A teacher of sports skills soon realizes his tasks:
(1) he must have a concept of what the skill looks like when correctly executed
(2) he must see where others are going wrong
(3) he must be able to correct their execution
(4) and he must be able to lead them through a proper program to eventual proper execution on a reflex, or match basis
Tennis is no exception. A good teacher will “set up” enough practice balls so that errors are corrected. This is a main task, and good teachers, pros and coaches work doggedly at it. There are some common misconceptions on the part of pupils however. Perhaps it is worthwhile to examine a few of these. First – no teacher can tell a player how to play. He can only teach the player how to practice. It’s like a person taking piano lessons and never touching the keys – he simply cannot learn without actual practice on the piano.
Some people conceive of tennis as lessons. Tennis is play. As a City Tennis Director I have observed people repeatedly taking beginners’ lessons from one year to the next. When I ask them how they’ve done since last year they often reply “…oh, I haven’t played since the lessons,” or “…I could never find anyone to play with.”
These people haven’t understood a basic fact regarding improving one’s tennis game: you are dependent on other people. There are some ways to detain this fact, namely lessons, ball machines, backboard practice, racks of shag or practice balls – yet no one avoids the inevitable. You must have someone you can count on to play or practice with. Very often you hear “….I like to play with better people” and perhaps to play with an equal is best. But to play with anyone is better than not playing at all.
Another element also emerges. Very often the most natural practice possibilities, i.e. family member, friends, neighbors, or rivals, are somehow eliminated because of various reasons. “Oh- I can’t play with my father, he shouts at me all the time,” is one excuse. “I can’t stand to lose to her…” is another. “I can’t count on them to be there on time, or to play hard when they come…” is frequent. At this point I feel the player should have a “heart-to-heart” with their potential practice partner. The gist of which would conclude: “Look, I need you to get better, and I know you want the same. Let’s set a regular time, keep our mouths shut, and promise each other we’ll work as hard as we can while we’re on the court. Also we’ll swap practice hits on an equal basis.”
“Swap practice hits?” What does this mean? It means that if you are, and have, a dependable friend you can set up the practice balls rather than pay a pro a fee for such service (or fail to practice because of an absent coach). This agreement has enormous potential for specific shot improvement, yet will go awry quickly unless each person is conscientious about hitting his share of the set-ups. It also helps for players to make note of their weak shots and their friend’s weak shots during play. Also, a sincere effort must be made by the players to set up the practice balls realistically. (Communication helps here!) Again, it helps to “blend” shots that go together naturally: For example, player one practices serving at the backhand while player two practices his backhand return. Next the players reverse roles. Drills can be fitted together in a limitless number of patterns and shots, yet some are time-honored and should be emphasized.
Even coaching college men who were quite talented, one had to sell the players on the value of drilling, and their dependency on each other to practice properly. Of course, more than two can practice together. A coach would never allow absenteeism, tardiness, or the “…I just don’t feel like practicing hard today” excuse. For player A to improve, Player B must extend himself. The entire team’s improvement is dependent upon each member’s maximum effort to extend their teammate into improvement.
A sack, or rack, or bag of practice balls is a common sight around tennis courts today. Surely you should hit “tons” of practice services. You can bounce hit, backboard practice and work on the ball machine. You can take lessons from the best…but to really improve, friend, you need a friend!