This March I traveled to sunny Palm Desert to do the Essential Tennis Singles Domination clinic. This post will discuss some key things I learned at the clinic that I’ll be implementing in my game this season.
From my home in Canada, Palm Desert is a pretty far trip, so we made a family vacation of it and stayed for 10 days even though the clinic was only 2.
I hadn’t played much tennis all winter, so I signed up for a couple of lessons at a resort before the clinic, hoping to take some of the rust off of my game. Unfortunately, I went from no tennis to too much tennis too quickly in a climate I’m not accustomed to. I think a combination of over-exertion and dehydration in the lessons led to me pulling a calf muscle early on in the ET clinic. But, instead of getting overly negative about this happening, I decided that I was still going to learn as much as possible over the two days.
The clinic was like no others I’ve done before. Typically, I find adult tennis clinics to be kind of like tennis bootcamps. I’ve attended clinics at Kiawah Island Resort, Saddlebrook Resort, and Total Tennis, and while I loved these experiences, they were completely different than the ET clinic.
I find that most adult clinics involve lot of drills with the players hitting a ton of balls, working on different skills in the process.
The ET clinic was different in that it had an outline that took us through the skills necessary to play singles, including footwork, controlling ball height, depth and direction from the baseline, in transition and at the net, and knowing where to hit the ball and why.
Each segment built on the last, and involved discussion, demonstration, hands-on experience, and then follow-up discussion and questions.
While I had been hesitant to attend the clinic since, for two days of tennis, the price tag was higher than I’d spent before on live instruction, I’m now confident that it was money well spent.
It really wasn’t about improving our tennis in the two day clinic, but rather learning new skills and concepts, under the watchful eyes of the coaches, that we’d then take home and practice over the next months.
I decided to recap the key takeaways for me from the clinic so that I don’t forget them. These aren’t necessarily things that were part of the “outline,” but are more just themes that emerged consistently throughout the two days that I found to be really helpful.
1. The importance of intentional shots
Much of our time was spent learning how to adjust our strokes to control the ball trajectory, height, speed, spin and direction. These are obviously important (if you can control all of them all the time you’ll be pretty unstoppable on the court), but it was amazing to realize how seldom I actually think about them. Only after a coach asked me after a shot, “how high over the net were you trying to hit that ball?” or “was that meant to be flat or looping?” would I realize that I hadn’t really had an intention with my shot at all, other than maybe “please don’t miss this” or “hit a good shot.”
Having intention before you hit a shot does a few things. First and foremost, it teaches you to hit the ball the way you want to. Again, while this is so obvious, the clinic made me realize how unintentional most of my shots are. My “target” is essentially the other side of the net, within the lines. I’m often happy with a shot if it goes in with a reasonable amount of pace and spin.
But not developing the skill of controlling the ball limits my ability to follow a game plan, which is, I’m learning, critical for tennis success. In order to be able to follow patterns of play, or construct effective points, I need to be able to hit the ball where and how I want to, which will only come by practicing hitting the ball where and how I want to.
Second, having intention for our shots gives our minds something to focus on, which helps quiet unnecessary chatter. I’d be hitting in the clinic, typically right after a break, so just warming up, and I’d find myself missing a lot of shots. Then a coach would remind me to think about the height, direction, or spin on my shots, and immediately my results would improve. I have a tendency to think about the wrong things (mistakes, what other people are thinking, or other distracting thoughts) and as soon as I crowd these out by focusing on one thing at a time, I’m able to execute so much better.
2. The importance of observation without judgement
The clinic made me realize that I tend to judge every shot as “good” or “bad.” Whether I hit intentionally or not, I always have some sort of target in mind, even if it’s just getting the ball over the net in a reasonable manner. When I miss, I consider the shot “bad.”
My shoulders slump. I reprimand myself inwardly. Usually I’ll say something out loud, even if it’s just something seemingly benign, like “oops.”
The problem here is I pass judgement on the shot. I say “that was a bad shot” and my adjustment is “next time hit a good shot.” But that’s not very specific, is it? How exactly do I hit a good shot? It’s also negative thinking, which can spiral downwards quickly.
From Failure to Feedback
Our brains need small, precise targets to shoot towards, and we need to observe an outcome, note how it was different than the target, and make adjustments on the next attempt. This is the essence of deep, or deliberate, practice, which has been proven time and again to lead to faster improvement in any skill. Read more about deep practice in tennis in this post on The Talent Code if you’re interested in learning more.
If we don’t hit with focused intention, and instead give ourselves broad targets, like just hitting the ball in, or serving into the service box, then in a sense we’re hedging our bets by giving ourselves the greatest possibility to hit the target. It reduces the number of times we have to experience the failure of missing the target.
I think this might be the reason that I’m reluctant to hit intentionally. Having small targets just gives me so many opportunities to feel like a failure.
And therein lies my problem. I need to learn to see missed targets not as failures, but as feedback. Not good, not bad, just data that my brain will use to make adjustments on the next shot.
In the clinic, when I hit a ball too high, too low, too wide, or not wide enough, while I was having my inner dialogue about my terrible shot, I’d hear a coach say, “what adjustment will you make?”
This broke my cycle of negative thinking, reminded me that missed targets aren’t bad but instead are just feedback, and got me to focus on the adjustment I needed to make to hit the target next time.
So not only does observation without judgment help us learn to make adjustments so that we can become better at hitting small targets, it also eliminates a source of negative thinking, which is definitely a good thing.
The clinic made me realize how I still see mistakes as failures and showed me that I need to reframe my thinking.
And just like making a change to your volley technique, reframing your thinking involves changing a habit. It won’t happen overnight, but with enough practice can become automatic.
3. Rules of thumb in strategy
I always think of strategy as the “next step” in my tennis development. Like I need to learn to execute my shots the way I want to before I need to worry about the much harder decision of where to actually hit it.
But the clinic emphasized using “rules of thumb” when it comes to strategy. What this does is it really simplifies the game-plan process and takes the guess-work out of where to hit your shots. It’s something that can and should be done right now, whatever level you’re at, so that it becomes automatic, like any other habit.
The rules of thumb we went over were as follows:
Groundstrokes: Hit cross-court unless you have a compelling reason not to. Compelling reasons include:
- Your opponent has a weak side.
- You have an unusually strong down-the-line shot.
- Hitting down the line will get the rally back on your strong side.
- Down the line is unusually open based on your position or your opponent’s position.
Items 1-3 can be determined in your game plan. You should already know, going into the match, or very early on in it, if there’s going to be a reason you’re going to try to keep the ball in a certain corner.
Item 4 is the only one that needs to be decided on during each point, but it should be very obvious. When in doubt, just keep going cross-court.
Transition: Hit down the line.
Volleys: Keep the ball in front of you if you’re going to have to hit another volley so that you’re in position for the next shot.
- Ball you can put away (typically high ball): open court (your position on the next ball not important)
- Ball you’ll need to hit again (typically low ball): hit in front of you (to make sure you’re in position for the next ball)
What I like about the rules of thumb, is that it gives you an “if this then that” way of thinking about something. You don’t need to think about where you’re going to hit every shot, it’s already determined for you, and you can just focus on your intention.
You don’t need to be fancy. You don’t need to try to hit out-of-nowhere winners. You can just follow the rules of thumb, open up the court, and then look for opportunities to hit the ball away from your opponent.
My tendency is to get in baseline rallies where I try to force a short ball by hitting harder than my opponent. I play mostly men, and honestly this doesn’t work well for me. It was eye-opening to hit cross-court, looking to open up the court rather than hit hard, and actually get openings where a regular rally ball would be a winner simply because my opponent was nowhere near it. This is the type of tennis I need to learn to play.
How Will I Incorporate These Going Forward?
I really don’t want these opportunities for improvement to be quickly forgotten as the tennis season starts. I don’t want to go back to my mostly unintentional practice where I just go out and hit with people and have the “goal” of hitting good shots and having long rallies, and play matches where my objective is to win, and any missed shots are considered failures. So what specifically can I do to make sure I actually work on these things?
- At least once per week ball machine or basket feeding practice sessions always with cones for targets. Practicing the strategy rules of thumb with the ball machine (i.e. volleying high balls to the open court and low balls in front of me)
- Practicing patterns of play with my practice partner, using cones for targets when applicable.
- Focusing on the intention of every point and shot in practice and matches. This needs to be my focus in between points. I’ve read about people who wear an elastic around their wrists and snap it when they catch themselves engaging in thoughts they don’t want. Maybe this (with a tennis wristband) would be helpful. A gentle snap each time I notice that I’m thinking negatively instead of focusing on the adjustment or the intention of the next shot.
- Having a written game plan before each match that includes intentions such as focusing on feedback rather than failure. Revisiting the plan after to see how I did. Consider something like this for practices too. Basically a tennis journal that I quickly write in before and after playing.
The Essential Tennis Singles Domination Clinic was, in my opinion, money well spent and was a lot of fun. The coaches are super friendly, caring, and passionate about helping players improve.
I learned more about myself as a player and some opportunities for improvement that I need to work on if I want to elevate my game. Learning to hit intentionally, reframe failures into feedback, and simplify strategy are things that should accelerate my tennis progress, which I’m excited about going into this next tennis season.
Do you have ways that you practice these types of things? Are there drills you do or habits you’ve developed? I’d love to learn more.