Not keeping score is a good way to stay loose and relaxed. When it doesn’t matter where the ball goes (in, out, short, deep, away from our opponent or right in her wheelhouse), we find it easy to forget about mistakes. We brush them off and move on to the next rally. This can be a problem for a few reasons, including the following:
1. Unless we give our mistakes serious consequences, we won’t treat them as seriously.
Sometimes we need to learn things the hard way. I’ve struggled with hitting my forehands short, and, in unstructured practice, my partner will typically take a few steps forward and hit my short ball nicely back to me to keep the rally going. In matches, practice sets and competitive drills, these short balls get pounded back, generally out of my reach – a much more serious consequence!
When there are no consequences my brain doesn’t register as clearly that there is a problem with what I did. Think of your stove top. If you were to touch an element with the stove off and tell yourself not to do it again, you probably wouldn’t be as discouraged as you would be if you’d touched the element while it was on and burned your hand.
2. When we make mistakes in competition, it’s much harder to brush it off
Notice the difference when you make a mistake in a hitting session vs a match. Let’s say in your hitting session you’re having a great crosscourt rally, hitting hard and feeling good. You’re painting the lines. Both you and your partner are also occasionally missing, but only by a few inches or a foot, so you can just keep the rally going. Finally you miss one into the net, but no worries, one of you pulls a ball from your shorts and you jump right back in.
Now think of a game situation. You’re in a similar cross-court rally. 4 shots in, you miss your forehand long by 4 inches. The ball isn’t coming back, you’re down a point, and now you get to wait and think about your mistake while your opponent towels off and heads to the service line. It’s important to be able to manage your thoughts and emotions when you make a mistake in competition and a good way to improve at this is to practice reacting to mistakes in simulated competition.
3. There might be key skills that we don’t realize are lacking have if we never really test them
For me, a big one is consistently hitting to a target. For the past few years I’ve been very focused on stroke development, and mostly just hit with no consequences with friends. We might play points, and there would be a negative consequence to hitting out of the lines or into the net, but if I meant to go to my opponent’s backhand and hit to his forehand instead, it never mattered.
More recently my main practice partner and I have been introducing drills into our practices where we have to hit to targets. I’ve realized I’m much less consistent when there are constraints on where the ball can go. This makes sense when you frame it as I now have much less court space I’m allowed to hit it to. But it’s concerning since I would like to be able to hit the ball where I want it to go in matches. I want to be able to pick on an opponent’s weakness or hit to the open court and if I can’t consistently aim I won’t be able to do this well.
I’m not saying that there should always be consequences in practice. Playing without restrictions or worrying about the outcome is very important, particularly in developing technique, trying a new strategy, playing for fitness, and of course playing for fun. However if we never have any meaningful consequences we might be in for a rude awakening when a competition rolls around, and we’re also missing out on key opportunities for improvement.
So what are some ways we can add meaningful consequences to our practice sessions? I’m not a coach so these are just things I do in practice. I’m sure there are many more that you could do and if you have a coach he or she could certainly give you more ideas (and I’d love to hear more ideas from anyone reading this!).
Keeping a log of your scores will help you track your progress. This is a great motivation to keep at it and a great way to see how much you improve over time when you practice something specific.
Playing alone with a ball machine or practicing your serve
- Set up target areas using cones. Give yourself a goal of hitting 8 out of 10 shots within the target area. If you miss the goal, you have to do a fitness drill, such as 10 burpees, a suicide, or something else that you won’t enjoy (but will be good for your game!).
- This will help increase your determination and focus to not make mistakes and will have the added benefits of increasing your fitness and forcing you to execute when you’re tired. The drill will get harder as you complete more fitness drills, just like a match! If you want to learn more about aiming to a target, I really like this video on the mistakes we make when aiming (this helped me a lot) and this video on calibrating our shots at Feel Tennis.
Playing against a wall
Similarly, you can set goals for yourself on the wall and have “punishments” for not meeting them. I like setting pattern goals. Try these:
- Hit 9 forehands and then a backhand, then 8 forehands and a backhand, 7 forehands and a backhand, etc. Or vice versa.
- Alternate forehand/backhand volleys. Every time you hit a forehand that was supposed to be a backhand is counted as an error. Choose how many you will hit in the sequence, and then set a goal of 10-20% mistakes. So if you plan on hitting 50 in a row, you can have 5 mistakes. By continuing the drill even once you’ve made a mistake you get the fitness benefit (and fun)
Practicing with a partner
- Just keeping score can simulate the extra stress of competition.
- If one of you is a more experienced player, introduce a handicap to even things out and still allow you to compete.
- Introduce targets or rules that must be met to get a point. For instance, I like to play a rally game where a point is only scored if your last shot is hit in a certain target area. this could be a big target – like anywhere in the deuce court – and can get smaller as you get more accurate. This doesn’t mean you hit to this target area every shot, but rather that you work to structure a point where you can eventually hit a penetrating shot there for a winner or forced error. Another one is when you can only win a point off of a forehand. This forces you to aim more frequently towards your opponent’s backhand side to avoid allowing him to hit a forehand and there will likely be a meaningful consequence when you accidentally give him an easy forehand.
The more similar we can make our practices to game situations, the better prepared we will be for our matches. Playing without consequences is fun, but improving at tennis is fun too, and part of this improvement must be to our ability to play well when consequences add pressure.
Want some more info on mistakes and how they help us develop? Check out this post on deep practice in tennis.
What do you think? Do you have drills or exercises that help you practice for game situations?