The Real Tragedy behind Rally Based Practice

The Real Tragedy behind Rally Based Practice

How many times have you agonized over the fact that you rally so well in practice and yet can’t seem to execute that perfectly practised forehand or backhand in a match? ”

“If I just hit more balls in my strike zone, that will do it, right?”

Nope, that will not do it.

99% of the time in practice, players are rallying the ball with no real purpose other than to “get the ball back in the court” – which is a losing strategy the majority of the time. It’s a mindless (without activating mental strength and concentration) strategy to “not lose” the point which is void of decisive, deliberate, mindful play.

Alongside rally based practice, it is attempting to perfect technique that plays an equally destructive role in our Tragedy of Bad Practice. Aside from it not being anything like as important as developing cadence between, for example, the Serve and the Serve plus one shot (S1), it takes an enormous amount of time. Sadly, most of us do not have this time to give unless we’ve dedicated our daily lives to being on the tour.

What is Good Practice?

So how do you practice so that you can win more points under the pressure? Here’s the short answer, you practice the actual way you will be playing. Most importantly, you practice the Serve (S), and then the next shot in that sequence (S1). You practice the Return (R), and then the next shot in that sequence (R1). It is the movement between these two shots that forms the most important movement sequences in a point. Unfortunately, this crucial sequence is the least practised on the practice court.

Tennis is a game of predicable circumstances and scenarios. This is mainly because we play the game in a finite space, a tennis court marked with lines as the boundaries. So within a finite space there are finite possibilities and therefore you can narrow them down. By narrowing down these possibilities by rehearsing them, you know what the responses could and should be to each ball presented back to you.

My good friend and colleague Ken DeHart always tells his players that every ball is a question. Ken then asks the same players, “Do you have the best answer?” This is a simple and powerful way to address the reason why you’re striking this ball in a particular way. It is also a critical step forward in learning how to practice in the most productive way.

So what’s the answer to Ken’s question; “Do you have the best answer?”

“How do I move, swing, and contact this ball that’s coming my way?”

The answer to this question can be discovered even before it’s asked. I recently watched a short video from USTA National Coach Andy Brandi. (Watch video) talks about what he believes to be one of the most critical skills a player needs to learn to play this game at a high level. Coach Andy believes that skill is ball recognition. Andy says in the video that he wasn’t quite sure why so many players, who develop a point really well with good tactics, have trouble recognizing what they are able and unable to do with the next shot they are playing.

Reverse Engineering the Point

I’m convinced that having observed player responses in practice and during match play that the ability of a player to reverse engineer a situation and solve the ‘why’ of that situation is the answer to winning more points. We have to start with the end in mind and reverse engineer to find the cause and the effect of each shot in it’s own predictable sequence.

When you reverse engineer the point, it reveals the patterns and shot combinations which show you how to respond with the right shot at the right time. Time is the variable and tennis is a game of time, how much can you take away from your opponent and how much can you gain. Better positioning and movement on court is a result of increased awareness of what may happen with the next shot in a patterned sequence. What may happen next is a product of the past tendencies of your opponent, the type of shot you send to them, and their typical response to certain scenarios.

Ball Recognition and Player Recognition

Let’s go back to Coach Andy’s belief that ball recognition is one of the most critical skills to possess as a player. When you stop and think for a moment, every player and coach who’s been involved with learning to play and coach this game would agree with our Coach. Ball recognition is absolutely crucial, no question about it. But in the spirit of reverse engineering what happens in a point, what comes before ball recognition? Player recognition. Recognizing how your opponent responds to the ball you play to them is critical in determining what will be coming back to you.

I addressed this ball-player recognition as an on-court strategy in my book, 7 On Court Strategies To Experience Your ‘Play State The eyes are the most important part of the body a tennis player will use to decide how to strike their next shot. Not the hands first, not the feet first, it’s the eyes first when it comes down to player and ball recognition skills improving. You must know the road ahead to be a better player. The first way to play the ball better is to see better! If you are watching the ball as it travels to your opponent, you’re going to be in big trouble. The ball travels too fast moving away from you for your mind to stay in the present moment, you are seeing the ball in the past. By the time the ball arrives on your opponent’s racquet, it’s already gone and coming back to you. Now you are one step too late and you’ll have to make up that time another way.  Here’s the video Ball-Player that is a part of the book, Password is the number:  7

Many players just react because they have focused too long in the wrong place instead of pro-actively predicting where to move next to intercept the ball. Your eyes should track the ball as it approaches your racquet before you hit the ball. After striking the ball, your eyes then shift when you look up towards your opponent and begin to track their movement as they prepare to strike the ball back to you.

Better ball recognition is a result of better player recognition

If we are looking and training for what’s coming next, we will be that much faster to respond with balance and precision. The difference in the rally and the play is the rally is mindless and the play is mindfully aware of the present moment. Practicing the rally back and forth will rarely lead to playing better points when you keep score. Why? Because keeping score introduces pressure and that’s the other punch line, you must be able to execute the play sequences under pressure. The rally does not automatically teach the play sequences of the Serve and then the next shot (S1) or the Return and the next shot (R1).

The movement cadence between the Serve and S1 and the Return and R1 are totally different from the practice rally.

These two cadences that occur between S 1 and R 1 are completely different to the cadences that occur during a practice rally. In order to illustrate this, I like to paint a word picture with my players. This word picture demonstrates the difference in cadence in practice rally and in points by relating it to drum line beats.

My favorite part of a marching band is the drum line. The drum line is the heartbeat of a marching band. Without the drum line, the rest of the band is void of cadence (rhythm and tempo). Every drum line has a specific cadence that directs the band in a certain way towards success. When they are walking towards the stadium to perform, there is a specific cadence they walk to. When they march or run around the field, there is a certain cadence they move and respond to. Without practising the Serve and S1 cadence, or the Return and R1 cadence, a player is going to struggle to find the balance and rhythm to flow into the next two shots and forward into an extended rally.

The extended rallies are the easy flow simply because they have already started. It’s like floating down a river, once you are in the water, it’s easy to let the current of the rapids move and navigate you down the river. The hard part is timing the jump into those rapids so you can get into the flow of the river. The hardest part of playing a point is starting the point with good timing, balance, and rhythm. Every point begins with a Serve, then a Return, a S1 and R1 to follow, that’s 0-4 shots and where the majority of the points are played.

This is where I’d like to begin, at the end.


The play I’m referring to is “playing points” that simulate match play. The first 4 shots in a point must be approached with mindful, deliberate, and decisive patterns and combinations in order to successfully achieve higher performance levels.

The player is fully engaged in the present moment if they have practiced enough in this way on the first 4 shots on their side of the court. Automating patterns in the first 4 shots is the key to entering a Flow state, the focused instinctual response is grounded in a player through repetition. Then re-focus and focus again on 2+2 shots in a row.

Mindful play is repeating patterns in this instinctual way. It’s effortless, and easy to execute when the player has spent enough time learning to play these shots S/S1 – S2/S3 and R/R1 – R2/R3. This is the 9/10 points on average in match play scenario. Practice that resembles and mirrors match play is the best way to improve over time as you’ve experienced. There is a large gap between Rally of a practice and Play in a match.

Coming in 2018 is an App I’ve been working on for more than 2 years – it is going to be the first of it’s kind to help the parent, the player, and the coach with designing practices that achieve mindful play in a powerful transformational way.




I’ll also be releasing an Online Course and LIVE Coaches Workshops called:

“The Power of Choreographic Movement for Transforming Your Play.”

This is a course for any coach looking to take their players to a deeper level of mindful and deliberate practice.  It combines real data with choreographic movement patterns that are repeatable for higher levels of competition.



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.”