Practice like a GOAT
You may have watched, or at least heard about, the insane Wimbledon final this past Sunday (2019 if you are reading this in the future). The player on one side of the net, Roger Federer, is fairly considered the GOAT in men’s singles tennis. As spectators, we see him just appear on the tennis court and gracefully float while whipping balls here and there – effortless.
But is it? Effortless?
Let’s look at Roger’s dedication and work through one aspect of his game: the
backhand. At the 2008 Wimbledon final, Rafael Nadal edged Roger for the
championship. He did it primarily by targeting Roger’s backhand. Over and over Rafa sent high topspin shots raining into Roger’s backhand. Though Roger battled for 5 sets, in the end he could not overcome this deficiency in his game. And so it continued for several years: Rafa exploiting Roger’s backhand to amass a 24-16 head-to-head record against Roger.
Rafa made it clear that there was room for improvement in Roger’s game.
In 2016, Roger got a break from the grueling year-round tennis schedule while
recovering from injury. While training after his recovery, Roger had a chance to work on improving his backhand – reducing the chance that it could be let him down in future matches.
While a lot of work went into his rehab and improvement, one practice session stands out, illustrating the extent of Roger’s work into improving his backhand. During that one session (one) Roger played 20 sets against Lucas Pouille, a top-20 singles player 12 years younger than Roger. Roger estimated that he hit thousands of backhands that day. Particularly important is how he hit the backhands: he did so without regard to where they landed.
Roger was not worried about whether he was winning or losing the game or set. That was not the point of the practice session. The point was repetition and the ability to hit freely – hitting shots that may have been uncomfortable so that he could work on improving a shot with which he had already won countless times.
It was through probing and tweaking the shot that he was able to improve. In the 2017 Australian Open finals, Roger unleashed his improved, more aggressive,
backhand on Rafael Nadal. It was the difference in the match. Roger started catching the high topspin shots earlier, surprising Rafa and leading Roger to victory. The GOAT had gotten even better, thereby reclaiming his ability to defeat the other top-tier players.
Maybe one day one of us will be the GOAT in pickleball. Maybe not. Either way, there is a lot to be learned from the tennis GOAT’s continuing quest to improve his game:
1. Improvement should always be an aim. Even the best seek to improve their
game. Make improvement an aim of yours. It can be as simple as reducing one
missed serve or return each time you play to as complicated as learning how to
stack on return of serve. Find an area where improvement will make your game
better and work on it.
2. Improvement takes work. There is no effortless victory – no matter appearances. Most of the players who win tournaments have worked at their game. While it may look like it’s easy for a player to hit a shot or to know where to be on the court, you can be sure that what looks “easy” was the result of hours spent on the court. If you want to improve, you will have to work at your game.
3. Improvement requires purpose. Have a purpose when you are practicing –
something you want to improve. Use drills and rec play as opportunities to
improve that stroke, movement, or whatever else you need to improve on.
4. Improve in practice mode. When you are in practice mode, do not worry about the score or whether you win or lose the game. Know what you are doing and why you are doing it and have confidence in your path. You may lose that one game but over time you will improve and win many more that that one game.