Players of all levels can significantly accelerate the learning curve by training specifically to improve anticipation skills. Just by working on principles discussed so far in this chapter you naturally will improve your anticipation skills. To accelerate the learning curve even more, here are a few helpful training tips on how to specifically improve anticipation.
- Work on pattern development. The more familiar you are with patterns, the quicker you will recognize what your opponent’s potential options are when that pattern comes up in a match. For example, if you work on the inside-out forehand pattern in practice, when you hit an inside-out forehand in a match setting, you will be aware of the potential options that your opponent might play against you. This will greatly improve your anticipation.
- Play games that require you to figure out your opponent’s patterns and tendencies. Tell your partner to play certain patterns and tendencies in a practice session, without telling you what they are. Then try to figure out what your partner is doing as you play points or sets. For example, your partner can choose to hit all backhands crosscourt or only attack the net behind a backhand slice down the line. Then you try to recognize the patterns and play them to your advantage.
- Scout opponents. The more you know about the patterns, tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses of your opponent, the better you will be at anticipating what she will do on the court. At the professional level, the amount of empirical and video data gathered has increased dramatically over the last 10 years, which has taken scouting to a whole new level. Coaches and players have access to robust scouting data, including information such as percentages on where a player likes to serve the ball in certain situations, the number and percentage of unforced errors on a shot, patterns and tendencies, etc. When leveraged properly, this type of data can have a profoundly positive impact on your game.
In 2014, I was coaching Genie Bouchard at all the major WTA tour events. She had reached the semifinals of the Australian Open (losing to the eventual champion Li Na), the semifinals at the French Open (losing to eventual champion Maria Sharapova), and she had reached the semifinals of Wimbledon playing against Simona Halep. I understood Halep’s game extremely well, but I was determined to leave no stone unturned to make sure that Genie was as well prepared as possible to get to her first Grand Slam final.
That year for the first time, Wimbledon provided a wonderful feature for players and coaches to be able to watch replays of any match played in the tournament. In addition to this, we were able to break the match down into categories in order to view specific shots—backhand winners, aces, unforced errors, etc. It was an amazing opportunity to scout opponents and/or evaluate how a player was performing. So, every day in the early mornings, before the crowds were allowed in, I would go to the All England Club—the site of the Championships—and sit in the player area’s computer room to watch all of Genie’s matches to evaluate her play. And even more importantly, I would watch each of her opponent’s previous matches to pick out any potential tactical weaknesses, patterns, and tendencies that might prove to give Genie a slight edge. Although I was already very familiar with Halep’s game, I was able to glean valuable information from watching video footage. After watching every first serve Halep had hit in the previous four matches, I noticed that she was struggling with getting her serve out wide in the ad court. In fact, she had only made a total of four effective wide serves in the ad court in all four previous matches. Conversely, she was serving great with the slice up the tee. Armed with this invaluable scouting/empirical data, I was able to advise Genie (it took some convincing) to adjust her return of serve position and stand two feet over toward the middle of the court. This would effectively give Halep the wide serve in the ad court, BUT it would take away her favorite serve up the T. This small but critically important tactical adjustment—based on scouting, empirical data, and visual data—proved to be incredibly effective. Genie frustrated Simona by consistently returning her favorite and best serves up the tee, forcing her to frequently and unsuccessfully attempt the wide serve to Genie’s backhand. This contributed to Genie breaking serve three times in two sets and was without a doubt an important component to Genie beating Simona and reaching the Wimbledon finals!
- Understand the effects of spin. Slice, topspin, sidespin, and kick all affect the trajectory and bounce of the ball. Have someone hit the different types of spins to you so that you can recognize the spin and better track the ball.
COACH TIP: Understanding spin is particularly important for young players even at the earliest stages of development, in order to help their anticipation and overall ball striking skills. Take the opportunity to explain a particular type of spin to your student, let’s say extreme backspin. Tell them that the ball will almost stop when it hits the court. Be sure to explain to them how their opponent would have to have an “open racquet face” to generate this type of spin. Giving them this advance notice helps them to anticipate what will happen. Then proceed to hit multiple shots with the backspin and see how quickly your student begins to recognize what the ball will do when it lands. It’s amazing to see how quickly they begin to adjust and calculate how the backspin will affect the bounce of the ball. Do this with topspin and side spin too, always giving the player advance information on cues from the stroke and what effect it will have on the ball.
- Learn basic technique cues. What grip does your opponent use? Where is his ideal strike zone? Where is his toss on his serve? Does he rotate his body? Where does he stand on the return of serve? Does he hit slices? Topspin? These types of cues are essential in reading your opponent and anticipating where and how he will hit his shots. For example, if you see your opponent take the racquet back well above the flight of the oncoming ball, you should anticipate a slice. If he is stretched out and reaching for the ball, look for a weak, floating reply.
- Train consciously in practice to improve anticipation. Let’s say you want to get better at anticipating a passing shot. Talk with your coach about the different things to look for on the pass. If your opponent is in good position and is taking a full swing at the ball–big backswing and shoulder turn–anticipate a hard power shot on the pass. If she must reach for the ball on her backhand and you see her opening the racquet face in the backswing, expect a slice or a lob.
At first, simplify the process by practicing at relatively slow speeds and looking for simple cues which are discussed in advance. In the passing shot scenario above, you can hit an approach shot and come in at half speed, and your coach will give you obvious cues to look for. An example would be to recognize when your coach is going to hit a two-handed backhand drive or a one-handed slice. This should be relatively easy due to the significant difference in the racquet preparation. In these scenarios, you can be consciously thinking about what your opponent is doing, which allows you to good know what you’re looking for in order to anticipate. After 10 minutes of this type of drill, shift your focus away from thinking about what your opponent is doing and where, and change your focus to when impact is made. Take your split step, and let your thoughts flow subconsciously. The brain will naturally process the information and you’ll find that you are effectively eliminating options that your opponent doesn’t have, while becoming acutely aware of—or anticipating—the most probable options.
Here’s another example, this time on the serve. Have your partner mix up his serves while you consciously look for cues in his stroke (for example, a toss back over his head means a kick serve, a toss to the side means a slice). After doing this for a while, shift your focus to when contact is made. Start your split step right before your opponent contacts the ball, and let your subconscious take over. Once your brain understands and recognizes the cues, it will automatically use this information to help you anticipate where and how he is going to serve.
COACH TIP: The Human Visual System
In order to gain a greater depth of understanding of anticipation, it is extremely beneficial to understand some basic principles about the human visual system, what it is capable of, some of its limitations, and how it performs at an optimum level in the athletic arena, specifically in the sport of tennis. Some of the following information may be helpful:
- The eyes see at a rate of approximately 10 frames per second. A ball hit at 60 miles an hour covers 80 ft/s. The eyes will see the ball every 8.8 feet. At 120 mph the ball covers 176 ft./s, and the eyes will see the ball approximately every 17.6 feet! The eyes then “project” (or anticipate) where the ball will be going, along with its speed, trajectory, etc.
- It is important to understand and then anticipate the effects of ball speed, trajectory, spin, etc. Being aware of how these factors will affect the way the ball bounces and where you must be positioned to address the ball properly is a critical component and benefit of anticipation.
- The brain can only process one stimulus at a time. It cannot process visual cues and sound at the same time, so it must therefore switch back and forth (which is not good for a tennis player).
- The visual system can process information as quickly as one-thousandth of a second. However, it can only do so with an intense focus on visual cues without interference from other stimuli.
- To maximize the visual system, there must be a state of high intensity yet relaxation.
- Mind Clearing: to optimize the visual system, it is beneficial to engage in “mind clearing” in which the athlete trains to minimize or eliminate extraneous sensory input and focus on the visual system.
- To maximize training, athletes should learn various components of anticipation in low-stress environments and then progressively increase the stress and speed in practice to solidify the learning. It is important to begin in a learning mode, not a performance Coaches should consciously provide specific information and feedback at first, then after the athlete starts acquiring the knowledge, they can convert the training to a more subconscious mode.