Have you ever tried developing a new shot (e.g. a backhand flick), but found it difficult to actually use it in a competitive match? You can play the shot easily in training drills – and even in a practice match – but when it comes to a league or tournament match, you dare not use it.
A player I coach, Brian, has been developing his forehand loop. It’s still a work in progress but he’s actually quite consistent with the shot. But in a recent match against a chopper, he had many opportunities to use his forehand loop, but something prevented him from playing the shot. Instead he kept pushing, and lost the match.
Another player I train with – Jarek – is developing his backhand attack. In a relaxed training environment, he has a 75%+ success rate with this strong backhand attack. But like Brian, when it comes to a tournament match, he still doesn’t like to use his backhand attack and will revert to playing a safer, more defensive stroke, instead.
I’ve been working on my backhand topspin vs backspin for years. With my robot, or in a drill with a partner, I can play this shot with 90% consistency. But if a match gets close, I often revert to a push rather than a topspin.
These are three typical examples of what amateur players all over the world experience. Why can it be so hard to add a new shot to our game? And what can we do about it?
The confidence threshold
There are many stages to developing a new shot. First you have to get the basic technique right – usually at a controlled pace. Then you have to do a lot of drilling – usually in regular drills where the ball is fed to a set position. Then you have to apply your new shot in match-like scenarios – this could be irregular drills or practice matches.
It’s rarely a straightforward process. The technique may break down when put under too much stress and you have to go back to the first stage and work on getting the basics right. Or often a player will start achieving high consistency using the new shot at a controlled pace, but when the player adds more speed or spin, the technique breaks down. So it’s back to the first stage again – working on the fundamental technique, but at a slightly faster pace.
This entire process can take a long time, but through all the repetition and tweaking of the technique, eventually a player will reach a confidence threshold. He has hit the shot so many times – and succeeded so many times – he has a strong belief that he will be able to execute the shot successfully and it will be effective. When the shot was in the development phase, he was surprised if the shot landed and caused his opponent problems. Now that he has reached the confidence threshold, he is surprised if the shot doesn’t land and cause problems.
Now that the player is confident in the new shot – and doesn’t have to consciously think about how to execute the shot – he is able to start using the shot consistently in matches. All this practice has made the shot a permanent feature of his game.
How to gain confidence in using a new shot
A lot of practice is needed to get to this high level of confidence in a new shot. Let’s take the example of Brian and his forehand loop. In a coaching session I will feed him some backspin balls to the same spot. He can focus solely on the technique – getting low, pushing up with the legs, brushing up the back of the ball, finishing the stroke around head height. This is the easy part.
But then I will make it more challenging and gradually more match-realistic. I get Brian to practise the transition from a push to a forehand loop. I will vary the amount of backspin – light and heavy – so he has to adjust his forehand loop swing. I will vary the placement, so Brian has to move and loop. I will set little challenges and game scenarios to add extra pressure.
The more I vary the exercise, the harder it becomes and Brian will make more errors. But these errors are useful – as Brian can learn why the forehand loop failed and what he needs to adjust to make it work.
Both of these stages are vital. You need to do the repetition of the stroke from a regular feed, so your body instinctively knows what to do. And you have to apply the stroke in ever more match-realistic scenarios, so you get used to making small adjustments to account for variation of incoming speed, spin and placement. You keep going until you reach a high level of consistency. This brings confidence. The new shot is ready for the next stage.
Using the new shot
At some point, you have to move beyond training exercises and actually use the new shot in a match.
First, you should try the new shot in practice matches. It is very common to mess up when using your new shot for the first time. This is understandable. Maybe you have a little tension as you try your new shot. The technique might break down. This is fine, because it is just a practice match. The key word being practice.
You may even lose to a player you normally beat. But put your pride to one side and look at the bigger picture. If you can make the new shot work in a practice match, it will move you one step closer to using the new shot in a real match, and your game will be stronger.
Sometimes a new shot will feel easy and you will have success straight away in your practice matches. Other times you may need to play a lot of practice matches – and make many errors – before the new shot starts to work. If you believe the new shot is important to your game, then keep persevering. Make sure you keep drilling the shot, as well as applying it in practice matches. You’ll get there eventually.
Focus on the bigger picture
The final stage is using the new shot in a league or tournament match. With the added tension, it is very easy to revert to your usual game and not use the new shot. Your brain makes a calculation about what gives you the best chance to win and chooses the safe option – your usual shot, e.g. a push, and sends the signal to your body to NOT use the new shot, e.g. a loop. Your body accepts the brain’s signal. You see the ball has backspin. PANIC TIME! You decide to push and not loop. Thanks brain!
So, you have to override your subconscious decision making and force yourself to use the new shot. There’s a couple of ways you could do this. Let’s say you have an easier opponent – someone you always beat. This is the perfect opportunity to try your new shot. This weaker opponent is likely to give you easier balls to hit, so you have more chance of executing the new shot successfully. And as the opponent is weaker, you can probably get away with making some errors.
Before the match starts, you tell yourself you are going to try your new shot, even if it means the match is closer than normal. But if the new shot works and you win easier than usual, this will give you great confidence. There is a little risk – you may make mistakes – but the reward is far greater. You will have used your new shot in a competitive match and it worked. This will give you confidence to use the new shot in other matches. Keep focused on the reward, rather than the risk.
Another way to trick your subconscious mind is to give yourself a completely different goal for a league or tournament match. Instead of focusing on whether you will win or lose, give yourself the goal of executing your new shot at least five times in the match. By focusing on this skill, you are far more likely to actually use it. At the end of the match you judge your performance by whether you managed to execute the shot five times, not by whether you won or lost.
Even if you end up losing the match, you will have made progress in adding the new shot into your game. Again, you are focusing on the bigger picture of developing a stronger game, which will help you win more matches in the longer term. But, of course, if you use the new shot five times – and it causes your opponent problems – there’s every chance you will get a good result. And as your confidence in your new shot is improving, you may end up using it more than five times. Now that will be a real success!
Adding a new shot into your game can definitely be challenging – and take a long time – but if you train in the right way and force yourself to use the shot in matches, you’ll get there. This is the challenge I have set Brian. I believe his forehand loop is ready to use. In his next league match, he has to use the shot. It doesn’t matter whether he wins or loses. His goal is to use his forehand loop – to gain confidence in the stroke – and then he will have a stronger game overall, and find it much easier to beat players who always push and chop.