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.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013



In his bestselling book “The Signal and the Noise” author Nate Silver tells of two types of mindsets, the Hedgehog and the Fox.

A Hedgehog mindset is the type of person who has formulated a theory but when a situation arises that either can’t be explained by the theory or the theory doesn’t work for that particular situation, they call it a “one-off”, an anomaly and disregard the situation as being outside their control.

The world champion All Black rugby team were Hedgehogs. Being the best team in the world for over 100 years meant that they were favorites every four years when the Rugby World Cup would come around. But after winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987 the All Blacks were beaten in each of the following World Cups for a variety of reasons. Often losses could be attributed to situations that were almost impossible to prepare for ahead of time such as injury to key players and errors of human judgement at critical times.

The All Blacks disregarded those losses as anomalies and as results that could not be avoided. Their mindset was probably something like “Our current preparations for matches have us ranked number 1 in the world. How can we prepare for outside-the-box situations that occur infrequently and so randomly”? This is classic Hedgehog thinking.

A Fox however looks at anomalies and the “one-off” situations differently. Fox’s say “If it happens, then I must prepare for it” and they tweak their theories constantly whenever a loss outside the boundaries of their current knowledge occurs.

Several years ago the All Blacks began to think like Foxes and looked at the “outside-the-box” situations that cost them the World Cup and they came up with several reasons for their losses.

The first was that in the dying moments of matches sometimes wrong decisions were being made. If the decision maker in the team was on the wrong side of the field at the most important moment, decisions were being made by players who were not experienced at making those types of decisions. Chances to snatch victory in the last few moments were sometimes not taken because of poor decisions and lack of leadership experience across the field.

The All Blacks now have 5 senior leaders or captains throughout the team who are empowered to make crucial decisions during matches.

Another anomaly was if the All Blacks were sometimes left to finish several matches of a World Cup campaign without their first choice player in a particular position on the team due to injury. They would sometimes need their 3rd choice players to play the most important matches near the end of the World Cup and those players were often in key positions within the team.

The All Blacks have worked hard over the past few years to have 3rd and sometimes 4th choice back-up players who can fit-in seamlessly in the most intense matches and without the team momentum suffering one bit.

The All Blacks have become perfect Fox’s and have gone from being a very good team to an exceptional team. They are now winning matches in the dying minutes of a game and often with substitute 3rd and 4th choice players who don’t just make up the numbers, but contribute immensely to the cause.

Tennis coaches and players need to adopt the Fox mentality. Look at your perceptions of the problems and weaknesses in your game and see if you are not over-looking these problems and weaknesses by saying they are outside-the-box and therefore occur so infrequently that it’s not worth the time and effort to work on it. Try to identify anything in your game that sometimes hurts your performance and see if it can’t be addressed in training and eradicated or strengthened.

An example would be to imagine that the problem is a faulty serve when under pressure in a match. Most of the time you hit a great serve, dominate your opponents who are lower ranked but inexplicably the serve fails you in pressure situations against higher ranked players. The Hedgehog says “My serve is fine most of the time and I just hope it goes well again today”, but the fox looks at why the serve fails at these infrequent but important times during the year and works on eliminating the problem. The Fox doesn’t care if this particular problem only comes once in 20 matches, a Fox wants to fix it! 

It could be that the serve simply gets tight during a match under the constant pressure of someone ranked higher. A Fox will go through all the possibilities until the problem has been solved, while the Hedgehog will continue looking at the wins and disregard the rare losses.

As players rankings improve they sometimes feel that they have the full package to become great players. Many top players believe that winning is about executing their game at the right level and the win will come. This is only partly true. This is a Hedgehog mentality.

It’s important for players and coaches alike to continually question themselves anytime they experience a loss, because only in this way can both the player and coach continue to get better.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013



The term loading refers to a player interacting with the ground by bending their knees and thrusting out of that position to create greater racquet-head speed.  While that is exactly what happens on all good ground-strokes, serves, returns and overheads, teaching a player to only load the ground can be detrimental.

A player who follows the instruction to load will go through the action of bending their knees.  This is what most coaches want to “see” and with a small percentage of “talented” players that process of loading automatically translates into better timing and increased racquet-head speed.

Unfortunately the majority of players suffer the reverse effect.  For them the timing can actually get worse and they can be labeled slow learners or lacking in talent. The closer they follow instructions the worse it gets.

The problem with the term loading is that it only describes the action of preparing the ground for the inertia that will transfer energy from the ground, through the body in a chain reaction and eventually into racquet-head speed. It’s like sitting someone in a car and expecting them to know how to get to the next destination simply because you have introduced them to the car!

Loading is the beginning of timing, power and consistent ball striking but surely the player needs to be aware that those are the goals, otherwise they continue to focus on simply loading and bent knees.  I have seen players instructed to load by staying down and remaining bent at the knees during the entire stroke, as if bent knees were the magic formula for everything that ails a player!

I encourage players to not only load the ground but to also think in a more wholistic way. I try to encourage players to critique their strokes in terms of timing and ease of effort. A stroke that is timed well and flows easily most certainly has good ground (loading).

Therefore loading also has other applications other than creating racquet-head speed on ground-strokes. Loading is necessary to supply timing for all the other strokes we use. Think of the serve (knee bend), the return (often only toes used but that’s still a form of loading). Even the volley benefits from the step used to get near the ball. That step is also a form of loading.

The next time you are trying to add power to your game be sure to maintain a broader mindset. It’s about transferring ground forces through the body to the racquet-head. It’s a multi-faceted process that goes beyond just loading the ground.

Monday, August 12, 2013



Have you ever watched a racehorse trying to catch its breath at the end of a race? Its nostrils flare as it takes in air but its mouth remains closed. It can be exhausted and be desperate for air but it never opens its mouth.

A dog will pant with its mouth open while running but a dog also uses its mouth to sweat. The horse, like humans, sweats through the skin. This is a fundamental similarity between humans and the horse.

Unfortunately humans have lost the art of nose breathing and never receive its benefits. For a long time sportsmen and women have pushed themselves while exercising to a stage where they must open their mouths to gasp for more air. But is this gasping for air the natural way we were supposed to breathe when exercising? Does breathing through the mouth really making us fitter, healthier or enhance our endurance capabilities?

Breathing through the mouth during exercise only pulls air into a small region near the top of the lungs, leaving most of the lungs unused. In extreme cases this eventually creates a state of hyperventilation. Because we are in this state of hyperventilation, we must push any air we do have in our lungs quickly out again in order to take the next gulp of air. This cycle of gulping air and breathing out again as quickly as possible in order to take the next gulp eventually creates an oxygen deficit. Muscles starved of oxygen and pushed to continue exercising begin to tire and cease to work at their optimal level. What’s more, the athlete will be in pain for several days later until the muscles can recover.

Surely the goal of any competitive tennis player is to achieve optimal efficiency, which in physical terms means utilizing speed, strength, flexibility and endurance over a long period of time. If the muscles are continually faced with this oxygen deficit after long rallies, the body will eventually start to perform below par. Perhaps the humble horse was right afterall!

Like the horse, when humans breathe through the nose the air enters and spirals deep into the bottom of the lungs, making this the most efficient way to take in the maximum amount of air.

Nose breathing during exercise over a long period also allows the ribcage to operate in a way it was always intended to function. With each breath the ribs are supposed to expand on inhalation and retract on exhalation.  If functioning properly this “massaging” action of the ribs further aids the lungs in their work. Many people today have “frozen” ribcages and have lost the ability to benefit from this expanding and retracting action.

Twenty five years ago I started the process of nose breathing when training. The benefits started to show after one week. The benefits were:

·        No more soreness after runs – the muscles were oxygenated  during the entire run
·    My heart-rate dropped by 25% - the hyperventilation state  was gone due to improved oxygenation of the muscles
·       My breathing rate went from 18 breathes per minute to 14 –   again, better and more efficient oxygenation of the muscles
·        Exercising became a more pleasant experience – the stressful state I believed was fundamental to getting “in shape” had been replaced by an almost meditative experience.

This is how you can incorporate nose breathing into your training and during matches:

1.     Learning to use nose breathing while exercising.
Running is perhaps the best way to learn nose breathing. Jog slowly while keeping the mouth closed and breathing through the nose. The breathing should automatically become deeper because nose breathing utilizes the entire lung. Continue to jog slowly and become accustomed to the long and slow breathing rate.

During inhalation and exhalation, try to breathe in the throat. You will begin to create a roaring noise similar to a jet airliner taking off!

As you become more proficient at breathing through the nose slowly increase your speed. This will tax the breath and as soon as you feel the need to open your mouth… reduce speed, even walking is fine, just resist opening your mouth to breath! It will feel a bit like drowning in the beginning but your insecurity will pass.

Continue this speeding up and slowing down process until nose breathing becomes more proficient and the need to slow down becomes less frequent.  The need to slow down less is a sign of progress. This will be the pattern of your runs for about one week and then you will notice the heart rate dropping, the rate of breathes per minute dropping and your running speed increasing!

2.   Apply nose breathing to tennis
With this more efficient method of breathing becoming more natural to you it will now automatically take over whenever you walk up stairs, jog or try to recover from any physically stressful activity.

In tennis we have breaks between points and this is a perfect time tom use nose breathing to recover quickly. Your confidence will now be such that you will switch to nose breathing whenever you need to recover quickly.

While bursts of energy like the serve, overhead and groundstroke winners benefit from an explosive exhalation, the inhalation process will benefit from nose breathing because it’s the best way to fill the lungs and has a calming effect during points.

Thursday, July 18, 2013




Tennis today is played at a much faster pace than ever before. The demands on a player to move faster place tremendous importance on fitness, speed and anticipation. I teach a system of movement that involves all three of those requirements and some more.

There are 3 main parts I try to teach my students when working on court anticipation and movement:


Here are the 3 parts explained in more detail.

In today’s fast paced game it is essential that player’s are able to anticipate where the ball will go to some degree. Observation is the most important aspect of anticipating well. Anticipation requires a player to read their opponents preferences, swing patterns, and get a quick read on the direction of the ball. It’s then time to move!

I ask my players to observe the moment of contact at the other end of the court. The moment the opponent makes contact with the ball should be observed closely because once the ball has been struck we can’t afford to waste a second.

 Once my students have started observing the opponents contact I have them create a “Skip Check”. The skip check is a soft lift off the ground. You see this skip check with good returners of the serve, without it the quick movement to the left or the right is not possible. Today, the pace of the groundstroke game demands the same explosiveness as the return of serve and therefore we must add the skip check to our general baseline game. The skip check should be synchronized at the exact moment of contact at the other end of the court.


This links observation to an action. Without an action the observation gets lazy and the player sees no reason to use time or effort to watch for the opponents moment of contact.

Action (the skip check) also needs a function or it is also meaningless. The purpose of the skip check is to create an explosive start to the movement on landing, if it is required.

While the player is airborne the ball starts its path back from the opponent’s racquet and we would now know where we need to run for the next stroke. This is the key to the skip check, you are about to land on the ground knowing which direction you move next. From the landing the direction to move can now be anticipated and through pre-innovation the movement can be explosive and accurate.

We have now added an action to our observation which makes us much quicker on-court.

We have covered the movement to the ball and this will certainly improve once the skip check becomes calibrated to the opponents contact and the two become instinctual.

However, if you leave your player with just observation and reaction skills you haven’t done them justice because the rally lasts a lot longer today and players are expected to get many more balls back during the average rally. They need a way to recover for the next ball.

Recovery needs to involve the best way to run at full speed to a wide ball and return from that position to cover the court as best you can. 

The way to achieve this is by “Flipping the Spine”. FTS means that you enter the strike zone with your spine in an optimal position, create the Line at the moment of contact and position the spine in an optimal way to recover back to a central place on the court.

In this first picture you see Rafi moving towards the wide ball at speed. His spine is angled towards the side fence.


The 2nd picture, the contact, shows Rafi creating the Line. The Line is the optimal point of balance and transfer of energy from the ground (in this case through Rafi’s right toe).


In this 3rd picture Rafi has recovered and has “flipped his spine” back to begin his movement back towards the centre of the court. This flipping of the spine is the essence of recovering quickly to the vacant court.


Together this system of Observation, Reaction and Recovery has all the elements a player needs for on-court movement in today’s fast paced game.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013



There are thousands of players, both men and women, who are trying to make their way in the world of professional tennis. I thought it would be interesting to clarify the steps, in my opinion,  that a player must take to get all the way to the top. 

  1. No National Ranking & No ATP points
Can’t always get into the qualifying draw for local futures and must rely on wild cards

  1. National Ranking but no ATP Points
Possible to enter qualifying of Futures events because of his National ranking but not always accepted

  1. Enough ATP points to enter Futures qualifying
Must compete in the qualifying events where physical & mental fatigue can be a major obstacle in progressing deeper in the tournament

  1. Qualifies into the main draw consistently
But has trouble progressing much further because of the physical and mental demands of qualifying

  1. Enough Points to enter Main Draw Futures
Can win through rounds of main draw consistently

  1. Ability to Win Futures titles consistently
This allows the player to achieve a sufficiently high ranking (approx. 300) to get into the main draw of Challengers.

  1. Plays both Futures and Challenger qualifying
In order to maintain their ranking because success in Challengers is limited

  1. Able to enter Challengers
Must be able to consistently get through to quarters in Challengers to defend futures points from previous events over 12 month period

  1. Ability to win Challenger titles consistently & play ATP qualifying
Sights firmly on the main ATP Tour but needs to maintain ranking so continues with Challengers

  1. Able to enter into major ATP Events
Can achieve a sufficiently high ranking from success in Challengers to get into main draw of ATP events (approx. top 100)

  1. Seeded in Grand Slam events
Has a ranking inside top 32 ATP and avoids top seeded players Initially

  1.  Wins ATP events

Sunday, June 16, 2013



You see it more clearly when the players are young and new to competition, but it’s common to all levels of tennis. Two players are locked in an on-court battle for varying lengths of time and then one player wins the battle of wills that takes place in the head and the match is essentially over. Don’t be fooled by appearances, the remainder of the match may seem competitive and the points may be exciting, but the match was over once the battle of wills was decided.

That early “arm wrestle” decided the outcome of the match. Think about that for a moment. “THE ARM WRESTLE DECIDES THE OUTCOME OF A MATCH”.

In a majority of cases both players start matches believing they can win. Both players can even start the match believing that they will win. Something changes that self-belief during the contest for one of those players.

Is the importance of winning the game of wills really anything new to us? Haven’t people been saying that tennis is 90% mental for a long time now? If we believe that tennis is 90% mental then why do players still contest matches focusing solely on the quality of their “Game”, meaning strokes and strategy? I’m not saying technique and tactics are not important, I’m simply saying we may be missing an important point here, that the arm wrestle is the key to unlocking our opponents resolve and eventually you winning the match.

During this year’s French Open Rafael Nadal repeated a pattern throughout his matches that emphasized his belief in winning the arm wrestle first. In all his matches he played relatively conservative tennis in the early stages of a match, never going for too much, maintaining a cross-court pattern and putting a great deal of effort into defense when he needed to defend the point. Later, when he had won the arm wrestle and his opponent began to make errors Nadal would start hitting his forehand down the line more and come to net to finish the point when he could. He could sense his opponent’s will had been broken.

This “breaking of wills” can take varying lengths of time. With Ferrer in the final of the French Open it happened within the first 4 games. Some players take longer.

It’s no coincidence that the other great exponent of the early arm wrestle is Novak Djokovic. Djokovic won an epic match against Wawrinka at the Australian Open this year in a match that saw Wawrinka throw everything at Djokovic for 5 sets, only for his game to break down in the dying stages and lose the match.

Andy Murray and Roger Federer are two players who perhaps expect to play sublime tennis and win matches.  Sometimes this works with the other players but with Djokovic and Nadal, who are programmed to think in terms of the arm wrestle first, it’s not working.

I have heard it said that “The final tactic is Guts”. I believe the first tactic is guts. Tactics and technique create a platform, but the arm wrestle is god. Change your mindset and start putting the arm wrestle as your primary job, particulary in the beginning of matches until the battle of wills has been decided.