Tennis performance: What’s the formula?

20 May

What most people believe about their performance

While playing as a junior, I always thought that your tennis ability was determined by a murky equation that combined practice with your underlying natural talent for the sport (perhaps in roughly equal measure). While I knew there was a positive correlation between practice and performance (i.e. if you practice you get better), I did not know how much was enough. On top of this, I had no idea how much practice my opponents were doing, or how much natural talent they had.

When someone beat me in a match, it was very difficult to pin down the real cause. The possible reasons were:

1)                  He is more naturally talented than me
2)                  He is getting better coaching than me
3)                  He practices more than me
4)                  He had a better day than me

So my ability relative to others was based on a combination of the following factors.

Whether you realise it or not, everyone has their own unwritten equation for performance. The one that most people use states that their performance is the sum of their practice + coaching + natural talent + current form (as shown below). At a glance this may seem reasonable, because there is some truth in it, but in its current form this formula is both misleading and unhelpful for young players.

Why is this equation so harmful?

There are too many unknown variables in this equation! So many that players can’t see the exact relation between practice and performance (or investment and reward). This seriously decreases motivation to practice. It’s not that players aren’t willing to work hard, but that they aren’t willing to work hard for an uncertain return on their time and effort. Think about it…would you spend hours, days, and weeks working for someone without knowing whether you’d be paid $2 per hour or $50 per hour? Well it’s the same with tennis practice: does practice make up 20%, 50%, or 80% of our performance? Is natural talent worth 10% or 60%? What is the quality of my coaching? How much are my opponents practicing? The unknown variables also allow us to very readily blame poor performance on one of the factors that are out of our control (such as talent). As a result, we are not convinced we need to change anything to change our results and therefore tend to continue on the same path we are on. The familiar excuse “I just had a bad day” similarly encourages us to continue on the same path, and you don’t need me to tell you that the same path leads to the same results.

What is the solution?

The solution I aim to provide in this series of blogs (and one of the main goals of the BlueprintTennis website) is to define the real relationship between practice and performance, so that you know what rewards you can expect for your investment in training. Once you have confidence in the true role of practice, we can explore what kind of practice causes the most rapid improvement, and why.

Next blog post: What is Natural Talent?

As noted above, natural talent forms a large part of most people’s equation for performance, and most people are convinced that it’s important for making a champion. But there has been a lot of research into the matter, so rather than make assumptions, let’s stop to examine the precise role of natural talent and how important it is for your tennis game.

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