One of the definitions of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results. In order to avoid falling prey to this dangerous trap, you need to be self-aware every time you step on the court. Self-awareness determines your limits as a player, which in turn determines your shot selection. This sentence is loaded with fancy terms. Let’s go over them one by one.
Within the confines of a platform tennis court, self-awareness is the filter that establishes your limits as a player. Your limits as a player are determined by what you can and cannot do on the court, the shots that you have or do not have in your arsenal. Self-awareness is one of the key differentiators among levels of players: all great players have it, some good players have it, but none of the average players has it – they think they have it but they do not. The good news is that self-awareness is something that you can work at and develop over time. Just like with everything else however, it takes time and willingness to practice it. It is all up to you.
Shot selection is the automatic thought process that determines the shots that you should and should not hit throughout the course of a given point. It is an automatic process for those players who have practiced it enough that it eventually became automatic. For the rest, shot selection does not exist or, if it does, it is not a process, it is a crapshoot.
Now that we know all this, let’s see if what we said at the beginning makes more sense. Self-awareness leads to knowing your limits as a player which in turn leads to the proper shot selection.
Do not despair: every player has his/her own limits: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, etc. Let’s have some examples: how many times have you seen Federer engage in a backhand crosscourt rally with Nadal or Djokovic!? How many times have you seen Djokovic serve and volley!? How many times have you seen Nadal hit a backhand when he can run around it and hit a forehand!? The answer to all these questions is: not very often. The reason is because all these great players know their limits and look to hit only shots that give them the highest possible odds for success. You too should look to do that on every single shot and every single point. By hitting your best shots over and over again, you increase your odds of winning points – let’s not forget that points win us games, sets, and matches. In order to do that, you have to be aware whether you have a certain shot or not. Making a shot two out of ten times means you do not have that shot. Making it five out of ten times also means you do not have it, because it gives you the same odds as flipping a coin. Having a certain shot means you can make it at will, nine out of ten times.
The one platform tennis shot that lends itself best to this theory is the drive. Most mistakes in league play and early tournament rounds happen when players attempt to drive a ball that should not be driven. When playing in the backcourt, players who have self-awareness think in terms of whether the incoming ball is drivable and if they can/have the ability to drive it. It is a thought process that takes place automatically. Because of it, these players are able to recognize mistakes and correct them for the future. For players who lack self awareness, this process does not take place and consequently mistakes are not recognized. Something that is not recognized cannot be corrected. Not recognizing mistake patterns is the number one reason why some players have been making the same mistakes for years. Of course, everyone reading this will think this does not apply to them! It does to most of us.
The best advice I can give new players or club players is to try to drive every ball they see in the backcourt. Yes, that’s right, drive every ball you see in the backcourt. This will determine your level of self-awareness. If you have self-awareness, you will figure out very quickly which shots you can and cannot drive. This represents your limits as a player as it pertains to the drive. Very soon, you will become very selective with the shots that you will drive – this is your improved shot selection as a result of your increased self-awareness and knowledge of your limits as a player. Use this progression exercise for every shot. If you lack self-awareness, you will make the same mistakes over and over again. If you are part of the latter category and have been missing the same shots for years, you owe it to yourself to change your mindset before you step on the court next time and try a different approach. You never know, it might just work.