Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Feynman Diagram

At BRG we can't resist leaving Feynman Diagrams everywhere we go. So to not have a Feynman Diagram on the BRG Blog was an enormous oversight. Now corrected.

Are You Prejudiced?

Are you biased against people who play tennis a certain way? It’s my experience that tennis players respect and emulate players who are “left and right” oriented and that they dismiss tennis players who are “up and back” oriented. Let me explain.

If a certain player hits the ball hard and hits the ball to the deep corners, we call him a good player. People admire that style. Other players respect the skill it takes to hit the ball hard and to direct it successfully to the corners of the court. That’s the style of play seen most often on TV nowadays. That style of play is based upon a left to right orientation--opening up the court and hitting winners to the left or the right of your opponent.

I like to joke that I rarely hear people come to me complaining that “So and So hits the ball really hard to the corners. Why do I always lose to So and So?” That’s no mystery. Everyone recognizes that So and So is a good player.

Instead I hear questions like, “Why do I lose to crappy players who just dink, lob, and spin the ball? That’s not even tennis.” In my opinion, this attitude betrays a prejudice, a bias against players who use the up and back dimensions of the court instead of the left and right dimensions of the court.

It just so happens that up-and-back players succeed at every level. I think there are several reasons for that, among them that people may not be very good at recognizing and adjusting quickly to balls hit short or with varying spins. It may be easier to see that a ball is heading to your left or to your right than to see that the ball is coming slower (short), or spinning more than you expected. Baseball batters face similar troubles with pitchers. Pitchers largely (though not exclusively) fool hitters with changes in the height, speed and spin of their pitches. I think tennis players are similarly fooled.

Ultimately whether it’s prejudice or simply a preference for a certain style of tennis, I think I’ve identified an all too common mindset. I think it’s a mindset that prevents people from achieving their potential as tennis players. If you find yourself falling into this trap, snap out of it. Recognize the nuances of all the different styles of play you will encounter. You may learn something about this wonderfully complex game. And you just might win more matches as a result.

Forget Perfection, Just Practice

You've probably heard the old adage "practice makes perfect" or its seemingly more enlightened correction "perfect practice makes perfect." When it comes to tennis, both of these do more harm than good.

Perfection is not the goal, not in practice nor in play. The goal is to improve. The only way to improve is to practice. If you buy into the first adage and think that practice will make you perfect, you will surely be frustrated. There’s never been a perfect tennis player and you’re not likely to become the first. If you buy into the updated adage and think you need to practice perfectly, after a few imperfect practices you’ll abandon practice altogether. I can assure you that zero practice will be worse for your game than imperfect practice.

Nope, the only adage that makes sense is "practice makes better." To which I think it's fair to say, "better practice makes even better." By all means get together with a coach who can help you make your practices better, but don’t let all this nonsense about perfection get in your way. Forget perfection. Just practice. You will improve.

Where Should I Have Been That Time?

Maximization in Tennis

After a point ends poorly for one of my students, I'm frequently asked, "Where should I have been that time?" Sometimes the inquiring player was out of position, but frequently the player was in what I would consider good position. Unfortunately the ball still got past the player resulting in a winner for the opposition. So why did I judge the position to have been good?

Let's say I'm playing a doubles match and I get beat by a shot down my alley. It's not rocket science to say that to defend that particular shot I should have been closer to the alley than I was. If I get beat with a short angle, I should have been closer to the net to cut off the sharply angled shot. But before my opponent's shot has been hit I can say no such thing. If I position myself in the alley I will have prevented my opponent from passing me in that direction, but I am almost certainly out of position. Similarly if I play one foot from the net, nobody will beat me with a sharp angle to my side of the court, but by positioning myself so close to the net I make a lob over my head very easy to hit and nearly impossible for me to defend. Again, this is not a wise tradeoff most of the time.

So with those examples in mind, how do I define good court position? Simple. Good court position is the place on the court where I maximize my chances of getting to a ball and hitting an effective reply. There is no "good court position" that guarantees I'll get to all balls. If I'm playing the net and I position myself a few steps inside the service line, I am in a position where I am able to cut off most of the left/right angle and contact most volleys above the net. This allows me to hit effective volleys off most, though by no means all, shots. This position also allows me to back up and make a reasonable play on most, though by no means all, lobs.

The best way to assure good court positioning is to first learn why you take certain positions to begin with. These positions generally reflect the geometry of the court and the offensive or defensive position of your team. From these basic starting positions it is necessary to make adjustments based upon how the point evolves and based upon what you learn about the skills and tendencies of your opponents.

Remember, the goal of proper court position is not that you will be in position to return every ball. Instead proper court position puts you in position to return the most likely balls, and it forces your opponents to beat you with more difficult shots (sharp angles and balls near the sidelines) rather than easier shots (in doubles those down the middle).

So get familiar with proper court positioning, accept that you won't be able to get to every shot, and maximize your chances of winning your next big match.