Friday, August 6, 2010

The Magic Number

Often times, as a competitive tennis player, you'll ask yourself, "How much time should I be practicing and playing to put me at the top of my game and to improve?" The obvious answer "As much as you can without injuring yourself." For example, in Brad Gilbert's book "Winning Ugly", he explains that when he was a kid, he figured out that he should play 40 matches before a tournament. If you generously figure 30 days between tournaments, that's over 1 match per day. And that doesn't count his practice time. That's a lot of tennis, but Brad was driven to win - obsessed with tennis and its competition. In another example, Blake Strode - a pro Futures player from St. Louis - explained that he spends about 4 hours per day on the court practicing and then more time off the court on his strength and conditioning. Blake has qualified for the U.S. Open qualifying tournament this year, played for the University of Arkansas, and has been accepted to Harvard Law School. Blake is obviously also a very disciplined and driven individual. When asked what motivates him to practice so hard, Blake explained that he just loves tennis and being out on the court.

As I said before, playing and practicing as much as is physically possible is an obvious answer. But look at the payoff. You get to do something you love and you can get much of your college education paid for. And, if you are especially committed and talented, your tennis skills may allow you to play on the pro tour and see the world. But, I will reiterate, as a young player, if you really commit to tennis, regardless of your athletic ability, at a minimum you will be able to play tennis on scholarship at some college or university.

But what about for older players who want to be competitive in league or ladder play? There is a magic number that was told to me my old mixed doubles team captain Jeff Bohm - one of the smartest people and tennis players I've met. It's 2.5. Jeff explained to me that to be competitive in our league, I needed to play a match 2 to 3 times per week. So, to be clear that's playing a full match where both you and your opponent(s) care about the outcome two to three times per week. And, the more at stake in the match the better. For instance a "fun" match between you and a buddy is good competition; you can increase the value by upping the stakes and putting a coke on the line. Ladder, league, and tournament matches all provide added pressure and give you even more experience to draw upon later. The more pressure involved in a match, the more valuable it will be to you as a competitive player.

Let's not get away from the magic number, though - 2.5. If you want to make sure that your game is at a reasonable level, that you can hit your first serve hard, that you can rely on your second serve, that you can execute touch shots and lobs, that you can hit consistent returns, that you can hit overheads and volleys consistently, etc., average 2.5 full matches per week. Over time I have found it to be very true for myself and for players that I've observed. 2.5 may not seem like a lot, but if a match and it's preparation (driving time etc.) is 3 hours, that's 7.5 hours per week which can be a lot for someone with a job, family, etc. So, you have to make time for it and plan accordingly. Also, it takes time finding good opponents and scheduling them. 2.5 matches a week is a good commitment.

Now, as to the magic. As I mentioned before, I have a lot of empirical evidence that tells me that 2.5 gets your game to a consistent level. I believe it works because it doesn't allow for your brain and your muscles to forget how to hit shots. Playing that often means you won't go more than 3 days in between matches. This allows you to remember how to hit your shots without having to overthink it. Does this mean you shouldn't be thinking during your matches? Of course not! You should think about whether you want to hit a hard pass or a lob, but when you go to hit either, the shot should be there if you're adhering to the magic number. If the shot is not there, then you don't have that shot and shouldn't be trying to use it.

I have also found that my game will improve playing 2.5 times per week. I will get better and better. A shot that I couldn't rely on 3 weeks ago, might become something that I can add to my arsenal. But, an even faster way to add and shots and improve footwork is to drill. The magic number relies on match experience to get you practice, but that can be random. For instance, you may play a guy that never makes you hit a passing shot or a backhand return. If you play opponents like that for an entire week, now you're going to forget how to hit those shots. Or you may find that certain players have just enough pace on their serve that you can't attack it and you just can't seem to get ahead of the ball. Drilling specific shots and footwork scenarios helps you supplement your match play to make sure you don't forget how to hit shots and learn how to hit new ones.

So, to summarize, the minimum commitment to be a good competitive player at your level is:

  • Play an average of 2.5 matches per week.

  • Play a variety of players in these matches.

  • Make the matches as competitive (pressure packed) as possible.

  • Add drilling to take your game even further.