Movie and television directors will often employ a familiar tactic when one of their characters is faced with a difficult decision. The character is struggling with a moral dilemma of some sort when, all of a sudden, the director takes us inside the characters mind by putting a small devil on one of their shoulders and an angel on the other. Both diminutive figures have voices, and strong opinions as to what course of action the character should take.
The devil's voice is usually rough and stern while the angels is soft and gentle. The devil's motives are evil and the angel's, pure. The devil speaks in one ear, the angel in the other, as both present their cases for the character to take the particular course of action they feel appropriate. The character listens to both, weighs his options and then makes his or her decision. Usually the angel presents the more convincing case and wins the debate, however, in some instances, the character is unable to resist the lure of the devil and travels down the "evil path."
The angel and the devil are meant to represent both sides of the characters personality and we, as tennis players, also have an angel and a devil on our shoulders fighting for control of our on-court persona.
How many times have you said to yourself after a particularly bad error, "God, why did I do that?" "Why did I try that shot when all I had to do was get the ball back in the court?" Chances are, the reason you tried that shot had a lot to do with your tennis devil.
As I've said many, many times in the past, tennis is a game of errors and the player who makes the fewest errors usually wins the match. I've talked about un-forced and forced errors. Forced errors are shots that you miss because your opponent has hit something to you that you just can't handle. Unforced errors are those shots that we miss that we really have no business missing.
There's not a great deal that you can do about "forced" errors other than trying to keep the ball away from your opponent's strengths. "Un-forced" errors are an entirely different situation and this is where our tennis angels and devils come into play. I believe that, to a large extent, the unforced errors that we make are largely mental errors, usually along the lines of shot selection.
I can't tell you how many times, every day, I see a player in a horrible position on the court try a low percentage shot in an attempt to win the point. An example from just the other day: Bill is ten feet behind the baseline, the ball is up above his head on his backhand side, and his opponent has charged the net.
What shot does Bill attempt from this VERY defensive position? A cross-court passing shot meant to cross the net with approximately two inches of height. You can guess the result -ERROR! Now true, Bill was in a defensive position, but there was absolutely no reason for the point to end on Bill's shot. He had other options than the low percentage shot he attempted.
As Bill began to move for that shot, I could almost see the angel and the devil pop up on his shoulders. The angel is saying, "Now Bill, we're in a bit of trouble here. We've got to run all the way across the court, hit a high backhand, and remember, we really don't like backhands to begin with, let alone high ones. To make matters worse, Frank (our opponent) is charging the net. What should we do here? I think the best shot to hit would be a nice high, deep lob. This will force Frank to back up, hit an overhead which we both know is the most physically demanding shot in the game, and it will also give us time to get back into position and catch our breath because this has sure been a long point. Yes Bill, that's the solution, play it safe and hit the lob."
Strong case from the angel. The only problem is that, like Bill, the angle also has an opponent with just as loud a voice as the angels's voice, in fact perhaps louder. This is the devil saying: "Come on Bill, let's get this point over with right now," he says. "It's simple. You're tired, it's been a long point, and the sooner you end this point the sooner you can towel off and catch your breath. Go for the big shot. I know the balls up over your head Bill, but you're a player. Take that backhand, swing hard, and aim for that three inches of open court you've got to Frank's left. Go for the glory, the crowd will go nuts (all two of them) and you'll get the girl. Girls like men who are dangerous Bill, don't play it safe, that's for wimps. Are you a wimp Bill? Go for it, you CAN DO IT!"
Unfortunately, real life is seldom like the movies and, on the tennis court, the devil often wins out. Bill goes for the "big" albeit extremely low percentage shot and of course makes the error. You can almost hear the devil inside Bill laughing that evil laugh and gloating, " Ha, I got you again."
In my opinion, one of the biggest differences between higher and lower level tennis players is that the higher level players have learned to keep the devil in them under control. They recognize when they are in a bad position, fight the urge to go for the low percentage shot and play the ball back safely. The lower level players give in to the devil who is constantly screaming in their ears, "Go for it, you can do it."
Learn to control the devil in you and you'll begin to cut way down on those unforced errors. Here are two strategies for defeating the devil:
DEVIL DEFEATER #1: Fight back. When you get the urge to really tee off and nail the ball, recognize that this is the tennis devil speaking to you and he wants you to fail. When he says,"HIT IT HARD, DUMMY," don't. When you get the urge to go for a small space on the court, it's the devil again. If he tells you to aim you shot for a space less than 5-6 feet wide, DON'T.
Incorporate these two techniques into your mind-set and you'll soon find that you're playing a high level, more "angelic" brand of tennis.
DEVIL DEFEATER #2:
When in trouble, lob. If my students learn nothing from me as far as strategy is concerned, I want them to learn to lob when they are in trouble. Too many errors are made when players try low percentage shots when they are out of position. If you are uncomfortable in any way, if the ball is too close, too far, too high, too low, say these three words to yourself--"HIT UP." This will almost certainly insure that you get the ball back into play and force your opponent to hit an extra shot. Remember even the shortest, weakest lob is better than an error.
Good luck and have fun!