Practicing Shot Combinations
If you’re close to starting your season, or already playing dual matches, it’s obviously inappropriate to be making mechanical changes, and may coaches are now using sets and tie-breaks to focus on match-play skills and mental toughness. The problem with this limited approach to training is that it does not allow players to continue to improve their skills, when in fact, there are a variety of drilling methods that will help your players sharpen their shot-making abilities and increase their match-play repertoire.
Most points at the competitive level are ended within five to six strokes. While some younger players, especially junior girls, keep the ball in play during long rallies, the strategy of the top players is to end points by forcing errors or producing short balls which they can attack for winners.
As you will read in many of our articles, if your players don’t practice like they play, they will play like they practice! Having your players hit 25 balls crosscourt, or 50 backhands down the line, or other cooperative drills which require players to stay on the baseline and rally to develop “consistency” not only has nothing to do with the match situations in which they will find themselves, but will actually promote static body balance as players resist their natural inclination to attack balls.
Why not have your players practice the patterns of play they will experience in a match? For example, when your player receives a serve wide to his or her forehand, he has several options: hitting the ball deep and down the line; hitting the ball deep and crosscourt; hitting the ball short and crosscourt; etc. This goes for almost every shot your player will receive from his opponent, making it impossible for your player to practice every response enough times to make it worthwhile.
Discuss with your player the shots and shot combinations she can expect to experience in a match, discuss her possible options (down the line, crosscourt, deep, short) and determine which is the highest-percentage response she can use.
Now, practice the heck out of that ONE, high-percentage response. For example, when playing the deuce court, your player will generally receive one of four serves: a serve deep and wide to the forehand; a serve short and wide to the forehand; a serve deep and down the middle to the backhand; and a serve deep and down the middle, into the body.
Determine with your player her best response to each of these four, then instruct her to play points practicing only her best option for each serve. For example, when she receives a serve deep and wide to her forehand, her best response might be a deep return down the line. If the serve is short and wide to the forehand, her best response may be a short, crosscourt return or a deep, crosscourt return. A serve deep and down the middle to her backhand might best be countered with a deep return crosscourt, while a serve into the body might best be returned down the center of the court, either deep against an opponent staying back, or down the middle and short against a serve and volleyer.
Have your player begin to play out points with a teammate, practicing only one response to each serve she experiences. By honing in practice a reliable, high-percentage response to all of the four serve serves she will see most often, her responses during matches will be automatic. At the same time, the teammate who is receiving should be planning on what her response will be to each of the four or five responses she will be likely to receive.
Again, the server should know what her best response is to a serve returned deep to her backhand, short crosscourt, etc., and practice that ONE response. Depending on her abilities, a shot returned to her backhand (when a right-hander serves from the deuce court) can be returned either deep and down the line, short crosscourt or deep crosscourt. What is your player’s best bet?
The receiver now must prepare to receive one of those shots from the server. For example, if the receiver returns serve, and the server returns her shot deep and crosscourt court, what should the receiver’s response now be? If the server hits the return short and crosscourt, what should the receiver’s response be?
This is actually not that complicated, since each player should be practicing only two strokes per rally if they wish to take the offensive on the point. If the point goes longer than these initial four strokes, one player is either in trouble or the point is in a neutral state, and other shot combinations your player has worked on come into play. Each player’s response to shots he receives will be different based on his stroke strengths, as well as if his opponent’s strength and weakness, and whether or not the server or receiver is left- or right-handed.
In summary, working on consistency or long rallies at this stage of the season in not only unrealistic, it can actually hurt your player. Additionally, leaving players on their own to play sets and tie-breaks does not allow them to continue to improve. Working your players in drills which simulate match-play situations and using practiced, high-percentage shot-combinations to force errors or produce short balls is the most realistic way to help your players continue to improve in season.
If it doesn’t happen in a match, consider whether or not you should be doing it during practice.