My question in this article is, how do you practice and what goals do you set?
Most people I meet focus on technique, some on strategy, but all isolate a specific part of their game and work on it.
Is that the best way to improve? I feel it depends on what you want to achieve. If you just want good strokes and to look good on court, then great; but if you want to win matches, then I question this approach. I think you need to practice matches. Even learn to improve strokes and plays within matches.
The Reason: Pressure
I put it to you that any player in the Top 100 of the men’s or women’s tour is capable technically of beating any other player on their day. By that I mean that if you just got them to hit shots to a target and measured how well they did they would all be amazing. Many would beat the top players in certain stats: serve speed, amount of spin, or physical endurance.
The reason the top players are ranked where they are is generally down to how they handle the pressure of matches. The choices they make on the big points, how they hold a lead, or chase a leader. They aren’t the best at everything. The leading men are tall but not John Isner huge. Their serves are good to O.K., but they don’t lose their serve often. They don’t have the biggest shots on each wing.
O.K., Nadal has an amazing forehand but my point is that they have so much more. If Nadal were just a forehand, he wouldn’t have dominated Fed like he did. The top players have complete games and they don’t fold under pressure. They all face break, set, and championship points at times during tournaments. The top players deliver under that pressure. The others don’t. In the end that’s always the difference.
I could debate this forever, as I’m sure you could, too. The point was to question what your goals are in practice. Mine are now to learn what to do under pressure. Trust my game at all other times and learn to enjoy it. Build a belief in myself under pressure so that I’m free at other times to play what comes. At the same time I must compete enough that I have experience. Each opponent and match becomes a coach and a lesson on how to play against a certain opponent.
Learning From The Best
This is what my sports science studies taught me and also what the best in each sport has taught me. The best generally value matches simply because shots are just tools to them. Opponents and matches are the problem at hand. Figuring out how to solve the problems of the match is the focus of a champion. So they don’t see good technique as an end point but a start. They focus on putting that technique into practice.
When you do this you quickly discover that matches feature all types of shots. Not the static stuff you find in practice but perfection, junk, and randomness, too. Your technique has to be able to bend but not break in all these situations. Matchplay forces you to learn how to apply good technique on the fly to a ball and situation you have never met before and still give the opponent a ball they can’t attack.
Now that’s what I call practice. Putting it on the line and learning not to worry about it. What do you think? How do you approach practice? What is going through your mind and what goals do you have? Post your comments below.