Play Patterns That Work

There are many different types of patterns of play in the game of tennis.  How can we improve the efficiency with which we recall and employ different patterns of play.  Many of the patterns of play that I have seen from others and taught previously myself, are not altogether logical or easy to recall. We as players begin with good intentions to stick to our patterns of play, but then there are many factors that cause us to forget our plans for play. One of the most important factors are the feelings of pressure we feel when we compete.  Yes, pressure, that ugly word that creeps into our minds and ruins the calm demeanor we want to maintain throughout the entire match.  In the spirit of play patterns that work, we can bridge a sometimes overwhelming gap between the ability to make decisions in the moment of play and preplanned decisions that happen before the first ball is played.

There are some best practices in doing our preplanning, including simplifying and chunking.  Chunking is the strategy of breaking down strings of information into bite-sized pieces so the brain can process more easily and faster.  One of the main reasons the brain needs this assistance is because working memory, which is the temporary workspace where we control and process information, holds a limited amount of information at one time.  Think of working memory as equivalent to being mentally online.   

Simplifying and chunking is a powerful way to remember and recall information, in this case patterns of play, quickly and effectively.  Word choice matters in how we present strategy, because we want our words to express as concisely as possible the meaning we want without sacrificing important details. We remember ideas or patterns better in story form, so why not tell a story about how you are going to play patterns in your next match. By telling a story I am emphasizing a meaningful connection between playing shots to move an opponent wherever and however I’d like.  A story as beginning, building, and finishing (ending) parts – if someone asks you how did you play that match the other day, you could recall the match in story-form.  For example, I started the match by running my opponent side to side, then I discovered they did that really well so I began to reverse and cage them keeping them unbalanced and disturbing their rhythm and timing.  It was great, I felt like a puppet master just directing my opponent’s every move.

Run, Cage, Reverse.  I use three words combined in 2-shot play patterns, to tell a specific story about how a player will dictate a point and control their opponent.   Run as an action shows that the opponent will be moving in every direction.  When you run a player you are pressuring their movement.  The player will “run” a player in a certain direction, side-to-side, up-and-back, angle-to-angle.  To Cage works on the opponent to keep them contained.  When they are “caged” – their movement is limited!  Here the player restricts the time and space of another player has to perform a task with freedom.  Another way to understand it is to “hand-cuff” or “jam” an opponent.  Reversing a player means that a player will intentionally create situations where they can make an opponent run in one direction, then reverse their direction 180 degrees.  When you reverse a player, you are disrupting their balance and rhythm.  For example, when the player hits a ball deep in the corner, and the opponent is resetting to the center, the player will hit right back to the same corner. This is also known as ‘hitting behind the opponent.’  When the player was running forward for a drop-shot, you hit a lob over their head and reversed them to retrieve the shot.

Play patterns that work made up of simple word associations that tell a particular story of ways to win points.  There are nine 2-shot play patterns that work:

1.  Run / Run

2.  Run / Reverse

3.  Run / Cage

4.  Reverse / Run

5.  Reverse / Reverse

6.  Reverse / Cage

7.  Cage / Run

8.  Cage / Reverse

9.  Cage / Cage

Two shot patterns can be used discover quickly in a match your opponents strengths and weaknesses that relate to movement, time and space, as well as rhythm and balance.  Challenging a player in these areas at the right moment can cause a massive shift in momentum and flow of a match.  For example:  Its pretty important to cage a good player when they run you to the outside of the court.  In effect, you neutralize the point by playing back deep to the middle and taking away your opponents ability to hit an angle back to make you run again.  The key phrase here is “deep to the middle”, a short response or deep angle will give your opponent the opportunity to change direction on you – now you are running and reacting.  My #1 player on my high school team who is Top 10 in North Carolina played a Top 10 in South Carolina pre-season tournament finals.  The main reason my player won the match in the end was she caged her opponent who ran side-to-side very well.  My player neutralized her opponent and many times forced her on the defense after being caged.  A Cage/Run pattern was used to dictate the points.  Testing a player’s movement is one of the first ways to determine the athleticism of your opponent.  It’s one of the first strategies I have players initiate with their opponents to see if they can play the ball on the run.  One thing to have good technique, quite another to be able to maintain that good technique while playing a shot on the run.  I had an adult player who came to me and wanting to beat a certain player who just seemed to be able to hit that perfect lob every time.  My question to her was, “Can they hit that perfect lob while on the run?”  The player responded, “Hmmm, I never thought of making her hit the lob on the run.”  Yes, challenge the player with perfect technique – make them run!  Luring your opponent first by running them can set up the reverse pattern.  Reversing a player calls out their agility skill of quickness and balance.  Change of direction requires a player to sustain balance and counter-balance while moving to play the ball.  Some players may guard the reverse pattern too much and that opens up for the run while other players take off to soon to run and then the reverse catches them off balance.  I was coaching another Top 20 player from South Carolina and her ability to bait-and-switch, run/reverse or reverse/run players was her advantage.  She has begun to beat players more regularly in the Top 10 because of this two-shot pattern sequence.  It was discovered in my conversations with my player that so many of the top players in the State moved extremely well from corner to corner.  When faced with the decision to anticipate the run or the reverse, the ability to change direction was the difference between winning and losing points.

Why do I recommend two shot patterns?  Two shot patterns help players stay in the present moment. When players think too far ahead or with too much detail, they get caught up somewhere other than executing their shot.  Ideally the player’s mind will be as quiet as possible as they play. A quiet mind is one of the hallmarks of a play state mind. We want our players to stay in the Flow State for as long an extended period of time as possible, and with minimal breaks in flow.  Not only does this calm your thinking and keep it simple to execute, it lines up with the data as described in greater detail in the chapter First Strike Tennis.  Rally length data as displayed in this chapter “First Strike Tennis” is the foundation by which these Run/Cage/Reverse 2-shot play patterns were developed.  The patterns compliment the idea that points are short on average at every level of play and the easier it is to remember and recall your plan, the better your chances of winning the point.  As more data continues to be collected from every level of play including National Juniors 12 – 18, High School Tennis, Collegiate Tennis, and the Professional Tours that 55-70% of all points end in 0-4 shots.  The ability to simplify and recall mindful play patterns that tell a story while in the moment will likely lead to maintaining and prolonging longer cycles of your play state, or playing in the zone.

Chapter: ‘Play Patterns That Work’ from my new book

7 On Court Strategies To Experience Your ‘Play State’ – How To Win Every Time You Play

coach on court. 2016

Hacking Flow For Optimal Tennis Performance

Flow is 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.”

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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 – however you can win every time you play -….. 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!”