As I began to understand as a coach, and my players recognized what was actually happening on the match court, I concluded that our practice court was broken. It didn’t look anything like the match court. If the desire was to play the way we practiced, then the format and the focus had to change. So our practice revolution began! It all started with the Varsity High School Team, I started out slow and methodical when designing this new practice plan. It is vital to begin slow as a player to grasp a better understanding of the mental and emotional pressure that occurs during the ‘First 4 Shots’ of a point.
The first step was to reverse engineering what happens during match play. What developed over the next three years was a tactical and strategic challenge called ‘First Strike Point Games’. As a result, what happened next was remarkable! In 2014, the first year of full implementation of the ‘First Strike Point Games’, we went 27-2 overall, undefeated Conference Champions, and State Champion Finalist – 2nd in the 18 year school history. The next two years, 2015 and 2016, two Conference Championships, State Semi-Finalist, and State Championship Finalist.
The main focus of ‘First Strike Point Games’ is to communicate and highlight where the highest levels of pressure occur during a point, the Serve and Return. Once a player begins the point more deliberately with the Serve and Return, the next step was to focus on the next shot, the +1. Serve/S1 and Return/R1 make up the first 4 shots of the point.
Here’s a closer look into the strategy behind the game as well as how to score ‘First Strike Point Games’:
1. Players can play either Tiebreaker games to 7 or 10 points. (I chose these two numbers because this is the reality of what a player will face in match play. They will either play a tiebreaker to 7 points or 10 points.
2. Players can play two out of three, or three out of five sets of these FSPG ‘First Strike Point Games’.
3. Players can either serve the entire game or can rotate back and forth on the serve just like a regular tiebreaker game. I prefer that they at least play one of the games with serving the entire game, this is a powerful moment and will be explained further below.
4. Players earn a First Strike Point when they are successful with the Serve +1 and the Return +1. In other words, if the player serving makes the serve and then their next shot (+1), they earn a FSP right then. Same with the return player. Then the point continues until a player earns the “Winning Point”.
5. Players can earn a maximum of 2 points per point played. They can earn the First Strike Point (FSP) and the Winning Point (WP). Or they can earn neither or just the FSP.
6. Serve Player earns 2 points for an Ace, Return Player earns 2 points for a clean winner, and (here’s the kicker) Return Player earns 2 points for a double-fault by the Serve Player.
7. Players have to win by a margin of 2 points (just like normal match scoring), or you can play “Sudden Death” when a player reaches 6 or 9 points in the score. I prefer win by a margin of 2 points because that’s again the reality of match play scoring for the most part.
The first question I’m always asked is, “How difficult is this scoring system for players?” My answer is always, if you practice something enough, you quickly get the technique and the timing down. At first, a player will struggle a bit with the scoring, and you’ll see more conversations than normal at the net trying to nail down the score. After a short time though, you’ll begin to witness that it’s easy to pick up and focus will increases dramatically. The main reason for this dramatic improvement is the focused attention to scoring system of earning your First Strike Point first is the power of the point play scoring system. As a player, you will quickly pick up on the fact that if you fail to execute the Serve and +1, or especially the Return and +1, you will go down in the score very quickly. Double faults, winners, and the risk and reward factor with how you manage the pressure of the point is highlighted. The biggest difference I witnessed as a player and a coach was how and when player’s focused their intention during the point. The ‘First Strike Point Games’ are designed specifically to train in the manner in which you are expected to perform in match play. Now perception becomes the reality in training and practicing the most important part of a point, the part of the point that happens the most frequent of any other stage of the point. The ‘First Strike Point Games’ quickly exposes a player’s stroke strengths and weaknesses in addition to revealing where the error is occurring during a point. When does a player make errors? Are they making an error on the Serve or S1, the Return or the R1? Are the errors occurring on the next two shots, (5-8) rally patterns of play. I have an equation that I use now on the court with players, 2+2=90. 90% of points end between (0-8) shots. Master the first two shot combinations (2+2) and you’ll give yourself a great opportunity to win the match. It’s amazing how much confidence a player will gain when realizing that deliberate focus in the beginning of the point goes a long way to finishing well. Statistical Data from the ATP/WTA Tours, compliments of IBM, as well as Craig O’Shannessy, his analysis and data collected from College tennis, National 12s – 18s, and the High School Tennis data I’ve compiled have showed a consistent rally length pattern over the last 5 years:
55%-70% (0-4 shots)
20%-35% (5-8 shots)
10%-20% (+9 shots)