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How to Improve

For those who have read this before, there is new stuff at the end.  It's also good to re-read it once in a while to make sure you are doing the right things.

This is very simple.

  • Take lessons or get instruction when you can.

  • Hit lots of shots with friends or against the wall.

  • Play some practice matches or tournament matches.


Think of those three as a 3-legged stool.  Taking lessons all the time but not practicing is a waste of money.  Practicing without getting some instruction can build bad habits.  And trying to win matches that count when you haven’t practiced them is tough.  So you know, way too many players neglect match play.

A good pattern is to play matches and figure out where you need to improve.  Then getting instruction to learn how to do it correctly.  Then go practice it for a while.  Then try it out in some more matches.

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Local Coaching:  The coaches we have in Sherwood do what we can and do a pretty decent job.  But none of us were world-class players or work as professional coaches.  Due to the number of kids in the program, we usually have about 8 players for each coach.  That means that we don’t have the ability to work in detail with anyone for more than a few minutes. There are also things that we coach well and other stuff we don’t (personally, I’m not great at coaching forehands or serves).  If you are serious about your game, going to a professional coach on the side is a good idea (we won’t be offended).  Most local clubs will let non-members take private lessons in the summer, and George Fox now offers private lessons.


If you are only going to do one of the three things on the list, the most important is to go practice and hit a lot of shots.  Getting in position to hit the shot you want requires you to know where the ball is going to bounce and where you need to be – that only comes from hitting lots of shots.  1,500 shots per month will probably maintain your skills (doubles once per week).  4,000-5,000 shots a month will let you improve at a pretty good rate (2-3 singles matches a week).  Players who are working very hard on their games are probably hitting 10,000 per month (5 pretty good hitting and match-play sessions per week).

In order to hit 500 shots, here are options:

  • 120 minutes playing doubles matches (with almost no breaks to change ends, rest or chit-chat).

  • 75 minutes of singles (with normal side changes and breaks)

  • 60 minutes of just hitting with a friend (standing in the middle or cross-court just hitting back and forth, taking breaks every little bit for water).

  • 30 minutes of hitting against the wall.  Yes, only 30 minutes to hit 500 shots.  Note that this is an option that is available for free year-round.  A player who spends the winter working hard to have good footwork while hitting against the wall for 45 minutes two or three times a week will improve a ton and be in great shape for the season.  It’s also a great way to relieve stress.


Another valuable tool for improvement is to have a friend take slow motion video of you hitting your shots.  Then compare those to some youtube coaching videos on the strokes (I prefer coaching videos over watching pros hit – the pros are too good and can do things that the rest of us mortals cannot).  Focus on:

  • The path that your racquet head travels

  • Your balance

  • Your contact point

  • Your follow-through


In general, you want your racquet to vaguely follow a down-the-hall and up the stairs path.  So the racquet face should be moving forward and fairly flat (with some low-to-high for topspin) as it goes through the ball, and your stroke should continue forward and going up a bit.


Other stuff to help improve:

  • Don’t neglect movement.  It’s hard to hit great shots if you aren’t in the right place to hit them.  Work on moving quickly to where you need to be, then using little adjustment steps to get in the exact right place.  Don’t drift to where you need to be (getting there just in time to hit the ball).

  • Don’t neglect fitness.  Fit people can practice much longer and are less likely to get injured.  Fit people have good footwork late in matches when it gets close.

  • Put pressure on yourself.  At random points in your practice session, tell yourself that you have to do 5 pushups if you miss your next shot.  Or play a match where the loser has to go running after.

Match Play:  Don't neglect match-play as part of your routine.  The try-outs for varsity, league matches, qualifying for state all happens in matches, not with coaches feeding balls to you.  Being the best Buffalo Chip player in Sherwood doesn't get you very far if you can't win a match.  Matches tend to be wonkier than drills because the serves and returns get them off to a different start than a nice feed.  You've gotta be ready for that.


And really don't forget to play matches against people who are better than you.  In the off-season, you should aim to lose 50% of the matches you play.  If you are in the middle or at the bottom of the local ladder, that should be pretty easy to do.  If you are at or very near the top, this is one of the things that tournaments are great for.  They aren't free and you may play two matches and lose them both.  So why do it?  Because you are buying experience and hopefully learning something about your game that you wouldn't get from a lesson.  That doesn't mean to enter tournaments where you are going to get killed.  An "ideal" learning loss has a score of about 6-2, 6-2.  You can compete, but find it hard to win points or games.  Why is that helpful?

  • You learn what shots you hit aren't good enough.  Maybe they pick on your backhand until you miss, or maybe they take your weak shots up the middle and hit winners.  People you play who are worse than you probably don't do that, so you don't learn what to improve.

  • You can't get away with being lazy.  When playing someone worse, you can hit a lazy shot and usually get away with it.  That doesn't fly against tough competition.

  • You learn that one good shot isn't enough.  When playing people worse, one good shot wins you the point or gets you a huge edge.  When you play someone better, it gets you a little advantage in the point.  Learning to turn that advantage into a bigger advantage, then using that big advantage to win the point is a hard thing to learn.

  • The shots coming at you are probably better.  A little more power/spin and/or a little deeper and/or a little better angle.  You'll need to learn to hit your good shots off of tougher shots coming at you.

  • You have to learn to fight for each point.  There are no easy points.  The fight you learn in those matches translates into knowing how to fight against someone your own level.

  • Finally - put all that together.  Now, you are on the path to really improving.  You know what to improve, you know you can't be lazy in points, you know how to hit strong 2 or 3 point combinations, and you know how to fight for points when you really need them.  That's how you really start to move up.

To find those tournaments and matches, one of the best options out there is  There are events all the time throughout the year and you'll get a rating that will help you find the right events or good competition.  There are also flex leagues where 4-5 matches will cost less than $50 (possibly much less).  They'll give you a list of opponents with similar ratings and you figure out a time/place to go play with that person.

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