I am not a huge basketball fan but like most sports fan, I do enjoy the NBA Playoffs. I remember watching one game where the star player of the team was having a terrible first half and did not score a single point despite the fact that he averages about 25 points per game. Early in the second half, he started gaining some momentum by making a few shots. The announcer said something along the lines of, “You know these shots are going to start falling for him at some point, and I have no doubt he will be somewhere close to his average by the end of the night, so watch out!” Just because he was scoreless in the first half meant nothing, and it was likely he was going to contribute in some meaningful way on the stat sheet by the end of the game. He ended up with 36 points!
This made me think about how knowing your percentages, and when to shoot could relate to a tennis player’s decision making process. Obviously every opponent, court surface, conditions, score-line, etc., will influence a tennis player’s statistics from one match to the next. But what if we had a clear understanding as players to what our average unforced error count, winner percentage and forced error percentage was in each set or every 10 games? What if we really knew how we won and lost points? The players I coached that had a true sense of this did not second guess their decisions, and typically played well under pressure because they stayed true to who they were as a player when it mattered the most. Understanding our strengths, our limitations and our averages, will allow us to be more decisive on match day.
Let’s say Player X (we will call him John) has a big first serve and an average first serve percentage of 63. He also averages 4 aces per set on a medium paced hard court. He considers his first serve to be his biggest strength. He is playing an opponent of similar ability and struggles to perform in the first set. He gets broken twice, hits no aces and his first serve percentage is languishing somewhere in the low 30’s. Instead of trying to make adjustments by just spinning it in (like many coaches will tell him to do), he decides to continue to go after his serve, living and dying by his strength. He has the same mindset of the basketball player who keeps taking and TRUSTING his shots. Once they started falling for him, he could not stop scoring and he blew by his average. At some point, John is going to start hitting his aces and getting his 1st serve percentage back to where it usually hovers in his matches. I am all for changing game plans when something is not working, but taking away our biggest strength or overreacting to a couple of poor games or our opponents inspired play is not the answer.
Over the last few months, I have returned to playing competitive tennis. At age 37, I am very conscience of how I want to use my energy resources as they are not what they used to be! If I find something that is working, I literally go to it every single time. I don’t expect it to work every time, but I do understand it will work enough to get me the win. I am now incredibly disciplined at not deviating from what is working and I don’t worry about becoming too predictable. If someone has a weak backhand return, then they have a weak backhand return, and it is not going to magically improve during the course of this match. It is a flaw in their game and I am absolutely going to expose it every chance I get! If anything, I have found that if I continue to expose their weakness, it will probably get worse. In order to conserve energy, I play very boring disciplined tennis and love it! If only I had the patience to do it when I was younger!!
In my experience, I have found that most players entering even the highest levels of college tennis (meaning they were top national and international juniors) have just a basic - and sometimes non-existent - understanding of how they win points, how they lose points, what their strengths are and how to expose opponent’s weaknesses. They have spent most of their time worrying about technique rather than what patterns they should be playing and practicing in order to highlight their strengths and take advantage of their opponents’ areas of weakness. Most all of the top players in the world play extremely one dimensional pattern’s that they try to recreate over and over again. Roger Federer is going to serve wide and look for his forehand pretty much every time it is 30-30. We all know it is coming, but he does it so well that it rarely matters. Take a look at Craig O’Shannessy’s work at www.braingametennis.com to learn more about the patterns of the pros. It is fascinating to see the simple game plans the best players on the planet are implementing point after point, match after match.
Continue to work hard to improve those positive averages and reduce the negative averages on the stat sheet, but be very clear on what they are and who you are as a tennis player. When you step on the court to play a match, understand your identity as a player, embrace it and believe that what you have is good enough to get you the win.