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Incorporate Objective, Periodic Testing in your Preparation

I am sometimes approached by a parent who would like me to help her child improve a certain part of the game (be it the serve, forehand, backhand, etc.). This is great as there are few things that give me as much pleasure as assisting an eager youngster in achieving his objectives. So we warm up, break a sweat and start following the marching order. We take a look at this part of the player's game, start tweaking the stroke a little bit and, at the end, I make some suggestions for improving. Most of the time, I hear back that my input has been helpful but that the stroke still broke down in the match. So we either go back to the drawing board or the player moves to a different coach like a bee from flower to flower.

Short of more repetition, one overlooked method is the inclusion of objective testing in the player's practices. For example, say that the player wants to improve the serve. Great; which part? Power, accuracy, spin, depth? Same with forehand, backhand and volleys. Which component of the shot needs, in the parent/player's opinion, improvement? Without identifying this goal, how do we know when we've achieved it? Much like track athlete wouldn't come to a coach and tell him that he needs to run "better", you cannot tell a tennis coach that the serve "needs to get better". 

We need to first dissect the problem and then remedy it accordingly. Take, for example, the serve. If you want to increase speed, you have to start taking radar gun readings. We need to see if the serve is getting faster and that's one way of doing (actually, it's pretty much the only way). Unfortunately, a lot of players don't like to have their feelings hurt, so they'd rather be blissfully ignorant of the actual speed of their serve as opposed to measuring it objectively and see where they stand against their peers and rest of the world.

Also, let's assume that the player wants to work on accuracy/placement. In order to be accurate, we need a target - initially it will be big; subsequently it will be smaller. So, for a serve, we put together a large circle of targets and see how many times the ball lands in it (given a set number of serves - e.g., 20). Then, we practice for a few weeks and go back to the testing. Again, we use 20 balls and see if the player's improved. Assuming s/he has, we make the circle smaller and test again. We keep track of number to be used as comparison for next time. 

Objective testing is the best method to determine your level of improvement. Of course, matches are method of measuring improvement as well, however, since the opponents are getting better also, that comparison is somewhat of a moving target. Test against yourself in order to track your development from day to day. 

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