A Tennis Thinking Drill: Hit the Gates
Playing tennis effectively means hitting the ball where you want to hit the ball, not simply getting it over the net and just generally, somewhere, on the court. No, the ball has to go to a place where it is both likely to arrive safely and which presents your opponent with an appropriate level of inconvenience. Achieving accuracy is a combination of risk aversion and strategic manipulation (moving your opponent). Naturally, though, there is a lot to learn when it comes to footwork and knowing what the appropriate shot is for each circumstance. We aren’t talking about those skills today. We’re talking about the simple ability to direct a shot, the most basic tennis skill (apart from getting the ball over the net in the first place). The following drill can be played with a friend or against a ball machine. All you need are two cones set up a couple of feet inside the baseline.
First thing: Set up your cones. This creates three “gates” through which you will hit you shots. Assign them 1, 2, and 3 in your head.
Your Mission: Your mission is to call (out loud) each of your shots before contacting the ball. Beginners can have a coach or friend feed balls to them in a consistent pattern (as a ball machine would do). As you progresses, though, this should be done with you and another player rallying naturally with each other, moving each other around the court in a more natural rhythm.
The Purpose: Too many players are more concerned about form than putting an accurate ball in play. Pretty swings do not win matches. Good instincts and quick reactions win matches; and they are traits that can be drilled and improved. Calling your shots forces your mind to concentrate on court geometry rather than technique. It compels your mind to stay in the game, so to speak. Also, if you call 3 but hit a really pretty shot to 1 instead, you can’t claim that you meant to do it all along.
Level Up: Once you’ve mastered two cones, add a third to make 4 gates.
Important Note: You should go for whichever gate comes to your mind; it’s better to vary shots rather than hitting, say, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4… . The more random the better.