The concepts below, many of which are adapted from my book, Maximum Tennis: 10 Keys to Unleashing Your On-court Potential, are geared toward aspiring high-level players looking to reach their full potential. Each fundamental principle will facilitate the development of movement skills while simultaneously optimizing the player’s ability to anticipate. They will ensure that the player will keep developing their anticipation skills even when they are not specifically focused on them. For players who are older or simply don’t have the capacity to move fluently on the court, anticipation takes on a different perspective. These players will rely even more heavily on anticipating where a ball might go, making calculated risks and positioning themselves or moving early where they think the ball is being hit. They do this to minimize the necessity to move a great deal, with the understanding that they lack the ability to explode and move quickly. For these players, the previous section is where most of their focus should be.
- Practice Positive Perception. To maximize your movement, you must have outstanding anticipation skills. To maximize your anticipation skills, you need to optimize your movement potential. In other words, movement and anticipation are inextricably tied together at the highest levels. Therefore, you must work to develop a positive perception of your ability to move. It doesn’t matter if you are Usain Bolt. If you have a negative perception of your movement skills, you will not move well on the tennis court. A negative perception creates tension and self-doubt, diminishing your ability to anticipate! It will also diminish your spontaneity and flexibility, which in turn, produces poor movement, which reinforces the negative perception that you don’t move well, which will be debilitating to your ability to anticipate.
The first thing you need to do is stop any negative thoughts about your movement. Second, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a good mover or that you are slow. Third, always focus on how much you can improve. The more you can visualize yourself anticipating and moving well on the court, the better. This sounds corny, but it is the foundation on which to build good anticipation and movement skills. Moving well is relative to your own potential, so think positively. All players can improve and maximize their anticipation and movement skills.
Note to coaches and parents: never outright tell a player that they are slow or don’t move well. This creates a vivid negative picture in their minds which is difficult to erase, no matter how much they improve over the years. If you need to be critical about their movement and anticipation, it is best to “sandwich” your negative comments in between two positives. Here is an example: “You can really take your movement to another level by working on running for every ball. Currently, you often watch balls go by and therefore you don’t develop an explosive first move. But if you are willing to commit to exploding to each ball, you’ll see that your movement will go to a whole new level!” In this brief statement, I’ve pointed out the negative aspects of what the player currently does while simultaneously creating a positive and motivating image in the player’s mind of what they can be. Remember one of my favorite philosophical statements, “Never tell a player what they are from a negative perspective. Instead, always tell them from a positive perspective what they are and what they can be!” Too often, even well-intended coaches and parents will inadvertently put limitations on players/young people by not following this guidance.
- Time the Split Step. The key here is to shift your focus from “where” to “when.” This is one of the most important keys to unleashing your anticipation skills and movement potential. What I mean by this is that you should focus your attention on when your opponent is about to make contact, then start your split step right before he makes contact. Don’t consciously try to anticipate where your opponent is hitting the ball (unless they have a ball that sits up, which requires you to guess which direction the shot is going). By trying not to think consciously, you allow your subconscious thought processes to take over, and you will find yourself moving in the direction of the ball as it comes off your opponent’s racquet. Your visual system can process information on where the ball is going infinitely quicker than you can consciously think of it. (Research shows that it works as fast as 1,000th of a second in optimal conditions.) You’ll also create a heightened state of awareness, both mentally and physically, enabling your brain to process incredible amounts of information when your opponent approaches the ball. It draws on previous experience and the current situation to anticipate what to expect. That is why you see the top pros instinctively flow to the ball as it comes off their opponent’s racquet. I realize how complicated this sounds, but it is in fact incredibly simple. When you are competing, focus on when your opponent is about to contact the ball, not where he is going to hit it. Time your split step accordingly, and you will start flowing to the ball.
- Commit to Run for Every Ball. Do not underestimate the importance of this! When the ball comes off your opponent’s racquet, run for it regardless of where it is going or whether you think you can get to it. The key is to not make a conscious decision initially as to whether to run for the ball. Just react and go for it. This will help your anticipation, your split step, your explosive first step, and your speed. You will also be able to reach balls you never dreamed of being able to get to. After you take at least three or four steps, if the ball is hopelessly out of your reach or it lands out, then you can stop running. If your opponent hits a shot and you just stand there thinking it is a winner or it is out, you have made a conscious decision about whether to move towards the ball. And that is truly debilitating to your anticipation and movement skills.
I’ll never forget the first time I was on the court with the legendary Australian coach Harry Hopman. I was 15 years old, and he had come to Northern California to do a clinic for top juniors in the area. Mr. Hopman was a fanatic when it came to effort on the practice court and running for every ball. There was a line of players waiting to spend a few minutes drilling with him. My time finally came, and Mr. Hopman started with a few relatively easy balls to get a feel for my level of play and then started firing balls all over the place. At first, I thought he accidentally hit them too far away from me, but after three or four I realized that he was serious. I stopped running for the next ball and said, “That’s ridiculous. I can’t get to those.” Keep in mind this is the guy who had coached all-time greats Rod Laver, Kenny Rosewald, Lew Hoad, John Newcombe, and Tony Roche, to name a few; and here I was, a 15-year-old kid who wasn’t even nationally ranked yet. Well, everything stopped, and Harry glared at me and said, “On my court, you run for every ball or you get off the court!” He was dead serious, and I got the message. And even though at the time I did not fully understand the significance of running and stretching for every ball, I did so from then on. I can honestly say that brief lesson had a profound impact on my movement AND ABILITY TO ANTICIPATE for the rest of my career. As the years went by, I worked out with Mr. Hopman countless times throughout my professional career. As he would walk out on the court with his huge basket of balls, I would joke with him and say, “Harry, you haven’t got enough balls in that basket to tire me out!” He would just smile and start firing away, and I would run for every ball.
COACH TIP: I have found over the years that principles two (“Time the Split Step”) and three (“Commit to Run for Every Ball”) above, if emphasized with young players, are two of the most powerful tools to developing and maximizing movement and anticipation skills. Ironically, when a player simply split steps and explodes for any ball they see during a match, they learn an enormous amount from each ball strike from their opponent. As a result, the player will be learning anticipation skills without even being aware that they are in fact anticipating on each shot. This leads to the development of a heightened state of awareness and subtle and intricate balance and footwork skills. Throughout this process, the player acquires an incredible amount of knowledge at an amazingly rapid pace that most players and coaches would not believe is possible. Additionally, and equally as important, the commitment to the split step and to explode toward every ball helps to put an athlete in the “now moment,” which is an optimum state for competing!
- Stay Intense but Relaxed (and keep your eyes wide open). To anticipate and move at your best, you must be in an optimum state of mental and physical preparedness. You must be intensely focused, yet physically relaxed. But don’t confuse intense with tense. Squinting your eyes tightly will adversely affect peripheral vision—specifically your ability to track the ball—and a tense body tightens the muscles, preventing them from responding quickly. To see a great example of this, watch Novak Djokovic during a match, particularly during return of serve. He is generally regarded as the greatest returner of all time. On his return of serve, watch as he opens his eyes widely and achieves almost total relaxation in his facial muscles. He is incredibly intense, sharply concentrating on his game, yet he is so physically relaxed that it looks as if he is loafing. Then suddenly, he streaks across the court to reach a ball that other players cannot get. Few players will move this well, but the point has been made. Remember to monitor yourself for tenseness by making sure your eyes and facial muscles are relaxed. If they are tense, then the rest of your body is probably tense too. Also, if you are holding your breath when you hit the ball, you are holding in your tension. You should breathe out or grunt when hitting. Tension in the body negatively affects everything, from your vision to your footwork and ultimately your ability to optimize your anticipation skills.
- Maintain Upper Body Posture (and keep your head relatively still). I often use the phrase “balance a book on your head” to illustrate this point. I’m speaking figuratively, of course, but the reason is critical. As you move to the ball, maintain good upper-body posture, with your head and shoulders relatively still. In fact, you will bend forward slightly at the waist. The point is, avoid excessively bending at the waist, hunching your shoulders and/or moving your head side to side or up and down. This helps you track the ball better as it approaches. It also helps your dynamic balance, footwork, and overall technique on the shot.
- Keep a Low Center of Gravity. As you move to the ball, keep a low center of gravity by loading both hips, which causes you to bend your knees and facilitates centering your weight. This will put you in an explosive position which will enable you to take advantage of all that you’re able to anticipate. Show me a player who stands up straight up on the court, and I’ll show you a poor mover!
- Stretch and Swing. Even if you have not quite reached the ball, stretch and swing at it and try to make the shot. First, you will surprise yourself in getting to and hitting far more balls than you ever thought possible. Second, stretching out to hit the ball helps develop your Tennis Specific Athleticism dynamic balance, footwork, and racquet control.
If you apply these principles, your ability to anticipate will improve significantly, and you will be flowing from your subconscious mind, moving and anticipating better than you ever thought possible! If you are an aspiring player looking to reach your full potential, remember that anticipation (and training to improve your anticipation skills) is built on solid fundamental principles of movement. If you skip over these fundamentals and try to simply improve your anticipation alone, you will limit the overall benefits. Incorporate all the movement principles along with these fundamental principles of anticipation, and you’ll have a winning combination!