If you’re like me, you probably don’t remember the very first time you started playing tennis. You’ve always played tennis and all those early matches and practice sessions blended together.
Or, maybe you started playing tennis a few years ago and you remember precisely how you started and how awful you were in the beginning. But now, a few years later you’re a lot better.
No matter which of these two scenarios best fits you, at a certain point after learning tennis and playing for a while, you reached a plateau. You had thought your game would just go up and up and up, but for some reason, it never went beyond what it is now.
Let me give you seven ways you can overcome a tennis plateau before talking more about why it plagues almost all tennis players.
- Work on one shot for a prolonged time (weeks or months)
- Practice placement as often as possible
- Take a lesson with a qualified tennis coach
- Improve your physical conditioning
- Work on your mental toughness
- Practice your net game religiously
- Play against better players as much as possible
Despite playing often, watching dozens of tennis videos on youtube and wanting to improve badly, you just have not been able to get to the next level. And you wonder if you ever will.
It’s been months or maybe even years and your tennis level has remained the same. So what’s going on here? When you played an instrument, the more you practiced the better you got.
When you draw or learn a language, the same applies. The more often you draw or speak a language, the better you got at it.
But you may have noticed the same philosophy doesn’t always apply to tennis. Why is that? Why aren’t you hitting harder more accurate shots after each passing week and month you play?
Ah, there’s a very good reason for that. Do you want to know? I’m sure you do. Okay, here’s the secret no tennis coach really wants to tell you. Despite how much you practice tennis, you’re capped by your physical and mental abilities.
What does that mean? Well, let’s look at the physical first. Your body only has a certain limit to how fast it can move or how explosive it can be. Even with ideal technique, you’ll be limited by the physical capabilities of your body.
Some of you are in your 40s and beyond. Your movements are going to be slower and less explosive than players in their 20s. It’s just a fact of nature.
I think most people underestimate how much athleticism plays a part in tennis. It’s not only athleticism it’s also hand-eye coordination and focus.
When you look at the professional players on the ATP and WTA tours, they have fantastic physical gifts. They move fast and their muscles are super explosive. They combine those gifts with near-perfect technique to produce ungodly shots.
If you lack their speed and explosion, you’ll never serve 120 mph or run around the court with the speed of Novak Djokovic. But the good news is you don’t have to at the club level. You can use other ways to improve your game, like tactics, placement, and better mental toughness, which we’ll get into in more detail soon.
The mental side of tennis is a whole other ball of wax from the physical. To break a tennis plateau requires a certain degree of mental toughness and fortitude. In my opinion as a player and coach, I believe 90% of club players or more lack it.
I see the same players year-after-year playing at the same level. All of them have reached a plateau. As a matter of fact, in the 12 years I’ve been playing at the same club, not one of them has broken through to the highest flight, where I play.
Let’s get into the seven ways you can break a tennis plateau. I am sure they will help you if you’ve been struggling for some time.
Work On One Shot For A Prolonged Time
Why only one shot? Why not work on two, three or four shots for a prolonged time? It’s because we can hyper-focus on that one particular shot we need to improve the most.
You know the old cliché, “you’re only as good as your weakest link.” Well in tennis it’s kind of the same. If you have great groundstrokes but an awful serve, you’ll lose tons of points on your serve and never progress very far.
Or maybe you have an all-around solid game except your backhand is horrible. If so, your opponents will notice that and key in on it to exploit it.
For that reason, it’s important to immediately go to work on developing our worst shot. For me that would be the second serve.
While I can hit hard second serves (85 mph +) with some spin, they are not as consistent as I want them to be. At the 4.5-5.0 level, they are rarely exploited. But I know at the higher levels they will be.
It would, therefore, serve me to work on practicing just the second serve for say a month. I would do this by practicing the second serve only for 45-60 minutes per practice session. Ideally, I would practice three times per week or every other day.
If you have the time and inclination, you can practice every day, and in extreme cases, twice a day. After practicing your weakest shot only for several weeks, you should see a huge improvement.
When playing matches, you should also experience that improvement. That will translate into greater confidence, better play and more match wins. Congratulations, you just made it to the next level up and broke through your long-standing plateau.
Practice Placement As Often As Possible
Some of us are endowed with the ability to hit very hard groundstrokes. If that’s you, great. But most of us can’t hit laser forehands like Federer or rocketing backhands like Stan Wawrinka.
To be frank, we’ll probably never develop the technique or physical ability to hit balls that hard in tennis. Additionally, we’ll never serve harder than 100 mph. So how do we offset those weaknesses and get up to the next level?
The answer is placement. A wise coach only told me tennis is 80% placement. It’s not always how hard you hit the ball, but how well you place it. A well-placed groundstroke at 50 mph can often win a point better than a 75-mph ball hit to the opponent. It’s the same deal with the serve.
Instead of trying to hit harder or with more spin, we need to practice placing the ball better to get to the next level. To do this, set up targets on the court and work at trying to hit them.
Do this for your serve first. The three targets you should aim for are out wide, into the body and up the T. For groundstrokes, practice hitting near the corners. If you can hit groundstrokes at tight angles, you can get your opponent off the court and finish the points a lot easier.
You can also do the same with volleys and overheads, aiming for angling the ball off the court. Don’t focus on hitting with more power or spin. Simply practice placement.
After several weeks to months or placement practice, you should notice a huge difference in your matches. You’ll be winning more matches with less effort.
Take A Lesson With A Qualified Tennis Coach
Others can see what you can’t see in yourself. But not just any person – a qualified or certified tennis coach. You need someone with a trained eye to spot the flaws in your game and correct them.
Yes, a private tennis lesson can be expensive (typically $40-$60). But if you love tennis, play often and have been struggling for a long time, one tennis lesson can make a tremendous difference.
Why? Because just one tip can make a ton of difference. I’ll give you an example. Recently another coach I work with named Luke offered to take a look at my serve.
He asked me to take a few first serves. I did and he observed from the side. He then took out his phone and squatted near the ground to video my feet. He then asked me to serve a few more times.
I did and he recorded only my feet. He then replayed the video to me and pointed out two big flaws I had. One was that I moved my lead foot around excessively. The second, and biggest flaw was that I was not jumping off the ground nearly enough.
Luke told me I needed to bend my knees more and explode up into the ball. I told him I was concerned about my racket drop and some other technical things. He told me not to worry about it and just focus on bending my knees and exploding up.
I tried and at first, it felt difficult. But after practicing several times, I got more used to bending my knees further and jumping higher. My timing improved the more I practiced.
Within just a week of that tip, I added 5-10 mph on my serve and at least several of the guys I routinely play with said my serve got a lot better. Serves that were hitting the middle of the box were now landing close to the line.
In a singles match I played yesterday, I hit three aces in one game and had over 15 aces in the match, which is nearly a record for me.
There’s not much more talk about for this tip. Ask around and find a very good coach. Have them give you a few tips for each of your shots and then remember them and work on it.
If you can afford several or more lessons, go for it. Small improvements in technique can translate to big differences in your matches.
Improve Your Physical Conditioning
This one is really a no-brainer. I think every long-time tennis player knows that they should improve their physical conditioning. Better conditioning means you can get to more balls, wear out your opponent and maintain good technique in long matches.
What prevents most club tennis players from doing so is lack of time, injuries and age. It also comes down to a desire to improve physical conditioning.
When young, we can play tennis all day long and still go to the gym. But as we age into our late 30s, 40s and beyond, it’s not so easy. We also have more responsibilities and less time.
Therefore, the only real chance we have to improve our conditioning is when we play. If we play a couple of times per week, that’s generally not enough to make a big improvement.
So what’s the solution? How can we drastically improve our physical conditioning for tennis in a short period of time? If you’re able-bodied and your joints are in good health, the answer may be found in sprinting!
Why sprinting? Because sprinting takes a lot less time than jogging and it’s even more effective at improving physical conditioning. It also mimics the start and stop runs of tennis better than a slow, long jog.
The good thing is that you only need to sprint twice a week to see a noticeable improvement. But you need to be consistent with your sprinting. If you let a week or two go between sessions, you’ll lose conditioning.
Each sprinting session only requires about 15-20 minutes to complete. You can sprint on a track (preferred), in the street or a sidewalk, or on a treadmill. Here is how I do it:
- Warm up for five minutes with fast walking or light jogging.
- Once warmed up, you’ll do 5-10 sprints of approximately 50-60 meters. You can start with 5 sprints and work up to 10 as your conditioning improves.
- Get down into a sprinters stance and then explode from that position into a full sprint until you reach the 50-60 meter mark.
- Once you complete the first sprint, don’t stop. Walk for 30-45 seconds and then get down into a sprinter’s stance again and repeat another sprint.
- Keep repeating this process until 5-10 sprints are accomplished. You should walk or light jog the final 5 minutes to cool down.
Each sprint will only last 6-10 seconds, depending on your speed. It’s very important you DO NOT sprint 100% speed in your first 1-2 or even three sessions. You can pull or strain a muscle doing so.
This is especially true if you don’t normally play other sports or ever run full speed. Instead, start your first sprint session at 60-70% of max speed. Assess how sore you are the next day. If very sore, repeat the sprint session at 60-70%.
Once you are no longer very sore, you can move up to 80% of max speed. Repeat the process, assessing your level of soreness until you get up to 100%. I usually require at least two sprint sessions before I allow myself to go 100% speed.
Try this program out for yourself. You’ll notice a huge difference in your conditioning on court after 3-4 weeks on the program. You should also experience a slight increase in your top speed, maybe as much as 1-2 mph.
Improve Mental Toughness
This one is also a no-brainer for me. And it requires no physical effort whatsoever. If you simply improve your mental outlook, your tennis game will improve for sure.
How can I be sure? Because I’ve personally experienced both sides. I used to be very negative and berate myself after bad shots. Often I would chew myself out over easy misses and constantly frame my tennis in a negative light.
But after years of playing and reading Brad Gilbert’s awesome book “Winning Ugly”, I changed my approach. I started to be more understanding with myself when I made errors. I realized I was always trying to do my best, so my errors were caused mostly from poor technique and lack of skill more than anything.
Instead of saying things like, “you suck” or “what a lousy player I am”, I began to not say those things. In their place, I would think something like, “I need to improve my technique on that shot in order not to miss in the future. It’s a technique and practice problem – nothing more”.
I would then practice that shot and the next time I was faced with it in a match, I would often make the shot. I would then commend myself saying, “See, I was right. With practice, I turned that liability into a strength.”
I know that sounds idealistic, but I really do think like that. When I’m in a close match, I tell myself the match is mine and I visualize myself winning. These mental tactics really do work.
I can’t promise you they’ll work all the time because they don’t. But they sway the odds in your favor. At the least, you need to stop being hard on yourself when you miss.
You may be tempted to throw your racket, have a tantrum or give up on tennis. I know how it is. Instead, channel your anger and frustration into promising yourself you’ll work to improve.
Even if you practice all the time and still miss shots, you shouldn’t get on yourself. Look, tennis is a science. If you’re missing, there’s a valid scientific reason for it. You need to figure out that reason and correct it. There’s no use in berating yourself, which only makes things worse.
If you can follow these tips and improve your mental game, I promise you’ll not only see a difference in the number of matches you win, but you’ll feel better about yourself as well.
It’s just not healthy in any way to turn anger inwards over missing tennis shots. Leave that for John McEnroe. He’s the only one who can thrive off that kind of tactic.
Practice Your Net Game Religiously
Most club players don’t like being at the net. It’s kind of like trying to throw a cat in water. They’ll do everything they can to prevent it.
The same holds true of most club players. Put them at the net and they’ll scurry back to the safety of the baseline as soon as they can – just like a cat would scurry out of the water.
Why you ask? The simple reason is that most club players spend little time practicing their net game. They, therefore, feel helpless at the net. The solution is to work religiously on your net game.
I really like this tactic for overcoming a tennis plateau. You don’t need to hit harder, improve your serve, work on your physical conditioning, or even play more matches.
All you need do is practice your volleys, which typically don’t require a lot of movement – so little energy is expended. You can literally practice your volleys for hours with no fatigue.
Of course, you would need to practice your overheads as well. You can practice your net game with a partner, a ball machine or even on a wall.
I promise you, the more you practice, the quicker you’ll improve. Once you get the hang of volleying, it even becomes fun.
Once your volleys and overheads are adept, you can come in more during matches and knock off easy shots near the net. And if you’re playing doubles, then all the easier.
Believe me, getting up to net is critical for improving your tennis play. Look at Rafael Nadal. He doesn’t come to net often, but when he does, he wins 90% of the points there.
You should need to be strategic about when you come up. Trust me on this, if you don’t do any of the other tips in this article, do this one.
Play Against Better Players As Much As Possible
This is a great way to break through a tennis plateau. Here’s a perfect analogy to highlight this tip.
Let’s say you read at 300 words per minute. If you force yourself to read at 800 words per minute for a matter of days, you may comprehend less and feel uncomfortable doing so.
You may never be able to each full comprehension and comfortability reading 800 words per minute. But if you then dropped down to 400 words per minute, it would seem very slow in comparison. And there’s a good chance you would comprehend most of the words and feel comfortable there.
If that was true, you just made a 33% improvement in your reading speed with little or no loss of comprehension. Are you seeing where I’m going with this?
Let’s suppose you’re a 3.5 level player. Not a bad 3.5 or a good one, just an average 3.5 level player.
Now let’s pretend I set up matches for you for the next three weeks against players rated no less than 5.0 level. At first, you might lose 6-0, 6-0. But after playing against better players for a couple of weeks, something begins to happen.
You notice their technique and start copying it a bit. You begin to understand where and when they’ll hit the ball, maybe even reading their shots a bit better.
You may even develop your own little strategies for winning points here and there. After a few weeks of playing only 5.0 players, you’re still losing badly, but now you’re winning 1, 2 or 3 games each set.
So after three weeks, are you worse, the same, or better as a player. Clearly, you are now a better player.
Now imagine I match you up with a 4.0 level player who you could never beat in the past. Do you think you would have a better chance of victory now? Of course, you would. I would even put my money on you.
That 4.0 level player is going to be way easier to play than against the 5.0 players you were facing for three straight weeks. The balls the 4.0 level player hits now seem slow and telegraphed compared to before. You have more time to set up.
The little strategies you developed against the 5.0 level players are now working very well against the 4.0 level player. Additionally, the 4.0 level player is missing more, giving you more free points.
Do you see how this works? You can’t be afraid to face better players. Remember, tennis is a science. Except losing is a part of the game and get your butt beat as much as possible by far better players.
When you return to your level, the game will seem way easier. I’ve also experienced this personally in my tennis play. It’s improved my game and gotten me out of a rut several times.
Now, the main key to this strategy is finding better players who want to play you. Most good players don’t enjoy playing matches against players way below their level.
If this happens to you, you have a few options. One would be to play leagues or tournaments slightly above your level. If you’re a 4.0, try to get into tournaments for 4.5 players.
Another strategy is to pay better players to play you. Or at least bet them they can’t beat you. If you tell a much better player, “I bet you $20 you can’t beat me in a match,” they will be much more inclined to play you than if you offered them $20 to play you. $20 is just a suggested figure, but it could be as little as $5 or $10.
The last way would be if you take lessons. If so, ask the coach to play you a set in the final 15-20 minutes of the lesson.
I’m sure one or more of these tennis tips will help you break through your tennis plateau. I’ve used all of them at one point or another in my tennis life.
The main thing is to stick with whichever option or options you choose. If you practice your net game for two weeks every day and then stop, after a few weeks your gains will diminish.
It’s the same thing with everything else. Consistency is key. Once you break through to the next level, you’ll be having so much fun, you’ll probably continue practicing so it won’t even be an issue.
If you have any questions about these tips, let me know. I don’t always have the time to clarify every little point, but I think you get the main ideas.
Thanks for reading and drop me a comment below and let me know which tip you’ll use first.
Hi – thanks for this article. Did the sprint session this morning 🙂
I am exactly as you mention here. Plateau’d after 1.5yrs playing at average club level; and frankly really frustrated. For me the worst thing is losing technique. You briefly mentioned at the end there about consistently maintaining skills; but I’ve been focusing on backhand for couple months and now can no longer seem to hit good forehand; or my serve flow/groove has just gone – not only flagging; but literally have lost it. Makes me want to quit. Do you have any tips on this for someone who does not have 2hrs/day to keep training all strokes? Some days I honestly feel like I am playing about the same as I was 1.5yrs ago!