“Want to hit some?” You might be at a local park you’ve not played at often, away on a vacation, or even at the place you frequent most.
Within a minute, you realize you are in rare territory. You are hitting with a significantly better player. We’re not talking about an NTRP 4.0 hitting with a 4.5. We’re talking about a major skills gap – a 4.0 across the net from a woman in her 30s who is a sectionally ranked Open player, or a 3.5 with a man who played college tennis, or, in special circumstances, the chance to hit with a former WTA or ATP pro.
The psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) created a concept called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The premise of Vgotsky’s idea is that a student best learns within a certain range of skills. You might expose a third grader to fifth grade concepts. But the child likely would not gain much if thrown into a high school classroom. Applied to tennis, this is why it’s often best – and most players do this – to typically play with those a bit worse, similar and slightly better.
But surely you won’t be harmed by having an occasional hit with someone beyond your ZPD. What do you do? What can you learn? And how might those lessons aid your cause once you’re back in the ZPD?
A fortunate byproduct of my work life is that I’ve had the chance to hit hundreds of times with world-class players. It’s fun and edifying. Brian Gottfried and Trey Waltke explained how I needed to modify aspects of my game for clay. My Tennis Channel colleague, Justin Gimelstob, showed me the nuances of moving on grass. Mats Wilander described playing style as “ugly and pretty all at once.”
But it’s also quite sobering. John Lloyd crushed me 6-0 in just over 15 minutes. I’ve been yelled at by John McEnroe, nailed with a ball by Jimmy Connors, aced by Luke Jensen with a kick serve that bounced over my head, beaten left-handed by Andy Roddick.
These are just a few experiences that have taught me much. Call these lessons the five Cs:
Concentration. Since the ball will arrive deeper, harder, sooner and more frequently than anything you have ever seen in your life, this is not the time for schmoozing. Every fundamental concept you’ve ever heard must come into play. Watch the ball. Get your racquet ready. Move your feet. And don’t speak unless you’re spoken to.
Consistency. If you wish to impress this person and make it worth their while to hit with you, please do not try to equal their pace. It is much more important to repeatedly get the ball over the net and in the court. Hidden hint: Since this better player is providing plenty of pace, confine yourself to hitting approximately 75 percent as hard as you normally do. Think steady and smooth more than slash and slap.
Cooperation. You are hitting, not playing points. Do not, repeat, do not try to strike winners. No sudden drop shots. No down-the-line drives. No lashing crosscourt angles. No quick dashes to the net for a single volley that you poke for a winner. Be aware, that were you playing points, you are on the court with someone who can take just about every ball you’ve hit and terminate you within two shots.
Compliance. Do whatever this person wants. Do not ask if you can play a set. If she wants you to hit only to her forehand, comply. If he asks for overheads, throw up those lobs. And please, pick up balls with urgency, even running to fetch them and keep the rally going.
Community. Think about the way this person willingly engaged with you. Tennis communities teem with the malignancy of players who look down their noses at lesser players, ignorant of what they might actually learn and gain from hitting with them. To be sure, the vast majority of your time on the court will be in the ZPD.
But maybe, the next time you show up at your local tennis venue and are just looking for a hit, you can offer to rally with a player worse than you – and you might learn something too. This person’s slower ball might force you to more vigorously move your feet, shape your swing and drive through the ball rather than rely on the user-friendly pace of those better than you. And if you put these Cs into action, no matter who you’re playing, your skills will sharpen.