What are the factors that separate players of similar skill levels? Fitness, speed, style of game, shot selection? Definitely, all those make a difference, but one factor above all others – consistent quality, and consistency quality comes down to composure under pressure.
One pupil and I have been working on his forehand volley drop over the last month, and he’s been absolutely nailing it! I feed him a simple backhand cross-court from the back, onto his forehand volley, and 8 times out of 10 he hits his volley drop into the right front corner nick. Perfect.
This week I said I would try to retrieve his volley drop and play a counter drop (instead of standing at the back after my feed). Now 8 out of 10 shots were hitting the tin. Same exact feed but with the added pressure that I would chase his shot down. Interesting hey?
We know technically there cannot be any issues otherwise he couldn’t hit 8 out of 10 as dead winners, so the fact he was now hitting the tin is purely down to pressure. I totally understand him feeling the pressure. As soon as you know somebody is going to run after your shot, your head becomes clouded, interrupting your technique and the simple shot process becomes more complex. The obvious thought is to aim lower, playing with more risk, but other thoughts like; where to move after the shot, do I move left or right, or stay where I am? Do I take a direct line back to the T or do I let my opponent run through the T? Have I given my opponent enough space? I don’t want to give away a stroke. What if he gets it back, I’ll probably lose the rally …. and so on. Sound familiar?
The fact is, if he did everything exactly the same as he was doing before I said I’d try to get his shot back, I’d have no chance. His shots were simply too good, and his movement didn’t need to change – the fact is I was the one who had hit a loose cross-court and he was stood in the middle of the court, exactly where he should be. It is up to me to find a way around him to retrieve his shot. My shot had put me in trouble, and he has every right to be near the T.
Composure – the state of being calm and in control of yourself. If we can remain calm under pressure (which is easier said than done) then we allow our brain to keep the technical processes which we know we can do, as simple as possible. The second we allow outside interference to cloud our thoughts, and complicate simple processes, that is when we will make mistakes.
I thought about recent experiences watching Stockport County and Manchester United. Obviously one team is in the lower leagues of English football and the other is at the very top. When you watch the Stockport County midfielders warming up, kicking the ball to each other and doing a few tricks, their skill levels are very high, but as soon as the match starts and they have opponents running toward them, they panic and their skills seemingly disappear resulting in bad performance. Watching players like Juan Mata and Nemanja Matić warm up, they don’t look especially more skillful than the Stockport County guys, yet when the whistle blows they are worlds apart. Mata and Matić maintain their skill levels and constantly produce good, effective performances. This is purely down to composure; remaining calm under pressure. They do not panic, they do not cloud their judgement with extra thoughts, they keep the processes simple allowing their learned skills to flourish uninterrupted.
So, the conclusion is: Try to remain calm and trust your learned technique. Try not to worry about where your opponent is. Keep shot selections and movements as simple as possible. Allow your brain to stay as empty as possible so your learned skills can be applied uninterrupted.