Fail to Plan or Plan to Fail

Reprinted an article in Tennis Life Magazine


Tennis can be a lot like life: Fail to plan and you plan to fail. However, planning your tennis life may not be as easy as it sounds. If it were, more players would do it. In tennis there are three main categories-technique, fitness and practice-in which planning is not only possible, but extremely helpful.

Technique: Start ‘Em Young, Start ‘Em Right

Consider this: Millions of people start playing tennis every year, but millions more don’t continue. Why? Among the myriad reasons, the ones that bother me most are when people say that tennis stopped being fun or that they got frustrated because they weren’t improving. Let’s compare juniors and adults who start to play tennis.

It often appears that juniors learn faster. One major reason is that younger people have more neuro pathways available to allow motor skills to more easily develop. But don’t give up on the adults just yet. It may take a little more effort to get a feel for an efficient topspin forehand, but adults have maturity on their side, which is a huge advantage over their younger counterparts and allows them to benefit from good concentration and patience through a sequential approach to learning.

Based on these points, the ideal composite tennis learner would have the body of a 5-year-old and the head of a 40-year-old. But since we can’t have our cake and eat it too, use whatever strengths you have to your own advantage. If you are a tennis parent or working with juniors, try to motivate the youngsters with short- and mid-range goal-setting. If you are an adult or helping an adult improve, encourage them to use their wisdom and maturity to patiently and methodically work through the learning stages. After all, tennis is a sport that offers lifelong benefits.

The main challenge tennis players face is when they develop playing habits with severe limitations. These habits are difficult to unlearn in order to improve their game. My advice is to learn proper technique right from the start-no matter what age you are when you hit your first fuzzy yellow ball over the net.

The Fitness Connection

This past was hot in most of the country. Some players are really bothered by the heat, while others seem to take it all in stride. The secret to playing well is to manage the heat to your advantage. First, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, along with the occasional sports drink to replenish carbohydrates and other nutrients lost through sweat. Second, use sunscreen. Not only will it protect your skin, but also it will help keep you from feeling overheated. And third, find shade on changeovers. It always shocks me at junior tournaments how so many players during changeover sit in the sun with no hat on their head. At a recent summer junior tournament in Texas, my daughter had three matches her first day. It wasn’t easy as the temperatures were in the mid-80s, and the sun and windy conditions made it feel hotter than that. That day alone, her total time on the court was seven hours. I totaled the time spent on changeovers. It was a full 60 minutes! She found shade each and every time, but none of her opponents even bothered.

At that same tournament, I watched what many players snacked on. You guessed it: candy and sodas. Yes, these items taste good and the sugar rush is great-while it lasts. But shortly after the brief “high” that refined sugars offer, the crash can be equally dramatic. If you care about how you feel physically, don’t fill your stomach with candy and sodas right before, during or immediately after play. Your body will feel better for it and your mind will be sharper as well. If you feel better and think better, you will most likely play better as well.

Making Practice Count

Another major area that warrants a serious look is how players practice. After all, whatever habits you form during practice will appear in real play. Simply put: Practice well and chances are you will play well. The opposite? Practice poorly and you will probably play just as poorly.

My advice is to set practice standards and consistently maintain them. These standards include physical effort, intensity, focus and any technical components or patterns of play that you are working on. An excellent way to help you maintain your standards is to make up your mind to meet or exceed your standards before you walk on the court. In other words, you should plan to practice well. The vast majority of tennis players who regularly commit to on-court practice time simply walk on the court without making a conscious decision to have an outstanding practice. Instead, when you are driving to the courts, prepare yourself to have a solid practice by visualizing yourself practicing how you would like to perform. Then, when you arrive at the courts, warm up well and treat your session like a match, including between-point rituals.

An example would be to use the 3 Rs between points or groups of shots: Relax, Refocus, and then Rev yourself up. Simulating match play by only taking about 20 seconds between points also can be a powerful addition to your practices. And, if you are hitting on a ball machine or someone is feeding you balls, seldom hit more than ten balls in a row. Then, about every 10 minutes or so, take a 90-second break to simulate the time you would have during each changeover. Develop these types of habits during practices and you can expect big dividends during actual competition.

Final Words of Advice

The mind is like a modem. (I prefer using DSL or cable modems myself.) Once you are connected at high speeds, those dial-up connections seem like the Stone Age. The tennis mind is similar. Many players are slow and simply react. Champions, on the other hand, have strong and focused playing attitudes. They are connected to their “higher self.” This strength comes from strong and focused practice habits. They also know how to prepare their body and mind for the physical and mental challenges of tennis through diet and hydration. They also know how to effectively deal with the elements, and they work hard to master the most efficient on-court techniques. Becoming a champion on any level requires planning. The best time to start is now.

Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional in both the PTR and USPTA, a distinction awarded to only a handful in the tennis industry. He has published numerous books and videotapes, and is a frequent speaker at tennis conferences around the world. For more information, visit www.oncourtoffcourt.com.