There are two main approaches to non-competitive tennis training: playing game situations without counting and playing to improve the feel and timing of shots.
1. Playing Game Situations Without Counting
The main goal of playing game situations without counting is to shift a player's focus from looking to win the game to looking to improve his execution of shots and tactics.
If the player is just looking to win, he will most likely play tactics and shots that he already plays well because those will increase his chances of winning. He will not attempt to play something that will expose his weaknesses.
But that's exactly the purpose of tennis training - and the player is avoiding it!
Secondly, when a player is focused on winning, he doesn't register all the feedback from his movement, shot technique, how clean he hit the ball, how accurate he played and many other factors.
He only registers the end of the point (maybe even just the last shot) and whether he won or lost. The player will after the point have troubles explaining what happened during the rally for various parts of his game—technique, court coverage and so on—exactly because that was not his focus.
And if the player is not aware of something, he is unable to correct that.
Therefore, the player must not focus on winning in tennis practices but rather on execution or other tasks that his coach gives him—like looking to hit the ball on top of the bounce, moving through the shot, playing with open stance, focusing on the depth of shots, focusing on the height of shots over the net and so on.
If a player's task is to focus on the height of the shots, for example, and the coach asks him to play at least one meter over the net in neutral rallies, the player will become aware of many consequences of such a play and will also become aware of what needs to be done to achieve that—like getting more under the ball, lifting more through the shots, accelerating the racquet more into spin and the effect of such balls on the opponent.
Now the player is learning and absorbing more knowledge! A competitive situation would most likely block all that feedback from entering the player's awareness.
How To Practice and Example Drills
The main focus of this non-competitive training is simply to focus on things that need to be improved and not on the result—so basically you can use any drills you want and remove the counting and have the player focus on one or two aspects of his game that need improving.
Drills can be closed, semi-open and open. For more detailed explanation and examples of drills head over to the Basic Tennis Tactics Drills article.
There are many tasks that can be worked on by training in non-competitive situations:
Improving depth of shots
Improving accuracy of shots
Working on stamina
Working on correct positioning and distance from the ball
Working on the correct contact point
Working on the right tactical decisions
…and many more.
Attack and Neutralize Drill
As mentioned above, you can easily change your normal drills where you keep score into drills where the players don't keep score and give them certain tasks to work on.
But if you're looking to help the player improve overall and you're looking to help the player put all pieces of the puzzle together, you can play the “attack and neutralize” open situation drill.
Player A can start from a hand feed or by serving and his goal is to attack player B in any way.
Player B, on the other hand, doesn't look to attack—even if he has a chance—but he looks to neutralize player A by keeping the ball deep and away from his weapons, keep it very low or very high and so on.
Players can play five to 10 points and then switch roles. This game needs to played at least 10 minutes (up to 30) to have some effect—which means that the players actually start to learn and improve their shot selection and execution.
Normally, players don't get emotional in this type of training and can calmly analyze their tactics and how well they played the last point—and what needs to be improved in the next attempt.
They also work on all types of shots—aggressive baseline shots, sitters, volleys, overheads, rally shots, defensive slice shots, passing shots and so on.
Players also have to work on types of play that maybe doesn't suit their current game style and that's how they improve it. If we let the players play whatever they like, then counter-punchers will only counter-punch and aggressive baseliners will only attack from the baseline.
Forcing them to play a certain type of play and stay disciplined through the point shows them that there are other ways to win points and that makes them more versatile players in the long term.
2. Playing to Improve Feel and Timing
This type of training is almost NEVER used in tennis clubs and academies—and yet it is crucial to improve the feel and timing of shots and the overall body and hand-eye coordination.
In order to improve feel and timing, we must become aware of the current state—in other words, how we feel the shot and our body at the same time before, during and after the contact with the ball.
To become aware of all that info flowing into our brain and awareness, there must be NO other goals/tasks at that moment.
That means that there shouldn't even be non-competitive closed or open drills. The only goal is to hit the ball consistently over the net down the middle (in most cases).
The key is to get into the rhythm and consistent rallying and then focus inward and become more aware of:
How comfortable do I feel hitting the ball? Is there any tension anywhere in my body?
How clearly do I see the ball—before the bounce, after the bounce and right before contact?
Did I hit the ball cleanly in the sweet spot? If not, where on the racquet face did I hit the ball?
Can I hit the ball with the same speed but less effort? (If you watch the pros in practice, they hit the ball effortlessly but still very fast.)
What contact point gives me the best energy transfer and speed of the shot? How much in front?
Do I feel balanced and grounded during the shot or do I feel losing balance?
These are the key questions—key areas of focus that will improve your technique, timing, smoothness of your movement and energy expenditure.
That's me playing a few years ago - just hitting. It may seem boring to the outside observer since there are no points played and someone might wonder what the whole point is. But during such rallies, I am constantly focusing and being aware of the points mentioned above.
There are no external goals (except to keep the ball in play) but there is intense focus inwardly and 30 minutes in such a state can fly by. It's also an excellent way to practice concentration.
You can focus on one of these areas and increase your awareness about it, and it will improve automatically in the short and long term.
You can do a quick experiment even now when you're reading this. Ask yourself: "Can I sit more comfortably? Is there any tension in my shoulders?"
The moment you allow the sensations of how you feel right now enter your awareness, you will automatically relax. Your mind and body know how to be more comfortable but you must also become aware of how you feel.
Your technique and coordination will improve in the same way—the moment you will become more aware of tensions and jerky movements of your body, they will become more relaxed and fluid.
And in order to do that, your focus must be directed only inward on how you feel and what happens with your body instead of being focused outward and the task at hand or even on the win/lose outcome of the exercise.
When you combine competitive tennis training with these two types of drills: non-competitive situation drills and just hitting the ball—and focusing inward on the sensations, you will have a complete training system that will help you develop your tennis potential to its maximum level.