Improving at tennis involves two types of training and drills: non-competitive and competitive.
Competitive training includes all sorts of drills and exercises where you keep score. You can compete against yourself by trying to improve the number of shots hit beyond the service line using just 10 balls, for example.
Or you can compete against an opponent by playing game situations or tie-breaks, sets and practice matches.
All these exercises and approaches are necessary in order to develop into a successful, competitive tennis player – whether you just play recreational tournaments or junior tennis, or are going on the ATP tour.
But competitive training also has disadvantages, which inevitably will show themselves if a player constantly engages in competitive situations that put him under pressure.
Non-competitive tennis training is part of a perfect balancing act that helps negate the negative consequences of lots of training under pressure.
Non-competitive training also offers many key benefits that people often overlook; and these are, in my opinion, crucial for developing a smooth, steady technique and a calm mind.
You can learn about non-competitive play’s key advantages in the second part of this article, but let's first look at the possible and most common problems that hamper players’ development and success when they engage in too much competitive play.
Negative Consequences of Competitive Tennis Training
Although competitive training offers many benefits, it also presents some negative effects that, sooner or later, start to affect a player.
1. Tension – resulting in the loss of fluid movement
A player under mental stress experiences tension in his body, which prevents relaxed movement. Effortless and fluid motion (footwork, movement, strokes, etc.) comes from an optimally relaxed body.
This relaxation is never complete, of course – a player during a point cannot be limp! – but some degree of relaxation allows a player to perform his actions well, quickly and with little effort.
Roger Federer is one of the most relaxed players ever. Note the fluidity of his movements and also the expression on his face which reflects total calmness during play.
That mental calmness transfers into a relaxed body which allows perfect coordination of all body parts and the ability to generate great racquet head speed because of loose muscles.
2. Tension – resulting in poor technique
A rigid player cannot develop good tennis technique because his body is too tense to allow it. Tennis technique is, of course, nothing more than being able to coordinate the whole body in order to generate speed and control the racquet head at the right moment.
Because no two incoming balls are exactly the same, and all outgoing shots are, in reality, different, a player needs to coordinate his movement differently EVERY time, for each shot he plays.
Sure, certain shots share similarities (groundstrokes behind the baseline in a neutral rally, returning a second serve, etc.); but in reality, every ball is different.
Tension in the body prevents adaptation – the body’s parts are too rigid and "don't want" to move in the way needed to hit the ball well – even if a player's brain gives the correct commands to his body at the right time.
3. Mental pressure – resulting in thoughts about the negative consequences of a loss
A player who plays for points most likely will start to think about the negative consequences of losing that particular point, game, set or match.
Negative thoughts about a future event result in loss of focus, tentative play, doubting the decisions made during play, changing the mind before or during strokes, and a host of other fears. All these factors typically result in unforced errors – at least that's how an outside observer would classify them.
4. Mental pressure – subconscious fears affecting the mind and body
A player competing to win also might experience subconscious fears – which means that he is not really thinking about something that would trigger emotions – but subconsciously fears losing, disappointing his parents, etc.
These subconscious fears and negative beliefs often cause a player to choke at critical moments in a match.
5. Lack of motivation – player focuses only on external motivation
Playing to win (or playing not to lose) forces a player to focus only on external motivational factors. External motivation can be a powerful driver (and, of course, it is necessary in the real word), but it's also very fragile.
The moment a player decides (correctly or wrongly) that he will not win (because the current score suggests so), his external motivators stop working (because that player won't get the external rewards he sought – money, trophy, points, rankings, recognition, etc.) and he stops fighting.
But as we all know, a tennis match is not over until the last point; and almost every tennis match experiences many changes of momentum.
At Masters 2005 final, Roger Federer lost a lead of 2 sets to 0, then Nalbandian lost a lead of 4:0 in the final set, then Federer lost a lead when serving for the match and having 30:0.
The key to constant and strong motivation and, therefore, constant focus and effort lies in internal motivation – the satisfaction of competing your best, the joy of playing and hitting the ball well, or simply just feeling good when playing tennis regardless of the score.
This motivation gives great players the will and energy to fight in otherwise highly disadvantageous situations in a match.
All these negative factors affect players who train by spending too much time in competitive situations or who attend too many tournaments in a certain time period.
The Vicious Cycle of Losses
Vince Spadea fell into this vicious cycle of losses with 21 consecutive losses in 6 months before finally winning a match on the tour. Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
A player who starts to experience these negative effects of constant pressure might enter a vicious cycle of repetition, which increases pressure’s negative effects on his play.
He will become even tenser than he was before, because he now knows what can happen to him and how poorly he might play.
He will fear not only losing a match, but also the possible negative effects (tension, loss of focus, choking, “short arm,” etc.) he has experienced before.
The end result of all this negative thinking and negative emotional state is, of course, really poor performance; and such a player most likely will lose tight matches unless these same negativities affect his opponent even more than they affect him.
Players then can become their own worst enemies by continuously worrying about these negative effects, which actually creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of poor play and repeated losses.
The key to balancing the negative factors of competition is to engage in non-competitive tennis drills during some percentage of the training sessions.