The Magic of “Free Hitting” in Practice
If you are the typical tennis player, you are always looking for something magical that will improve your tennis. In this short piece, I will address several approaches to finding your own magic as an individual. The first thing to note is that the magic differs from player to player. As always on this site, all roads to progress lead through the 4-D System. As a reminder, here are the 4 things to touch base with between each and every point (the order is important!):
1) Notice What Happened;
2) Make a Plan for the Upcoming Point;
3) Remind Yourself to Relax; and
4) Remind Yourself to Look the Ball into the Strings
There are a growing number of USTA players who sign up for several teams or supplement their USTA play with other non-sanctioned league matches. For this group of players, there is almost no practice time between matches. Imagine that you were a concert violinist who had a tough outing at your last event … and then the orchestra director informed you that you had to play the same piece again in two days, BUT YOU WEREN’T ALLOWED TO PRACTICE! I think nearly all of you would call a setup like this borderline insanity. And yet … this is what many competitive players do!
Effective practice consists of two basic components. First, playing practice sets where a player is practicing their mental game + one other new wrinkle that they’d like to add to their games. These “fun” games are an integral part of improving and are many times the missing link between playing well in drills … but not so well in matches.
However, there is a second type of practice which is all too infrequently used by USTA league players. In this practice, points are not played. The hitting is cooperative, but mostly focused on getting the right feel to all of your strokes. It focuses only on steps 3) and 4) of the 4-D System. These 2 steps determine your ability to execute your plan. Any shots which don’t feel correct are corrected within the Relax and Watch framework of 4-D. Gradually, a player begins to get to know the “feel” of her shots better and better. Establishing this knowledge is what allows a player to then execute when the pressure is on in a match. After a good number of shots, say 4-5 each, a player may then elect to go for a winning target, all the while maintaining complete awareness of her tension level and ball watching. I call this component of training “free hitting” and no pro would be on the tour without it. I saw Stan Wawrinka practicing this way in Monte Carlo in 2016. It was a key to his success that season.
There is an exception to the practice guidelines that I provided above. There is a small group of players who simply cannot maintain focus unless the match “counts.” If you are in this group … then, by all means, play match after match. Unfortunately, though, you will never experience the joy of “free hitting” and the improvement that comes with it. “Free hitting” is magical!