Practice with Purpose

Contributor: Ben Wolfe

How Practice Doesn’t Necessarily Make Perfect

According to the Department of Transportation, the average American drives 13,476 miles per year. That should mean that people are getting better at driving as they get older, correct? The best way to see if this is true is to look at the number of accidents based on age group. Here is what the stats look like from the insurance company, AAA, over 15 years of data. :

AAA Accident Stats

If we measured skill level in terms of accidents per 100 million miles driven, then there isn’t much difference in driving skill once you get into your mid 30s as the average crash hovers just below 500. So this begs the question, why are we not improving at a skill that we practice almost every day?  With all the cumulative practice, we should be professional drivers by the age of 40 and essentially have near zero crashes!  This leveling-off of skill doesn’t only apply to driving, it also applies to our skills as tennis players or pretty much anything we aim to get better at in life.  Many of us tennis players can relate to this feeling and often refer to it as “plateauing”.  No doubt most of you reading this article have plateaued in your game at some point. If you want to learn how to make it over the plateau and take your game up another notch, then keep on reading.

The Path of Least Resistance

It is within the chemistry of our brains that makes it easier to focus on the instant gratification rather than the satisfaction coming from dedicating a large chunk of time towards a long-term goal.  Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that communicates with neurons in your brain, is responsible for the drive towards instant gratification.  In fact, there are many addictions of drugs, food and money that are directly related to the dopamine released in your brain.

Even without knowing the details of how brain chemistry works, you can see how this relates to practicing as an adult.  Most adults that I’ve seen on the court practicing will either hit balls from the baseline or play a practice match.  Although these practices can be beneficial, most of the time we turn auto pilot on while doing them, losing valuable opportunities in improving our game.

Think of it like this: if you’re hitting baseline shots back and forth, you’re putting yourself in a situation that is comfortable and easy.  This is very similar to driving.  We don’t improve in our driving because we are doing the same actions over and over again without any concentration towards those actions.  If you are not focusing on certain elements of your game while hitting, you might as well stop hitting as there will be little opportunity for growth and a low chance to improve your game.

Change the Environment -> Change the Behavior

The best way to improve your practices is to change the types of drills you do.  This will instill a behavior conducive to learning.  For example, if you have trouble with heavy topspin shots to your backhand, have your hitting partner hit heavy topspin inside out forehands to your backhand.  If you struggle with  approach shots and volleys, play baseline games where any ground stroke your partner hits into the service box is returned by you hitting a down-the-line approach shot followed up with a volley to end the point.   There are plenty of purposeful drills available for you to try but the main idea is to isolate the problem you have and set up a drill to work on it.

How Open Court Club Can Help

Having hitting partners that can challenge you is extremely important to improving your game.  At Open Court Club, you can find players of higher levels to do such drills with.  In fact the players you find to hit with will have plenty of great ideas for drills that can isolate the strokes and strategies you want to work on.  The best part of Open Court Club is the price and options.  Open Court Club has a wide variety and large number of hitting partners to choose from and having a session with one of these partners is significantly cheaper than going to a club, making it more affordable to improve your game.  Find your hitting partner at

Good Reads on Focused Practice

If you are interested in learning more about the importance of focused practice and how it relates to other aspects of your life, check out the following books:

  • Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness
  • Bounce by Matthew Syed
  • Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

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