by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist
Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis
Two years ago, I received a call from a coach working with a highly nationally ranked player, a talented player who could not seem to strike the balance between aggressive shots and taking some pace off at times. For her, anything less than completely whaling at the ball was impossible for her to accept. It was all or nothing. She was obviously winning quite a bit, but she struggled against any player who could handle her pace.
She had only one gear. To make matters more difficult, if she wasn’t playing perfectly—which is hard to do when you play in one gear—she would come unglued. Many young players I have worked with struggle with fi nding this balance. If you are having trouble mixing up your pace and playing smart, you need to consider improving your ability to play with “controlled aggression.”
What does controlled aggression mean? It means you are hitting the ball aggressively, deep, and keeping your opponent pinned to the baseline, but it is not reckless. You know exactly what you are doing, there is a purpose behind your shots, and they are within your capability. You are not hitting shots you don’t have and instead are choosing shots you know you own, and you are using them in the right situations. When you are playing with controlled aggression, you are typically on offense, sometimes simply holding your own, but not on defense. To improve your ability to play in this mode, focus on the depth of your shots and move your opponent around the court. Rather than trying to win the point in one or two shots, focus on “working the point” in an aggressive fashion. You are dictating play and are very clear about your strategy.
As I worked with the player I mention above, we discussed how she was thinking in black-and-white terms—an easy trap to fall into. We talked about her anxiety about not playing in her top gear and what this meant to her. As you might imagine, she prided herself on how well she could play when she went for every shot and how much she enjoyed the feedback and admiration from other people. To give this up initially was not terribly appealing. However, gradually, with some coaxing persistence from myself and the coach, coupled with a bit more awareness, she was able to add one more gear to her arsenal during our time. Th e coach worked on having her hit three different kinds of balls in practice so she could get more comfortable with a variety of paces and spins mixed in with her ripping winners. Eventually, she did improve her ability to play with more controlled aggression.
It is important for you to understand the benefit of playing in this way because otherwise you are not likely to embrace it. The truth is you will win matches if you can maintain a level of consistency with offense. Hitting the right shots at the right time and dictating play with an attitude of controlled aggression will help you avoid the extremes of overhitting or playing too conservatively.