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Dave Rineberg's Coaching Corner: How to face your fears and hit that tricky shot anyway

Dave Rineberg in Opinion 6 Oct 2018
  • Dave Rineberg is back with another expert dispatch from the Coaching Corner
  • Rineberg is the former hitting coach of the Williams sisters and has coached 26 top-100 players
  • Read on as Dave explains how to overcome your fear of missing a particular tricky shot
Aryna Sabalenka throws her racquet after missing a forehand as she plays at the China Open (Photo by Di Yin/Getty Images)

Why can't I hit that shot? Fear.

The Problem

I’ve heard it said a thousand different ways, in many different degrees of loudness and in a hundred different whiny tones, “Why can’t I hit that shot?” My favorite example of all time, though, is when I was watching a professional men’s match in Delray Beach, Florida and heard a veteran player cry up to his coach who was sitting next to me, “What’s wrong with my backhand? Why can’t I hit it?” Sorry - no coaching allowed during match play.

Rafael Nadal reacts to making an error at the US Open (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
Every player has that one stroke or that one shot that can go haywire suddenly and cause them to lose points. It’s how that player reacts to this sudden breakdown which will determine a positive or negative outcome of the match. Those players who overreact from the very first mistake have deeper mental wounds about the stroke or shot missed, and will often struggle the rest of the match in other parts of their game until they can get to the practice court and stop the bleeding. 

Are you one of those players? Does missing a certain shot cause fear, anger or some other emotion to enter your body, your mind, your game and cause you to lose it mentally? 

All players, even at the pro level, have a certain amount of discomfort or fear about a certain shot or stroke. Federer’s backhand goes off course once in a while, and with Nadal it’s anything at the net that causes his knees to shake. For many WTA players it’s the serve that brings out the most emotions, and after the first double fault, you will see some players who will lose total confidence in their serve. That fear that is hidden deep down inside quickly comes to the surface. With the internal fear emotion now out of the box, the double faults get more numerous followed by outward displays of emotion like crying, getting angry or complaining. 

Some players try to stop the shot or stroke breakdown technically by shortening their swings, but if it is a technical problem, it can’t be fixed during a match, and this will lead to more mistakes and more emotions. Technical problems should only be fixed on the practice court. 

The Fix 

To fix the breakdown of a shot or stroke, you must first determine whether it is technical or mental. 

The practice court is the place to work on overcoming your fear
Some players are so mentally weak about a stroke or shot, they even get emotional about missing it in practice, which is detrimental to ever fixing it. Practice is the one place where you are allowed to make mistakes as long as you are trying your best.  

A player who shuts down completely after missing two or three of the same shot does so because of the emotion of fear. You must conquer that fear of missing before you can once again hit the shot or stroke that is affected.

The first step in conquering the fear is to learn everything there is to know about executing that shot or stroke. If in your mind, you are technically competent, then your confidence in executing that shot or stroke will reduce the fear of failure. 

Once you know you are executing the shot or stroke properly, then you must decide to be more lenient on yourself when you do make a mistake. Try positive self-talk when you miss like, “mistakes are part of the game” or “no worries I’ll get the next one". Also try pumping your fist when you hit the shot well or giving yourself an encouraging slap on the leg. Keep reminding yourself that you are trying your best. 

Next you must change your attitude about the shot or stroke and accept that you still will make mistakes from time to time. You might try changing how you use the shot tactically. Maybe you have been trying to be too offensive with the shot and need to change to a safer execution zone, or maybe you are being too controlled with the shot and need to swing more free.  Using the shot differently may open up opportunities for you in other parts of your game.

The Tip

To help speed along your success with the shot or stroke you fear missing, start recording in your memory all the times when you execute perfectly. Fall back on those memory recordings after a missed execution to remind yourself that yes, you can do it. Successful execution in practice and winning points in matches will quickly change that fear you have always had and turn it into courage. Good luck!

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Dave Rineberg's Coaching Corner: How to face your fears and hit that tricky shot anyway

Every tennis player has that one shot which they fear going wrong and which has the potential to unravel their whole game. Master tennis coach Dave Rineberg, former hitting coach of the Williams sisters, shows you how to overcome your mental block and stop that downwards spiral on the match court.

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