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How Can I get Better at Tennis Without Just Working on Strokes?

Aug 28, 2007
I recently received an email from a 4.5 tennis player in the USA who proposed the following question: I could use some help with a plan to get better. I am a 4.5 rated player in the USA and would like to be a 5.5. For some reason, I can't find a tennis coach that will help with an overall plan; they just want to work on strokes. Any ideas?

After coaching tennis at a big country club in Texas for over five years I often faced the same question from our tournament players who felt as if they had plateaued and that by just getting out on the court and working on their strokes was just not taking them to the next level. As a tennis coach you need to be flexible and be able to analyse each player and create a plan for their own specific and individual needs. This means taking into account all of the factors or variables that make a great player.

The professional tennis players cover all areas and there is no reason why you can't incorporate some of their training plans with a club level player. As you will see below I discuss and cover some specific areas from physical, psychological, tactical and so on which are often neglected by a coach who only sees their role as working on strokes.

So for our 4.5 player I would talk to him about focusing on some of the following areas that will help him to get to that next level without working on just strokes.

Game Plan: Work on your game plan. That is; have you scouted your next opponent? Do you have your own game plan ready so that you can control the match how you want to play it? Do you have a back-up plan in case your first plan is not working?

Concentration: Telling yourself to concentrate harder will not work. However, if you can put into place pre-game, in-game and post-game routines then you will be able to remain more focused on the task at hand. In between points allow you mind to relax and bring back your focus when you step up to the line to serve or return. The human mind cannot focus continuously so it is pointless to try and do so.

Scout Your Opponent: If you are in a tournament then go and have a look at your next opponent. Analyse and look at how they play, what is their favourite shot, what are their weaknesses, do they struggle on the big points, do they always go for their favourite shot on a big point, do they have a big shot and so on. Once you have this information then go away and create a game plan to beat this player.

Routines: Have a routine for in-between points that will help you maintain control and composure when either winning or losing. Once again this allows you to have control over how the game is played.

Goal Setting: I know, you have all heard this before but I cannot stress enough that as soon as you write down some realistic goals on paper you will immediately feel that you have direction and something to train for. It is a great feeling when you achieve a goal and can move on to the next one.

Footwork: One of the most common problems I faced with club level players was that they had poor footwork which led to poor execution on their shots. Many coaches spend hours and hours trying to teach a player the correct stroke technique when a lot of the time the real issue is that they don't set up properly for the shot and then as a result being out of position causes the player to use bad technique. Incorporate some of the tennis specific footwork drills that we have provided in our eBooks.

Strength: Maybe you are lacking the physical strength to gain those few extra miles on your serve. One way to add more power to your serve without just hitting serves for hours on end is to hit the gym! Have an experienced gym trainer develop a weight training program to increase your strength and watch your serve become faster and more of a weapon!

Speed: Maybe you are not fast enough on the court. Being too slow will negatively impact your strokes. You may not recover fast enough after being out of position, maybe you don't get to the ball in time and as a result do not properly execute the shot. Speed is a weapon! Just ask Lleyton Hewitt or Rafael Nadal and you will soon see how speed is used to their advantage.

Flexibility: This is often a neglected area. Besides the known benefits of preventing injuries there are many direct benefits to improving on-court performance. One of my friends, Mark Wellington, trained Maria Sharapova for a couple of years and he always mentioned how he placed great emphasis on flexibility and teaching Maria how to move on the court. Having greater flexibility will help you to recover after each shot and get back in position more quickly for the next shot.

Endurance: Tennis is often described as an "Anaerobic" sport due to the nature of reasonably short points. However, you need to train your aerobic system so that you can sustain a high level of play right up until the end. Often a player may be losing matches simply because they fade away. All of those hours working on strokes won't help you if you run out of gas!

Reflexes: By improving your reflexes you can become more competent at the net as well as improving other areas of your game such as the return of serve. Many players just do not react quickly enough to a fast serve. As a result they make errors on the return of serve or just don't get the ball back into play.
Tactical: Have you ever played against someone who was more technically "inferior" to you in the sense that their strokes were not very efficient but they just always had a knack of wining? We all have at some point in out tennis careers! Some players are just match tough. They know how to break down an opponents' game. They know how to create a game plan that will be successful. They have that ability to win the big points.

So what you need to do is analyse your own game plan. Do you have one when you step on the court? Do you have the ability to stick with a winning game plan but also change a losing one? This is where you can ask your coach to work with you. Spend a whole lesson playing points and have your coach talk to you about how you construct your points. No stroke technique just a "Match Play" lesson. This will give you a perspective from an opposing player of what they see in your game.

Technique: Make sure that you have correct technique on all of your shots. If you have a visible weakness then you can count on your opponent exploiting this shot.

Matches! Matches! Matches! I can't stress enough how important it is to play matches. You cannot simply practice or just do lessons and then expect to perform when in a competitive situation. You need to play more matches and as a direct result you will become more match tough, more experienced in dealing with different players and will also be able to see what areas you need to improve on when in a match. You could even have a friend use match evaluation forms to scout your match and then afterwards you can see what areas exactly you need to work on. Remember: be a match play and not just a practice player!

When I coached competitive ladies teams, I tried to build a lot of my drills based around "live ball" or "match like" drills rather than just feeding drills. The more point based drills you do the more comfortable you will be in a real match as these drills simulate match play that includes the unpredictability rather than the predictable ball fed by a coach.

Practice Partners: Train with players better than you! If you are a 4.5 - are you always playing with 4.5 players? If so and you want to get to a 5.5 then go out and play with those better players who will help to raise the level of your game. If your practice partner is not pushing you hard enough then find a new one. Join a drill session that has these better players. You will soon be forced to raise the level of your game in order to compete with these guys.

Many clubs have a Saturday morning group training session for men. You could ask your club coach what other drill sessions you could join.

Variety: If you practice with the same players all the time then you will become one dimensional and become accustomed to their game styles. Unfortunately, when you are in a tournament and face a totally different game style you will not know how to play them. So, get out there and play as many different players as you can. Some the same level as you and some better at the 5.5 level.

Consistency: Way too often matches are lost by the player making too many simple and unforced errors. First become a strong consistent player and then work on the big shots. If you continuously beat yourself with simple errors how do you ever expect to win? Force your opponent to beat you. Reduce your errors by making having shot selection.

Big Shot: once you have developed consistency then you may just need a "big shot" to beat those 5.5 players. Ideally work on a big serve or a big forehand. Even developing a great kick serve can be used as a weapon. A big shot will intimidate your opponent.

Drills: When training use more live ball or match play drills. Set specific goals for each session and then use our GSC drills to build on your strengths and also improve on those weaker areas. There are hundreds of new drills in our eBooks or on our site so use them! If your coach just wants to feed all of the time then you will not be reaching your full potential. Choose drills that are based on point play and simulating match play. The transition into real matches will be much easier for you.

Improve on the following areas:
Game plans
Improve on the "mental aspect" of the game
Goal setting
Play more matches
Improve shot technique
Play against various players
Improve your speed, strength, flexibility, reflexes and footwork
Improve consistency
Develop a big shot
Join an extra league for more match practice
Add more shots to you game (eg. slice backhand, kick serve or drop shot)
Scout future opponents to get a jump on them
Play with better players than you to help raise your level
Find a great practice partner with similar goals to you
The beauty about the game of tennis is that there is always something to work on. The hard part is to know when you are wasting your time on the wrong things. Are you a match player or a practice player? Quite simply, conduct a review of your entire game and then analyse each area. When I worked with elite athletes as an Exercise Physiologist I would have to conduct what we called a "Needs Analysis" which was quite simply conducting and reviewing every area involved with the athlete and their sport. Then devising a plan to improve every aspect or variable.

Good Luck and take control of your own destiny!
About the Author
David Horne is a former professional tennis player who has created several online sports web sites including which is the Ultimate Sports Directory for all sports fans! Check out the global web site for Tennis Coaching at Global Sports Coaching
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