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A Simple Plan for Getting Better

“I want to get better. I am trying to get better. I play almost everyday. In fact, unless I quit my job or set myself up for divorce, I really can’t play any more than I am playing now. But I don’t seem to be getting better. Maybe a little better, but not a lot better.”

You have no idea how often we hear this. It is a common frustration among rec-level players who play as often as time permits, but who don’t seem to be getting any better.

After rising through the levels and overcoming a variety of opponents, they hit a ceiling which they just can’t seem to break through. At some point, they run into a player or a group of players they just can’t beat. Everything comes to a stop.

The most common approach to solving their problem usually involves more of the same: more partners, more games, more matches, more tournaments. While this seems to be the right thing to do intuitively, this approach seldom solves the problem. In fact, it often leads to more losing, more failure and more frustration.

The key to breaking through these barriers is not typically more of the same, it’s usually a little bit of something else.

Going back and forth along the same pathway over and over and over again creates a high degree of familiarity and comfort to be sure. And from that familiarity, players generally develop a high degree of confidence. But at the same time, travelling the path too often without making some adjustments now and then is certain to create a rut.

Ruts trap players and make them predictable. Their patterns become habitual. They try to win every game the same way. They play the same shots in the same sequence. They end up making the same mistakes over and over again. And when things aren’t going their way, the frustration overwhelms them and their mental game breaks down.

Change allows players to break out of their ruts. It gives them new options and new things to think about. Changes in routines often result in changes on court and changes in performance. Eventually, changes to routines will lead to changes in outcomes, too.

So what should you change? Begin with simple changes. If you are accustomed to playing three times a week, trying playing twice and running 5K instead of playing the third time. By increasing your VO2 max, you will be increasing your brain’s ability to process oxygen late in matches when the chips are down. So you will be benefitting your game while you are changing your routine.

Or try taking a lesson. But ask your coach to show you something completely different. Tell him/her that you are in a rut and want to work on drills that are completely outside of your comfort zone. Ask for drills that will make you look at the court or the game or a particular situation with new eyes. Or better yet, go see a new coach who has never seen you play before.

Change keeps your mind fresh. It keeps your game from getting stale. It keeps you from being predictable. So if you think your game is in a rut, change things up. It’s the simplest trick in the world and also the most likely to work.

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Tennis Lessons Focused on Your Needs

Tennis Serve Lessons
Tennis Serve Lessons
Imagine for a minute that you are a tennis instructor looking at your newest class of students. At one end of the spectrum you have a young man who dreams of being a pro. He idolizes Novak Djokovic and sees your lessons as the first step on a road that will lead him to the US Open.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have Mrs. Johnson, a fifty-six year old woman who spends most of her time in the garden or out walking her Shetland Collie. Her goal is to learn how to rally well enough to hit the tennis ball around with her pre-teen grandchildren when they come to stay with her next month.

Between these two extremes you have three other players. One is taking tennis lessons in the hopes that he can learn to serve better and maybe improve his backhand. His goal is to finally beat his brother, who has been beating him at tennis for the past fifteen years.

The other two players arrived together. They are friends have been playing with each other for a while but want to improve enough to start playing in tennis tournaments. Even these two players, though, are do not have identical needs because one is a phys. ed. teacher runs two or three times every week. The other is an office worker who gets his exercise only from tennis and only on weekends.

Imagine trying to put together a lesson plan that will satisfy the needs of all five of these five tennis players. Now imagine trying to do that without first knowing what their backgrounds or goals are. Do you think you would be successful?

It is essential for tennis instructors to know something about where students are coming from and where they want to go if they wish to see their students benefit from their lessons.

Players who want to learn how to rally have needs that are very different from players who dream, one day, of playing in the US Open. The same is true when it comes to differing fitness levels; a young woman who runs 10 miles a week may not have the same goals and abilities as a middle-aged guy who sits at a desk all day.

In an ideal world, every tennis pro would come into every lesson knowing exactly where students are coming from and exactly where they are heading so that he can adjust his lesson plan accordingly. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case in the real world of tennis instruction. Such questions, if they come at all, usually come at the very beginning of the very first lesson.

Therefore my advice to students who sign up for tennis lessons is to get this information on the table as quickly as possible — preferably in the first five minutes of the start of your program. If the instructor doesn’t ask, bring it up any way.

Most classes begin with introductions that give students an opportunity to state their name and tell the group something about themselves. Included in this introduction should be a simple statement describing where you are coming from and what you hope to get out of the lessons. By doing this you will help the instructor understand your needs as a person and as a tennis player.

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Tennis Lesson: Learn How to Serve

Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
After reading my blog entry earlier this week — Tennis Lessons: How to Play, Practice, Improve — Gwen wondered about the following: “How is it possible to practice tennis serves while standing at the service line? Shouldn’t serves be practiced from the baseline?”

Good questions.

Let me answer them by saying that beginners who are learning how to serve have different objectives in practice than intermediate tennis players who are learning how to improve their serve.

More than anything else, beginners need to learn and practice service motions and rhythms. Since a good tennis serve is primarily about timing, players who are learning how to serve must focus the bulk of their practice time on the service motion itself rather than on hitting balls and trying to get them in. For beginners, that part comes later.

Intermediate tennis players, by contrast, have already learned the components of the serve motion. Generally speaking, they can put all of the serve components together in a continuous, fluid motion.

Therefore when intermediate players head out to the tennis court to practice their serve, it makes perfect sense for them to head straight to the baseline with a basket of tennis balls. They already know how to get their serve in. What they need to practice are the rest of the five elements that make up a good tennis serve: placement, depth, spin and power.

The best place for a beginner to begin the process of learning how to get the serve in, is on the service line. By standing at the service line and practicing their service motion, they will quickly develop a serving rhythm that is essential to their serving success.

As they become more comfortable with the rhythm of the serve and as they learn how to get the ball over the net and into the proper court, they can begin to move back in stages toward the baseline.

Eventually, they will get all the way back to the baseline and begin serving from there. Once they get there, however, they really won’t be able to call themselves beginners anymore. Nor will their smooth, fluid serving motion lead anybody watching to believe that they are relatively new to tennis.

They will look like they know what they are doing. And from that will come the confidence that they actually do know what they are doing.

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Tennis Lessons: How to Play, Practice, Improve

Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
In general, people who are learning how to play tennis should spend less time at the baseline than they do at the service line.

The move back to the baseline should happen only after beginners have learned how to control the ball and maintain a consistent rally.

Think back to the last set of tennis lessons you took. How much time did you spend at the baseline? Probably not a lot.

If you took your lessons from a PTR-certified instructor, you may have started and ended the lesson with a demonstration from the baseline, but everything else was probably done on the small area highlighted in the illustation on the right.

Instructors do this for a reason: it is easier for students to control the ball over short distances than it is for them to control the ball over long distances.

My best advice to tennis beginners is to adopt this small, service-box-court as their own. Learn to rally forehand to forehand on this small practice court. Then learn to rally backhand to backhand. Eventually they will also be able to practice volleys and other basic shots on this smaller court.

Even serves can be practiced at this distance. Standing at the service line is the very best spot on the court for beginners to practice their serve motion and rhythm.

Beginners who adopt the service-box-court as their very own tennis court will spend more time hitting and less time chasing errant balls. By increasing the number of balls they hit in an hour, they will be increasing the rate at which they improve.

Using the smaller court will also cut down on the number of times that balls get away from beginners and end up rolling through other courts and interrupting other players — something which many beginners tell me is both frustrating and embarassing.

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Tennis Lessons: Returning Short Serves

Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
Many tennis players at the beginner to intermediate level do fine when returning shots from the baseline and beyond. However, the moment they are drawn in toward the net to play a short ball, they fall apart and hit it out.

Don’t worry about it, though. Learning how to return short shots is part of the normal development of a tennis player. Here are three tips to help you improve your short shot returns in tennis, whether they are serve returns or just short balls played during rallies.

Tip 1: Get into Position Early

Whenever possible, arrive and set up early. While this isn’t always possible, it essential to try to arrive in position early and set up to hit the shot so that you can avoid having to hit your shot on the run.

Learning to read the ball well is the first step to success here. Watch closely for early warning signs that your opponent is about to hit a short shot. Most often, these signs will appear in your opponent’s racquet preparation. The moment you get an indication that the tennis ball will be coming short, begin moving toward the zone from which you will make your return.

Tip 2: Shorten Your Back Swing

When you are returning a ball from behind the baseline on a tennis court, you have about 80 feet of space to play with. So you can hit the ball with a full back swing. If the ball then stays in the air for 70 feet, it will still land in.

However, when your opponent hits a short shot that drags you 20 feet inside your baseline, you cannot hit your return so that it stays in the air for 70 feet unless you want it to go out. So instead of hitting the ball with a full back swing, think about hitting it with half of your normal back swing.

Tip 3: Keep the Ball In

Whatever you choose do in this situation, it is generally a mistake to over hit the ball and “go for the line”. Aim lower, reduce your power or you can adjust your grip to hit with more top spin — or combine any of the above. Just keep the ball in.

Pick a spot that is far enough away from your opponent to make them run but aim a good two to three feet inside the line so that you don’t miss the shot and donate the point to your opponent.

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Tennis: How to Serve

Contrary to popular belief, serving with power is the not the most important characteristic of a tennis serve. In fact there are four things that matter more than power.

1st Priority: Serve the Ball In

It doesn’t matter how hard you can hit your serve. If your serve doesn’t land in, it hurts you. The first step to winning in tennis is learning to get your serve in.

The good news is that the serve is a shot you can practice on your own. Grab a basket of tennis balls and pick a court. Serve one basket every day until you can get more than half of your serves in.

Once you can do that, start working on your second priority.

2nd Priority: Place the Ball

Once you are able to get your serve in consistently, start working on placement. In other words, begin directing the ball to your opponent’s forehand or backhand.

Divide the box you are serving to into two halves representing an opposing forehand and backhand. Practice serving to each half. When you can accurately hit more than half of your targets, divide the box into thirds — one is a serve to your opponent’s forehand, one is to his backhand and the other is into his body.

3rd Priority: Serve the Ball Deep

Once you are able to control the direction of your tennis serve, begin working on controlling the depth of your serve. Use cones or other markers to mark out targets for deep serves up the middle and out wide. Keep practicing until you can hit more than half of your targets.

4th Priority: Serve with Spin

Yes. Spin is more important than power. However spin is also irrelevant if you can’t serve the ball in or direct it to where you want to go.

Focus on the three priorities above first. Once you master those, begin adding more spin to your serves. Top spin is great, but don’t forget to develop other spin serves as well.

5th Priority: Serve with Power

Learning to serve with power is your final priority. Learn to serve the tennis ball in and place it where you want it to go. Once you can do that, start developing your spin serves. Then and only then should you become concerned with power.

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Correcting Common Mistakes: Hitting the Ball Long

Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
In my capacity as a tennis instructor, I spend a lot of time working with students who are hitting balls with tennis ball machines. As a result, I often see dozens of intermediate tennis players making the same common mistakes over and over, hour after hour, hundreds upon hundreds of times every week.

Chief among these common mistakes are those that cause the ball to sail out the back of the tennis court. Here are the three most common mistakes that I see along with some advice on how to correct them.

Common Mistake #1: Receiving Ball Too High

Without question, this is the most common mistake I see: new players receive the ball too high and end up making contact with it at the wrong height.

Whenever possible, players should move into position before the ball arrives so that they can strike it as it descends to waist height. Striking the ball above waist height will cause most beginner and intermediate players to hit it long out the back of the court.

That can be very frustrating.

If long balls are a problem for you, try adjusting your position one or two steps further behind the baseline. Ideally, you want to have to move forward in order to get into position to receive the ball. You then want to strike the ball as it descends to waist height from a stationary position.

Common Mistake #2: Running Forward

Another very common mistake has to do with basic footwork. Many beginner and intermediate players make the mistake of running forward through their shots. As a result, their shots go long and land out just beyond the baseline.

This is an essential lesson in basic tennis physics. The faster you are moving forward, the further the ball will travel after you hit it.

Try this instead: run as fast as you can to the spot where you want to receive the ball. STOP!! Set up with your racquet back. Strike the ball as it descends to waist height.

Doing this will help you in two ways. First, it will significantly increase your ability to control the direction of the ball. Second, it will greatly reduce the chances of hitting it too hard and causing it to land out.

Common Mistake #3: Flat Stroke

Players who are in the habit of receiving the ball too high or who tend to strike the ball while running forward, often develop very flat strokes. Since flat strokes cannot generate top spin, they will often dump balls into the net or send them long out the back of the court.

Both problems can easily be corrected with a little bit of top spin.

Top spin causes the ball to arc over the net like a rainbow. At the end of its arc, the ball is pulled strongly down into the court — which prevents it from going long and landing out.

Maximize the top spin you create by developing the habits described in points 1 and 2 above: learn to receive the ball at waist height from a stationary position consistently.

This will give you the time and space you need to create the low-to-high racquet path and create sufficient top spin to keep the ball in the court when it lands near the baseline.

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Keep Your Elbow up to Serve Better

Tennis Tips

If you want to serve better, make sure your elbow is up above your shoulder. Don’t let it drop before you strike the ball, otherwise it is harder to hit up and through the ball.

It’s like when you throw a baseball, the throwing arm’s elbow and shoulder are up high to get more leverage. When you throw a ball with your elbow up high rather than low, you can throw farther and have more power.

Just try to throw a ball with your elbow down near your side rather than up high and you’ll see how difficult it is to throw it far.

Same thing for serving, keep the elbow up and you can get more spin and more power. Try it and become more consistent.

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Receive Well — Give Better

Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
One of the biggest differences between intermediate tennis players and advanced players is found in their ability to move around the court and hit ground strokes.

Advanced players move around the court and hit the ball back fairly consistently while intermediate players (3.0-3.5) struggle with many shots that requirement movement.

So what can intermediate players do to improve and become consistent with this part of their game? It all comes down to preparation and effort.

Before a player can project the ball, he needs to receive the ball. He needs to get into position and set up before beginning his swing. The worse possible situation for any player to be in is to be forced to hit a ball while he is on the run.

Every intermediate player who wishes to become an advanced player must make the effort to get into position before the ball arrives so that he can avoid being forced to hit on the run. If he can do this consistently, he will be on his way to becoming an advanced tennis player.

Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to hit some balls with a good friend who is also a tennis instructor. He is an advanced tennis player who can hit the ball hard with a ton of top spin. However, it’s the beginning of the season and it is more than six months since he last played tennis. So his footwork was a little rusty.

The impact of this rusty footwork on his game was immediately obvious. In spite of the fact that he is normally an advanced tennis player, he was playing like an intermediate tennis player. Balls that would normally be in for this player were long or wide whenever he was forced to move before hitting his shots.

If I was coaching this player, the first thing we would work on would be his footwork. I would ask him to move faster and to get set to receive the ball sooner. In fact, I would ask that he make this his highest priority.

Doing this will ensure that this player will be able to take advantage of his power and top spin. Doing this will ensure that more of his shots land in. In other words, doing or not doing this will determine whether he plays like an advanced player or an intermediate player.

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Tennis Pushers — 5 Ways to Beat Them

Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
Brent Johner is a certified tennis, squash, badminton and pickleball coach
Pushers, in tennis, are players who do not have the training or technical skills to hit normal forehand or backhand strokes.

Often, they hold their tennis racquet like a frying pan and simply push balls back to the other side of the court. To make things worse, their unorthodox grips usually create backspin or sidespin that causes the ball to bounce in strange ways when it hits the ground.

Properly trained tennis players hate losing to pushers. It’s embarrassing. Yet it happens with surprising regularity.

The keys to beating pushers are sound fundamentals and smart court positioning. Below are five essential tactics that will help you beat the neighbourhood pusher.

Tip 1: Watch the Ball — Not the Pusher

Pushers have unorthodox strokes. Do not get hypnotized by the ugliness of their game. Watch the ball and play the ball. Be prepared on every stroke to go and get the ball. Do not sit back and expect it to come to you; do that against pushers and you will surely loose.

Tip 2: Run Hard — Set Up Early

Read the ball on every shot and run to the spot from which you intend to return it as fast as you can. This will buy you extra time to read strange bounces, set up to hit your shot and decide where you want to hit it. Do NOT fall into the trap of hitting balls on the run; doing this against pushers is death.

Tip 3: Play the Pattern

Most pushers have patterns that are pretty easy to figure out. Most of those patterns will revolve around balls that you hit short. Watch for those patterns and then move in on them. Force the pusher to do something else that he is not comfortable with. Force him to do things that are outside of his normal pattern and you will often force more errors from him.

Tip 4: Abandon the Baseline

Pushers are like squash players, they like to pick corners. So you have to think like a squash player and dominate the Tee. Move to the Tee at the centre of the court as soon as you can. Since pushers do not hit with top spin, they will have problems keeping deep balls in. Take away the short court, take away the centre of the court and force them to hit wide and/or deep.

Tip 5: Backhand! Backhand! Backhand!

Rare is the pusher who has a reliable backhand. Most, in fact, will run around their backhands at every opportunity. Use this to your advantage. Keep the ball to their backhand and they will eventually play themselves off of the court and give you an easy forehand to put away.