Practicing Pressure

John Newcombe (Munson Photo)

One of the major differences between practicing your tennis strokes and executing your tennis strokes is the pressure of the score in a “big match.”  How can you work on overcoming that challenge?  Here is a practice game that could help.

Providing Self Pressure

There is a story about pro golfer Phil Mickelson that I heard (that may be apocryphal or not) on how he practiced making five-foot putts.  The story is that he would not leave the practice green until he made 100 in a row from that distance.  If he missed at #99, he would have to start all over.  A great way to put pressure on yourself in a practice situation.

John Newcombe Suggested …

At camp one year, Newk suggested that a good way to work on your second serve was to play a practice set giving yourself (and your opponent) just ONE serve.  Well, here is a game that practice partner Tony Williams and I worked on that takes that idea one step further …

  • You play either on the singles court or half court doubles 
  • Each game starts at 30-30
  • The server gets only one serve, instead of two
  • All else is the same. 

So, you are starting every game at 30-30, second serve.  Fault that serve or lose that point and you are immediately facing game point. Another benefit: it gives the returner practice at attacking second serves under score-pressure situations.

We did it, playing to a 5-5 tie… and amazingly, we both NEVER double faulted.

What practice technique have YOU used to mimic pressure situations?

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14 thoughts on “Practicing Pressure

  1. Great exercise George! I think a lot about the serve, 1st serve percentage, and pace of the serve to name just a few and this kind of practice drill helps for sure! Many older players often serve up 2nd serve meatballs just to get the ball into the court, and they (or their partner) get pummeled as a result!

    Good Morning First Responder! Yes, i tell myself: if i have not double faulted at all, i didn’t serve hard enough on the second serve! thanks, george

  2. Anything that helps create a simulated pressure is helpful. When I coached a high school team, my players didn’t like to clear the ball after hitting their first serve into the net. They felt it threw off their rhythm. In a practice match setting, I made them hit their first serve into the net, walk up to clear the ball , then hit a second serve, often giving them an imposing score like 30-30 or ad out.They became much more comfortable clearing the ball after that.

    Steve, similar to actually starting out with only a second serve; but giving them more time to think about it! thanks, george

  3. Terrific topic, George. Jimmy Connors once told me that if you play every match like it’s the big match, when the big match comes, you’re ready. My belief is that it’s vital to simulate match-play conditions as much as possible. To me, a major technique is to eliminate talking with the opponent — just like you would in a tournament. No socializing, no long warm up, no banter between points other than saying “nice shot,” etc.

    Here are a few things I’ve told opponents when they start to chat and I clearly don’t:
    + “I’m not good enough to play and talk.”
    + “I’ll tell you my life story when we’re through, but not now.”
    + “I need to concentrate. It’s my way of honoring the game – and you.”

    The other thing I’ve realized lately is that talking takes me out of my body, into a very different chatty realm that does not aid my ability to hit the ball effectively.

    And I know lots of people grasp all of this. Lately, I’ve been staggered to hear tales of age group players who make clever comments mid-match – clearly, as a form of gamesmanship. I find this criminal. Does that indeed happen much, George?

    Joel, I hope your friendly opponents know, and understand, you as well as i think i do; so they don’t take offense from your defense. But i have seen some doubles partners of mine totally lose their match concentration when they start playing “who do you know that i Know.” In tournament play there some, but very few players, who will use the old, “Gee your forehand is especially good today. What are you doing differently.” Thanks, george

  4. you want pressure? start sets at 3-3. flip for serve. you cant work your way into the set, every point is critical. it seems holding or breaking serve is everything.
    try it, george, and let me know your thoughts.

    Joe, combine that with the 30-30, second serve only game and you really have PRESSURE! thanks, george

  5. Hi George,
    My brother is a competitive low single digit handicap golfer(and good tennis player.) I once explained to him my new gator clamp putting stroke that was going to dimensionally improve my game. I told him I was going to hit the practice green and perfect it. His advice…practice but find a competitor and putt for money; basically battle test it. He has seen plenty of golfers with great technique crumble under pressure.
    I wonder if betting like Bobby Riggs would be a fun way to add pressure to practices?Tennis’ version of the $2 Nassau…$2 on each set and $2 on the match. Add, a press if you lose the first set? Check out those nerves of steel.

    Tom, pro golfer Lee Trevino was asked what is was like putting to win a $10,000 prize and he said, “No pressure. Pressure is playing for $10 when you don’t even have that!” thanks, george

  6. Love all these ideas. Yes, the Newcombe technique of playing a set with one serve is fantastic. I like the 30-30 start drill too — though I think it’s use is narrow, confining our tactical approach only to those very high-stakes points such as 30-30, 30-40, 40-30 and all that takes place beyond deuce. This to me is sort of like playing football and only practicing situations where it’s third and four — by definition, usally quite constricted.

    I think another aspect of practicing pressure is to work through the whole pattern of a set. For example, being up 30-love, or down love-30, or merely (?) 15-all. There is also the seed-planting opportunity of 40-love, or closing out a love-40. And so on.

    So in the bigger picture, I think it’s important to constantly add new score dimensions to practicing pressure rather than settle into one routine.

    Joel, i agree, a drill like this is for situations, like the NFL practices their two-minute drills. thanks, george

  7. To amplify on Joel’s excellent point… by definition, practicing shots while under pressure will have you playing somewhat cautious and tight; but you should also practice situations where you can be free and loose. The magic, of course, is being able to PLAY FREE AND LOOSE, WHILE UNDER PRESSURE! But i do find that having survived prostate cancer helps. 🙂

  8. Another way to increase pressure on every point is to play 10 point tiebreaks rather than playing sets. Every point either counts for or against you. This is a way to learn how to play every point under pressure. If you and your practice opponent play 3 or more 10 point tiebreaks rather than sets, you play under pressure on every point and you get a great workout.

    Billy, another good idea! thanks, george

  9. All good comments and drills. A good practice partner who wants to do these type of drills is an added value. I use to hit some with Doug Teetor, a New England legend, who taught me what it was really like to practice with meaning………..and he meant it ! He never wanted to lose in any situation while drilling. Mental toughness.

    Howie, no doubt, you can’t practice well without a good practice partner! Thanks, george

  10. George, In order to execute your tennis strokes under pressure in a “big match”, one needs to stay calm and in control. By practicing match scenarios as you and others have mentioned, a player can learn to play through pressure and tension. To become more mentally ready, I like to play both a 7-point and 10-point match tie-breaker. This drill can be played 2,3, or 4 players. One player serves, the other(s) receive. The serving player only gets one serve, but continues to serve the entire breaker, alternating each side(deuce & add) after each point. The server focuses on holding with one serve where the receiver(s) concentrate on breaking serve. Players rotate positions after each tie-breaker. I believe the more often a player practices being challenged, the better that player will learn to think, feel and act to trigger their best performance under extreme pressure.

    Glenn, if you don’t put yourself in the simulated situation before “the real thing,” you surely won’t be ready. thanks, george

  11. George, I had been using the “only one serve” approach to practice games for many years with practice partners myself before I also first heard Newk recommend it at tennis camp. It is a great way to create pressure that mimics a pressure situation in a real match. I especially like your 30-30 variation on the theme, which I have never tried — but I will do so now that you have described it.

    Some other little games that I and my practice partners have come up with to improve our games include the following:

    1). Giving the server still only one serve, but adding the stipulation that the serve can ONLY go to one spot in the service box on each point or else it is a fault. So, for example, you and your partner play a set against each other where you each get only one serve but you agree ahead of time that the one serve has to always go into the backhand corner of the receiver’s service box. If it does not go there, the receiver wins the point. The next set may stipulate every serve must go to the opponent’s forehand. And the next set must be a body serve. Etc.

    2). Or another variation on the same theme is, still with only one serve allowed per point, the server can serve anywhere he wants but each serve must only be flat for the set. This removes the ability to hit a spin second serve with a higher margin of error and arguably (hopefully) teaches the server better first serve technique to increase his first serve percentage overall.

    3). Or another variation is similar to 2) but the server can ONLY serve with slice in one set, or he can ONLY serve with topspin or kick in another set, etc. This presumably forces more discipline on the second serve but also adds a particular type of spin limitation so the server is really working harder on refining that technique.

    4). A different game that I have sometimes played over the years is to play the same one serve set for each server, BUT each server can only serve from one side on his court (deuce or ad) the entire set. Then you play a second set that is the same except that all serves are from the opposite side. The idea here is to groove that particular serving placement, as well as the return, because you are removing the ability to make up a bad point by serving or receiving the next point on the other side. An example of where this may be beneficial is, say, you are a left hander and your slice serve to a righty’s backhand is your strength on the ad side and you win a lot of those points. But, say, you are not as proficient trying to hit your serve to a righty on the deuce side. This drill will arguably make all of your serves on the deuce side a bit better over time.

    If you give it some thought, there are probably dozens of other drills or games that can be invented to work on other weaknesses in our games.

    Marty, i am not sure i am good enough to have to place my pressure second serve in a corner of the box! Good ideas though. thanks, george

  12. Great ideas for drills and practice, but I love the social/friendship side of the game more than I like the tournament/competitive side, so I just don’t know if I could keep away from the small talk/trash talk that goes with most of the Sr. doubles I play around Naples….but I realize that the other side of that preference is that I’m often not a serious enough tournament player. Everyone stay safe. Scoot

    Scoot, YOU not serious on the tennis court?! You have a pretty good balance. thanks, george

  13. Regarding the issue of betting in a practice set to introduce pressure:

    Many years ago, when the US Open used to have more readily accessible practice courts (kind of where the indoor courts and administration building is now), I remember watching Bobby Riggs, Pancho Segura, Ham Richardson and Tony Vincent walk out onto a practice court together to play a fun set. I don’t remember the exact year, but I think it was sometime in the late 1980s.

    Anyway, they settled on the teams being Riggs and Vincent against Segura and Richardson. After a brief warm up, Riggs asked if everyone was ready to play. All said yes.

    Then Bobby said — quite loudly so everyone could hear in the crowd that had gathered around the court to watch — something like, “Shall we put a little wager on it gentlemen?” Almost instantly, Segura said “Of course,” and Vincent didn’t seem to care. But I noticed Richardson flinched a bit. He then asked, “Before I commit to anything Bobby, what did you have in mind?” So Bobby said, “Only a hundred,” and Richardson seemed to be relieved and said something like, “I suppose that is ok.” (I later found out that Richardson was a notorious penny pincher, but that was obvious from what I observed as well.) So somebody spun the racket and Riggs and Vincent won the toss and elected to serve the first game.

    They won it easily and the two teams started to towel off when switching sides. Just as they were all walking back to their respective courts, Riggs announced, again quite loudly so the crowd could hear, “Ok, one love, and $100 for us.” At which point, Richardson spun around, with a VERY upset look on his face. He said, “What did you just say?” So Riggs repeated it, with a big shit eating grin on his face — obviously enjoying the goading.

    Ham then said, “That’s not what our bet was… It was whoever wins the match.” And then Riggs responded, “Oh no, I thought it was clear I meant $100 a game, but we’ll play it your way if you can’t afford that Ham.” Clearly embarrassed by this point, Ham reluctantly agreed to play it Bobby’s way, and as I recalled Bobby and Tony walked away with $400 when the match was finished, having only played one set which they won 6-2.

    Marty, great story! george

  14. George, you wrote “i am not sure i am good enough to have to place my pressure second serve in a corner of the box.” But that’s the point of it!! If you practice it enough, you will get good enough. BTW, I am not good enough to do it regularly either. 🙂

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