Why are numbers important? What can they tell you about how to win more points? The number 2 in tennis is the predominant number because of its link between the average rally length of a point and how a game, set, and match is ultimately won. One of my favorite shows that I like to watch on Amazon Prime TV is called NUMB3RS. The storyline of the show is based in the Los Angeles office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Special Agent Don Eppes and his team investigate critical and baffling crimes with a special edge. That advantage is Don’s brother, Charles Eppes, a brilliant universalist mathematician who uses the science of mathematics with its complex equations to search out the most dubious criminals. With this team, the forces of evil learn their number is up. Numbers have a way of giving clues to the patterns and responses that follow certain actions of human behavior.

I have always been fascinated with numbers, through high school and college I excelled in math above all other subjects. Because of this love for numbers, when playing sports, I looked for the odds of something about to happen or occurring in real time. Playing multiple sports growing up, I became increasing aware of player’s reactions and responses to the types of patterns executed as well as the number of times a play or sequenced pattern occurred. As a quarterback in football and point guard in basketball, it was my responsibility to call the play to execute based on the patterns I observed from my opponents (the defense). Many times, even as young as 9 years old, I would call a play instinctively during a game without the coach’s guidance. Even when a play was called from the sidelines, I would notice how the defense was set-up and based on the number of players to one side or the other, I would change the play and successful execute against the predictable pattern reactions of the other players. I began to realize that I just didn’t see things the way others did at first glance. My intuition was to drill deeper into the process of noticing how my opponent reacted to the movement and direction of the player and the ball. What I really wanted to discover is ‘why’ players reacted in particular ways? Was it their foot speed? Were they looking for a play or pattern we executed time and time again? Were they anticipating with their eyes what was happening in the moment or what just happened in the past? Or, were the other players simply not engaged in the game, were they just not aware of the play?

In tennis, there are many factors that contribute in this process of learning to win. My coaching colleague Craig O’Shannessy says all the time that how you hit the ball matters, but where you hit the ball matters more.  I’d like to add one last phrase to Craig’s statement, “and why you hit the ball matters most!”

How you hit the ball matters, where you hit the ball matters more, WHY you hit the ball matters most.

When Craig and I met in 2014, two years after I’d launched the project Transforming the Practice Court, we talked about the drastic differences between the practice court and the match court. We discussed how players were practicing habits and training with methods that were unrelated to how they actually will play points. Because the Serve and Return are rarely included when players rally in practice, the practice point scenarios often fall short in representing how points actually flow in match play. Our independent discoveries that match point play is dominated by the short rally, as well as the patterns of play that seemed to repeat themselves over and over again, was something we felt compelled to share with the tennis community.  You can watch more of our conversation in Craig’s online course, The First 4 Shots. Visit his website at With that in mind, I’d like to take you on a journey to discover that learning to play the game of tennis is much more than how to hit a tennis ball.  It’s about where and why you hit the ball that makes the biggest difference between winning and losing points. Winning more points is about practicing the specific movement rhythms and patterns of play that show up in your match play again and again as the serve and return are included to begin a point. There are only a limited number of shot responses in each scenario and the first step is understand what they are and why they keep showing up repeatedly. You will win more points if you can discern these patterns and then execute them with patience and precision. Finding the patterns that work best for you is the key to playing your best game. Many times that includes you being more versatile in your patterns and adjusting to changes that occur during practice and match play. In my online course that is linked to this book, Transform Your Practice, you’ll discover in the course the best patterns that give you the most confidence when playing points in practice so you can transfer that confidence to the match court. The practice strategies in the course are based on 2-shot combinations that occur in the First Strike and POP (Patterns of Play) phases of a point to help you move forward to simplify your tactical play. Automation is a huge part in playing at a high level in tennis because there’s never enough time to think in the moment. Knowing the right shot to hit at the right time is the beginning of executing better and making more shots. Training your technique in the context of automating your tactical patterns is a dynamic strategy that will make a world of difference as you practice to play your best when it counts. The course takes you through the most important foundational patterns of play for the first 4 shots you will play in a point. Practicing these foundational patterns will enhance your ability to proactively respond to your opponents shots more often and launch you more into flow. Approximately 90% of all the points you will play in a match will end within 0-8 shots, you must execute the first 4 shots on your side of the court with calculated patterns of play.  Making these First Strike and POP patterns automatic in your mind through repetitive practice is your greatest advantage over your opponent. Automatic responses calm your thoughts, emotions, and even your physical reactions to the ball. Flow is the optimal state of feeling and performing at your best. What you focus on, how you focus, when you focus, and why you focus are the gateways to more flow in your game. They all have to sync together fluidly and effortlessly. To be your best on the match court, you must practice how to focus and then re-focus from point to point. Beginning a point with more automatic pattern responses is absolutely critical to mastering the way you focus and re-focus to play the next point. You may have practiced and worked hard at how to hit a tennis ball in the court. At the same time, the intentional practice and automation of your patterns in the first 4 shots you’ll play is the game-changer to winning more on the match court.

Hacking Flow for Optimal Tennis Performance

Flow in the simplest of terms is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel and perform our best.  In my upcoming book, 7 On Court Strategies To Experience Your Play State – How to Win Every Time You Play, I discuss the advantage of why being in the Flow State is the most powerful influencer of winning.  As Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ned Hallowell said, “Flow naturally catapults you to a level you’re not naturally in, flow naturally transforms a weakling into a muscleman, a sketcher into an artist, a dancer into a ballerina, a plodder into a sprinter, an ordinary person into someone extraordinary.”

Everything you do, you do better in flow, from baking your favorite food, to planning a vacation, to solving a business plan, to playing tennis.  Flow drives optimal performance and accelerates performance.  Researchers now believe that flow sits at the core of almost every athletic championship and why so many champions remain at the top of their sport for longer durations of time – those athletes simply master and get in the flow state for longer periods of time and more often than others.  In this blog, I’d like to dive into one of the most fascinating ideas I’ve ever discovered when it comes to hacking flow.  Overall, there are 4 varieties of hacking flow, external triggers, internal triggers, social triggers, and creative triggers.  There are several external triggers that hack flow.  External triggers are qualities in the environment that drive people deeper into the zone.

hacking growth

The term “Hacking” comes from the electronic world wherein hackers were originally found in tinkering with technology in an attempt to improve performance.  Although the word has since taken on a negative connotation, it is a powerful way to discover how to maximize human performance – and in this particular example, winning when you play on a tennis court.  In this case instead of hacking external technologies, the focus will be on hacking internal technologies, our own psychology and neurology.  Hacking flow then refers to any action performed that propels us into flow.

Focus is the goal of getting more into the flow.  Risk is one external trigger that is a powerful way to hack flow.  Using risk as a “flow hack” can be an extremely potent trigger because flow proceeds from focus and consequences catch our attention.  Not only do consequences catch our attention, they also drive neurochemistry.  As risk increases, so do two nature chemicals in our brain release.  They are norepinephrine and dopamine.  Norepinephrine is a chemical released from the sympathetic nervous system in response to stress.  One of the major advantages of norepinephrine being released is it causes an increase in the amount of oxygen going to our brain – this helps us think clearer and faster.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.  Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.  Our brain uses these two to amplify focus and enhance performance.  Playing with this trigger often produces long-lasting effects:  risk takers are transformed into risk seekers.  Risk moves from being a threat to be avoided to a challenge to be risen toward.  This is the major reason I change the word “drills” to “challenges”.  Drills originally came to be known of instruction or training in military exercises.  Challenges are an invitation or call to take part in a contest or competition.  I’ve found especially around young players that using the phrase, “Alright, here’s our next challenge!”  The response physically and emotionally is so much more positive and the player or players are motivated 100x more to participate than when I use to say, “Alright, the next drill is….”.

Being challenged is a risky proposition, there will be winners and losers (in the score), there could be embarrassment; physical, mental, and emotionally stress – but that’s exactly the point – it’s a powerful trigger towards playing in the zone, in flow.  Using the word challenge can only push you towards the flow state, it’s like having a great pair of tennis shoes to begin.  When risk is a challenge, fear becomes a compass – literally pointing players in the direction they need to go next, the direction that produces more flow.  As neuropsychologist Barbara Sahakian, the University of Cambridge, England, says, “To really achieve anything, you have to be able to tolerate and ENJOY risk.  It has to become a challenge to look forward to.  To make exceptional discoveries, you absolutely need risk – you will never have a breakthrough without it.”



I have witnessed over 20 years of coaching, the players that embrace risk (I call it in my book, “embracing the pressure”) always push through and win every time they play.  They may not win in the score in every match or competition, but they develop towards greatness – a sense of achieving more than they believed.  There is a sense of fulfillment and learning to find joy in the journey of becoming better players and human beings.  I’ve also witnessed this phenomenal idea of embracing risk watching professional players play the game.  The best players have always had a sense of rising to the occasion, looking fear in the face, embracing all the risk of the moment, and going for it!  Players of the past like Graf, Evert, Navratilova, Conners, Lendl, Agassi, and Sampras – Players in modern times like Serena, Sharapova, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.  These players embody risk taking and playing in flow.

ryan-harrison 2016

Certainly taking risks is needed for you to activate flow.  There are different types of risk taking, physical, mental, social, emotional and creative risks.  The application of imagination – a very short definition of creativity is all about mental chance taking.  The game of tennis is a very mental challenge, and taking risk is something that must be embraced to be your best.  And the risk is real because losing is real…. stay tuned for the book and more to follow 🙂

Hacking flow requires full commitment to the process or the journey – and it must be ferocious.  Accelerated performance needs unyielding focus and commitment, coaches that design training environments that create a safe space for taking risks is one where players will thrive and play in flow more often.  They will “Win Every Time They Play!”

7 On Court Strategies THE BOOK

7 On Court Strategies To Experience Your ‘Play State’

– Discovering how to win every time you play may seem like a daunting task but it’s actually well within your reach.   Styrling’s new book opens the possibility to explore your game from his innovative perspective of winning on the inside in order to truly appreciate the win on the scoreboard.  You’ll find yourself reflecting that when you lose a tennis match, it’s an incredible opportunity you’ll have to carve out the formula to winning – adversity makes room for opportunity.

Release Date:  7.7.2017


About the Author – Styrling Strother

Yep, it’s official – I’m an author now.  Unbelievable, at least to me.  I never imagined that as a young boy who struggled with a speech impediment would end up writing a book. Anything is possible if you believe, be yourself, and trust your instincts.  This was a project that pushed me to the limits.  I couldn’t have done this without the support of my wife and family, my incredible editor Bill Patton, extraordinary entrepreneurs Gary Vaynerchuk and Lewis Howes, as well as the encouragement from my players and friends.  My passion has always been to inspire people in person, it’s a dream come true to hopefully inspire you with the written word.  I hope you enjoy 7 On Court Strategies To Experience Your ‘Play State’ and it inspires you to play at a whole new level of fun!

Developing Better Footwork

The foundation for developing better footwork from the baseline is the reset positions after you play a ball to your opponent’s court.  Instead of thinking of the tennis court as a rectangle that has one center, picture three main triangles that shift as you play the ball into your opponent’s court.  Even if you are playing the ball down the middle of the court, you are actually resetting and hitting back into a triangle, not a rectangle.  In the videos below, seeing is believing and this is really step #1 in transforming your practice court to developing better footwork and reset positions from the baseline.


Extended video 3 Centers of the Court

Throw Away Shots

Click on this link to watch video with player –>


Let me talk to you about “Throw Away” Shots in a match. One way to define success is to win the point. You can win the point with 1, 2, 3, or 20 shots (which doesn’t happen very often). Now 20 shots are unlikely but 0 – 8 is typical.

You’re playing for 1 point but there is not a lot of emphasis on each shot. There’s not an urgency to play each shot because I want to win the point. You’ve got to stay in the moment of executing 1, 2 Re-set. You’re emphasis when you do this isn’t on winning the point, it’s on making shots! Specifically 2 shots in a row.

Two shots in a row lines up with the data. In 6 out of 10 points, the points end in 0 – 4 shot rally length. Another 2 shots for each player gives you 8 shots which is 9 out of 10 points you’ll ever play. Don’t worry about the 1 point out of 10 that rarely happens that go past 8 shots.

Focus on right when the points begins. Right when it starts it’s about to end. In the beginning, there is the end.

If you only focus on winning the point, you can have “Throw Away” shots. You can randomly spray shots.

You have “Throw Away” shots because you’re not thinking, you want 1 shot to set up your 2nd shot. You’re not thinking about finishing a point with 2 shots or more. You’re thinking let’s just end the point there. You hit it as hard as you can with very little decision making. You hit a deep ball which pushes your opponent behind the baseline, they give you a very short ball and all you have to hit is a drop-shot. Instead you hit an 80 mph forehand into the back fence.

You have to understand a point is won by a series of smart shots, making good decisions.

The key is making 2 shots, reset, then hitting 2 shots, reset. Within that, playing catch and keep away.  Sometimes you have to play catch because you’re in trouble and you want to make the shot.  When you have the opportunity, you play keep away.

You can Run, Reverse, or Cage them.

You’re so focused on winning a point, not focused on running patterns or trying to get the opponent out of position.

You can’t get too far ahead or stuck in the past when you lose or win a point.  You’ve got to let it go.

This is how you win every time you play.

The score is one small measurement of success. We’ve made it the “be all, end all” of success.

An ultimate success is you come off the court and you gave it all you got at that moment in time, then you say to yourself,

“I’m going to play and practice harder.”