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.

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.