Jeff’s desk

When I was a young junior, coaches would tell me that tennis was 5% technical and 95% mental. By the time I was competing for the University of Colorado, that sentiment had changed to 5% technical, 5% physical and 90% mental. Later, when I became a full-time coach and started to take coaching courses with Tennis Canada, I was taught to take a global approach to coaching tennis and I believe that this approach holds true today.

What is a global approach? It means not only addressing the athlete’s technical game, but the psychological, physical and tactical parts of their game as well.

So why are coaches, parents and players so obsessed with technique? Simply, it is the easiest thing to criticize and the easiest thing to teach. Any coach can point out a flaw in a player’s technique and with a little work and time show how the technique has improved. It is not so easy to quantify a player’s psychological game. It is a little easier to train and track the tactical and physical parts of a player’s game, but not as easy as focussing on and training the technique.

Is it possible to have perfect technique?

In his autobiography, Rafael Nadal states:

“You might think that after the millions and millions of balls I’ve hit, I’d have the basic shots of tennis sown up, that reliably hitting a true, smooth, clean shot every time would be a piece of cake. But it isn’t. Not just because every day you wake up feeling differently, but because every shot is different; every single one.

From the moment the ball is in motion, it comes at you at an infinitesimal number of angles and speeds; with more topspin, or backspin, or flatter, or higher. The differences might be minute, microscopic, but so are the variations your body makes–shoulders, elbow, wrists, hips, ankles, knees–in every shot. And there are so many other factors–the weather, the surface, the rival. No ball arrives the same as another; no shot is identical.

So, every time you line up to hit a shot, you have to make a split-second judgment as to the trajectory and speed of the ball and then make a split-second decision as to how, how hard, and where you must try to hit the shot back. And you have to do that over and over, often fifty times in a game, fifteen times in twenty seconds, in continual bursts more than two, three, four hours, and all the time you’re running hard and your nerves are taut; it’s when your coordination is right and the tempo is smooth that the good sensations come, that you are better able to manage the biological and mental feat of striking the ball cleanly in the middle of the racket and aiming it true…

Tennis is, more than most sports, a sport of the mind; it is the player who has those good sensations on the most days, who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from the ups and downs in morale a match inevitably brings, who ends up [winning].”

One would assume that professional players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have close to perfect technique. If the root of every mistake is technical than these players should almost never miss and most points at the professional level should end in a winner. This is not the case. Roughly 25% of the points on the pro tour end in a winner. The other 75% end in either a forced or unforced error. This is far too high of a number to be the sole result of flawed technique. There are so many more factors that determine the outcome of a shot than just the technical swing. To help an athlete reach their full potential, a coach must also delve into and train their athlete’s tactical choices as well as their mental and physical games.

Tactical Game

When an older player who is past his or her prime beats a young up-and-coming player, quite often coaches say that the older player’s experience is what helped them win the match. What is experience? It is the ability to make the right shot selection based on the knowledge or practical wisdom gained from playing many matches. By making the right shot selection, the wiser and more mature athlete puts themself in a position where they make less mistakes and maximize their ability to put pressure on their opponent.

Players make many tactical decisions in a match. If they make a wrong decision, it could cost them the point even if their technique was flawless. I have seen many young players try to attack balls that they should have defended against. The inevitable result is an error. These errors are not the result of flawed technique but rather a bad choice to attack the ball when they should have played defensively. The same would be true if the situation calls for the player to hit a precision shot with slice but he/she tries to hit the ball with power and topspin. Their technique may be impeccable on the topspin but because the situation called for a slice, the player misses. The players tactical choice was the cause of the error, not their technique.

So, before teaching a player how to hit the ball, always ensure that the player knows what the intention of the shot is. This way, they can match the correct technique to the right situation. Understanding the tactic must always precede training the skill.

Physical Game

There is no denying that the game of tennis has become more physically demanding over the past decade. Players must be quick and agile to deal with the multitude of shots and the power that the game is played at. On top of that, many matches on the junior or professional tour can last up to 5 hours! Click here to see a YouTube video of a young Roger Federer training for tennis. It is amazing to see how much of his training centred around developing the physical game to help him become a better athlete.

A poor physical game can be the root cause of a number of issues commonly mistaken for poor technique. I am 50 years old now and have competed for most of my life. At the age of 50, I am no where near as fit as I used to be. So, speaking from experience, I can tell you that a lot of shots I miss now are due to fatigue, not poor technique. Yes, my technique breaks down, but it is the lack of conditioning that causes it to break down, not the lack of practicing the correct technique.

The topspin or kick serve is another example of how deficiencies in the physical game can impact technique. One of the most important requirements to hit a topspin or kick serve is to have a strong core. No matter how well you teach the technique of a topspin serve to your student, they will never be able to consistently hit one until they have a strong core to help them coordinate all the moving body parts associated with the serve.

Balance and coordination are other factors that affect the swing in tennis. An athlete with terrible balance will not be able to hit consistently while on the move. Athlete’s that lack coordination will struggle with the serve and one-handed volleys or slice backhands. If you are serious about improving your or your child’s tennis, then consider spending as much time on improving the physical game as you do on improving the technical one.

Psychological Game

The psychological game is the hardest area of the game to quantify, but represents a great way to have an edge over your opponent. It is harder to see, but the psychological game does affect technique. When my son Liam was young, he was very scared to miss. This resulted in him hitting the ball softly and pushing the ball to get it in. This pushing of the ball gave his opponents easy balls that they could hit winners on. Liam knew exactly how to hit the ball and could strike the ball very well in practice. Liam’s fear of missing was psychological and thus working on technique was not the answer. I had to teach him to understand that errors were a part of tennis and to trust his training.  

Consistency is another example of a psychological issue looking like a technical issue. This could be the result of poor technique, but it could also be the result of the inability to focus for more than a few shots. Players that struggle with their focus are going to make a lot of mistakes over the course of a typical 90-minute match, making it look like they need to improve their technique. If your athlete struggles with his or her concentration, having them attempt 100 rallies in a row with a coach will be much more beneficial than trying to correct their swing.

Over my 25+ years of coaching, I have witnessed many players speak poorly to themselves during matches. They say phrases such as “I suck” or “of course I would miss that” or “I am playing so bad.” These athletes can have next to flawless technique under normal circumstances, but it breaks down under pressure because they use their emotions negatively during a match. It has been my experience that working on their positive self talk and creating positive mental habits yields better results than just defaulting to work on improving their strokes. If you do not feel comfortable delving into this area of the game, enlist the help of a professional sports psychologist. They are well worth the money!

Take a Global Approach

It’s not that I believe that technique is not important, it is just as vital to the overall performance of a tennis player as any other aspect of the game. To become a good tennis player, you need to work on having efficient technique that allows you to effortlessly hit the ball. But to become a master of the game, you need to become competent in all areas of the sport: you need to be a good athlete, make sound tactical choices, have smooth technique and be tough as nails mentally. A great coach once told me “instructors teach technique, coaches develop athletes!” I have tried my best to remember those words every time I step on the court. All the greatest coaches I have ever met had the ability to recognize which area of the game their athlete struggled with and helped them to improve it. To truly bring out the best in an athlete, we must see them as complete athletes and not just robots that perform technical actions over and over again.