The key in coaching or teaching someone or having someone learn or teach themselves is to control the controllables. What’s important is not doing everything right but focusing on the right things. What are the right things in tennis? If someone isn’t aware of something, then it doesn’t exist. Just like a magician uses misdirection or a decoy to set the audience up for their trick, we as tennis coaches must have our players avoid the pitfalls of focusing on the wrong things (i.e. the result only, technique only).
I developed the 3-2-1 method out of a need to create more drastic improvement with the players that I coach without having to change technique. I wanted them to “try less and achieve more.” Just let it happen. This method was originally born from my interest in W. Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis and recently inspired by Sean Brawley and his Five Pillars to Massive Consistency™.
Point of contact awareness. When you hit the ball on the sweet spot call out “3”. When you hit the ball just off of the center or sweet spot call out “2”. When you hit the ball on any part of the frame then call out “1”. I make the players promise that they won’t use the result (whether the ball was hit in the net or out) as a bias for their number. A solid 3 hit into the bottom of the net is still a 3. The two goals: accuracy of awareness and improvement of point of contact (P.O.C.) hits. If you hit the frame and call out “3” then something needs to be adjusted and if you hit the sweet spot and call out “1” something was awry as well. Over time you want to get more 3s and 2s and less 2s and 1s.
Once you have buy-in from your students then they are in the right mindset to begin this method of teaching. A matter of fact, all future tennis teaching can be based around this 3-2-1 mindset. You are removing opinion and replacing it with fact and perception. A “1” shot isn’t bad, it just is a “1” or it just is what it is. Almost like a chair umpire was calling out the number.
Feed the ball to their forehand and guide them along the way. They hit and call out “3”. Have them call it out as soon as they know. This is helpful because the sooner you know the quality of your shot in competition the earlier your anticipation and therefore preparation for your next shot. So they aren’t calling it out too earlier (i.e. guessing) but they aren’t calling it out too late (i.e. being late with their awareness). Start with just forehands and ask to generally hit cross court but not focus on hitting cross court. Generally aim over the net but only focus on your point of contact or sweet spot.
After feeding and hitting a few balls then ask your student the following questions:
- What that easy or difficult to call out the number?
- How were you able to call out the number? (visual, auditory or kinesthetic awareness)
- Were the numbers increasing over time? (i.e. did you hit better)
Repeat the same method for the backhand. Keep in mind that you are the “guide”. You are not correcting them if the number is incorrect as this is not about “fixing” anything as nothing is broken. It is about a sense of being, mindfulness and fine tuning, refining or honing your awareness. Not correcting, refining. Not fixing, fine tuning. Remove “good”, “bad”, “wrong” or “right.” It just is what it is.
Balance awareness. Have the player hit a forehand focusing on their balance. If they are off-balance they call out “1”, if almost on-balance a “2” and if they are on balance, “3”. This one happens a bit after the point of contact I’ve observed because they could regain their balance during the stroke and therefore end up with a “3” when they started at a “2” or a “1”. The goal again is accuracy of their awareness (i.e. calling out 3, 2 or 1) and improvement of their balance (i.e. more 3s than 2s and more 2s than 1s).
Point of contact and awareness and balance are controllables. Other factors that are important controllables are: height (or arc over the net)), speed (or power), direction (or placement), and spin (a lot of spin or no spin/flat).
Keep in mind that in the P.O.C. drill players may confuse 2s with 3s if they hit with a lot of spin. It might not have sounded or felt solid but it was a 3 with a lot of topspin so just be mindful of this and explain it as needed.
Direction or placement. Direction comes in two components: depth and width. Divide the length of the court into thirds. The back third is the back court and would call out a “3”. The mid-third of the court is the mid court and they would call out “2.” Finally, the ball in the front third of the court represents the front court and they would call out “1.”
When hitting for direction it doesn’t matter what their balance or point of contact is. They are to hone in on their awareness of the depth component of direction. It’s deep then it is a “3” even if it wasn’t hit cleanly. You can only focus in on one thing at a time.
Net clearance. When applying the 3-2-1 method to height over the net you would assign “3” for 3 feet over the net, “2” for 2 feet over the net and “1” for 1 foot over the net. To take it even further, you can assign a “2” for slightly too high and a “1” for much too high.
Spin. When applying the 3-2-1 method to spin you would give a “3” for a lot of topspin or underspin and a “1” for a flat ball with “no” spin.
The role of the guide/coach. If someone hits an amazingly clean shot in your opinion and calls out “2” then you can say sarcastically “that was the best 2 in the world!” It is a lighthearted way of letting your student know that it was a better shot than they thought. This will help with their awareness improvement.
The other component of direction is width. This can vary for singles and doubles. Doubles is mainly a down the middle game and singles is a side to side game for the most part. Knowing that, a “3” for training singles would be in either corner, a “2” would be almost in the corner and a “1” is right back to your opponent.
Doubles “3”s would be up the middle, “2” in the alleys and “1”s right to the net player. This can vary based on the level of doubles you are teaching.
A diagram would look like this:
Now each of these can create strategy. A “3” in the deep left corner should be followed by a “3” in the short right corner. If it was followed by a deep right corner that would only be a “2”.
P.O.C. and balance awareness can be done on the volley. “3” for a solid POC and so on.
The serve you can also do direction/placement (out wide is a “3” for singles and down the middle/T would be a “3” for doubles). You can apply the 3-2-1 concept to the service toss. A “3” if it was slightly out in front and over your right shoulder (for a flat serve, for righties) and so on.
The beautiful thing about this method is that you can apply 3-2-1 onto any shot, strategy or circumstance in tennis to improve and refine it. The more you apply and fine tune your awareness the better your strokes will get without focusing on technique. What’s more is that you aren’t focusing on the 99 things that would be negative distractions like who is watching you, what the score is, how poorly your doubles partner is playing, etc. In other words, if you focus on 3-2-1 you aren’t able to focus on the negative things that would deteriorate your game. This slowly removes the emotions and replaces it with logical thinking and fact.
You can then add up the numbers and have a comparison over time. Today I hit 10 forehands in a row with a total score of 26 while last week I only had 20 for the same number of forehands. Improvement without emphasis on technique but rather on awareness and mindset.
Positive outcomes from using this method have been that the player:
Rarely judged their shots
Was more engaged
Had more fun
Didn’t look up into the window for parent approval (when a junior)
Felt more relaxed due to control over controllables
Had a coach who was more engaged
Had better results
So, remember, improvement in tennis is as easy as 3-2-1!
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