Going for the Big Shot
by Joe Dinoffer, USPTA, USPTR, ITA, USTWA
Gone are the days when a steady rallier from the baseline like former great Ken Rosewall can dominate tennis, if you could describe his playing style as "dominating." Great players today have "big" shots, hitting an apparently higher percentage of winners than in former decades. And this pattern is shaping the style of play that is effective today and will be effective tomorrow. It affects competitive juniors most, but also competitive and recreational adult play as well.
This creates a challenge for us as teaching professionals. Our students, aspiring to be "great players," are enthusiastic to hit these big shots, to walk in the shoes of Andre Agasse or Steffi Graf. It is up to us to not only teach them how to technically hit the big shots, but also how to develop the confidence to execute these same big shots in real match play. Five of these common big shots are:
1. winning angle volleys after approaching the net
2. overhead smashes
3. power groundstrokes with short high balls
4. attacking a second serve
5. high mid-court volleys
All of us feel comfortable teaching the techniques of these shots. But more is required. The major challenge lies in transitioning our students from success in repetition-style practice to success in a real match. An effective transition stage can be called "virtual reality" drilling. These are drills that students can utilize in a supervised yet pressure-packed competitive situation. They have to be able to feel the tingling pressure of the situation and still succeed to develop real match-play confidence. Without these transition drills, students who looked and felt great in a lesson with balls nicely fed to them come back to us with their heads down; "But I did so well in the lesson. Then, in the match I missed every overhead. I got so upset I became nervous on practically every shot for the whole match!" This story is an example of a player who is poorly prepared for match-play, not having properly gone through the transition from repetition drills to match play. Overheads are used in this story since they are such a good example of how a player`s confidence can easily peak or plummet during a match. Successful competitors tell themselves; "Oh... great! Here comes a lob. Now I can win the point!" Tentative competitors say to themselves, "Oh... no! Another lob ..."
A major cause of match play pressure overwhelming a player into making mistakes and losing confidence is mental distraction. During casual play, distractions can include the weather, a tough day at school or work, an argument with a friend or spouse, or a dozen other "excuses." In match play, the primary distraction will often simply be the pressure to win. Picture champions like Pete Sampras, Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg. Their focus is always tremendous. Their distractions are few and far between.
An excellent focus aid to avoid match play distractions is drilling with a target. The typical target system used on a tennis court has always been a "bullseye target" such as a cone or racket cover. However, the ideal target system clearly defines specific court areas with ropes, cones, or balls placed in a pattern. To develop match play confidence, players must know without a doubt that if they hit the ball consistently in a specific area they will win. If they use high definition visual target areas with success in practice (both repetitive and "virtual reality" competitive drilling), they will have greater success focusing, and therefore executing winning shots in real match play. Because there is an affirmative behavior pattern in focusing on target areas and placement, the possibility of distraction is greatly reduced. One of our students in Dallas, Texas, said about target areas: "After a year using target areas, I see them on the court when they aren`t even there! A great way to visualize hitting zones."
Target areas can be utilized for students to specifically develop focus during repetition drilling. These repetition drills can be with the pro or practice partner feeding, hitting with a partner, or against a ball machine. The shaded areas in the diagram are the target areas, and during the first phase of confidence-building the student grooves the proper technique plus realizes, "Yes! I really can hit this shot." Once they can hit with solid technique into a designated target area at least four out of five attempts or eight out of ten, they are ready for the match transition drills or "virtual reality." In his specialty course at the 1994 USPTA National Convention, Bill Tym said, "if a player can hit any shot ten times in a row, I tell them that they now own that shot."
These competitive drills have two phases: the first phase is to play with the target areas still set up on the court. The second phase is with competitive-style drills with the target areas removed. This second phase avoids any possible dependence upon having the targets physically present on the court. But be sure to make this transition during the same practice session to ensure strong visual carryover. The teaching pro will easily notice whether or not this transition is successful. When in doubt, ask the players how strong their visualization was of their target zones. If they have problems, identify whether the difficulties are technique related or strictly with the process of visualization. Then step backwards with the player to review that step in the process.
If their transition to virtual reality drilling without the target areas in place is successful, they are ready for a final reality check before stepping into a match. Ask the player to compare their emotional response to these virtual reality drills with their emotional response to pressure situations in match play. If the emotions were the same, they`re ready. They know they succeeded in virtual reality realizing that when they play a real match it will be the same environment: both visually and emotionally. On the other hand, if their emotional comparison reveals differences, work with them to identify the specific emotions in each circumstance and line them up one by one until they consciously experience the same emotions in competitive practice and real match play. "Play as you practice, and practice as you play."
In this example we are describing the winning angle volley after approaching the net. The player who looks forward to getting close to the net to win the point will be the same player who steps in decisively to take charge on all short balls. The tentative volleyer will see a short ball and hesitate to come in to the net, knowing that hitting a volley can be risky business. The goal for our students is to develop confidence with these critical "big shots," the real turning points in match play. They will eagerly see set-up balls as opportunities to win rather than be tentative for fear of missing.
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