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Surviving Change

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Once again, I must thank a reader for being the catalyst for the topic of this month’s column. In response to a reader’s e-mail, it became abundantly clear to me that he was really experiencing the frustration associated with making a change in his game. All of us who have played this game can relate to his frustration.

So, I thought that I would focus on the whole process of change in this edition of TurboTennis.

Absolutely everyone should change something in her/his game at some point. This is true for pros and for amateurs alike. Consider Pete Sampras. When he was 14, he decided to abandon his two-handed backhand in favor of a one-handed backhand. Why? He wanted to be the type of player who could play the serve and volley game, when necessary. His idol was (and I am certain still is) Rod Laver, who had a complete, all-court game. Needless to say, this was a drastic departure from his original game! Pete lost lots of matches as he came to terms with newly adopted groundstroke. Yet, he persevered.

Mats Wilander changed his game by making an addition. He realized that if he was going to win tournaments like Wimbledon, he needed to augment his two-handed backhand with a one-handed backhand slice. This addition to his game took time to fully integrate. But, in the latter years of his ATP career, he hit the one-handed backhand as frequently as he did his two-handed backhand…with impressive results!

Patrick Rafter, at the suggestion of his father, who was at the time his coach, decided to improve his serve velocity. How did he achieve this? By tossing the ball significantly lower and by making his serve motion as economical as possible. Believe me, unlearning years of tossing a ball for the serve is not an easy endeavor. Yet, he persevered. Now, Patrick has an awesome serve that is powerful and difficult to "read."

My point is simple. In order to get better, we are inevitably going to have to change something. Change is not easy. It requires commitment and patience. One has to constantly remind herself/himself that the change is worth the effort. If the change is well thought out, it most certainly will be worth the effort. However, this effort often times means that a player will lose as she/he comes to terms with the change in question.

So, as we who live north of the equator begin our outdoor tennis season, we may want to effect a positive change in our game. But, before you venture on a path of change, here are some important considerations.

Only change one thing at a time! One of the reasons that I decided to seek certification by the USPTR is this organization’s emphasis on teaching students one step at a time. In tennis, I believe that players do far better when they focus all their attention on one, single area that needs improvement. When this goal has been reached, players should move on to the next, single area that could use improvement. Far too often, I speak with players who want to increase the speed of their serves, adopt a new forehand grip, improve volleys, etc…all at the same time! It is no wonder that they rarely achieve any of the desired changes.

Now, it is important to realize that there are at least seven areas associated with your tennis game that could be changed. Some are physical, some involve technique and some are more mental in nature. These seven areas are:

  1. Strength
  2. Flexibility
  3. Speed
  4. Footwork
  5. Stroke Production
  6. Strategy
  7. Mental Attitude

Each player who desires to improve his/her game must decide…what in my game is most in need of improvement? To arrive at a realistic answer to this question, the player must first take an honest inventory of his/her game.

A good start in establishing realistic priorities is to seek the advice of others. This advice could come from a teaching pro, a tennis coach or even a trusted hitting partner. A second source of useful information is match charting and analysis. Having someone record your errors, winners, etc. during match play, will go a long way in helping you understand what you truly do well and what truly needs help. Videotaping your matches and practice sessions allows you to see yourself as other players see you.

Finally, I suggest that you start a tennis journal and record your insights and questions at the end of each day. On the advice of Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova got a tennis journal in which she recorded her thoughts, feelings, ideas for improvement, strategies that did or did not work, etc. Reviewing your entries in a tennis journal can go a long way in helping you to fully and realistically understand your tennis strengths and weaknesses.

You must realize that we all have a distorted perspective of our game. We exaggerate flaws, minimize strengths, and at times, confuse the two. It is absolutely imperative that each player seeks a true, honest and fair assessment of her/his strengths and weaknesses, if she/he is going to make effective changes in her/his game!

Assuming that you have a realistic perspective on your game, the next step is to create a "to do" list. This list identifies what needs to be changed and/or what needs to be added in your game. You should list these areas for change in the order of their importance. For example, you may want to improve your speed on the court. But, this is relatively unimportant if you cannot hit a decent backhand.

The last time that I made such a "to do" list, I found that there were 18 distinct areas in my game that I thought needed improvement and involved some sort of change. At the time of this writing, I still have 14 items on this list that I have not yet addressed. I made this list about 18 months ago.

This leads me to my next point. Changing your game takes time! Beginners are at a great advantage…change comes to them relatively easily. Why? Everything in their game is new, uncharted territory. Players who have played the game for a while often times need to unlearn something before they can make a change. For example, if you hit your forehand with a continental grip, you will need to unlearn much before you can adopt a semi-western grip. Each of these grips requires a different stance, racquet motion, contact point and finish. If you never played the game, you could adopt the semi-western forehand grip without having to change existing muscle memory.

Given this, it is no wonder that many recreational players decide to live with an imperfect game.

Yet, even beginners have to struggle. They, too, have to work hard over time to establish a solid game. There are shorter paths…but no shortcuts in improving your game.

One of the things that compelled me to begin this column is the fact that I learned that there are faster and easier ways to establish or improve a game. But,even these, require time. Quick fixes are usually just that. They fix quickly, and just as quickly, they fade in their benefits. It is like playing with a different racquet. When we pick up a new racquet and begin to play, we frequently believe that it is the miracle racquet that we have been praying for. All of our strokes seem to improve immediately and profoundly. Yet, in a week or two, we find that we are still making the same errors and losing to the same players.

So, change requires real dedication and recognition that true change takes some time. I have found that any significant change (whether it involve strength, flexibility, speed, footwork, stroke production, strategy or mental attitude) requires between 3 to 6 months of concerted effort and training. If the change involves stroke production or strategy, you will probably find that you are losing more than winning while making the change.

Distressing as it may be, change takes time and frequently results in short term losses. Hopefully, the long-term benefits will make these short-lived setbacks endurable.

To facilitate more rapid change, each player must have a specific plan for improvement and change. In other words, once you know what to change, you need to determine specifically how you will effect the change.

This specific "plan of attack" may involve lessons with a teaching pro…may involve knowledge that is gained from a useful tennis text or instructional video…may involve more off court training…may involve more drills and less matchplay…may involve specific mental exercises and/or training, etc. The process of change should be a carefully structured plan that involves short-term objectives as well as long-term goals. Finally, this "plan of attack" must be realistic and viable given the time, financial and emotional limitations you face.

As an example, I offer the change made by my friend and hitting partner, Peter MacPartland. Peter has played the game for over 35 years. He learned the game in the 1960’s when all groundstrokes were struck with a single grip…the continental. Given the modern game of tennis, forehands struck with the continental grip present a severe liability for the competitive player. Peter often plays USTA National Championships and has been ranked nationally. He realized that he needed to adopt a semi-western forehand grip if he wanted to compete against the modern player. He spent three years making this grip change. Every six months or so, he moved his grip a little more toward the semi-western. Eventually, he found himself fully comfortable with the semi-western grip. He had a long term goal (the semi-western forehand) and short term objectives (every six months change the grip a little more toward the semi-western). Having hit with him throughout this three-year period, I know how frustrating the change was for Peter. Yet, he persevered. I assure you that his forehand is now a formidable weapon!

Tennis truly is a game for a lifetime. I hope to be playing this wonderful game at age 90 should I live so long. So, I believe that I have plenty of time to develop that "perfect" game. For me, change is one of the things that drives me and helps to maintain my enthusiasm for the sport.

Plato teaches us that the unexamined life is a life not worth living. So it is with tennis. We need to constantly evaluate and improve our game. If we can be honest in our self assessment and prioritizing, careful and deliberate in our planning, and steadfast in our commitment…we can make the changes necessary to 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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