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Practice Makes Perfect

The old adage that "PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT" could well be changed to, "THE WAY YOU'RE PRACTICING MAY BE WHAT'S KILLING YOU."

Over the years, I've watched most of the world's best players and have observed a series of different practice drills. But, there's always one thing in common, THE BEST PLAYERS FIND TIME TO PRACTICE IN THE SAME MANNER AS THEY'RE EXPECTED TO PERFORM. Rod Laver use to say, "I get in shape physically and mentally for competitive tennis by playing tennis." It almost sounds silly, but it's really smart.

Motor learning experts have studied the subject of "practice" from several angles. The conclusion always comes out the same. Drills, that have little to do with the actual game of tennis, produce responses that have little, or nothing, to do with improvement in match play. Also, drills that are designed for "fun" can produce more fun, but have little to do with competitive performances. Thus, one needs to know the purpose of each drill.

There are those who are well known in every club as the King and Queen of practice drills. These same people look almost unbeatable while involved in drills, but seldom win in tournament play. The reason is rather simple. Your brain must develop a software package that's sent to the muscles while under some game conditions. That means, one must practice under the same kind of pressures that are present in actual playing conditions. With no pressure, the brain can respond quite differently. One year in our research center, Dr. Gideon Ariel and I were monitoring the electrical signals being produced by a player's forehand. The player was able to reproduce the signal, time after time, almost perfectly. We then told the player that we would take him to dinner if he could reproduce the same signal on the next swing. Obviously, the player felt a little pressure which caused the electrical signal to look as though it came from a different person.

The great players attempt to hit the shot that needs to be hit at the moment, regardless of the score. Or, putting it another way, they are able to send the correct electrical signals (software) to the muscles while under great stress. Losers begin to alter the signals when stress increases. The more a player practices sending the same meaningful signal to the muscles under great stress, the more he/she is able to win close matches in major events, or in local league play.

The use of ball machines in practice drills can be extremely beneficial, if used properly. Use the ball machine to shoot the shots with which you're having the greatest difficulty. Then, put yourself out of court and be forced to run in the same manner as in a match, while under rigid time constraints. Ball machines are valuable because they can hit the ball to a specific area with great accuracy, and they never complain. As soon as you think you own the shot, get back to practice against humans.

The bottom line is that Rod Laver practiced for tough matches by practicing with tough opponents. Tight situations were of no surprise to him. Today, I watch young players refuse to play others with equal, or more, ability in their own club or park. They don't want to wreck their rankings by showing future opponents what they have. How sad, playing your arch enemy in practice is like finding gold for your brain. And don't worry about practice scores. The major networks will not call you to see how you did against Helen in a practice match.