Do you often miss an easy or put-away shot? How about “open court” volleys … the ones where your opponent is way off court and all you have to do is put the ball back to the other side? What about blowing a “sitter” overhead? Or a soft groundstroke from the middle of the court begging to be crushed? You are not alone. How many times have you watched a basketball game where the player is moving down the court and is about to take an uncontested layup only to blow it? Even worse is the hotshot who is trying to impress with a slam dunk only to have the ball ricochet off the rim. Often we are shocked when we miss these easy shots. We know how to hit the shot, so why do we miss it?
When looking at this enigma, the first question is: how is your focus? Are you having thoughts that are getting in your way? Your best chance to improve your focus and play well is to quiet the voices in your head. Those voices may be pounding you with a boatload of information arriving in fractions of seconds: “She’s standing off court, don’t blow it,” “She’s going to run for this so put enough pace on the ball,” “Don’t hit the overhead at her, it’s not nice.” A million different thoughts all designed to wreak havoc. They are a distraction and make the job at hand less clear. Whether you are on the offense or the defense, your job is to focus on the ball. Hitting any shot well is your true opponent. We play our best tennis when we have a quiet focus, where our body is reacting instinctually, and where our thoughts are minimal.
Are you taking easy shots for granted? Are you too relaxed? If so, you will get sloppy. You will likely not position yourself well to hit the ball and be off balance. You might either go for too much like the slam dunk basketball player or hit the ball too softly. So, keep your feet moving and treat what seems like an easy shot with the same focus and effort you would any shot.
Are you afraid you will miss? This may cause you to slow the racket head speed, which in turn can create the mistake. Make sure you are moving your racket into the appropriate position as you move toward the ball. Don’t be tempted to go for too much, or too little.
Are you feeling too much pressure as you approach a put-away shot? If so, you will likely rush the shot, have poor footwork, lack proper balance, and over-hit the shot. Going for too much makes no sense when you have the time to place the ball. Why take unnecessary risk? In between games, ask yourself why are you feeling pressure? Is there really so much riding on this game, this point? The pressure of competition can be a good thing — it can be exciting and make tennis more fun. But often players attach more significance to a match than is really necessary. Think to yourself, why is this SO important? Does winning or losing a point, or even a match, mean what you really think it means? Breathe and focus on the ball. Enjoy the moment. Again, move your feet so that you are in the right position and balanced.
How often do you practice easy shots under pressure? This is not a trick question! In fact, the less time I have when playing is often when it’s the easiest for me to play well. I found that in preparing to compete I always enjoy playing against pace, but in reality the matches that were harder were against soft ball hitters. Now I chose to practice against all styles, especially against slower paced consistent players. Is it fun? Not much. But do I miss the easier balls less? Absolutely! Good execution is the result of good practice.
Regardless of which of these issues complicates your response to an easy shot, try to find the middle ground. Execute at a medium pace with a clear mind. Focus only on your movement when you see the sitter: footwork, balance, medium pace. Limit distractions. Talk yourself out of feeling unnecessary pressure. And take advantage!
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