Decision-making – it’s what really counts

You’ve seen it before – Roger Federer lines up with what looks like an obvious dropshot, but then produces a slice forehand winner as his opponent stumbles forward – fooled by the sudden, deadly change of intent.

As he prepares for the forehand, Roger, in a split second, must prepare, not for a dropshot, but as though he is going to hit a dropshot. All this while taking into account his opponent’s court positioning (and where he thinks his opponent is expecting him to hit his forehand). 

And it’s not easy to make a professional tennis player look helpless.

Decision-making. Or more precisely, the ability to make good decisions under immense pressure.

More than anything, it’s really the thing that wins tennis matches – the ability to choose the right shot to hit at a certain point, or when to come to the net, or when to let a smash bounce before hitting it, or when to go down the line when you could have gone cross court. Make a wrong decision at the wrong time and the match is over – how Novak Djokovic wishes he hadn’t rushed forward to hit that tragic smash into the net at a critical stage of his fifth set French Open final against Nadal.

As a coach, how do you develop this skill in students so that they can learn to make effective decisions on the court?

Coaches and players should remember that decision-making is a skill, and a skill to be practised. It starts with asking some tough questions – What did my opponent just do? What did I do wrong? What do I need to do differently after losing the first set? And what will I do next time? In many cases it’s not the technicality of a shot that was the problem, it was the decision-making error which caused it.

You only have to witness junior tennis matches to work out which usually wins – terrible decision-making and great shot technique, or great decision-making and mediocre technique?

I’ve seen junior matches where all of a sudden a player has hit a mis-hit balloon return to an opponent’s forehand, but somehow won the point.

Or  with so many double handed backhands in juniors, a player with an effective slice backhand being able to completely destroy their opponent’s rhythm.

Ultimately better decision makers become better tennis players. Besides, do you really want players so reliant on parents or coaches from the sideline yelling “hit it to her backhand”?

And it’s why match play is so important – you don’t really know how good you are (and your decisions) until you have tested yourself in match conditions. So play as many sets and matches as you can.

Tennis is a bit like chess – one move can have massive implications. And who plays tennis like a chess player, keeping his opponent off balance and wondering what the next strike will be?

Everyone can hit the ball hard and deep and with topspin – but it’s the player who makes the best decisions who will win. So teach it just like any other technical skill, put yourself in a situation in practise where you have to make tough decisions, and learn from them.

Just remember that next time you’re playing Roger and you give him a short forehand ….

Shane Scrutton

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