| By Steve Hu

Many junior players have powerful strokes in practice, but they can hardly bring them out effectively in real matches. One common reason is that they tend to take a brief “mental and/or physical break” after a good shot. They wait to see whether the ball is coming back, where it is coming, then start running. That often leads little or no time to set up, thus unable to bring out the lethal shots they “would have owned” when the coach feeds the balls from the basket.

A mental change can improve their games dramatically … always anticipate that ball is coming back! If you expect that ball is coming back, you would recover proactively before your opponent hits the ball. You would recover to the middle of your opponent's attacking zone faster. You would have more time to setup for a good shot. A few nice things will happen if you play with this mental change:

1. You will make a better shot selection.
For example, if you are way back off the court and your opponent is attacking at the net, you can choose a slow lob high and deep instead of a "risk it all" fast passing shot. That will buy you time to recover your position for the next shot. The faster the ball is going at him, the faster his volley will go to your open court (or a deadly drop near the net). You don't want to cut your own time for reaction, he does! Advanced players slide on clay, rather than running two more steps before changing direction to run back, for the same reason—buy yourself extra time.

2. You will stay low naturally.
This happens because if you think that ball is always coming back, most likely to your open side of the court, you will automatically drop your center of gravity, bend your knees to gain more traction to the ground for a faster, more explosive start. You will become a Ferrari instead of a tractor bumping around.

3. Your leg and back muscles will develop stronger.
This strength development in the legs and back will take place because you have a habit of staying low. You will experience soreness the first few times you change your play this way, but that's a good thing as your muscles are adapting and growing. Your physical strength will grow after playing with this “mental change” for a couple of months. You will gain confidence after successfully returning some of those shots which previously you would have thought impossible in the past. That will put pressure on your opponent (many kids would react by hitting faster and with more of an angle, resulting in more errors), the momentum can change to your favor.

4. Your "mental toughness" will be enhanced.
You will be able to keep your energy level up for a longer period, in addition, will stay focused in a longer rally. You will eventually become a relentless fighter!

5. You will develop “Strategic Thinking” capabilities.
This “thinking ahead for the next shot” practice will help your mind to develop “Strategic Thinking” capability, while pushing the lower level stroke production functions (eyes on the ball, early backswing, well-balanced setup, smooth stroke with full follow-through, etc.) to become part of your “subconscious habits.” It may not be easy at the beginning, and you may find it distracting to your stroke production a little bit, but once you have mastered it, you game will be taken to the next level. Think about how important the “thinking ahead” element is in a game of chess.

6. You’ll always be on your toes.
Sometimes, you think you just made a “winner shot” and you were feeling great (admiring your own shot), but your opponent surprisingly run down the ball and returns a low quality shot barely passing the net. You did not expect that ball coming back, so you did not move up at all. You ended up losing that easy point. If you have had this mental change, you would have been prepared and moved to the correct spot to win that point. A point like that can be distracting and discourage your opponent, and even turn the game around. Don't kick yourself for losing that easy point, get this mental change.

Steve Hu

<p>Steve Hu is a passionate tennis player who helps young players to develop their match play skills by playing matches with them, pointing out weakness areas and developing targeted improvement plans. He recently won a 32-draw &quot;North Shore Memorial Open 2009&quot; Men's Singles Champion. He can be reached at <a href="mailto:masterhu@gmail.com?subject=Long%20Island%20Tennis%20Magazine%20We...@gmail.com</a>.&nbsp;</p>