As a High Performance coach, I have had many discussions and have heard many opinions about what makes for a good practice partner. Some people just like to see a solid ball over and over so they can catch their rhythm, while others like to be pushed around by a stronger player because they like the challenge. The surprising thing though, is that nobody ever really mentions the benefits of practicing with somebody who is not quite as strong, and when the topic is brought up, many seem very skeptical. Let’s take a look at exploring ways to get the most out of your practice regardless of who you are on court with, especially because it is something that is not always within your control.
Let’s start by highlighting the advantages/disadvantages of practicing with somebody a bit stronger than you are. I think we can agree that it is motivating, it forces you to play out of your comfort zone, makes you take advantage of opportunities (as they are more seldom seen), and forces you to hustle and focus at a higher level. In a nutshell, it can help you become a better competitor. But what happens if your preparation is late on the forehand, and you play somebody who is ripping the ball into your forehand all day? Does the preparation get better or worse? The reality is that seeing too much of this will very often result in hitting the ball even later, leading to a loss of rhythm, a deterioration of technique and even injuries.
On the flip side, playing someone who is at a slightly lower level than you are has its advantages/disadvantages as well. If a player's preparation is late and he or she is receiving a ball that is not quite as big, it can help them keep that contact point out in front during a live ball rally or even in a point. Tactically, it can help as well, if you are more comfortable on defense, but don't like stepping up and using your forehand, playing someone who doesn't push you around is the perfect opportunity to work on your offense. But, if your goal is to go out and win, tactically, this practice doesn't offer much. If that’s the case, it’s always good to give yourself some type of handicap which will even out the score and make things slightly more difficult.
The important thing to understand is that there is always something to be gained regardless of who you are practicing with. But what are the long-term effects of gaining this understanding?
The ability to train well regardless of who you are on court with helps develop leadership and independence. It also shows that you have a goal in mind, and how well you accomplish that goal is all that matters. These skills not only require a ton of practice, but they also set the foundation for the proper mentality in competition. This is called being “process-oriented,” and the best athletes in the world are the ones who are able to do this the best. After a loss, rather than view it as a disaster, they are able to evaluate what they did well and what they didn't do well. They are able to take a loss as a learning experience, while not being concerned with things which are out of their control.
<p>Carl Thorsen is a director of Gotham Tennis Academy’s Elite High Performance Program at Stadium Tennis Center. He brings more than 18 years of experience, coaching a wide range of students from beginners to elite juniors to world-class professionals. A graduate of Cornell University, Carl spent three years on the professional circuit, winning several titles along the way. Carl currently coaches some of the top juniors in the New York metro region and nationally and internationally ranked juniors. He may be reached by e-mail at <a href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a> or by phone at (718) 665-4684. </p>