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Unveiling the Secrets of Great Preparation

by Rod Heckelman, USPTA Elite Professional

A server pulls the returner off the court with a wide serve and then knifes a perfect crosscourt volley…points over right?  Wrong, the player returning that serve is already there covering that would-be winner and firing a down-the-line passing shot. How did he prepare and cover that shot so quickly?  As it turns out, it’s more than just anticipation and speed of foot, it is the culmination of several factors that have contributed to this player’s ability to excel in coverage and preparation.  

#1 The dilemma of evaluation

The Problem
Without realizing it, possibly from that instilled trait of looking before we leap, we lose valuable time evaluating what is taking place.  We don’t want to make an error, so we try to collect as much information as we can before making any commitment.  For example, examine how many people type on their keyboards.  Anytime they have to hit a number or an exclamation mark or any uncommon key, they stop and look at the keyboard, then commit.  Without realizing it, they have trained themselves to hesitate and look.  Because this action is not automatic, they still have a fear of making a mistake. Hitting certain shots on the court is no different, we hesitate, then evaluate before we commit.  We want to feel secure that we have all the information possible in hopes that we can avoid failure.  All of this results in an unnecessary waste of time trying to evaluate the situation.

We also have developed a ready position that is better suited for collecting information than a reaction to the ball.  This is especially true when the situation is new or different.  Take for instance the player that is uncomfortable coming to the net.  The position they assume for readiness for a challenging volley is more suited for gathering information than it is for reacting quickly.  They take on a “Prairie Dog” like ready position with their head popping up, trying to find out if they are about to become the prey or the hunter.  We come from a long history of being either one or the other and sometimes we just aren’t sure which character we are about to be during these unfamiliar competitive moments.

The Solution
Top pro players with great preparation and movement have no fear.  They have been down that road many times before, over and over.  No need to evaluate and no need to hesitate.

The action takes place and they respond with instincts that yield a positive response.  This is more than anticipation, this is rehearsed and learned expectations.  Classic case of, been there, done that.

Top players achieve that skill from practice, but more than that, they get there as a result of successful practice.  They rehearse playing point after point in order to achieve that successful reaction.  The key here is that they practice playing points, not just rallying. Players at all levels tend not to practice outside their comfort zone.  To overcome evaluating, you need to experiment with new ways to approach situations under realistic conditions.  

#2  Balanced movement that is committed

The Problem
Yes, footwork is all important but it goes beyond just being fast on your feet.  Many players learn to first run fast, instead of first learning how to run efficiently.  This is especially true in regards to their starts and recovery.  That first step towards the ball is all important. Too often players scoot to the side, or need to take a preparation step to create a running position.  Tennis is a game that is directed forwards but most often needs to be performed sideways.  The fact that we are facing the opponent in our ready position, is only for the option of being able to go in any direction.  If we knew every ball was going to be a forehand or backhand, we would start sideways, like a baseball batter or golfer.  Because of this conflict, the first step is all too often a step that begins the process of running or finding the balance and weight transfer needed to create a strong start towards the ball. The end result is a slow inefficient start.

The Solution
First, players need to practice hitting forehands and backhands in a full sideways, racquet prepared position.  Providing this opportunity to experience the sensation of what it is like to be fully prepared, will give them an opportunity to experience the successful feeling of being prepared.  This type of practice will also give them an opportunity to improve their judgement of the flight of the ball from this sideways position and not from the old familiar face forward position.  This will also help them achieve a proper balance that is required for an optimum start. For most, this has their feet positioned much like that of a sprinter positioned in their starting blocks.  The upper body is slightly leaning in the direction they are about to run.  

Second, good players with good movement not only start properly, but they also have a built-in expectation that they can cover the court for any shot.  Top movers combine expectations and anticipation that help develop quick and decisive actions towards running down any ball.  We see this on let-cord shots, the lesser experienced might think that the ball is going into the net, so they never get going, not the case with the top movers.  They start their movement right off the opposing player’s stroke so even if the ball were to hit the top of the net, they are already on their way.

Another observation about movement can be seen if you watch two children playing tag in a defined space.  Notice that the pursuer is more forward and proactive.  The one trying to avoid being tagged is more upright and defensive.  We as tennis players need to be the hunter as much as possible.  As the hunter we are always physically ready to move.  This is also what will help us recover for the next shot…we expect a return, not wait to see if there is a return.

#3 Mastering and owning the space of a tennis court

The Problem
Players get too close or too far away from the ball for a simple reason... they either overrun the ball or they don’t get positioned close enough to the ball.  The end result is that they compensate by altering their stroke in order to make contact with the ball.  This forces the mechanics of the stroke to constantly change, instead of what really should be taking place, which is improving the positioning so that the stroke mechanics can be maintained.  

The Solution
The reason that most top movers seem to always be positioned and balanced, is because they first mastered their stroke production.  They have learned exactly where to be positioned in order to maintain and execute their well-defined strokes. So in a sense, their stroke mechanics are disciplining their positioning for the ball.  Because of that, what they have developed is the ability to judge the oncoming ball with both their eyes and their stroke production, not just their eyes.   
It is important that a player working on great positioning have a good understanding of the difference between compensating and adapting when altering their stroke.  Compensation means you could have performed well, but for poor movement and poor judgement, did not.  Adaptation is the option that is unavoidable and demonstrates great survival instincts.  

Hopefully over time a player learns to master the

space of a tennis court.  To see if your students have that skill, have a little fun and take this test. Start at the baseline, have them close their eyes and walk forward.  Have them mark the spot when they think they are at the service line and then again when they reach the net.  The experienced player has that down, but the learning player will be off by a few feet in most cases.  Have that new player take that test again about six months later and watch the improvement.

Rod Heckelman’s career started in 1966 when he began his five-year role as a teacher at John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch in Carmel Valley, California. Later he opened as the resident pro for Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch on Camelback in Scottsdale, Arizona.  In 1976, he took over as general manager/tennis director at the Mt. Tam Racquet Club in Larkspur, California. He produced both the “Facility Manager’s Manual” and the “Business Handbook for Tennis Pros,” that is published with the T.I.A.  He recently came out with two more instructional books, a book for senior players called, “Playing Into the Sunset,” and a new book for practicing called, “250 Ways to Play Tennis.”
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