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.