Consistent Competition: Leveling Out the Peaks and Valleys of Performance
By: Brandyn Fisher
Has either of these scenarios happened to you?
Scenario 1… At the beginning of each set, you fall behind early and points are quick. You make several unforced errors within the first few games and the slow start has led to you being down a break. Eventually, you finally find your shots and raise the level of play, but it will take extra effort to claw back.
Scenario 2… In the first set, after a great start, you find yourself in a slump. Your forehands are falling short into the net and the groove of the point and feel of the ball has escaped you. Unforced errors continue to rise and your opponent is closing the gap. The lead you built early is slipping away and your play continues to suffer as a result. Fortunately, before the end of the first set you are able to catch yourself and climb back into the match.
Slow starts and inconsistent performances are two common issues among players at all levels. Even professional players can be pinpointed as slow starters (e.g., Lleyton Hewitt, Janko Tipsarevic, Roger Federer) or inconsistent performers (e.g., Amelie Mauresmo, Marat Safin, David Nalbandian). What typically separates elite players and mediocre players is the ability to compete at a high level consistently. This includes eliminating slow starts and performing at higher levels from start to finish.
Slow starters are often those players that have the early jitters in matches or take a long time to truly warm up their strokes. For a slow starter, the initial sluggish performance can typically be traced to a mostly external focus (e.g., talent level of the opponent, crowd, weather).
Inconsistent performers are players who may get easily distracted or fade away, especially if the score is lopsided in their favor. For the inconsistent performer, footwork and stroke production/consistency wax and wane throughout the match. These players may hit a string of winners but then go off on an unforced error bonanza.
So what if you are the player who falls into one of these categories? What strategies can you implement to work on these areas of your game? The following will offer a few easy solutions to assist in overcoming or improving these issues.
Double your footwork. Slow starters and Peak & Valley (or up & down) players have difficulty in maintaining a vital and basic aspect of the game: footwork! Simply telling yourself to double your footwork, or forcing yourself to take extra steps to the ball is one of the most effective methods of overcoming early jitters, tightness, or inconsistent play. While this is a simple tool to employ, it will not be effective unless players are self-aware when competing. Once you feel/sense as though your intensity is not where it needs to be, this is where your conscious efforts come into play. Increasing footwork should not only be implemented during points, but maybe even more importantly in between points and immediately after changeovers. Bounce around, jump up and down… whatever it takes. The prematch sprint Nadal has made famous is a perfect example of activating the body before competition begins.
“Know Thyself”. If you are a slow starter, own it. Even though all teams warm up before matches and you get a brief warm up with your opponent at the beginning of the match, this may not be enough. Taking extra time to hit, especially immediately before your match begins is part of your responsibility as a player, which is related to the old saying; “know thyself.” If it is not possible to get in an extra hit, running, doing some quick ladder footwork, or shadow strokes may work. Try different approaches to your pre-match warm up to find what works best for you. Before each match, you should feel ready to compete physically and mentally. If you are not ready physically, you will not be ready mentally and your performance will reflect it.
Remember the game plan. Re-focusing on the strategy or game plan throughout the match is another easy method of getting back on track. Focusing on the game plan you and coach have outlined offers a distraction from previous points/games/sets and gives you a future oriented task to move forward with. Too often, players are so hopped up on previous events that they forget about what they set out to do. If it helps, write down the strategy or performance reminders on a note card and check it every changeover.
Get back to the basics. If the match has become stagnant or the air has begun to empty out of your balloon, remember the bread and butter aspects of your game. Hit the shots you feel most confident with at the time and commit yourself to the competition. As an athlete, competing is a basic instinct, but our minds often distract us from getting back to what we know best. If you catch yourself getting hung up on previous points, fall into a string of unforced errors, or if you feel tight, assess what patterns are working and stick to them. If your forehand crosscourt has been reliable all day, hit a few more balls in that direction to get into a rhythm and then take the next shot that looks good. You will find your other shots will get better and your confidence will continue to grow.
You might notice one common thread among all these suggestions: each is a controllable factor. Tennis is full of uncontrollable areas, but performance and effort is not one of them. Ultimately, you are the one to decide how to respond to situations faced on the court. So, with this in mind, continue to monitor your matches to see if you can figure out any common themes that need improvement (i.e., slow starts, inconsistent play when holding a lead, etc.). It will take a level of accountability and deliberate effort to notice when you are falling into your old habits, but fortunately once they are identified you can begin to right the ship. Good luck this season!