at all levels, even at with professional players.

One example of stress avoidance would be a player who is not comfortable at net repeatably missing the approach shot to avoid having to volley the next ball. From the perpspective of someone watching from outside the court it looks like the player has poor technique on their approach shots, but actually it's all about their lack of confidence in their volley!

Some player's will attempt an impossible passing shot rather than defend the point with a lob or put the ball back into court and give the opponent one more shot to play.  This is avoiding stress.

Avoidance of stressful situations is a very strong trait within us.

To overcome the demands of competitive stress I help player's by playing a game called “The No-Winner Game”.

To play the No-Winner Game you and your practice partner serve and return as in a normal point, however the goal for each player is to move the ball around and force your practise opponent into errors.  Neither player is allowed to hit winners. If you are the player applying pressure in the point, instead of taking pot shots to win points you are now forced to target your opponent’s fitness levels and their ability to defend intelligently.

As the player defending in the rally, your job is to keep getting balls back into safe places.  For example if you are under pressure in a rally and return the next shot half-court your opponent will continue to pressure you on the next ball.  However if you can return the ball deep crosscourt you are back in the point having neutralized your opponent’s advantage in the rally.

In time you start to become more composed, realising that if you can defend the point intelligently you can survive the rally and perhaps turn defense into offense. This is where your composure and shot selection improves.

The time spent in each rally increases dramatically so fitness levels also improve.

By focusing less on ball speed as your means of winning the point you become more comfortable in your ability to exert pressure during the rally and also more confident in your defence by learning to move the ball around safely and intelligently – the same traits displayed by all successful players.

Thursday, April 24, 2014



For many years I have traveled with some exceptional players.  The very best of these players reached top 10 ATP and top 20 WTA rankings.  It was during these trips that I began to notice a certain quality that distinguished exceptional players from merely very good players.

I began to notice that regardless of the circumstances, these few exceptional players would come on-court, either in practise or for competitive matches and strike the ball cleanly and without error immediately. It would also continue from the first ball until the last ball. This may not sound that unusual but this would happen regardless of time, place, weather, occasion or equipment issues.  

It occurred to me that if I could find a way to develop this ability by a systematic training process I could be training the very essence of what holds back very good players from becoming exceptional players.

I developed a theory called the “3 AM Theory”.  The 3 am Theory assumes that if, say, Federer and Nadal were woken from a deep sleep at 3 am in the morning and instructed to play a tie-break, their reaction to having to play that tie-break and the level they would reach during that tie-break would be very different from the majority of players I work with each day. 

There are two key elements to the 3am Theory. The first element concerns mindset...

While most players would be thinking of the reasons why they would not be able to peak perform at 3am (stiffness, injuries, the need for a longer warm-up, not enough sleep, equipment problems…), Federer and Nadal would be thinking of how to take maximum advantage of the situation (He will not have warmed-up sufficiently, He will miss more 1st serves, He will not respond well to a net rush early in the tie-break, "I must start the tie-break well by hitting a high percentage of 1st serves and eliminate my unforced errors"…). This is a very unique mind-set. It's a mindset of taking responsibility and is empowering.

The 2nd element concerns the technical ability of the player...

Most players would also make a lot of errors at 3am when not physically or technically prepared.  Their timing might be "off". They would perhaps lose points early in the tie-break because of poor technique due to the limited preparation. A whole range of issues including timing, balance and control could contribute to too many errors.

My belief is that "If you can produce your best tennis under any situation you have mastery over your game" and you must obviously understand and be able to execute the elements responsible in making your game function properly. Your ability to recall these critical elements of your game will make you a much better player than you are today.

One of the ways I train “3 am” is by using the Nominated Player Game.

Before you start the drill decide what aspects you want to improve.  Go back and analyse your recent matches. What parts failed you during these matches. Be brutally honest! Some ideas could include:

  • Finishing the point better from the mid-court
  • Gaining a more confidend 2nd serve
  • Creating a more effective 1st serve
  • More consistent returns
  • Constructing the point better
  • Defending better
  • Being more offensive
  • Approaching the net more
(The options are really endless)

The drill requires two players to play points.  Our student of the 3 am Theory sits in a chair in the corner watching!  As the two “Player’s” play points, the coach waits for the opportunity to send the 3am student in to play a selected point “cold”.  

Imagine how you would feel coming in to play the points cold after sitting in the corner of the court for 5 minutes, and have to execute the very skill that you struggle with in matches.  Very tough. If you are asked to win points from the chair multiple times you begin to understand the most important element(s) necessary to achieve success with a particular skill, whether it's mental or technical. Recall that important element enough times and it becomes instinctive.

The crucial part is that you have to play points “cold”, without warming into your task. It will be the most productive time you ever spent sitting down!

Saturday, April 19, 2014



In both men’s and women’s tennis the serve has become an extremely offensive weapon.  In today’s game if you can’t win free points with your serve you will struggle to win matches against the best players. 

The most noticeable change has been within the women’s game where the top women players now have extremely offensive serves compared to only 5 years ago.

When you attempt to hit bigger serves you need to propel your whole body forward and into the shot through the use of the legs.  

I have noticed that when players practice out of a basket they nearly always position the basket behind them at the baseline.  This makes sense if you don’t want to walk far to get the next ball.  However it can also create a bad habit of serving and stopping the forward momentum after hitting the ball. The player will limit the forward movement after serving because their next task is to collect a ball from the basket behind them.

Here is a simple trick to promote forward movement into the court after hitting the serve

When practicing the serve, position the basket 2 meters in front of you, in a line towards your target service box.  After each serve, continue the flow of the serve and walk forward toward the basket on the follow-through.  Pick another ball (one ball only) out of the basket and walk back to the baseline to hit the next serve.

Once you have hit several serves you begin to “cheat” by walking directly over the baseline and towards the basket without hesitation.  This is the habit you were looking for, a forward movement into the court after serving.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Deep balls are unavoidable so better to learn how to handle them when they come

For some, perhaps one of the most difficult ground-strokes is the deep ball that lands on or near the baseline.

Martina Hingis was very good at taking the ball off the bounce, often choosing to stand her ground on deep balls and return the ball with excellent timing.  I asked her once how she learnt to hit this type of ball so well.  She told me that as a youngster her mother would sprinkle objects just behind the baseline, making it almost impossible to step back for deep balls.  This had developed her ability to coordinate this very difficult ball. 

If you are having trouble with balls that land deep and that give you little time to move back, try a similar drill to the one that helped Martina Hingis.

I’m sure you spend a lot of time hitting from the baseline during practice.  Next time you practice, spend some of your baseline practice keeping your feet on or inside the baseline.  If the ball lands deep, resist the temptation to move back, instead keep your heels inside the baseline and take the ball where you stand.

You will find that you begin to automatically shorten your backswing on both the forehand and backhand sides, and your knowledge of the racquet-face angles needed for each shot becomes much more instinctive in no time.

This simple drill will give you many more opportunities to practice the half volley on the baseline and will increase your confidence when you have to play this shot in a match.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


If you are trying to improve your on-court reaction time during points, you’re wasting your time. Improved reaction skills may even hinder your ability to reach balls quicker.  

Webster’s says that the definition of reaction is, “a response to something that involves taking action.” In other words the horse bolts first and then we try to catch the horse!

In tennis terms we wait to return serve and plan to react when we know if the ball will go to the forehand or backhand side. Or, we watch our opponent getting under the ball and plan to react to his overhead once he completes his shot. Chances are that you are not going to get too many of those serves and overheads back into play. You’re going to be too late! You’re asking yourself the wrong question “where will the ball go?”

I believe that reaction is merely the 3rd step in returning that first serve and defending that overhead.

In today’s fast paced game there is a step before reaction. That step is to be “pro-active’. You need to be saying to yourself “If the ball goes there, I will…”

Here is the advantage of being proactive. Being proactive means that you are anticipating more than one option or outcome and have already started processing in your mind some of the things you would need to do to successfully complete each option.  

Let’s take the example of returning a first serve. There are two main options to choose from. You will either have to return the ball on the Forehand or backhand side (the less common option is defending a serve into the body). Being proactive means that you begin to organize in your mind what you will do if the ball comes to either of those two options. You could start organizing in your mind the contact point (which will affect the direction of the ball) or plan to control the degree of firmness applied to the grip (to help control the quality of the contact and depth of the return). You can also decide if you are going to adopt a strategy of being either aggressive or defensive with your return.

There are many things that you can pre-plan with a proactive mindset but the key is that the brain is already organizing jobs that would have to be done eventually anyway. It’s a totally different mindset to the common reaction response of most players.

There is however another step we need to take even before being proactive. It’s something I call Brain Pre-innovation. Brain pre-innovation means that you are preparing the brain ahead of the next physical activity. For example when we sprint, the brain must always work ahead of the feet or we would trip and fall. The main task in training on-court speed and agility involves training the brain to always work ahead of whatever the feet intend to do. Normally a lack of speed is more about poor pre-innovation rather than poor leg speed.

Brain pre-innovation is at the essence of being very good proactively. We anticipate the likely outcomes and plan the desired responses and then we react.

It looks like this…

Brain Pre-innovation     =        Anticipation
Proactive                            =        Planning
Reaction                             =        Respond

Brain pre-innovation and being proactive are close cousins but they have two separate functions. We wait to return our opponents overhead and prepare the brain for certain outcomes (brain pre-innovation). We decide on how we will deal with those outcomes (become proactive) and when the time comes we react, having previously completed the checklist of tasks that were needed to make the shot successful.

So you can see that a strategy of defending an overhead or returning serve based on reaction speed is doomed to fail. Each of these three steps needs to be completed and we can either hope that this comes naturally, or we can include it in our training on a daily basis.