Unforced Errors in Tennis - Are They Really Not Forced?


You're probably familiar with the term unforced errors in a tennis game. Unforced errors are those types of mistakes that are supposedly not forced by good shots of an opponent.

You'll often see the stats in official matches that include first-serve percentage, aces, winners, unforced errors, and so on.

If Nadal and Federer make 8 to 12 unforced errors per set, then what are your expectations? That you shouldn't miss?
If Nadal and Federer make 8 to 12 unforced errors per set, then what are your expectations? That you shouldn't miss?

The person recording the statistics tries to determine if, when a player makes a mistake, that mistake was forced or not forced by a good play by his or her opponent.

To make the right call, the statistician looks primarily at whether the player who made the error is under time pressure or is moving during the shot execution. If one of those factors is true, then that player was forced into a difficult situation by a good shot and thus made a forced error.

But if the player seems to have balanced himself or herself for the shot and to have enough time to execute a normal stroke (not abbreviated one) and still makes a mistake, that would count as an unforced error.

Nadal forces a mistake from Federer. This would count as a forced error.

As you can see, the definition of an unforced error is purely technical. There is no mention of physical fatigue, tactical decision making, and mental game.

There is also no mention of the difficulty of the tennis game. Let's explore these issues in more detail to see whether such a thing as an unforced error actually exists.

Who and What Forces Us to Miss a Shot?

Imagine a beginning tennis player: every ball that comes across the net is difficult and is forcing that player into a difficult situation. The player does not yet have the skills needed to hit the ball into the opposite court and has to improve many tennis skills in order to rally comfortably.

As a result, we really cannot talk about unforced errors for players who have not played enough tennis. Eventually, the technique and the skills improve and that tennis player is able to rally consistently in a cooperative situation with a partner.

Almost every tennis coach talks about consistence and not perfection. It would be unreasonable for coaches to demand that beginning players make zero mistakes. However, the goal for more advanced players is to get better and better, but perfection is unattainable for imperfect human beings.

To understand unforced errors better, imagine you consistently hit balls (or makes shots) in practice in various situations where you are not forced into a difficult playing situation.

These would then be neutral and offensive situations. (If you are in the defense mode and make a mistake, it will count as a forced error.) Consistently, in this context, means with a high percentage: more than 80% for offensive shots and more than 90% for typical neutralizing rally shots. (These numbers are my personal guidelines...)

So what causes (forces?) those unforced errors?

1. Mental Causes

There are many mental factors that can cause unforced errors. As a player, you may:
  • lose focus (distractions - internal or external)
  • change your mind
  • be afraid (of the opponent, of the consequences of missing or losing)
  • doubt your abilities (not being confident)
  • think about technique when hitting the shot
  • think about anything else than just keeping the image of the trajectory of the ball flight in your mind
  • be under- or overactivated (frustrated, angry, upset, anxious)

These mental lapses cause you to not fully focus on the ball and the current situation, thus having the brain use part of its computing power for something else.

The resulting computing power is not enough for the demanding game of tennis; thus, the brain miscalculates, makes mistakes in timing and coordination, and may cause you to hit the ball late or with the wrong racquet head angle and consequently miss the shot.

Can these mental lapses be eliminated?

Not 100%, but players can work with a mental training coach, become better at managing their emotional state and thoughts, and therefore decrease the probability of a mental lapse.

As a player, you need to learn to stay in the "now" and refrain from thinking about negative or positive effects of the outcome of the match and just focus on each shot separately and each point separately.

All these efforts will decrease the probability of a mental lapse and thus of an unforced error, but no player can maintain a perfect mind for more than a few seconds or minutes.

Therefore, players are forced into making unforced errors by the imperfection of the mind and the inability to perfect it. But even in those perfect, still moments of the mind that we call "being in the zone," players will still make some unforced errors.

Why? Because of ...

2. Demands and Complexity of Tennis (and Any Other Sport)

Tennis is an extremely demanding sport. The brain has to calculate extremely quickly the trajectory of the ball, the time left to make the shot, the players' positions, and previous information (such as strategy and tactics), and then make the right decision at the right time and perfectly coordinate hundreds of muscles in the body to hit a very small moving ball with a small moving racquet while moving and controlling the racquet head to a half-degree accuracy to hit the desired area on the court.

Consider all the difficulties of tennis and then it's easy to understand that it is inevitable that the brain and body will sooner or later make a small mistake in those calculations.

Therefore, players are forced into a mistake here and there because the game of tennis is too difficult for a human (brain) to be perfect at it.

In fact, that's how all sports are designed: to be too difficult to master 100%. The outcome of the competition is therefore uncertain and that's what brings so many people to sport events: entertainment and unpredictability.

The basket in basketball is small enough so that no one can attain 100% free throw percentage, no matter how much practice he / she does.

The bat in baseball is small enough so that the batter can hit the ball only 25% to 30% of the times he makes the attempt.

And so on... But there's another reason why we miss shots that seem easy at first glance...

3. The Risk Needed to Play Quality Tennis

There's another factor that forces unforced errors: the risk involved when hitting a quality shot.

If you as a player would just safely tap the ball back by trying to avoid unforced errors, that ball would be too weak and your opponent would attack and win most of the points.

Even if your opponent makes 2 points and misses one, they will still win 2 and lose 1. In theory, you would lose every game at 30 - even if making zero unforced errors.

The shots in tennis need to carry a certain amount of risk because they need to be deep, fast, and accurate in order to gain the upper hand in the ball exchanges and eventually win more points and the match.

Nadal makes an unforced error; he has time to set up for the shot and is not moving. What would have happened if Nadal played the ball very safely in the middle of the court?

As a player, you are looking for that optimal level of risk in which you attack or try to outplay your opponent and make more points than your opponent loses. Therefore, you are forced into unforced errors because of the third and final factor: a certain level of risk.

Note the difference between risking a shot and risking to lose a point!

Even an easy sitter has to be hit aggressively or close to the lines; otherwise, your opponent can easily win. And if you play with risk, you will also miss some shots here and there.

The goal should not be to never miss (which is unrealistic, but unfortunately so many players suffer and blame themselves for these mistakes), but winning more points than losing.

Is Making a Mistake the Player's Fault?

If an unforced error is defined as an error that was not forced by your opponent, putting you into a difficult situation, then the definition may be true. However, that doesn't mean that it's your fault when you make a mistake or that you need to blame yourself.

Players are forced into mistakes by:
  • making mental lapses that cannot be completely eliminated
  • the demands of difficult and complex sport such as tennis
  • the risk of playing quality shots

Therefore, there should be no such thing as an unforced error that you made somehow because of "stupidity." Exactly the opposite.

Players try their best to control their minds, to overcome the difficulties of tennis, and to find the ideal level of risk.

All these factors continuously force players into mistakes.

I personally never blame myself for a mistake because I don't see it as an unforced error. If I am not forced into trouble by my opponent, then I am forced into trouble by my mind, my brain, and the tennis game.

I am not in control of the outcome (not even of hitting the ball, let alone of the entire match) and am just trying my best to overcome all the difficulties of tennis and the imperfections of my brain and mind and hopefully ending up as the winner of the match.

This releases me from pressure and enables me to play freely; therefore, I commit many fewer unforced errors (how others define them) because I am not blaming myself for making them.





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