How did Novak do it? Djokovic’s 14th Grand Slam victory at the 2018 US Open

Novak Djokovic is back!  He’s been relentless this year winning his 13th Grand Slam overall at the 2018 Wimbledon Championships, followed by a win at the Western & Southern Open.  Not only does Djokovic share the distinction of having won all 4 Grand Slams with Federer and Nadal, but sweeping the 9 Masters events is a point of differentiation.  Federer has won seven of the nine Masters Titles, lacking Monte Carlo and Rome; while Nadal is missing Miami, Shanghai, and Paris.  After distinguishing himself from Federer and Nadal, Novak stormed through the US Open defeating Juan Martin del Potro 6–3, 7–6(7–4), 6–3 earning his 14th Grand Slam victory and joining Pete Sampras (3rd overall) for the most Grand Slams in history.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve released a couple of videos featuring the Top 7 First Strike Forehands and the Top 7 First Strike Backhands.  After going through the analytics of Djokovic’s 14th Grand Slam victory, the data from this match reinforce the importance of practicing the First 4 Shots.

As I geared up to watch the US Open Final, I knew at least one person that would be close to the action and thus suspected what kind of strategy Novak was going to attempt to employ against the gentle giant.  So as a good student of the Numb2rs, I grabbed some snacks, the remote, and watch every second of the Finals with pen and paper in hand.  After 3 hours and 15 minutes, I had the data.  After 10 hours of analyzing and creating this article, I would like to share with you a perspective that even ESPN is not going to give out, mainly because they don’t have it to share – so, let’s get started.

Chart 1

Screenshot 2018-09-22 00.57.14

Chart 2

Screenshot 2018-09-24 14.16.57

 

Let’s first look at the First Strike Return Patterns of Novak Djokovic (the first 2-shot return combination pattern) – by the way, these are all ground stroke combinations listed in the charts above (1 & 2).  In my online course -> Transform Your Practice Court, you can learn more detailed information about how to practice the 2-shot sequential combinations and how better performance on these 2-shot combinations will produce more winning points.

Chart 1 displays the first 2-shot combinations for the Serve and Return game of Djokovic, divided into how many combinations were played from the Deuce and AD Court.  The first 2-shots played by a player are called the First Strike (FS) Combinations.  For example, Novak played 24 BH/BH FS Return Combinations and 3 FH/FH FS Return Combinations.

If you look at Chart 2,

Novak was 10/24, winning 42% of the points played on the BH/BH combo, he played almost twice as many BH/BH combos from Deuce Court (15) than AD Court (9) – see Chart 1.  That’s interesting, it tells you that Del Potro was hitting a lot of IR Deuce Serves (‘T’ serves) to Djokovic’s BH pulling him to the middle of the court.

3/3 winning 100% of the points when playing a FH/FH FS Return combo

Novak was 33% when playing a FH/BH (5/15) and 67% (10/15) when playing a BH/FH on the First Strike Combinations.  He played approximately the same number of these two combinations from Deuce and AD Court.  See Chart 1

Although Djokovic won 100% of the FH/FH combinations, the statistic that is much more impressive is 67% when playing a BH/FH combination, and even 42% when forced to play a BH/BH combination.  Many players are unable to maintain this type of consistency with their BH Return and BH R1.  I’ve put together the Top 7 First Strike Backhands video to highlight the BH/BH and BH/FH combinations for a player to rehearse in practice.  It’s important to spend some time repeating these 2-shot FS Combinations and become more familiar with the movement patterns and contact moves that are associated with being more successful on the first 2-shots.

 

Now, lets’ take a closer look at Novak’s FS Combinations when Serving.

Chart 3

Screenshot 2018-09-27 11.22.41

When I have players rehearse their Serve, I want to avoid too much Serve practice in “isolation” – meaning I want to limit the amount of serves a player practices without resetting and playing the S1 (first shot after the serve).  The main reason for this is I’ve measured a noticeable difference in performance over time between players who only practice the Serve over and over again, and the players that practice the Serve while resetting and playing the S1.  The rehearsal is much more realistic because it helps the player integrate the 2-shot combination with the most efficient rhythm and timing.  This may seem like a small detail, however, it makes a big difference with a player’s ability to perform at higher levels of play if their rehearsal practice mirrors what actually occurs in match play.

As you can see in Chart 3, Djokovic won 82% of the OR/FH S/S1 Combination.  The OR (Outside-Run) Serve is a serve that pulls the return player to the outside of the court, another name for this serve is a ‘wide’ or ‘alley’ serve.  I have replaced using wide or alley serve with outside-run because the former tells a player what ‘they’ are doing and the latter leads a player to determine ‘how’ their serve is affecting their opponent (return player).  Novak was 18/22 when he played an Outside-Run Serve followed by a Forehand.  He activated this OR/FH pattern twice as much to Deuce Court (15) than AD Court (7) – see Chart 1.

Novak played 31 IR/FH Combinations when Serving and won 17 for 52%.  He played the IR/FH pattern 3X more often to Deuce court (22) than AD Court (9).   This is important data to recognize, Djokovic was intentional forcing Del Potro to play BH Returns from the Deuce side as he pulled Del Potro towards the middle of the court.

Novak was 9/15, 60% when playing the IR/BH Combination.  He played the IR/BH pattern twice as much to AD Court (10) than Deuce Court (5) – see Chart 1.   Djokovic was purposefully forcing Delpo to run inside from the AD Court with this IR/BH First Strike pattern and anticipating a BH to reverse Delpo back into the AD court so he had to play a BH on the R1.

When you are coaching a player, this data can be useful when looking at what S/S1 Combinations are successful and which ones could use more practice.  The player will always want to rehearse all the combinations in practice so that he/she can recall them in match play based on the ones that have the most success versus their opponent.  In the case of Djokovic’s in this match, his OR/BH combo was not as effective vs. Delpo in these US Open Finals as the OR/FH combo or the IR/FH.

I created the Top 7 First Strike Forehand for S/S1 and R/R1 to highlight the most popular FS Combinations to rehearse in practice.  These are critical to master when playing the strongest groundstroke of your game in the first 2-shots.

 

In 2017 I published one of the first resources focusing on 2-shot combinations.  The #1 Best Selling Book, 7 On Court Strategies to Experience Your Play State,  helps a player develop a new mindset to transform a practice to look and feel more like match play.  This resource is a good place to begin your journey as a player or coach.  The most often complaint I used to hear from players when they lost a tennis match was “Coach, I didn’t play the way I practiced!”  Players now respond with a better explanation and examination of their match play as they are more intentionally designing and planning their 2-shot First Strike Serve and Return Combinations.  It’s no more, “I couldn’t hit a Forehand or my Serve was crap, it’s now – Coach, I need more practice with my S/S1 and R/R1 combinations!”  After all, if 6 out of 10 points end within the First 4 Shots – then practicing these combinations is critical to win more of those 6 out of 10 points.

Now that we’ve looked on the FS Combinations for Novak, let’s gaze into the other data I discovered from the 2018 Men’s US Open Final.

Chart 4

Screenshot 2018-09-27 11.52.56

 

Chart 4 is data that will be accessible to every parent, player, and coach in the world on my new App – Tennis MapPLay coming out this Fall 2018.  This unique system of organizing the shot rally length is where the ‘rubber meets the road’.  As we can see here, Djokovic was extremely successfully in the S/S1 Win/Loss shot rally length.  38/47 when the point ended 0-3 shots, 81%!  This confidence he gained on his Serve was enough to bridge the gap created by his R/R1 Win/Loss shot rally length, 14/42 for 34%.

If we notice the next two shots, the S2/S3 and R2/R3 combinations and points ending in this building phase of the point, Djokovic was 18/31 – 58% on the S2/S3 combination and 9/17 – 53% on the R2/R3 combination, almost identical percentages when the point ended on the next 2 shots of the point.

When the point entered the Extended Rally Shot Length of the point, Novak was 19/36 – 53% on the S+9 when Serving, and 10/24 – 42% on the R+9 when Returning.  It seems that his confidence extended to the long rallies when Serving rather than Returning, players that begin the point well tend to play out the point with confidence more often, we see it here with Djokovic.

Now let’s look at the winning percentages for each of the 3 sections of the point

  1. First Strike (Beginning Phase) 0-4 shots
  2. Patterns of Play (Building Phase)  5-8 shots
  3. Extended Rally (Rally Phase) +9 shots

 

Chart 5

Screenshot 2018-09-27 12.07.09

 

Chart 5 is what I call the Match Analysis Chart which displays the overall data from the match with regards to rally length inside the 3 sections of a point as well as their winning percentages.

Novak Won 109/198 – 55% and Lost 89/198 – 45% overall for the match,  in my book, 7 On Court Strategies, I explained in Chapter One, ‘Why Do You Play?’ that winning by a little can lead you to winning a lot!  Craig O’Shannessy wrote an article in July 2016 called ‘The Percentages That Separate Djokovic and The Top 10’.  As I explained in this Chapter and after reflecting on this data, it only takes a small margin to win big – another US Open Title!

These statistics above reveal where and when Djokovic won and lost points throughout the match, the majority being in the First 4 Shots of the point.  Now, if you’re not familiar with this type of data and wondering if this type of data is similar for USTA Men and Women 2.0 – 5.0 singles and doubles, College players, Junior Tournament and High School players?  The answer is a resounding “YES!”

Where Djokovic won the match was being able to find the FS 2-shot combinations that were effective against his opponent, then follow with the next 2-shot combination.

69% of the total points played were 0-8 shots, 7 out of 10 points in this match ended here 

Djokovic won 57% of those 7/10 points, and 43% of the remaining 3/10 points played 

Mapping Shot Rally Length in match play combined with the First 2-shot Combination pattern is one of the prime features in my upcoming App – Tennis MapPlay.  Look for the App in the iTunes Store this Fall 2018 to develop and Transform your Practice Court.

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How to solve the cheating problem in tennis

This article was written and collaborated by Dan Travis and Styrling Strother, The Art of Winning

 

Not calling the score is the number one problem in junior tennis, not cheating

Cheating is often described as the scourge of modern junior tennis. When you speak with a parent after they have spent a day watching their child, it is as if they have returned from battle. There is almost always an account of how their child was cheated out of winning by an opponent who should not have been allowed to get away with it. Parents are frustrated, angry, and ultimately feel powerless. Watching disputes between children and their perception of ‘cheating’, parents can have quite a traumatic time of it when they take their child to a tournament. In fact, it is the first thing that parents want advice on. They ask,

“How do I motivate my child because they are lazy?” and “How can I help them beat the ‘cheats?

The problem of cheating is compounded by the fact that the parents can become directly involved in the dispute. This can often make the situation far worse. What starts as a ‘dispute’ can end in catastrophe that spoils the match and the whole day. Nobody wins.

What is remarkable, when you look at the problem of dispute from a distance, is that it continues week in week out. I have met some parents who seem to have developed a persecution complex (when in every other way they appear very reasonable people). They act like victims. You can often hear them say at tournaments when the stirrings of a dispute threaten, “Oh no, here we go again!”. It has puzzled me for decades how the dispute phenomena in junior tennis continues and why parents turn themselves into victims of some conspiracy.

A very significant part of the problem of dispute, is that no-one really looks to see what is actually happening. There is so much emotion and ‘justice’ mindset flying about that the perception of the problem starts to contribute to its perpetuation. In other words, because disputes are not understood, the problem is made worse. For example, parents will highlight character flaws or moral weakness in young players as the cause of dispute. Parents also blame other parents when they feel their child is losing out to cheating. What is never understood is how the problem develops in the first place. The answer is surprising.

Most people characterize disputes in tennis as arguments over line calls. But this is not the primary cause of dispute in tennis. The primary cause of dispute is confusion over the score. Confusion about the score is, in fact, by far the biggest source of dispute in junior tennis. Line calls play a fairly minor role in comparison. Bad line calls only really develop into full blown dispute when there is confusion over the score. It is important to look at the source of this ‘confusion’ and perhaps re-characterize it as arising from two distinct situations.

The first of these situations arises when the score is not called at all by either player. When the score is not called, it is almost inevitable that confusion will occur and then escalate into dispute. At the very least, one player will feel that they have been hard done by and have been beaten by something other than a better player. More often there is dispute and bad feeling between both players that creeps into the the stands.

The second of these situations occurs when the score is called late. As the diagram below illustrates, the score is called as the ritual phase ends and just before the ball toss by the returner or the server.

score called incorrect

The problem here is that the non-caller has no time to confirm and therefore no time to question the call. The problem is compounded by the fact that although the caller called very late, the call was not disputed and therefore it must stand (this is regardless of what happens during the proceeding point). The non-caller does not have a defence, even though the calling of the score was very late. Late calling is the cause of numerous disputes. So not calling and calling too late are the causes of disputes. The consequences of not calling the score make the dispute even worse and more destructive.

The consequences of not calling the score

Confusion

The first consequence of not calling the score is there is no ‘confirmation’ of what that score is. Without confirmation, you have to ASSUME that the opponent agrees with you. Without confirmation, however, you have no recourse if there is disagreement about the score. Without confirmation, there is no agreement and you cannot have competition without confirmation of the score. In the absence of agreement, you simply have participation (you are just there). For competition to exist, you need confirmation. Then there is no confusion.

You can’t plan

If you have not confirmed the score you cannot plan for the next point. Different situations in a game require subtle (or not so subtle) changes in tactics. You will often play a completely different type of point if you think the score is 15 -15 as opposed to 0 -30. If your player does not confirm the score, you will be playing under assumption, rather than agreement. Not being able to plan, at the right time, means you are reacting to shots hit by your opponent. You are less able to steer the match in the direction that you want.

Temptation and Opportunism

The problem with locating the problem of disputes as bad line calls is that it turns the problem on its head. Bad line calls do not necessarily cause disputes. It is calling out the score that prevents disputes from occuring. Commiting a sin (cheating) and doing evil acts are very rarely done by choice. A ‘sin’ is committed because of temptation. Temptation arises because of opportunity. When the score is not being called, it gives a player the opportunity to call the score in their favour.  Added to the temptation is the desire to win. The desire to win is often so strong that the player will take a ‘score win’ by awarding themselves extra points.  It gives the player the opportunity to cheat. Sadly, some players will take advantage of this situation and award themselves extra points at certain times in the match where they think they can get away with it. Because the opponent has not been calling out the score, he leaves himself open to this type of opportunism. This is a major cause of dispute in junior tennis and leads to a further problem.

The Circle of Trust

The foundation of a competition is an agreement of the score that is confirmed before the start of the next point. In tennis, this requires a level of trust between players who do not have the luxury of an umpire. It requires confirmation of the score before the next point begins. It requires that you take your opponent’s calls as accurate and that you can challenge them and resolve any dispute. This Circle of Trust is broken during dispute and ruins matches. It can be catastrophic.  The consequences of breaking the Circle of Trust can be felt during matches where disputes occur. It changes the composition of the game and makes playing and watching an entirely unpleasant affair. So uncomfortable are the consequences of breaking the Circle of Trust that the threat of it being broken acts as a form of deterrence.

Deterrence and the Circle of Trust

If one player breaks the Circle of Trust, the other player will resent them and will either retaliate or will ‘withdraw’ from the match. The player that withdraws from the match will go through the motions of playing. They will participate but they will not compete. This is heartbreaking for parents to watch. This is where parents and players feel cheated and can start to develop a persecution complex; typified by the “Here we go again” mindset.

The consequences of breaking the Circle of Trust are so bad that they are normally sufficient to deter both players from being tempted to cheat when the opportunity arises. Mutually assured destruction is almost inevitable once the circle is broken and there is no turning the clock back.  To permanently avoid dispute and the probability of a series of unpleasant experiences, we need to look at why players do not call the score.

Participation versus Competition

Defacto Chair Umpire

When our junior players are playing in tournaments we are asking them to take on a huge responsibility. We are asking them to ‘play their best” while at the same time (whilst serving) to be the chair umpire. Being chair umpire is a big responsibility that most players of this age are not prepared for. They simply do not have the maturity to cope with this role.

Every player can ‘get lost’ in the heat of a match. There are many pressures to negotiate through. This makes forgetting the score a very frequent occurrence for the younger players. Combine this with an almost overwhelming desire to win and the temptation will be there to cheat and change the score in their favor.

The Culture of Non-competitive Activity

As well as the pressure to be a chair umpire and trying to win a match, we leave our players uniquely ill prepared for competition when they are not taught to score in practice sessions. There has been a significant cultural shift in recent decades. The way that sport is played, taught and the meaning that we attach to it has changed. There has been a shift from ‘competition’ to ‘participation’ based activity. You can see this trend clearly in tennis when we look at the practice court. There is an emphasis on ‘how’ you hit the tennis ball, in this case, technique. This is where most tennis teaching time is spent. There is now an increased emphasis on the ‘physical’ side of tennis, making sure that the player is in good shape. There is repetition through rallying and drills. Unfortunately, what is almost completely absent, is teaching the players how to compete. We keep our players in this ‘Zone of Improvement’ and do not train in the ‘Zone of Competition’. This means that we are teaching our children to ‘participate’ (receive instruction and work hard) as opposed to compete (make tactical and strategic decisions and problem solve).

How to avoid Dispute

Teaching our children to score addresses a far deeper challenge than simply avoiding conflict and dispute (although many parents would accept this as a major benefit)!  When teaching to keep, call out and confirm the score we are teaching the fundamentals of competition.

-Without score, there is no competition-

We need to encourage them to play competitive games in practice and keep, call out and confirm the score. At first this is the coaches job with the parents helping along the way. It is not an easy task because often children are less confident and therefore less courageous. And yes, it will make them feel more self conscious. Some children have no problem calling out the score but they must be reminded to do it on every point and to obtain confirmation.

When the score is called

Just as important as calling the score is calling the score at the right time. The score should be called within 4 seconds after the end of the point. This allows for confirmation by the opponent. You must train your child to call out the score and get confirmation before the next point begins. Muttering the score quietly under your breath is not good enough. Your opponent must be able to hear and to respond. Rehearse this again and again. It has nothing to do with ability, standard or level. Very talented and highly ranked players can be just as guilty at not calling the score.

Final thoughts

I have recently been introducing a call scoring ‘clean up with my players’. Almost without exception, they were guilty of not calling the score. The excuses are hilarious. “I forgot” (why?! It is the most important thing!) “I’m not very good at math” (this is not math it is counting!) “I feel stupid” (Too cool for school?) “It’s not my job to call the score” (maybe not, but it is your job to win).

With my recent purge, parents have been relieved that they are not the only ones suffering from watching their child give away the match with free points. They say, “…before we even get to technique and training, they surely have to be able to score.”

When calling and confirming the score, the young player is learning about competition and part of that is learning to take responsibility. When I am at tournaments I hear it time and again from parents who complain of ‘cheats’ and the need for across the board umpiring. I feel like turning and around and saying “You’re encouraging your child to be a victim, rather than take responsibility. It is your child’s responsibility to confirm the score rather than play snow white’. (In fact, I have said this on several occasions to a mixed response).

Calling and confirmation have a considerable effect on the way a player plays the game. Scoring requires certainty and encourages focus. I think this is because the players both have time to prepare and plan for the next point. With uncertainty there is no planning and preparation. We have anxiety. We have to rely on the other player too much and we do leave ourselves open to being taken advantage of.

Dan Travis and Styrling Strother discuss this in more detail in the podcast. This is part of the Art of Winning project that helps parents, players and coaches negotiate their way through competition.

If you would like to talk about your own or your child’s competitive challenges, we would love to hear from you and help if we can. Please get in touch by Facebook Messenger.

Click on the link below to hear Styrling and Dan talk about this solution –>

 

How to solve the cheating problem – Podcast Episode

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Anticipation: Your Best Weapon to WIN!

The following article is written by Styrling Strother. Styrling is the Director of Player & Coaching Development at Transforming the Practice Court.  Check out Styrling’s new book, 7 On Court Strategies to Experience Your Play State: How to Win Every Time You Play.

What if I could tell you the secret to successfully winning more points and being more in control of a match? Would you want to know? Of course you would! It’s not a secret but sometimes, we look past it, forget about it or take it for granted. You must know the road ahead, because if you know what’s coming next you have an incredible power called Anticipation. Anticipation is the ultimate advantage! The first step in increasing the power of anticipation is to realize and affirm the number one body part that you’ll use to play tennis – your eyes. The skill of shifting the eyes from what you just did – striking the ball – to noticing the body position and the racquet position of your opponent, is a critical one. The main reason we lose points and get beat is we fail to anticipate what’s coming next. Players often become captivated by what kind of shot they hit and where it’s going to land (in or out), instead of focusing on what their shot is doing to their opponent.

Are You Reacting to Your Opponent or Are They Reacting to You?

I doubt that you’re losing points, games, and matches because you’re slower than the other player. You’re not less intelligent and their forehand isn’t that much better than yours – that’s if you’re playing an opponent of similar skill. Players that lead in the score and win are anticipators. The reason you lose points is because you don’t know when and how the ball is coming back to you. So what do you do? You react. Reaction is always stressful and yet so much of the game is predictable. If we were to study and practice in a proactive way – with appropriate patterns – the game would become a lot simpler. Tennis can be predictable when we reflect on what has happened in past matches and remember the possibilities that arise from certain shots and the various court locations. When we play competitors, remembering their personal tendencies, what shots they like and dislike, our ability to anticipate and be more proactive is the competitive edge we need to win. Professional players know this about their competition and the difference between winning and losing depends on which player reacts and which one anticipates. If you put a strategy in place, shift your eyes at the correct time and predict with confidence the next move, you’ll win more.  As players, we must first take control of when and what we are focused on. And we must do that with our eyes.

The ‘Ball-Player’ Challenge

Many players have difficulty reading and reacting to the opponent’s shot, and they find themselves out of sync, out of position, and off balance. A major solution to all of these problems is to develop better ball-player recognition skills. One of my most fundamental and impactful player challenges is what I simply call ‘Ball-Player’.  I created this challenge to help players solve a problem. Students come to me desiring to have a better forehand, backhand, or serve, in an effort to reach the next level of play.

In the beginning sessions with these players I noticed that regardless of the mastery of their technique, every player was having a difficult time reading and reacting to the next shot. There was a noticeable delay in response to the next ball coming at them. More often than not, developing players tend to read and react very slowly to the shot coming back to them. They lack the ability to take mental notes about what to expect when a certain shot goes to a certain place on the court, and against a certain player. As an example, it’d be great if they knew the fairly universal responses to a high lob over the backhand side, or a very deep crosscourt shot to the forehand. When players begin to understand the possibilities, and the highest percentage shots that come from those positions, along with the tendencies of their opponent, their reaction time immediately improves.

  Track the ball as it comes your way...then, once you made impact with the ball, shift your eyes to your player and pick up important cues. 

Track the ball as it comes your way…then, once you made impact with the ball, shift your eyes to your player and pick up important cues. 

A great tool I use to guide a player through self discovery of this new skill of ball recognition is through a series of questions.  After a number of similar answers, I jokingly ask myself “Is this some sort of conspiracy? Are they all in on it? Have all these players decided together to answer me the same exact way?” Joking aside, my first question to them is, “After you strike the ball and look up to the opponent’s side of the court, where are your eyes focused?”  By far the most common answer is, “I focus on my shot or my ball.”  The next thing I would say, in a humorous tone, “You were admiring your shot, weren’t you?”. While not all of them verbalize it, either in speech or in body language, they say, “Yes!”  Their answer honestly makes perfect sense – our eyes tend to focus on what we think is most important, and the natural assumption is that we should watch the ball.  Players are also fascinated by the outcome of their shot, and judging it – was it a good shot or a bad shot? The main problem with focusing on the ball after it leaves your racquet is your eyes are now stuck in the past.  Once you look up after contacting the ball, your eyes will stay in the present moment by focusing on your opponent’s movement and reaction to your shot.  As you focus on your opponent’s response to your shot, you’ll be able to track the ball coming off your opponent’s racquet and remain grounded in the present moment.  Staying in the present will increase your response time to the spin, direction, height, and speed of the oncoming ball.

The most powerful way to improve your response time as a player is being able to shift the focus of your eyes from ball to player and back again.

Why You Need to Focus on More than JUST the Ball

As a tennis coach I’m on court striking tennis balls every day either through direct feeding or playing points.  My eyes are mostly focused on the player, their movement, racquet swing path, balance, etc.  My eyes stay in the present moment when this occurs because I’m looking to what the player is doing or going to do instead of what the ball is doing on its flight path. I’m not even looking at the ball as it strikes my racquet in coach-mode feeding because that’s not what I want to see, it’s not where my focus is. As a coach, I want to see what the player is doing, in order to offer instruction for improvement. As a player, however, your focused eyes are the portal to your thinking and analysis of how to play the game. Vision enables your anticipation to understand the tendencies of how an opponent plays different shots.

The human mind is fascinated by motion, and when we watch a tennis match from outside the fence or even on TV, the ball going back and forth holds our interest.  We watch the ball going back and forth over the net instead of watching either player in isolation.  Some of the visual skills that go into coaching have to do with seeing what is most helpful from an ideal perspective. When I’m coaching my players in a live ball situation, I stand behind them so that I can look through the court to the other side.  I do that so that I can:

1. Track the relationship between the ball and the player.

2. Focus on player movement, swing path, or any other aspect of play in order to give better feedback and coaching.

My eyes stay in the present moment simply from adjusting my position of where I coach, which is behind the player on one side of the court, and keeping the action directly in front of me.

Progressions of Ball-Player

When a player’s mind is in the future or the past, they are less likely to play at the tope of their game. ‘Ball-Player’ is a strong on-court intervention to help keep players minds in the present moment. How does it work? The first stage in the progression is that I ask the player to say out loud to themselves the word “player” as soon as they look up from striking the ball. They then say, “ball” as soon as they see the impact of the ball coming back from their opponent’s strings. This audibly triggers their minds to refocus on the right object in the present moment, directing their eyes easily, without saying ‘watch the ball’. Triggering the eyes to attend to what is important also helps the player stay in the present moment, not the past or future, increasing the amount of time played in a flow state.

Depending on how well you as a player can master this task, and generally within three to five minutes, the next stage in the progression would be to whisper the words to yourself. What tends to happen is you’ll begin to internalize the words “Ball-Player” inside your head at the right moment. Things can break down at this stage. Sometimes you may forget to ‘say’ the words in your mind. If the voice inside your head isn’t loud enough or it’s delayed, return to the first progression of saying the words out loud.  When you see a clear improvement in performance from saying it out loud compared to in your head, that’s clear evidence that something broke down during the internalizing of the skill.

This is a good time to stop and think about why this is happening?  Sometimes, the player reports that they were thinking about something else entirely – like how to hit the shot – or are distracted by giving attention to something unrelated to the task at hand. This audible projection increases the awareness of the ball and the situation on court for the player.  By saying the words out loud, I can hear them both as the coach and as the player. We can then reconcile together whether they are recognizing the ball or player soon enough in the present moment to increase the anticipatory skill. Once the player is hearing their inner voice loudly, their eyes will then begin to be automatically be attracted to the right object at the right time. Over time the player is trained so deeply in the habits of pattern recognition that there will be no need to say anything.  Ultimately, this progression is about you practicing new instincts to see what’s happening on the court rather than to give attention to other events that have no bearing on performance.  As a result, you’ll begin to increase the amount of ‘flow time’ and ‘zone time’ when you play.

More videos and drills like this in Styrling’s new book – check it out on Amazon.com

Why are We So Fascinated by a Tennis Ball?

What is it about a tennis ball that makes us want to watch it?  Part of the reason, as stated before – our minds are attracted to objects in motion.  Many people tend to be so outcome oriented that they want to see the flight of their shot so they can immediately evaluate it, good shot or bad shot, so they can try harder to do or not do that again. In training, sometimes it’s a great thing when players realize the product of their stroke in terms of height, speed, spin, and placement. In competition, it’s much more important to focus on how that shot has affected the opponent.  By focusing this way, a player begins to play shots based on how their opponent reacts to these shot-making variables perfected in practice.

Why is Keeping Your Eyes Focused on the Right Objects So Important?

We as human beings love to succeed, and love to see the results of our efforts.  On the tennis court, it gives us great pleasure when we strike a fantastic shot and see it happen in real time. That is such an awesome feeling!  The major issue with watching or admiring a shot is that it immediately puts the player in the past mentally. When someone strikes a tennis ball and it’s moving away from them, their eyes have a difficult time of keeping up with the speed of the ball as it moves away from them.  By the time you register in your mind a ball that was fifteen feet away, it will then be much further away, so the image you have in your mind is one from the past.

To understand this, we must understand our eye movements. There are two types of eye movements that are used to track moving objects – and as players, we want to use the best visual strategy for ball tracking. The two types of eye movements are smooth pursuit and saccadic movement. Bear with me as we get into more of a scientific discussion of how the eyes work. A saccade movement is a quick, simultaneous movement of both eyes between two or more phases of fixation in the same direction.  Smooth pursuit movements are slow eye movements that stabilize the projection of the moving target onto the fovea (the small, central pit composed of closely packed cones in the eye).

The upper limit of velocity or highest speed that these slow eye movements (smooth pursuit) can track is about 80-100 degrees per second or 17.5 mph.  After impact, the ball exceeds this highest speed and the eyes will switch to use saccadic movement which can shift the eye at upwards of 900 degrees per second.  Saccadic movement is more akin to when the eyes are “scanning”.  Of course, we don’t know too many people who have eyes that can do a 360 degree turn, but this is to show exactly how fast the eye can shift. For saccadic vision, the eye could be tracking an object at 78.525 meters/second or about 175 miles per hour.  The partial function of this is to allow us to move through areas during flight or fight situations so that we’re not able to see every small obstacle which might stop us from escaping a wild animal or another very dangerous situation.  Since the level of danger on a tennis court is relatively small, our use of saccadic vision is many times more a hindrance than a help.  Saccadic movements lead to a graying out of the ball during its flight path.

To actually follow the ball with your eye, smooth pursuit would likely be required but because the maximum speed of eye tracking ability is only about 17.5 mph (and the ball moves much faster than that after impact), trying to track the ball moving away from you is not beneficial.  As the ball is moving away from you towards your opponent, your response time to the next shot is negatively affected.  Your opponent, however, isn’t moving faster than 17.5 mph and you can effectively track their movement, balanced or unbalanced, stretched or loaded, with smooth pursuit vision.  By tracking the other player, you are able to steady your eyes in the present moment to read and react to what’s coming next – and improve anticipation abilities.

The Ball – Player Strategy is a solution to the visual problems presented by the tendency in players to use saccadic vision and rely more on using smooth pursuit vision.  Ball-player redirects the mind to train the technique to better anticipate your opponent’s tendencies.

IN CONCLUSION: THE BENEFITS OF THE BALL-PLAYER CHALLENGE

1. Improved anticipation of the opponent’s tendencies based on their position in the court and type of shot they are returning.

2. Faster reaction time because focusing on a player’s court position allows you to see how, when, and where they are limited to the types of shots they play back to you.

3.  You will be better able to read and respond to whether the opponent is attacking, neutralizing, or defending a shot.  Resetting to a more ideal position to cover the opponent’s next shot can improve dramatically.

4.  Your decision or split step as well as first step quickness will improve as a result of the Ball-Player strategy.  Improved anticipative movements as a product of proper eye shifting can lead to being at the right place at the right time to increase your chances of winning more points.

5. Players play more efficiently mainly because of proactive instead of reactive responses.  Being more proactive is beneficial mentally, physically and emotionally.  When a player is more proactive on court, they are less likely to be subject to responding to their opponent’s shots with overreactions.  Players who are proactive find themselves on balance, on time, and in position during their match.

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Federer Serve vs. Cilic GAME POINT

Federer’s Serve vs. Cilic in the 2018 Australian Open was sensational.  The following chart displays where Federer chose to serve on GAME POINT of each Serve Game in the match vs. Cilic.

Federer served a total of 23 Game Points on his Serve.  He won 21 of those Game Points.

In the 2nd Set Tiebreaker, Federer served 6 points, winning 4 of those points.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 11.43.47 AM

Federer served 3 Inside Run Serves, he was 1/1 from the Deuce Court and 1/2 from AD Court.  Federer served 3 Outside Run Serves, he was 2/2 from Deuce Court and 0/1 from AD Court.  These two mini-breaks of serve by Cilic was enough to win the 2nd Set Tiebreaker 7-5.  Notice that Federer did not hit a Cage Serve in the Tiebreaker.

Federer hit 134 successful serves in the entire match vs. Cilic.  Here’s the breakdown of Inside Run/Cage/Outside Run Serves.

Federer’s winning % for the match was 72% (97/134) – 3 double faults in the match were not counted in the data here, these are strictly made serves in the match and their corresponding location.

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 8.40.46 AM

 

This great information in the fact that Federer was unpredictable with his serve placement overall in the match and he only choose hit 20/134 (15%) Cage Serves into the body of Cilic, and 0% in the tiebreaker set.

Now to the most important analytics, where did Federer play his Serve on GAME POINT!  Here we go ->

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 8.20.10 AM

 

Federer won 8/9 Serves on GAME POINT when he hit an Inside Run Serve.

He won 3/3 on the IR Serve to Cilic’s Backhand in the Deuce Court.

He won 5/6 on the IR Serve to Cilic’s Forehand in the AD Court.

IRunServe

Federer won 10/12 Serves on GAME POINT when he hit an Outside Run Serve.

He won 3/3 on the OR Serve to Cilic’s Forehand in the Deuce Court.

He won 7/9 on the OR Serve to Cilic’s Backhand in the AD Court.

ORunServe

He was 2/2 when Fed chose on GAME POINT to serve to the body of Cilic (Cage Serve).

ServeCages

Next is the breakdown of # of hits per point on GAME POINT when Federer was Serving.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 12.39.38 PM

As you can see, Fed was accurate when it was GAME POINT on his serve, focus level very high.  He was broken 2x during the 5 set match, one time in the 6th game of the 4th Set, rally length was 4 shots.  The other service break was in the same 4th Set, the 8th game, the rally length was 8 shots.

The 7 out of 11 games he won ended either on a rally length of 1 or 3 (0-4 shots).

64% of GAME POINTS when Roger was Serving ended in the First Strike phase of the point.

 

One of the main focuses of Transforming the Practice Court is players spend a lot of time on the Serve and the S1 (+1 FH or BH after the Serve).  I’m finding the more time players spend on this sequence in practice, they are demonstrating higher levels of performance on these 2 shots in match play with regards to 3 main areas:

  • Focus
  • Familiarity (resetting better after the Serve to play the S1
  • Knowledge (self-aware that approximately 6 out of 10 match points end here)

 

Link to Serve/S1 practice (medicine ball & shadowing serve)

Link to Serve/S1 practice (court)

Link to Serve/S1BH practice (wall)

Link to Serve/S1FH practice (wall)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Setting Goals to the Present Moment

As you begin a new year, setting new goals is always exciting.  Something to think about is mapping those goals to the present moment.  The main objective is to achieve each goal within a certain time frame, this is typically the most difficult thing to do.  So many distractions can keep you from getting what you want.  Here is a brief outline of how to look at setting your goals towards the present moment and fulfill each one of them daily.

goal-setting-photo

 

Start with a:

Someday Goal :  What’s the ONE thing I want to do someday?

Five-Year Goal :   This goal is based on the “someday” goal.  What’s the ONE thing I like to do in the next five years?

One-Year Goal:  This goal is based on the “five-year” goal.  What’s the ONE thing I can do this year?

Monthly Goal:  Based on the “one-year” goal.  What’s the ONE thing I can do this month?

Weekly Goal:  From the “monthly” goal, what’s the ONE thing I can accomplish this week?

Daily Goal:  From the “weekly” goal, what’s the ONE thing I can accomplish today?

 

how to make a goal a reality

 

The best way to accomplish your BIG goals is to reverse engineer the goal and then break it down into pieces that fit together like a jig-saw puzzle.  After making your list of the “pieces” that make up the BIG picture (goal), you could prioritize them if you’d like or sometimes if you just get started on laying one piece down (do a small task), you’ll find that the organizing starts to fall in place more automatically.  Getting started is the hardest step to take, and then momentum takes over and you’ll be on your way.

Writing these all down with PEN and PAPER is a powerful exercise to tackle first, then transcribe your notes to digital form to stay organized (if you choose).  I have a daily journal that I write all my thoughts in and these ideas turn into projects and from there I begin to reverse engineer them into smaller tasks.

 

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Sometimes you just need someone to brainstorm your ideas with, if that’s the case, go for it!  The only thing holding you back from getting what you want is YOU!  So, take a leap of faith, contact a friend or colleague that will help you through your thought process by listening and asking objective questions to lead you towards more detail of what you really what to achieve.

All the best in 2018!

Styrling

 

 

Depth Rally Challenge

I’d like to take the time to address the mindset of the player as they approach challenges.  Challenges, better known as drills to most players and coaches, are beneficial towards the open-ended discovery of how players react and respond to play.  It’s a time where coaches can observe a player in a more realistic situation to hit a target or zone of the court as well as give the player a chance to perform under certain parameters. When practicing challenges (drills) to improve as a player, there a three areas of discovery to best manage them.  First, know that the initial moment will most often seem awkward.  When you begin these on-court strategies there needs to be a mental and emotional commitment.  It can certainly be frustrating sometimes when given a challenge that is beyond our comfort zone and pushes us to our athletic and psychological limits.  Starting with a growth mindset, meaning to become stronger in mind, body, and emotions, will help you see more value in the journey towards performance than just the goal of winning points alone.  For a player to execute a shot or sequence in a live match scenario, they mainly need to do most or all of the following:

1.  Develop the technique of a skill

2.  Gain a level of mastery in a closed challenge

3.  Gain a level of mastery in a limited open challenge

4.  Show confidence in a practice match situation

5.  Display automaticity (automatic rhythm response) in a live point play situation

One of the most important challenges that I have players perform is called the “Depth Challenge”. It’s a challenge that promotes a sustained rally with an emphasis on keeping the ball deep in the backcourt and I usually begin a practice session with this one.  I must give credit to Carl Maes, former coach of Kim Clijsters, for the inspiration with this challenge.  I met Carl at the 2016 PTR International Symposium and we had a chance to talk about training players.  He shared some great stories about Kim and his coaching experience with her.  He reminded me that if consistency was King (making shots), then depth of shot was the Diamond.  So, I came back home and created a challenge for my players, it’s made a world of difference and putting it first as a warm-up has launched my players to new levels of deliberate focus from beginning to building a point.

The Depth Challenge begins with me taking two yellow throw-down long lines, http://www.oncourtoffcourt.com, and placing them 6 feet inside the baseline.  The challenge consist of 3 players per court, 2 players vs. 1 player.  The 2 players are on the side with the throw-down lines and their goal is to keep the rally sustained and tally the total number of points scored by the single player in a 3 minute time frame.  The single player scores 3 points for a ball landing between the yellow throw-down lines and the baseline, 1 point for a ball landing between the service line and the yellow throw-down lines.  0 points for anywhere else (service boxes or out of bounds).  Each court has 3 players on our team of 12 players spanning 4 courts.  Each court competes for the high score of the day.   My greatest testimony of this challenge is that it has built incredible team spirit between all the players.  The expectation of each player to focus and score a high number for their team increases each and every day.  There are personal best scores tallied each week and posted on the team board.  It’s a confidence builder for every player when they beat their personal best as well as strive to be the high score for the team.  This challenge is certainly not limited to teams, I use it in a similar way with individual players and they keep a tally of their scores each week in their tennis journals as a way to reflect on their training and progress.  The Depth Challenge is fun and engages the player’s focus to play each ball with a higher purpose than just “getting it back in the court”.  It’s powerful, intentional, serious fun!

As a player beginning a new challenge, you may struggle at first.  But that tension and struggle is what leads you to discover your skill level with a particular stroke or better court positioning to successfully execute on a more regular basis.  This discovery of your skill level will guide to the second area which is stepping back and learning the skill in a more closed challenge.  Practicing through deliberately repeating the skill, for example, spotting the part of the ball you’d like to strike, examining your ideal strike zone, or playing to a specific section or zone of the court.  Many times we are not sure which skill to practice until we actually play a point in a drill that pushes the limits of our ability.  After spending some time practicing the skill, revisiting a limited open challenge at this point will hopefully lead to more success in performance.  As a player, once you reach a mastery level in the limited open challenge, then the third area is the challenge level must be increased to match the level of your improved skill.  Players who engage better with drills and challenges from coaches are better equipped.  Coaches who understand appropriate levels of challenge for mastery help players improve more quickly.  Observing your player(s) as they perform these choreographed challenges, a drop in the level of performance as a result of disinterest may occur.  Yes, boredom can set in fast with players once they have achieved a high level of success with the particular challenge given to them.  This is where the rubber can meet the road with respect to being a good coach or a great coach.  Bill and I have had many heartfelt discussions around this topic of being able to activate enough self-awareness as a coach to observe your player(s) well.  It is quite difficult to be reflective and keep an athlete-centered perspective when training a player to experience their best play state.  There can be a varied of reasons why we care, sometimes we care about our image as a coach and I totally get that.  But what I believe is a higher priority and one held by many coaches worldwide is we care deeply about our players and their character development on and off the court.  Another area of player development is the confidence factor.  Challenges that reflect actual point play situations in practice are a perfect way to gain confidence.  Confidence is that feeling or belief that one can rely on when the pressure escalates, and a well-designed challenge is a great opportunity to help a player learn to trust their instincts.  As a coach, one of the ways I’ve seen players excel in this area of confidence is letting them know that I believe in them as their coach.  Allistair McCaw is a champion coach in this area of promoting encouragement towards players on a daily basis.  Visit him at:   http://www.mccawmethod.com.  I love Allistair’s attitude toward this important and simple approach of deliberately saying to a player, “I Believe In You!”  What a powerful statement to inspire confidence in the hearts and minds of players, no matter what their age may be.  Especially our young players to which no other sport in the world ask them to be their own referee, maintain the correct score, keep a stellar attitude, and stay focused under all kinds of pressure from their opponent, themselves, coaches, spectators, friends and family.  The call to be great is a high one to say the least, from both a player and coach role.  Communication is a two-way street made up of both speaking and listening.  The greatest leaders are the ones who wait and listen first and then last to speak and give their perspective and direction.  They practice the opportunity to allow others a spacious place to grow and mature, understanding that we all have the ability to play our best if given enough room to do so.

Why do You Play?

Below is an excerpt from the Chapter “Why do You Play?” in my new book 7 On Court Strategies to Experience Your Play State.  I explore the idea of winning EVERY TIME You Play in this book – pick up your copy today Click here at Amazon.com

 

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. 

                                            –  Fred Rogers

 

Why do you play? There are varied reasons why you may play the game of tennis. Some of us play for the simple enjoyment to interact with friends and family, others for competition and physical exercise, and then some of us play to relax and release the tension and pressure from our jobs or school. For whatever reason you decide to play tennis, it always leads to keeping score with someone winning and someone losing. Sometimes you win because you are more skilled than the other player, other times it may be a combination of being stronger mentally and emotionally than your opponent. Whatever way you happen to win in the score, being self-aware of how you win is rarely as valuable as the self-awareness gained when you lose on the scoreboard. My confidence in this statement is from observing players who win and lose and observing how they respond to each result. My belief is founded on the idea that winning and losing in the score can actually reveal the ‘why’ in playing the game.

Here is a fascinating quote from a recent article by Craig O’Shannessy July 2016 titled, The Percentages That Separate Djokovic And The Top 10:

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis shows that the current players in the Top 10 of the Emirates ATP Rankings have won, on average, just 53.2 per cent of their points the 2016 season. The flip side of the coin is also sobering to contemplate: Top 10 players average losing 47 per cent of all the points they play.

Reflecting on this data, if some of the greatest players in the World are losing 47 per cent of all the points they play, then defining why one plays the game is important. There is certainly more players losing tennis matches than winning them. In a tournament draw of 64 players, there are 63 players losing and one player winning. Why and how a player responds when losing points and matches is an important question to ponder in a quest to discover and advance toward growing and improving their game. The tension of losing can change or form the why, when, and how to play again because it gives a player the opportunity to explore more options for improvement to win more often. The key is to find ways to play that will really add to your enjoyment of the sport and the value of the lessons that can be learned from tennis. You will win and lose points like a roller coaster ride drifting up and down the track. The most important thing to realize is how you respond when you lose points because there will be a lot of them in playing this game. The first idea to grasp is your response to losing will determine how much and how often you win.    

 

The words printed here are concepts.  You must go through the experiences.
– St. Augustine

 

Take a moment to reflect on the last tennis match you lost. How long did you reflect on the match afterward? How many times did you lose that match – once, twice, three times in your mind? How would you describe your mental state after losing? Do you easily get over losing and move on to the next thing without much thought, or does losing torment you to some degree? Whichever way you slice it, coming to a point of simple and objective reflection can really help and become the catalyst for growth. I would say that some amount of agony over losing serves as a form of motivational energy. Also, you don’t have to lose in order to improve. Even in winning you can reflect on points or games that were lost and then create objectives for training so that more points are won moving forward. In fact, I love to win more than I hate to lose. A champion’s mindset is exemplified through a consistent effort to become the best version of themselves on and off the court.

In an evenly played match, you may win very close to the same amount of points that you lose. If you win 55% of the points, you will win 99% of the time with the exception being losing close sets, while winning relative blow out sets.

 

The idea being that winning by a little can lead to winning a lot.

 

Taking the time to separate the losing points versus winning points can make a huge difference in moving forward in the game. You will lose as many points as you win, there will be times you are up or down in the game.

To give a bit of a preview of the value of this book, I am sharing some strategies to help keep you in the moment and enjoying the game. The strategy of ‘Ball-Player’ in the pages ahead explain how to shift your visual perspective in the present moment. Being in the present moment is the key to unlocking your best performances. ‘Spot on the Ball’ is a challenge of awareness to experience the art of visualizing where you want to contact the ball to control trajectory and direction of your shot. Play Patterns That Run, Reverse, and Cage is a chapter about how combinations of shots tell a story of how the match is playing out. Once the story is understood, then maintaining the same story or changing to a new plot becomes more realistic. Stories have beginnings, building parts, and finishing pieces. If someone asks how did you play that match the other day, you could recall the match in story-form. ‘1-2, Reset’ is a challenge to experience how to let the previous shot go, then immediately shift attention onto the next shot in a two-ball sequence. As a player, you will learn to see in the immediate present, neither thinking about the past or focusing too far into the future.