How to train effectively against weaker opponents
Every now and then I will get a parent coming up to me to say that their child is too good for the group they are in at the moment and they wonder if they are wasting their time. Most of the time this is not true, they are simply biased in favor of their child: seeing only the good shots that they make while at the same time only picking out the mistakes that everyone else makes.
To these parents I usually explain (as nicely as possible) that their child is no better than anyone else in the group, and even if they were, there are many ways they can still get a lot of benefit from the group training.
It always annoys me that people think their child can only improve if everyone around them is better. How do they think the top players improve? They don’t have a magical training partner that is better than them. As long as they have someone who can hit their shots back at a decent speed, consistency and accuracy, top players like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are happy.
When I used to play on the tour, I would come home for a few weeks and find myself stuck in my hometown with most of the top players away playing tournaments. There were still some good players around, but they weren’t always available to practice with and sometimes I would have to practice with players that were not challenging opponents.
This is what I would do to get the most benefit out of the sessions with the less advanced players:
1: Focus on Yourself
Don’t worry about what your opponent or anyone else is doing, just focus on doing the right things for your own benefit. Things like footwork, technique, positioning, shot placement, running for every shot, etc all can be worked on regardless of who is down the other end or who you are training with in a group.
Obviously it can be more motivating if you are surrounded by better players, but then what do you think the top players in the world do? They don’t train with each other, so they have to train with worse (lower ranked) players and they are fine with that because they focus on improving their own game.
2: Work on Your Weaknesses
Don’t like coming to the net to finish points? The perfect time to practice this is against weaker players. How about hitting over (topspin) on your backhands? Also the perfect time to hit these shots. Weak second serve? Hit every serve as a second serve.
Forget about the score or the end result. Yes, you probably should be beating the guy down the other end 6-0, but today you are working on improving your game, so you may end up losing some games. The benefit is that (hopefully) your game will improve, especially if you can do this every time, and when you come up against stronger, more challenging players, you will be ready.
3: Move Your Feet
It’s easy to get lazy or sloppy with your footwork when playing someone that you know you can beat easily. The hard part is making sure you keep the feet moving and even exaggerate it by trying to take more steps than normal to every shot. For example: take 10 steps before every shot, even if the ball is coming straight to you.
This will help improve how well you move your feet by forcing you to take the steps, which will eventually just become automatic. Also, make sure you are doing the split step properly every single time as your opponent is striking the ball. Again, this will help you get used to doing this when you really need it: against the better players.
It’s very easy to relax and lose your concentration when playing against an easy opponent. You know you’re going to win, so your concentration slides because even if you make a few mistakes, it doesn’t matter, right? No! Because what happens is that you are reinforcing bad habits by not concentrating on doing the right things the whole time.
Being able to maintain your concentration for a whole match is not as easy as flipping a switch and turning it on. It can fade away without you even realizing and all of a sudden you have lost 5, 6… 10 points in a row!
These easy matches and training sessions are key to honing your concentration for the tougher matches. Top players realize this from an early age (either from their own match experience, or by learning from their coach) and work on developing it throughout their careers.
5: Try New Tactics
Playing against weaker players is also a great time to try out some new tactics. Maybe you want to see how well a certain shot combination works, or how it feels to actually do it. Or maybe you want to see what happens when you stand closer to or further from the baseline. Or you just want to try playing more aggressively or more defensively to see how it works.
This is a great time to try this out. If something isn’t going according to plan, you can go back to playing your usual way, but now you at least have some live match experience in trying that new tactic when you come up against a tougher opponent.
6: Set Challenges
When playing points, you can set yourself some challenges: like hitting only cross court shots, or limiting yourself to hitting winners only from your backhand side (no forehand winners), or coming to the net at least 2 times a game, or taking every ball on the rise, or serving to only one corner (not your favourite corner) for each serve, or just work on your kick serve by hitting them even for first serves. There are many options, you just need to be creative and focus on areas of your game that you need to, or want to improve. Below I have added a list of a few more challenges you can try:
1: Hit only down the line shots
2: You have to finish every point within 4 hits
3: Count how many points you can win in a row by either hitting winners or forcing your opponent into hitting an error (forced error)
4: Any ball that lands inside the service box, you have to use that shot to approach the net
5: Serve only to your opponents forehand
6: Every 4th ball has to be a dropshot
7: You have to run for every ball until it has bounced a second time
8: Do 5 knee jumps before the start of every point
9: Do 5 pushups every time you lose a point
10: Land as many shots as you can over the service line
11: Take 10 steps before every shot
12: When you come to the net, hit the first volley back to your opponent (to practice reacting to a passing shot)
These are just a few challenges, but I’m sure you can be creative enough to come up with a list of your own specific things that you want to concentrate on improving.
Remember to only try one or 2 of these at a time, maybe for 1 set, then change them up in the second set (or you can keep the same challenge/s for the whole match if you feel like you need the practice).