A couple weeks ago I was observing a tennis lesson and the effort being offered by both coach and athlete was inspirational. Over and over again, the same shots, over and over again.
And over and over.
I could lie and say I stuck around for the full hour, but truth be told, I got bored and figured I’d captured all the subject matter I needed.
The same shot, over and over and over again. It’s enough to make the casual observer dizzy, let alone the subject in question.
But that’s what it takes, right? To build habits that will kick in during the heat of competition?
This is the easiest way to build habits, but it’s also the toughest way. Tennis is a sport that requires perfection, or at least the attempt at perfection. After all, the perfect tennis player is the victorious tennis player.
The court, the equipment, the environment - the advantage of tennis is that the variables remain consistent. You can work on your backhand serves comfortable in your surroundings.
So delivering drop shots over and over again will create solid habits as long as you’re practicing the right way.
Practicing the right way: this used to be a buzzterm in athletic development that cast a net over the entire process of practicing. Well, the right way is up for debate.
Who defines the right way to practice? The coach or the athlete? These days, most players have access to all the repetitive training techniques employed by their peers, so it’s not enough to know how to perform a shot, it’s crucial to know why. In the heat of the moment, there’s not enough time to think or to select a shot. If an athlete’s mind intrinsically understands the benefits of a particular shot, then the athlete can perform the action without thinking about how to do so. It will just happen, absent thought or process. This means it occurs quicker, giving the player a greater shot at success.
What does that mean for habit-building? It means coaches can slow down lessons and explain why in addition to how. Understanding the skill inside and out will go a long way.
And still, there will be the quiet, nagging doubts within the athlete that question the purpose for all this training in the first place.
Why? Because that’s how kids operate. They have distractions. School, pressure from parents, Instagram. Show me a young tennis player who’s not distracted from time to time and I’ll show you an Edmonton Oilers playoff appearance.
When distraction and fatigue threaten to undo all the previous practice completed by athlete and coach? It’s time to take a step back. Athletes need to remind themselves why they’re committing so much time and energy to a sport. It can’t come from the parents - a nudge here or there, sure - but ultimately it’s the athlete who plays the game, therefore it’s the athlete who must draw a connection between the hard work performed by the body and the desire of the heart to compete and win.
It might sound complicated, but for the youth athlete focused on sport, it’s really not. Sport, school and family is the trifecta of life with which they’re gifted, and sometimes the balance can be thrown off from time to time.
And that’s ok. The best habits are built during times of adversity. It’s how we re-focus ourselves during distraction and pressure that truly matters.