As a player, if I had been asked to define "anticipation," it would have been difficult for me to answer. Growing up, I was never taught to anticipate in any systematic way. Yet as a tennis player, I anticipated and moved extremely well on the court from a young age, whether or not I fully understood what it was or how I was doing it.
Part of this came from a passion and an eagerness in my play, and that of the other players I played against and trained with. We had a hunger for knowledge and a strong desire to get better.
As a coach, I don't always see those same qualities in looking at our young players today. I don't see a passion to discover new things for themselves. Today I see a lot of kids who are just hitting balls with what I would call a ball machine mentality. They aren't really taking charge of their development. They're constantly waiting to be told, instead of going out there and looking for ways to improve. They aren't eager in the same way I was and I think this mentality restricts their ability to anticipate.
That's one thing that as a coach I'm working hard to try and change. Compared to today's players I see at least 5 differences in the way I was trained that helped me develop anticipation. In this article I am going to talk about what they are how to develop them.
The first difference is the number of sets I played. My total set play a week was around 18 sets. Usually I'd play a minimum of two sets a day from Monday through Friday. Then I'd play four sets on Saturday and four sets on Sunday when there wasn't a tournament. It was what I loved to do. I did it from a young age, and it didn't matter who I played with. I'd play sets with anyone.
The second difference is practicing in a mindful way, what you might even call a of Zen way of thinking. This means being really being focused in the present. By this I mean focusing on what you're actually doing at every moment on the court--not just going out there and randomly hitting balls.
It means when you hit cross court forehands, you should be working on generating the same response to a given ball that you would want in a match. It means that even when you are just hitting with other players, you are constantly trying to figure out how you would play them, how you would beat them, what their strengths and weaknesses are. You're asking yourself what is this player missing in his game? You don't see that so much in the kids today.
The third difference is intensity. I've studied the importance of intensity closely. I see a direct correlation between great practice habits, great intensity, and the level of a player's ranking. We can all think of players that appear to be the exception to this rule. Maybe players like Pete Sampras or John McEnroe didn't practice and hard. Maybe they didn't have to practice as hard. They were both phenomenally gifted, and both relied on their serves.
But these exceptions are actually very rare. Recently I was on the court with Andy Roddick watching him practice. His level of intensity and mindfulness when he's practicing are incredible. I think you'll find that as well in the vast majority of the top players.
When we talk about intensity, we can look at on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1, being the lowest level of intensity you can possibly imagine up, and 10 being insane, out of control intensity.
Now intensity doesn't mean tension. Intensity is a combination of adrenaline and relaxation. Intensity is an eagerness. It's an eagerness to move, a readiness to move. It's an eagerness and a readiness to play.
For every player you have to create a benchmark of intensity, the level that is best for that player. It's really important for players themselves to grasp what their best level of intensity is. Sometimes you have to lower your level intensity. If you're really nervous, you might be overly intense. And sometimes, it's the opposite, you're not motivated enough, and you have to raise your intensity.
A vital skill in becoming a successful competitive tennis player is being able to control the way your body feels, to be able to raise your level of intensity, or to lower it. On my own I came up with a way to do this. When I knew I was overly charged up for a big match, I used to imagine that I was Matt Wilander.
Wilander was a great Swedish player who was known for his super calm demeanor. I actually played my best tennis as Mats Wilander--not as Jay Berger. As Matts, I'd suddenly feel a lot more mellow. Even though I'm sure I didn't look like him, and I'm sure I was still walking the way Jay Berger walks, in my mind, I was Mats.
Later when I studied sports psychology, I found out that this was actually a well-known technique that athletes were often trained to use just the way I had done on my own. This technique was to act as if you were feeling the way you really wanted to feel, even if you weren't. (Click Here to read Jim Loehr's article on the subject.)
When you look at a player's intensity on that one to ten scale, there's definitely going to be a range. Everybody's is at least a six or even a seven. But nobody's a ten.
The habit of finding your intensity is something you have to create every time you walk on the court. A lot of players have a practice mode and then they have a play mode. My belief is that your practice mode has got to be the same as your play mode. Your intensity has got to be part of your makeup of who you are as a tennis player.
If the coach and the player establish that you're a seven, now you both have a frame of reference to communicate. It's amazing, but if players don't have this benchmark of where to be, they'll float between a lot of different levels with no true grasp off where they are emotionally during matches.
Controlling your intensity gets more critical as players move up in the levels and get to compete in bigger and bigger situations. You need to get to the point as a tennis player, where you can suddenly get more excited, or suddenly, just really relax. If you're up break point against the number 10 player in the world, you might need to relax yourself to be able to play that point to the best of your ability.
Or you might have played for three weeks in a row and find yourself on the back court of some tournament and your level of intensity naturally might be a little bit lower. So you've got to be able to raise that level in order to win that match and get to the next round.
You can pick your own players to do this. Not everyone remembers Matts Wilander. To bring your intensity down, you could become someone like Roger Federer or Lindsay Davenport. To raise your intensity, you could be somebody like Lleyton Hewitt or Rafael Nadal or Justine Henin-Hardenne.
The fourth difference that's critical to anticipation is the commitment to run down every ball. To run down every ball in matches, and especially, to run down every ball in practice. Again that's something that you don't really see in too many juniors.
To do this requires a commitment. And this is critical. Every time that you walk on the court, you have to make that commitment to run for all balls. And I mean all balls.
The difference here is between what I call "a need" and "a want." The kids these days, they may have a want to get to the ball, but they don't necessarily have a need. My own junior coaches were from Argentina, and I grew up training with Argentinean tennis players.
I did drills that were based on a need to get to every ball. It's something that has to be practiced and has got to be built into your internal system every day. And that helped make me the kind of player that I was.
My primary coach was Jorge Paris, who unfortunately is no longer with us. He was a fantastic coach and a fantastic person. He coached me from when I was twelve years old and had the biggest impact on me of any coach I worked with.
Jorge had a natural belief in people. He believed players could push themselves beyond the point that they believed they could push themselves. I fed off the belief he had in me. That allowed me to push myself further than other players. This was one of the reasons I was able to reach the top ten in the world.
I had the pleasure and the honor of training a lot with Jimmy Connors when I was playing and I learned a great deal from him. And one of the things that I learned is that when he walks on the court, from the moment he walks on the court, he is so mindful.
Practice is like a match. In fact it is a match. From the first ball that's hit, you go at match speed, and you keep it up for ten minutes to twelve minutes until you are completely exhausted. Then you do it again. And then you do it again.
The Swedish players also practice at an incredible level of intensity. They have a true commitment to run down every ball. For them it really is a matter of need versus want. When you grow up in Sweden, there are a lot of players up on the same court at a young age because they are playing indoors.
So when it's your turn to be in line, there's an absolute need to run down every ball because if you miss a ball, or you don't get to a ball, you're out and you have to wait another three, four, five minutes to play again. I've seen examples of this time and time again at the highest levels of the game. All the best players have a commitment to run down every ball and the players who aren't the best don't necessarily do the same. If you have ever watched Rafael Nadal play matches, then you know what I mean.
By having a commitment to run down every ball, even balls that are out, you're putting yourself in situations that you're going to face later in matches. If you have a two-handed backhand and you're running down balls that are in the doubles alley you're going to hit some one-handed backhands, and you'll be practicing and getting better at shots you might only hit once in a match at a critical time.
Jim Courier was another example. I practiced with him and I can assure you first hand that he had this kind of commitment. Here's one story that shows how this worked for him. Sometimes in practice when you'd pull him way wide on his backhand side, he'd try to rip a one-handed backhand winner down the line.
And I recall in a Davis Cup final against Switzerland, he ran all the way across the backhand side, took his hand off and ripped the same one-handed winner on a huge point. That shot didn't just show up out of the blue. And he went on to win that match which was critical to one of the great American Davis Cup victories.
So you don't think about whether you can get to this ball or that ball. That kind of decision doesn't enter your mind. Even if the ball is out, you need to practice playing it. I think this is critical in improving your movement and your anticipation skills.
The fifth factor that is equally critical in movement and anticipation is the split step. The split step is a tremendous problem with some of the young players that I've worked with. When we videotape their movement or tape a match and look at how they initiate their movement, we see them guessing where the ball's going to go.
Again, I never really focused on the split step when I was playing. I think this was because I was playing a lot of matches and if you play a lot of matches, you're going to find the most efficient way to move and often you will develop a split step naturally.
The split step is important pre-loads the muscles and gets you ready to move. It squares the shoulders up to your opponent. It's something that has to be done all the time in practice. And if you don't do with the right intensity in practice, for sure you won't in a match.
It's not true however that both feet always land at the same time. Often the outside foot further from the ball lands first. At the same time, the inside foot that is closer to the ball sometimes turns and starts moving towards the ball before touching down on the court.
The focus shouldn't be on where you split, but when. This is right before your opponent is about to make contact. It puts you in the air at the time of the hit, so that you can recognize the shot and initiate the movement before you land.
Jay Berger is a USTA National Coach based in Key Biscayne, Florida. As a player, Jay reached a world ranking of #7 and won 4 pro singles titles before retiring in 1991. He also played Davis Cup twice for the United States and was undefeated in Davis Cup match play.
Jay was the Head Men's and Women's Coach at the University of Miami before joining the USTA national coaching staff in 2003. As the top American junior player in 1985, he reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open, the best result of any #1 junior in the Open era. He also played varsity tennis at Clemson University.
An experienced salt water angler, Jay strongly disputes the claim that USTA Director of Coaching education Paul Lubbers is the finest bone fisherman among Florida coaches and teaching pros.
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