October 15, 2013       

Practice Makes Perfect — Or Does It?

Joe Dinoffer
USPTA and PTR Master Professional

As a junior tennis player it was always drilled into my head that “practice makes perfect.” So, without fail I would dutifully practice my hundreds of serves or forehands against a backboard, or with a hitting partner. So why weeks later when it came time to play a match did I find myself missing so many first serves long or forehands in the net? I thought practice made perfect?

Not only is this the scenario that I have struggled with myself, but it is something that many of my students have struggled with as well. So what is the solution, you’re probably asking? Is the saying practice makes perfect just a myth? Or, have you simply not been doing enough “practicing?”

Debunking the Myth — Practice Does Not Make Perfect

As shocking and counterintuitive as this may seem, given the amount of time you have probably heard the practice makes perfect adage, practice by itself does not actually make “perfect.” After all, you could be practicing poor technique for hours and thus would only be reinforcing bad habits! What can make “perfect” is perfect practice. That is practice in which you are focused and reinforcing good strokes and techniques time after time.  So how can you accomplish this “perfect practice” concept?

In this article, we will look at the perfect practice mentality; methods to practice that mentality, and finally how to link practice to match play. Let’s get started!

The Perfect Practice Mentality 

Simply put, the perfect practice mentality is one in which you are giving 110% effort to focusing on every shot just like you would want to do in a match. It means you consistently reinforce the right technique — even if it still feels uncomfortable because you may be just starting to learn it. After all, simply being out on the court does you no good if you are unfocused or reinforcing bad habits.

Click photo: Types of practice sessions.

The fact is, the adage should really be “practice makes permanent.” Practice bad habits, whether they are regarding technique, tactics, footwork, or focus, and those bad habits will become permanent. Conversely, reinforce good habits and those good habits will become permanent. It is especially important to note that some research has shown that it takes at least 10 times of repetitively reinforcing good habits to make up for just one time you hit a shot with a bad habit! Practice really does make permanent.

Types of Practice Sessions

Okay, now that we understand the perfect practice mentality, how do you go about integrating the perfect practice mentality into your practice sessions? We’ll take a look at three different types of practice sessions to help you practice that perfect practice mentality.

Blocked or Repetitive Practice

Blocked or repetitive practice is when you simply hit several shots of the same kind in a row such as just drilling forehands crosscourt or backhands up the line. Blocked practice is beneficial for reinforcing new technique. The key, though, is to stay focused and not get bored with the shot repetition. After all, one sloppy shot while learning a new task may mean that you’ll have to hit at least 10 good ones just to get back on even footing!

One trick is to imagine that you are playing a point and are trying to outlast your opponent. You can challenge yourself by setting a goal for how many shots you will try to hit in a row. In addition, make sure you have the same good footwork that you would want to use in an actual point. In blocked practice you know exactly where the ball is coming so it is easy to get lazy about good recovery with your feet. However, since good footwork is a vital component of perfect practice, don’t forget about it!

Serial or Patterns that Repeat 

Serial patterns are a step up in the variety ladder from blocked practice. With serial patterns, you still know which shot you are going to hit next, but you are not just hitting one type of shot anymore. Instead, you are practicing a pattern. For instance, you might hit three backhands crosscourt and then run around your backhand to hit an “inside-in” forehand up the line to win the point.

Serial patterns offer more variety than blocked patterns (and thus stave off boredom longer) but just like with blocked practice the trick is staying focused and emotionally placing yourself in that match mentality.  You can also keep it realistic by not repeating the pattern too many times before taking a 15-20 second pause just like you would between points in a match.

Random or Live Ball Practice 

Random or live ball practice is the closest way to simulate actual match play. Thus, the challenge here is not imagining you are actually playing points but rather maintaining the technique you just worked on in blocked or serial practice.

In addition, suddenly you no longer know where the ball is coming which means you have to plug in your anticipation and early preparation skills! Again, you’ll find this is much easier if you were already pretending to be in a live ball situation during the times you practiced in those blocked and serial patterns.

Ball Machine Practice

At this point you may be wondering, since you now understand the different types of practices to perform, what to do if you don’t have anyone to practice with and don’t want to pay a teaching pro just to feed balls? Can you still apply the perfect practice mentality if you are practicing with a ball machine? Absolutely! Now let’s add a few keys of making ball machine practice as effective as possible in helping you make your practice sessions more “perfect!”

Key #1: Do Not Hit More Than 10-12 Balls In a Row

All too often I see people practicing with a ball machine who think it’s a great idea to hit as many balls in a row as possible, even for 15 minutes or more with no break! They think they’re grinding out their practice time, but what they’re really doing is thinking that practice makes perfect rather than utilizing the perfect practice mentality.

The primary reason to limit how many balls hit in a row is to help you establish a standard for quality that you can consistently maintain. The number of balls hit should push your threshold of shot tolerance and focus but still be realistic. I would also recommend changing the number of balls hit in your ball machine patterns. If you have a remote or partner who will turn the machine on and off, practice 2-ball patterns, 3-ball patterns, 4-ball patterns, etc. The idea is to practice in as play-realistic a situation as possible.

Key #2: Pause between shot sequences

In a match, what do you do after a point? You pause for amount 15-20 seconds, refocus and get ready for the next point. Likewise, in order to develop that match mentality you should do the same thing even when just practicing on a ball machine.

Click photo: Move into position for each shot.

So let’s say that you are practicing a 4-ball pattern and set the machine to fire balls to the middle of your backhand court. The first 3 are hit with your backhand crosscourt. You decided that the 4th will be hit more aggressively with an inside-in forehand to try and finish the point with a winner. You should then pause the machine, go through your between-point ritual, and then play the next sequence of 4 shots as if it were the next point in a match.

Key #3: Move into Position for Every Shot

Many people practice on a ball machine and it looks like they think the ball is a dog. Standing in one place and waiting for the ball to come to where you are standing is a major practicing pitfall. You can train a dog to come to you when called. A tennis ball cannot be trained.

The point here is to be sure to recover to the same place on a court that you would in a real match. Standing to one side and waiting for the ball to come from a machine is simply not realistic and, comparatively speaking, will not help you improve your match results nearly as much as recovering after each shot as if you are actually playing a real point.

Key #4: Set Up Realistic Targets

Click photo: Realistic Targets.

All too often I see players practicing on a ball machine mindlessly hitting shot after shot with no clear target in mind or with just some vague notion of “crosscourt.” The fact is that knowing specifically where you are aiming is critical to improving in tennis. One person’s idea of crosscourt may be within 6 inches of the sideline and another player may visualize their crosscourt target as 6 feet inside the baseline and 6 feet inside the sideline.

What is a realistic target? First, it should not be too close to either the baseline or sidelines in order to allow for a good margin for error. Four to six feet from any boundary line is a good starting point. Next is to make the target big enough so that you are able to successfully hit into that target zone about 70% of the time. You can use throw down lines or towels or a group of cones, but use something visual to help you see exactly what you are aiming for. And, while we are on the subject of targeting, remember that there are four basic mistakes in target practice. You can hit too short, too long, to the right or to the left of the target. Making mistakes will be inevitable. Just try not to make the same mistake two times in a row. Being aware of your targets and making adjustments and corrections is a key ingredient in the recipe for better practice!

The Link between Practice and Match Play

Finally, now that you understand what the perfect practice mentality is and different types of practices to which you can apply that mentality, let’s take a look at linking practice and match play with the perfect practice mentality. Basically, the concept is simple. The goal is to practice like you play and play like you practice, right? So when you’re practicing, imagine you’re in that third set tiebreaker! Then, when you actually are in a match, maintaining the good techniques and habits you practiced will be much easier because you already practiced with that mentality and are comfortable in that competitive emotional state of mind. The bottom line? Practice makes permanent instead of perfect, so try out the perfect practice mentality discussed in this article to see your game improve in no time!


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