How champions improve

One of the toughest things in our sport is improving a shot or stroke that you’ve been working on when the chips are down. Usually, the way that you’ve hit that shot for so long has been ingrained in your body.  When you’re in a pressure situation, your mind can go on auto-pilot and you go back to the old shot.  So how do you change that?

Build the change

The first thing you need to do is start slow.  Don’t be scared or surprised to miss. You are learning something new, and need to take a thousand swings to learn the new motion.

Right now,  you are trying to get a feeling for the change with no pressure.  The more you can practice the shot in a low pressure situation, the better you’ll be in the long run.

If you are working on a groundstroke or a ball that you would hit in a rally try to start slow and get someone to toss or drop you a ball.  Decide what a good success rate will be with the easy feed and move from there.  A good number might be 8 or 9 out of 10 tosses.  This sets a standard for success and gives you direction for practice.

Once you have hit your goal, start to add in more. Have someone toss the ball so you have to move more, or have them toss it so that you can add more shoulder turn and power.  The more you can master the stroke in this phase, the better you’ll be down the road.

Have the feeder move to the far side of the court and start to use their racket.  The feed will become more like a real shot, and it should take a few practice swings to get the right timing down.  Again, work with a goal in mind.  still trying to get that 8 out of 10 balls would be a great goal.  You want some pressure and you want to focus on something and not just be out there swinging with no goal.

Progression

Once you’ve got a feeling for the shot, it’s time to start making things just a little tougher.

Get a friend and start to rally. If you are focusing on a particular shot, have your partner focus most of the attention on that shot, but don’t hit 100% of the shots there.  You need to be able to hit something else and then return to it.  Still, you want to start making it more like a real point than someone feeding you.

Set a goal: rally with that topspin forehand 10 times in a row, alternate forehand and then the backhand slice that you’ve been working on. Something to make it almost like a point. You need to start putting pressure on the shot now. It will break down. You will miss. This is where you are fine-tuning the shot. You are getting used to it.  There needs to be more pressure than before, but not the pressure of a match situation.

Play out points

Once you’ve got a feel for it, start to play out points. It can be drop hit or tiebreaks, or even a real set.

It’s time to put some pressure on the shot.

Your shot will probably break down, and that’s okay.  Playing out points and keeping score puts different types of pressure on you than just trying to rally and get used to a shot. See how your shot puts up with pressure, look for what happens when it goes wrong.  If something happens consistantly, like hitting the fence, go back to the last step or even the first step and fine tune it.

This is where things start to get real though.

Players, when put in a position where winning and losing is on the line, begin to return to things they’ve done before. You need to change the attitude here.  Success is trying the new shot, not winning the point.

Don’t think that winning these games, these points mean that you’re improving if you aren’t working on the shot. Winning the point with the old shot or strategy isn’t really improving the shot.  If you were losing because of your crappy backhand before, and you just won a point using the same backhand, how are you going to move forward?

Once you are starting to hit the shot successfully with a pretty good consistency, it’s time to start pushing even further.

Real Matches and tournaments

The real test begins. Practice is over and it is you versus an opponent. Here is where all the practice pays off. If you followed the steps above you should have developed some confidence in your new shot, but will you be able to use it when the pressure is at its greatest?

Keep your focus on improving the shot, not winning matches.  You should be looking to the success in the future, not the success in front of you.

Pete Sampras

In the 80s Pete Sampras had a promising junior career with a two-handed backhand. He and his coach decided that he wanted to win Wimbledon one day. They decided that he needed to have a one-handed backhand so that he could attack the net with more comfort. They made the change, and Pete’s junior career started to tank. Still, he went to the pros with that one-handed backhand. He would eventually go on to be the Grand Slam records holder before Roger Federer. He won Wimbledon 9 times

Roger Federer

In 2016 when Roger Federer took half a year off of the tour, he decided to really work on his backhand.  So he took to the practice court.

When Federer returned to the tour in 2017 and started to hit is new backhand, many of his coaches marveled at it. They had all suggested some tweaks, but not having time to really work on it because of the grueling nature of the tour kept him from really being confident of the changes on the tour.

When he came back from his time off though, things were different. As Michael Steinberger writes about Federer’s new backhand in his article Rebuild, restore, redeem: The shot that salvaged Roger Federer’s career

Luthi was so impressed by what he saw that autumn (“Roger is so good, it feels that anything that’s possible on a tennis court he can do”) that he told Federer that he was convinced he could win the Australian. However, as he put it, “From being able to play a great level in practice or in one match to winning a Grand Slam, it’s a long way.”

Even one of the greatest tennis players of all time struggles with change. One of Federer’s coaches also says this of his new backhand:

Annacone, now a Tennis Channel analyst, said he never had any doubt that Federer could execute a more aggressive backhand; the question was whether he would remain committed to it at pivotal junctures.

Wrapping it up

So hopefully everything that you’ve worked on will carry with you.

You have to commit to that new shot.

You need to risk using that new shot when the pressure is on, and not be scared to lose. So to improve, to become a great champion, don’t get caught up with the wins today if you are working on something. Worry about learning and improving now, so that in the future you can become a champion.

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