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On Cue

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Those who read this column regularly know that I believe that we can use our conscious mind to analyze what is going on in a match and to craft strategies that are likely to help ensure victory.

But, most of us who compete in this great game have found ourselves "losing" our strokes in a match. For whatever reasons, our backhand abandons us. Despite our forehand normally being a weapon, we find that we are spraying forehands with reckless abandon. Maybe, our first serve has taken a vacation? These are all examples of stroke breakdowns which unfortunately can and do occur during matches.

The pros experience these lapses more frequently than they would like to admit. But, pros know how to put an errant stroke back on track. The great ones can rehabilitate a stroke when losing seems almost inevitable. The great ones can literally turn a match around regardless of the score, or the breakdown in stroke production.

Well, I can’t promise that you will be able to resurrect any stroke, any time, anywhere! But, I can help you find a way to make his as likely as is possible. As is often the case in this great game, you need to do some preparation in advance.

Specifically, I am speaking to the creation of what I call a "Cue Sheet" or "Cue Notebook."

First, I must define what I mean by a cue. A cue is any short burst of language that helps us "remember" how to execute a particular stroke effectively. There are some fairly universal cues, but each person must discover for himself or herself what cues may be effective given a particular stroke.

Obviously, there is diversity in how this wonderful game is played. None of us really hit any stroke in exactly the same manner as another player. As an analogy, we all walk, but our gate and individual "idiosyncrasies" are unique.

What we need to do is to "discover" what cues are best for us as individual players. What may be a really effective cue for one player may be completely ineffective for another.

This is not to suggest that the "universal" cues should not be explored. More often than not, we find something specifically useful in many of these cues. Still, we probably need to modify each universal cue to make it fit us individually.

For many of us, a problem can be that we forget our useful cues. This may be particularly true when we have not played tennis for a while, and unfortunately, this lack of recollection seems to come to play when we are having difficulty executing strokes during a competitive match.

So, in addition to discovering our own unique cues, we need to record these in a manner that is easily retrieved when needed.

For years, I have kept a notebook that I carry with me in my tennis bag. The notebook is divided into sections by the use of tabs that I have attached to pages. There are sections for forehands, backhands… both two-handed and one-handed varieties, serves, overheads, volleys, etc. Each stroke that one executes in tennis has its own section.

Over the years of keeping this notebook, my cues have changed. My forehand cues from a decade ago, no longer serve me all that well. I have "discovered" new cues which seem to be better able to help me recapture my forehand when it goes astray.

Typically, players will add and subtract cues from these types of records. Some players I know carry updated "cue sheets" which are the most recent set of useful cues for all strokes. As our games improve and change over time and practice, our cues necessarily will need to be modified. We all hope to improve through change. The changes that pay dividends result in new and hopefully more useful cues.

If I find myself in a competitive match and one or more of my strokes go south, I will bring out my cue notebook during changeovers and search for the cue(s) that will bring my strokes back.

There is a great sense of security when you enter a competitive match with a useful cue notebook or cue sheet handy. Why? Well, you immediately know that there is a resource available to help you get back on track if you fall "off the boil." If you are looking for a sure fire way to improve your tennis confidence, a cue notebook or cue sheet is definitely worth considering.

Of course knowing when to go to your cue notebook for help is an important factor to understand.

Too much conscious analysis during a match can lead to paralysis by analysis. Heady players can even find that they are "thinking too much" during a match. Ideally, you are on "autopilot" when playing a competitive match. Thinking one’s way into a loss is not that uncommon at all levels of the game.

Sometimes, simply allowing your non-conscious mind to "do its thing" is the best solution to an errant stroke. Our non-conscious mind is where our muscle memory is created and stored. Our non-conscious minds know exactly what we need to do to hit a ball perfectly regardless of the specific stroke. Hopefully, each of us has spent the time on court practicing to allow our muscle memory to be fresh and capable.

Still, nerves and self-doubt can often times upset the apple cart. Fear is a tremendously impactful emotion. Sometimes fear can be very counterproductive. Usually, this is the case when playing tennis competitively. Fear can often times force a stroke to abandon us. This loss almost always reinforces more fear, and the negative cycle of fear spirals.

Of course, we are all going to miss each of our strokes during a long match. Human error does occur. Just because we missed one backhand drive does not mean that we have lost the ability to hit all backhand drives effectively. Here again, we frequently can find ourselves panicking and falling victim to a negative cycle.

When evaluating strokes, each player needs to be as objective as possible. "Has my forehand really abandoned me, or have I just hit a few bad forehands?" Simple as this question may seem, it is not always easy to answer clearly.

I have a simple rule of thumb that I use to determine whether a particular stroke has left me. If I am unable to hit any specific stroke and keep it in play five times in a row, I am likely to have stroke breakdown. But, I need to allow myself four errors!

Even by counting the number of errant shots you make given a particular stroke, one cannot be certain that the stroke has completely broken down. Hey, sometimes opponents hit to us in a manner that denies us the opportunity to setup effectively. This is usually the case when a player is being over powered by an opponent.

In this case, the real problem is probably that we are not moving well to the ball and are unable to anticipate in a way that allows for a complete stroke setup. In this case, there is no cue in the world that will help bring back the stroke. Rather, it is better to concentrate on moving better, seeing better and hitting to those areas where the opponent is not as likely to be able to generate power.

A rough patch in a match is nothing more than a rough patch…more often than not. Often times, a rough patch will pass if we are patient and trusting in ourselves.

However if you feel completely out of control of a particular stroke, it may be time to break out the cue notebook or cue sheet.

In crafting your notebook or sheet, quick access to stroke information is a must. There must be a method to how you organize your cues that enables you to find the right cue quickly.

Second, the cues must be written in the most effective manner possible. The words you choose must be your own. Other people’s language usually is not a helpful as one’s own way of expressing a cue.

Third, you may want to craft cues in a manner that allows for prioritizing the cues for any one stroke. For example, you may have several different cues for forehand volleys. Which is the most useful? Put the most useful cues first.

When adopting a cue during a match, it is important to realize that cues are best employed one at a time. You may have 5 cues for serving, but it is important that you move one cue at a time when trying to recover your lost serve. Starting with the most important cue, begin to serve focusing on only this cue. If this cue is not sufficient to recapture your serve, move to your next serve cue.

Attempting to multi-task when employing cues is never a worthwhile endeavor!!! I assure the reader that one of your cues will invariably prove to be the solution. If the cue that works is not the first cue on your list, you may want to re-prioritize these cues.

One of the questions that readers of my book pose to me is, "How should I write my cues?" Well, my quick response is that there is no single, best way to record an effective cue. In the final analysis, the cue must work for each individual player.

The second most common question regarding cues is, "How can I discover cues that work for me?" My quick response is that we are constantly devising cues every time we play this wonderful game. The problem usually is that we do not record our thoughts and insights in writing.

Given these two, commonly posed questions, I will spend a little time addressing both.

First, a cue needs to be a short burst of language that can be easily remembered. Most cues that are truly effective are nothing more than a phrase, a clause or a relatively short sentence. In crafting cues, it is important to place only the essential information into the wording of the cue. Truly effective cues are generally a series of words that when read can be easily recited.

To illustrate my point, let me share with the reader some of my more effective cues.

FOREHAND GROUNDSTROKE: Point at the ball. (By this, I mean that I want myself to use my non-dominant hand to literally point at the oncoming ball and follow its path all the way to my racquet. By doing this simply action, I generally move the ball better, have sufficient time to prepare my stroke, and generally see the ball better when making contact. This is particularly true when I am running hard to get a ball that is forcing me to hit wide.)

SERVE: Snap the wrist. (Whether it is my first serve, which is hit flat, or my second serve, which is a kick serve, my wrist is key in proper execution. When I am snapping my wrist at the moment of impact I generate more power and/or more spin in any serve. How I snap my wrist varies a bit from first to second serve, but I am always snapping my wrist when I am serving well.)

ONE-HANDED BACKHAND SLICE: Point the butt. (My normal backhand is two-handed. Still, I know that there are many times that I need to hit the one-handed backhand slice. My cue with respect to this stroke forces me to point the butt of my racquet handle at the oncoming ball. This simple action automatically forces me to adopt the right grip, take the racquet back properly, and to see the ball carefully as I setup for the shot.)

These are just three of the cues that I use and that are in my cue notebook. For me, they are extremely effective. The cue associated with the one-handed backhand slice is something that is a fairly universal cue. The other two may be more individual in nature.

Universal cues can be had by reading tennis literature, taking lessons from a pro, and at times, the tennis commentators on television put forth tips that work well as cues.

One book that I might recommend if the reader is really in search of cues is Vic Braden’s Quick Fixes. This book is full of useful tips that can easily be translated into cues for your notebook. Rarely have I read a tennis book that does not contain some potential cue material.

Of course, the best cues are generated from actual match play and from practice sessions. These are the "insights" we gain seemingly by chance. The player will be out hitting and will strike a uniquely well hit backhand. In doing so, he or she will invariably realize what was different in this stroke. Replicating the change, the player "tests" to see if the change is truly beneficial. If the change is a useful modification, the player should as soon as is possible write down the change in whatever words come to mind.

Later on, the player can review the wording of a new cue, and revise it to make it as short as possible while remaining meaningful to the player.

So, I would encourage each of you to always practice and play with writing materials at hand. The back of my cue notebook is used for recording new insights as they occur. If one was to examine these back pages, she or he would see that there are many random bits of information. Once recorded, I translate these insights into more compact and efficient bursts of language. These become the cues that I record in the proper area in my tennis cue notebook.

Whether you are playing, practicing, watching a match on TV or reading tennis literature; you always want to have writing materials nearby to record any insights. This simple action will provide you with a host of different cue material. Granted, some of this information may not ultimately prove to be useful. Some of the material may become outdated, as you develop more advanced strokes. But, not recording insights is truly one of the significant mistakes that tennis players make.

We think that we will recall the cue information. However, I assure you that when the chips are down; our minds will focus on fear. When this happens, the conscious mind will be preoccupied with the anxiety of the moment, and will not be able to recall the "solutions" needed.

So, there is a very real role for the conscious mind in the game of tennis…other than simply being a careful observer. (This latter concept is discussed more fully in my book and the accompanying audio programs.) Certainly, recognizing "real" problems and searching for the right answers to questions is a proper role for the conscious mind to play.

Each player should, in my mind, make certain that she or he does the following:

  1. Always have writing materials nearby to record any insights that may be useful as cues.
  2. Create a tennis cue notebook or cue sheet that you carry with you to every practice session and match.
  3. When things go wrong, we tend to exaggerate the negative. So, it is sometimes very difficult to know if a stroke breakdown has really occurred. We tend to panic whenever anything goes wrong in competition. Each player needs to discover what benchmarks are true indicators of stroke or strategic breakdowns. These are always unique to each individual player.
  4. The tennis cues that are generated by a player must be concise but clear bursts of language. The shorter the better. But, each cue must be meaningful to its creator.
  5. Tennis cues must be easily and quickly retrieved. Thus, an organization to your tennis notebook or cue sheet(s) that achieves these needs to be devised by each player.
  6. Tennis cues can come from anywhere…match play, practice, coaches, teachers, tennis literature and television. Record any insights that you may have. However, these insights will only be useful when they have been tested, and are expressed in ways that have meaning for the individual player.
  7. Prioritize your cues for any given stroke. Over time, most players have at least several different cues for each stroke.
  8. Always employ cues one at a time. Start with the most important cue. Employ it. If it does not resolve the problem, move onto the next cue in your list.
  9. Remember that using cues can result in an overload of conscious analysis. There needs to be a seamless flow between the conscious mind and the non-conscious mind. Using cues puts the conscious mind’s activities into play. Sometimes, this can result in over-analysis or what is commonly referred to as, paralysis by analysis. Players need to know how much cue implementation can be put into play before this over-analytical possibility kicks in.

So, there you are. Cues are an important way in which every player of this great game can improve his or her performance.

I assure the reader that if you follow the 9 steps listed above that you will become a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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