In previous articles, we’ve explored the dangers of multi-tasking, the vagaries of momentum in sports, high school coaching issues, and the subtle differences between teaching and learning. The common thread in all is that there's nothing new! Most information and practically all technical advice is simply being recycled, rehashed and merely packaged differently. Kudos and much thanks to all my colleagues and friends whom I have learned so much from (thanks, Hapster). Of course, this in not to diminish the ‘new’ product, but merely to point out that someone did it before. While there may be “nothing new under the sun,” so to speak, it is helpful to “think outside the box.” And, therein, lies our topic for this article.
One of my favorite practice drills is to have players do other “stuff,” such as tactics and strokes they would not normally employ in a match. For instance, I'll play a match attempting to topspin every backhand. No chip and charge, and no slice backhands … you’ve got to come over every backhand. This accomplishes a few interesting things. For one, expectations are low. Because I’ve put myself in an uncomfortable position utilizing a skill I'm not particularly good at, my expectations are commensurately less. I can easily rationalize my mistakes, but more importantly, I get to practice a weaker stroke.
Psychologically, I feel more relaxed since the outcome has become secondary to the process goal of simply hitting more topspin backhands. I remember vividly having played one of my bitter, and better, rivals a number of years ago. He served and volleyed all the time. My chip return was floating and he was nailing every first volley. Down 1-2, I vowed to come over my backhand return for the rest of the match no matter what the outcome. I resolved myself to a process goal, regardless of the match outcome. I rattled off the next 11 games!
In another example, our club 3.0 team practices serve and volley tennis all the time! Interestingly, they're pretty good at it. Their 40 mile-per-hour serves enable them to close in for easy first volleys. Since the returns are not hit that hard either (remember, these are 3.0 players), they can actually hold a serve more often using this unconventional (for them) tactic … and, it works! Also, interestingly, however, is the fact that even after practicing this they are reluctant to put it into a “real” game situation. It seems that most people would rather play “comfortably” and lose than think outside the box, do something unconventional, and possibly win! Go figure. That's just human nature!
My suggestion is to try different stuff. Of course you need to “have” other stuff before you can effectively try it in a real match. You may not be able to turn a liability into an asset, but playing outside the box has many advantages. It relaxes you and lowers expectations. It allows you to develop a “B” game and it relaxes you! I cannot stress enough the importance of playing in a non-stressful environment or state of mind.
Nothing can place your head in this situation better than playing an unfamiliar game, stroke or tactic. If you're a baseliner, start rushing the net more. Aggressive players, stay in points longer. Put yourself in someone else's shoes. It's not you who's playing … it's someone else! There's no pressure on you. Role-playing may seem nothing more than a psychological ploy, but it can work to your advantage. You need to try it.
In conclusion, I encourage you to think outside of the box. Your game is familiar to you and works, to a point. To get beyond that point, to improve and to have more fun requires that you take risks. Failure is just one step closer to getting it right. Try stuff! Think outside the box and you'll be a better person for it. Are you having fun yet?