There’s a big difference between practicing hard and practicing smart. You need to evaluate your game and design practice sessions that reflect the kind of player you are. Reinforcing your foundation and honing your strengths while also shoring up your deficiencies is the surest way to improve your play. Here are some ideas to help you structure a worthwhile practice session.
OBJECTIVE 1: Improve the consistency of your ball contact.
When you’re first learning the game, you want to get better at everything. But one of your primary goals should be learning how to hit the ball in the sweet spot of your racquet regularly. There are several things to keep in mind to improve this skill:
» Know your contact zone This is the area, generally from your thighs to your chest, where you feel comfortable striking the ball. If you’re uncertain where it is, your pro will be able to help you find it.
» Develop good footwork You need to put yourself in the right position in order to hit the ball at the height you prefer. Much of this revolves around recognizing where the incoming shot is going and moving accordingly.
» Hit one ball after another It may not seem all that exciting, but consistent ball contact is a skill that’s honed through repetition.
OBJECTIVE 2: Get good height on your shots.
In your practice sessions you should focus on adequate net clearance. This will give your shots depth and cut down on sloppy errors. A simple drill for this is to practice hitting all your shots crosscourt with a partner. If you’re playing in the deuce court and you’re right handed, make sure you hit each shot with your forehand. As you get comfortable and can return several shots in a row, make it a rule that your balls must land past the service line.
OBJECTIVE 1: Work on your spins.
At this level you’re probably trying to become proficient with slice and topspin, particularly on ground strokes. This will help with the safety of your shots as you continue to add pace. When you work on spin, be wary of going to extremes with your technique. One of the worst things you can do in practice is reinforce bad habits. I see many intermediates get flippy or wristy with their shots when they experiment with creating spin.
» DON’T start the racquet way below the level of the ball and brush straight up the back of it. This produces plenty of topspin, but the shot will have little pace or penetration.
» DO drive through the ball, preparing the racquet just below the level of the incoming shot and swinging through the contact point on a gradual low-to-high path. As you improve, you’ll get a feel for how to accelerate for more topspin.
» DON’T chop down and slap at the ball from a high take-back, creating a floating shot that sits up for your opponent.
» DO start with the racquet around shoulder level, allow it to descend smoothly to the contact point, and as you follow through bring the racquet back up to finish at shoulder level. Your swing path should resemble a slight smile. This will give your shot some bite.
OBJECTIVE 2: Understand your weapons.
One of the biggest pitfalls for improving players is spending too much of their practice sessions working on their shortcomings. While you certainly need to shore up your weaknesses and turn them into competent strokes, neglecting what you do well is a huge mistake. If you spend the majority of your workout tinkering with a suspect backhand, you’ll find yourself hitting too many of them in a match because that’s all you’ve been working on. If your best shots are your first serve and topspin forehand, spend time in practice making them even more potent. Do drills to raise your first-serve percentage and play games that help you figure out new ways to set up your forehand.
OBJECTIVE 1: Focus on competitive aspects of play.
Though beginners spend most of their time practicing their technique, more accomplished players should incorporate competition into their workouts. You’ll still fine-tune your stroke mechanics, but you want to concentrate on live-point situations. For instance, if I’m working with Tim Henman on his serve, he’ll warm-up with about 20 serves until he feels good about the way he’s hitting. Then we’ll spend time working on application. We’ll play a game where he has to hit six serves to six different spots on the court of my choosing, and after each one we’ll rate his location on a scale from 1 to 10. He has to get a score of 8 or better on every one or else buy me dinner. I’ll also have him hit 10 serves in a row and grade his ability to rip his forehand on the next ball. The purpose is to see how a stroke or tactic functions during a point.
OBJECTIVE 2: Practice for as long as you’re capable.
Some players are able to go out on a practice court and stay focused and productive for two straight hours. Others can only handle a half hour of hard work before their concentration dwindles. Grinders tend to be able to keep at it longer than more artistic players. The key is to find your threshold for practice before fatigue or boredom begins to yield diminishing returns. It’s not about the quantity of time you spend on the practice court but rather the quality. That’s why you’ll often have to invent fresh and creative ways to practice. If hitting crosscourt forehands becomes tiresome, turn it into a game. Play out points in which you hit all your shots crosscourt, but your partner alternates between crosscourt and down the line. You’re moving from side to side using the whole court and working on your shot location while still keeping it fun. You can even put something on the line—like the loser buying dinner—in order to raise the interest level.