Per-fect-ing Practice makes Perfect
While being a tennis instructor working with students or just someone's hitting partner with a stranger out at a local park, you would surprised how many casual tennis players just "go out and hit". They are out there several times a week and take lots of lessons, but just seem to repeat the same mistakes.
So if your goal is to improve your game everyday and make better use of your time on the tennis court - read on:
- Smart use of Time.
Showing up and being good on your word - whether for a lesson or to meet a friend - is a reflection on your character. Toni Nadal once said to Rafa, "if you are not 5 minutes early, then you're already late". This is the respect and courtesy you should always show. Of course if an emergency comes up, notify your partner ASAP.
Be efficient with how you structure practice time. Simulate game timing as much as possible. Have an adequate warm-up session at half-court (2-3 mins), work rally balls, approaches, and volley/overheads (4-5 mins). Then take 6 serves from the ad and deuce courts (2-3 mins).
One common mistake beginners make is that they spend far too much time being too isolated in their practice. They may spend 20-30 mins hitting short court and an hour serving one type of serve without the right mental targets and understanding the purpose. You need to translate those skills (ex: using topspin, enough racket head speed, work angles for half court tennis) into a real match.
For serving, if you do not have the proper serve grip, toss and learn the basic serve fundamentals - it is a waste of time to try to hit a whole hopper of your hardest 1st serves. If only 2/10 actually land in the service box, you are depending on luck rather than dependable technique.
- Be prepared mentally
When we show up hungry and eager to play, the brain will absorb a lot more. Too many times, when I've taught tennis lessons, the student may be there physically, but not above the shoulders.
Just arriving at the court is not enough - especially if you need another 5 minutes to put on your shoes, run to the restroom, whatever it is... At least one other person is counting on you to fulfill your part of the bargain when you go out there.
At a minimal level, be mentally there. Constantly checking your cell phone at every changeover means you're lacking focus. If your mind is elsewhere, you will not be 100%. Save the extra long chit-chat for the water break or afterwards, so someone else can use the court.
Whether it is changing grips, putting on sunscreen, or hydrating - do this before arriving! Ideally, you should have done a bit of dynamic stretching too so you can play your best. This is most important when playing indoor tennis and time = money.
- Share your goals, start with a quick game plan
Have in mind when you start a list of goals you want to work on when doing drills.
You should have at least one or two areas they feel they want to improve. Share this with your hitting partner. Collectively agree on certain elements you wish to drill on during the hitting session.
If necessary, adjust the drills to suit the other players' skill level. Most of the time they will not be very good at feeding consistently or pin point accurate, so give the necessary margin of error.
It is a waste of time, to just jump right onto the court and start slapping balls from the baseline. It is about progression. Start with half-court; incorporate top spin, volleys, footwork. If you're lazy from the service line, it will only amplify when you move back.
- Establish rhythm and consistency first
Nobody likes hitting with someone who just wants to belt balls for winners. Especially off the first or second shot when feeding, do not immediately try to hit winners.
Get into a groove, perhaps work on cross-court shots first before hitting all-court. Let your partner know that you want to get at least 3-4 balls in play before either player should try to win the rally. Otherwise, you're just picking up most of the time instead of grooving solid technique.
- Work on ALL parts of the game - alternate offense and defense roles
Both players should get a chance to be on the 3 phases: attack, neutral and defense.
Hitting inside-out forehands against a slice backhand is one way. Playing medium pace passing shots against a volleyer at the net is another. Working on a good lob is a complimentary to the other person hitting directed overheads consistently. The key word is consistently. If one or the other is uncooperative or flaky, you will not produce quality - remember it takes two!
Please do not just stand on the baseline the entire time! Practice feeding each other volleys, overheads, and even transition shots in order to improve.
- Practice and simulate real game play
After about an hour or so, try to incorporate some serves and returns into the drills. It can be a live ball drill or play a few points with one person feeding underhand or tiebreakers with the serve.
Whatever it is, just make sure at some point to incorporate the practice shots into a real point situation. Just working on pieces of the game in total isolation can be dangerous; it must fit into the bigger picture when you start playing. Otherwise you may let the rest of you game go idle.
Finally at this point, you can also play a full set. If both players are roughly the same level, be competitive and do your best to use what you learned. It is not about winning 6-0 when one is clearly better. But instead, try building small improvements on the weakest parts of your game, so it can be a fair and enjoyable challenge on both sides.
Have fun, be mindful of the experience for all players, and work each time on forming good basic habits that will translate into winning tennis! Enjoy!