First step to improve your 'real time' game: Be prepared
Recently, I took the opportunity to observe one of my students play a U.S. Tennis Association league doubles match.
I like doing this to observe how the student applies, or doesn't apply, things we work on in lessons and clinics to help improve individual game.
What's very interesting is how playing in "real time" when it counts for something differs from the controlled clinic or lesson environment.
When the student and partner came off the court, unfortunately having lost, they immediately asked what I thought could have been done better.
Keeping it simple, my response was two words: "Be prepared," the famous Boy Scout motto.
One of the most common problems in tennis, especially at the beginner, club and league player levels, is hitting the ball late.
This causes a myriad of bad situations, including mis-hits, unforced errors and possible arm injury.
Surprisingly, the fix for hitting late is relatively easy - simply follow the Boy Scout motto, "Be prepared."
What I've continually reminded students, and myself, is to get the racquet back as soon as the ball leaves the opponent's strings.
Early racquet preparation is a critical first step to giving yourself plenty of time to get positioned to connect with the ball sooner, rather than late.
Another extremely important point in favor of being prepared early is you'll be more relaxed through your stroke. Many times, players wait to get their racquet back until the ball has bounced on their side of the court.
That means the ball might have travelled more than 80 percent of its total distance and your racquet is 0 percent ready to hit it!
I guess that would be a reason to be tense and hit late!
Chronically doing this is a main ingredient of the tennis elbow recipe.
Here's a good way to start conditioning your brain to make getting your racquet back more of an automatic response: Try rallying with a practice partner and say out loud what shot you're going to hit when the ball leaves his or her racquet.
Getting your racquet back as soon as you declare your shot gives your brain an extra jump on preparing the rest of your body to execute the necessary movement and timing to hit the ball.
Getting the racquet back early also means your backswing is virtually completed well before the ball crosses the net, making it easier to transfer your weight forward, through the stroke.
When done correctly, the ball leaves your racquet with an almost effortless, no resistance feel and a solid "pop" coming from the strings. It's one of the sweetest sounds in tennis.
I also recommend using the "split-step" in conjunction with getting your racquet back. This is an effective way to get to the ball quicker while being ready to hit out in front rather than late.
Because tennis is a rather quick sport, the better your timing and balance, the better your game will be.
In the end, it comes down to that two-word motto: "Be prepared."
Lou Marino is a USPTA Cardio and youth tennis coach who lives, teaches and provides racquet service in the Bluffton-Hilton Head Island area. firstname.lastname@example.org