A teacher of sports skills soon realizes tasks include:
• Having a concept of what the skill looks like when correctly executed
• Seeing where others are going wrong
• Correcting execution
• Leading 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 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–the student 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 observed people repeatedly taking beginners’ lessons from one
year to the next. When I ask them how they have 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 overcome 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. 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.
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 think
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 players to make note
of their weak shots and their friend’s weak shots during play. 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 fit 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 on 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!

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