The New Volley Paradigm

The same thing happens in club tennis. Players take lessons and never miss a volley when the pro is feeding them. Then they never go to the net in a match.

Let's look at what we're really doing here. My grandmother can make that one static ball. Yes, when it's slow, you should be able to close and put the ball away. But that's not what I call being able to volley.

What you are actually doing is training the player to create the wrong emotional state. You need to have a feeling of calmness at the net, but what you have actually trained the player to do is become hyper and sometimes out of control. You see it all the time.

Beyond that, you are not training the players to hit the volley as part of a sequence or a transition from the backcourt. They never practice actually moving to the net, so it's not surprising they never get their in matches.

This calmness factor is huge. Why? Because players miss balls at the net because of anxiety. It's the moment of truth. There's no time on the clock. They're at the foul line. It's a completely different feeling than grinding from the baseline. Because now, the point is going to be over with one or two shots. That creates pressure.

So the ultimate freak-outs occur at the net. Why? Because the emotional climate inside the player is all wrong. The blood is going way too fast. Players swing at the ball and knock it off the fence. Or they tighten up and dump it into the middle of the net.

It happens on the pro tour all the time. It's not technical, per se. Players miss at the net because they choke. And they choke because there's no calmness.

Effective net play requires a state of calmness and patience.

There's no calmness because--you can go all the way back to whoever started working with them in the beginning--it wasn't on the menu to create calmness. The volley has been on the back shelf from developmental step one, all the way through the juniors and college. It's not an integral part of how players are taught to play the game. And so it's not an integral part of the way they play.

You've got to get control of the ball, and you've got to relax. But, again, the way we are taught to think is wrong. "Be aggressive. Punch it. Put it away." You want to really put it away when the pressure in on in a big match on a big point? You have to learn how to control the ball first. Then you'll put it away without having to think about putting it away.

So the calmness factor is huge. I'll carry on a conversation with the kid. I'll try to make them smile or laugh. I'll ask them what's going on outside of tennis. The saying I use with everybody is: "You've got to try not to try." And suddenly they'll start to feel the ball like there's no tomorrow. They start to understand the net is not just about hitting one big finishing shot from point blank range. It's just another page in the play book.

When I teach kids, the movement to the net evolves out of the flow of overall play. It has to be seamless. I put a lot of emphasis on feel and touch and drops and dinks and imagination. We don't break the time on the court down into completely different segments: first the groundstrokes, then the net.

Instead, the players are always flowing up and back. We are mixing every conceivable situation and every type of ball. We chip, we slice, we dink, hit drop shots. How many club players ever practice that way?

We constantly transition from defense to offense with every kind of shot and every kind of ball. So the movement forward becomes automatic and instinctive--it's part of the whole pattern of being on the court.

So if you are a recreational or lower level club player who wants to develop this kind of all-court attacking versatility, you are going to have to start working in the same way.
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