Importance of Practice Matches
How many times have you seen a junior with perfect strokes losing to someone who has less than perfect technique? I have been in tennis for over 25 years as both a player and coach and if I had a dollar for every time I saw a good “hitter” lose a match to a good “player” I would be a rich man. The difference between the two usually comes down to practice matches.
During the past 12 months I have attended most of the big U12 tournaments in the U.S. and I keep seeing the same thing. The kids with perfect technique are usually not the ones in the later stages of the tournament. While I was at the Easter bowl I watched the first seed, a boy who at first glance you would never in a million years think was the first seed beat a boy who was faster, more athletic and had much better strokes.
I spoke briefly with his father about how the boy practiced and the response I got was unsurprising, “He plays a ton of matches”. He said that when the boy was starting out he would play with everyone and anyone at the local park. It didn’t matter if they were young, old, beginners or accomplished players and that he learned how to construct points even before he learned how to hold the racket properly.
This fact is incredibly important for coaches, parents and player’s to take notice of. Let your kids play! So many times you see kid’s that don’t use their brains while they play. Problem solving on court is the single most important aspect to becoming a great tennis player at any level. What you are blessed with physically you can change to a point but you can never turn someone like Kei Nishikori into a 6’7” ace machine like John Isner. What you can do is help someone become a more cognitive and proficient player on the court by forcing them to work through obstacles.
The more you can put junior players into situations where they are uncomfortable on the court both in practice and tournaments, the better equipped they will be to deal with those situations. If we can agree that this is true then the answer is simple; play more matches. I started working with a top U12 junior about 14 months ago who for the better part of the previous year played only 3 tournaments and rarely ever played practice matches.
He drilled and trained 5 times a week but was never put into a real match situation and thus would freeze whenever the counting of points was introduced into the practices. I immediately put him in a tournament and needless to say the boy had no confidence and no idea how to create a point.
In order to create a solid player there has to be a balance. I’m not saying that all that is necessary is to play matches, of course that’s false. What I am saying is that no one can learn how to go from game plan “A” to game plan “B” or “C” or even “D”, if they are never forced to do so. No player always has his or her “A” game. How many times have we all witnessed Serena early in a tournament not have her best stuff but somehow find a way to win the match anyway. That’s why she is consistently in the semis and finals of the Slams instead of some of the other women’s players.
The same is true of players at lower level’s and juniors. In that match at the Easter Bowl the first seed out thought the other boy. He drove him nuts with short balls, deep balls, and changing up the pace constantly keeping him off balance. It was beautiful to watch even if it wasn’t beautiful technically.
I believe that coaches and parents need to make sure that their kids along with drilling and working on technique learn how to construct points and problem solve through match play. Let them go out there by themselves and try “crazy” and “stupid” shot’s let them make mistakes and hit drop shots from behind the baseline. Give them the opportunities to learn what works and what doesn’t and don’t feel the need to correct every tiny mistake they make.
In the end if a player put’s the time and effort in by the time they are 17 and 18 year olds most will have sufficient strokes, but the ones that have learned to think properly as well, will be in a much better position to be successful.