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.