Fearless Tennis: Treat sitters with the same intensity as other shots

Tennis player

by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

I cannot tell you how many players have battled with the “sitter”— you know, that floating ball that seems to hang in the air for minutes when you’re at net or a midcourt ball that makes you salivate at the opportunity of finishing off the point. These situations are enough to make you want to pull your hair out. However, you don’t need to get the “yips” just because the ball is placed exactly where you want it. The key lies in your ability to treat the “sitter” ball with the same intensity you would hit any other shot.

It’s true that you have a lot more time for your mind to do backflips when you are presented with this opportunity. You instantly see these situations as ones in which you should execute. After all, you have worked hard for this moment, either through some aggressive, well-placed shots or your opponent’s mistake, and it is time to cash in. So, within milliseconds, your mind essentially sends the message, Don’t miss this one. This is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.  In response to that pressure, your intensity rises, causing your muscles to tighten up—even if just slightly—and you pull your eye off the ball, you peek to see where it might land, and you pray that you didn’t do what you were most afraid of. Then the frustration sets in, perhaps even a dose of self-consciousness to remind you to protect against this happening again if such a shot is handed to you on a silver platter. Of course, there is always the added challenge of having to generate your own pace, which can also increase your tension level and cause you to muscle the ball.

I will never forget the match while I was in juniors when my opponent won the first set and was leading 17–16 in the second-set tiebreaker. On match point, he came into the net on a deep approach shot; I ran down a ball, barely floating a defensive shot to his forehand side for an easy put-away volley while I crashed into the side curtain and went down to the ground. Wide-eyed, I sat and watched as he hit the “sitter” volley into the back curtain to even the score at 17–17. My opponent was demoralized, and I went on to win the tiebreaker and the third set 6–0. As is so often the case in these situations, my opponent simply had too much time to think and couldn’t decisively put the ball away.

The good news is that, with a minor shift of your mental approach, you can become a master of short balls and sitters and knock them away with precision and confidence. In fact, simply acknowledging the fact that you may be treating these types of situations differently can help you minimize their impact in the future. What you want to do is become aware of the intensity that you like most when you are hitting your shots confidently and with authority. You will want to notice the energy in your body and how loose you are when you are hitting your shots well.

Then you simply need to drop into this state when you are running to that sitter ball, which you certainly have time for. I have found that treating the sitter ball as any other shot helps the most. Acting decisively and focusing your attention on the ball can help you maintain the proper intensity. It’s a sort of matter-of-fact attitude that you need.

Next time you are faced with the sitter, stay even-keeled and approach it with the same intensity and watch your execution and confidence with these shots rise.