Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Breaking bad habits - not an easy task - is key to improving in life and in tennis

I was recently watching some footage of Rafael Nadal playing tennis as a kid, and it was amazing to see how similar his game then was to what it has been throughout his career. It's clearly an example of someone who built good habits from early on. That meant he didn't have to change much when he was older, and he used all that extra time and energy not tinkering with or worrying about the fundamentals that he had already baked in as good habits. Most of us build bad habits over a lifetime and then it becomes very difficult to break out of them, change, and improve ourselves.

To improve in tennis, it helps to break bad habits, but it also helps to have the right perspective, notes Ian Westermann in his 2022 book Essential Tennis. Part of the right perspective, he writes, is to realize that winning every point and reaching perfection should never be the goal

An interesting stat in professional tennis is that, over the years, the person who is number-one in the world averages winning about 55 percent of the total points. Even Nadal, who has won pretty close to 100 percent of his matches at the French Open still is around that 55 percent mark in terms of actual total points won at Roland Garros. It’s part of what makes his competitive fire so impressive. He seems to win the most important points, but he loses plenty along the way. So when your opponent hits a great lob winner or aces you, Westermann advises not to change your game plan or throw a fit but to instead say out loud to yourself, “I guess that was just one of the 45 percent of points they were supposed to win.”

Another important takeaway from the book is that deciding you want to get better at an aspect of your game doesn’t always help. Say you want to work on improving your backhand, so you buy a ball machine and hit backhands with it every day. What might happen is that you reinforce your bad habits. 

I took lessons this weekend from my neighbor who is an excellent coach and he taught us some new and awkward drills that I think is relate to finding new ways to push yourself and improve. He had us consciously step across the line on the court with our front foot as we were hitting the ball, causing us to focus on our footwork rather than the act of hitting. This felt weird but I could already feel the power growing in my shots. Also, he had us jump step with our front foot as we were hitting approach shots. This too felt awkward and is hard to do (at least until it becomes a habit), but the power and control of having good footwork (and consciously thinking about where our feet are and how they’re adjusting to each shot) very well might be a better improvement tactic than hitting a shot that you’ve done all your life (possibly not that well) over and over. Serena Williams’ forehand isn’t as perfect as can be because she’s hit it so many times but rather because she got it right, it became her habit, and now she’s got free time to think about all the other things in life, like testing out a bunch of rackets to make sure she’s using the ones she likes best. 

In terms of my personal tennis improvement, I’ve been working on my serve (especially my second serve) for a long time and I’m finally pretty happy with where it’s at. I think I won’t double fault much anymore. I've put a spin on it and it consistently gives people trouble. There's not much more someone at my level of play can want.

So now I think I have time to work on other aspects of my game that have been long-time bad habits and I don't need to worry about my serve so much anymore. My serve has definitely been taking up an inordinate amount of my time, when you consider how many other important elements there are to having a strong tennis game. 

Net game and backhands are areas I should think about going forward in terms of forming some better habits. My net game has always been a strength. But I’ve been missing too many shots - mainly overhead slams - lately, and I’m also not getting to the net as quickly or as often as I once did. Like many people, my backhand is not as powerful as my forehand and sometimes I don’t make the passing shots with it as well as I would like.

And Westermann importantly notes that these improvements don’t have to always happen on the courts. I use an Eastern grip for my serves and forehands. He writes that I could hold my racket at home sometimes in a Western grip. I’m not sure how he means that will make me better, but it sounds interesting from a muscle-memory perspective. I can also improve my footwork while watching a match on TV by doing a split step - while sitting or standing - every time the player at the top of the screen hits the ball. That will build muscle memory to take into the courts in terms of better footwork.

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