PL 11 555841262053_688146352_o

The Two Hats


What I am about to tell you will sound so, so simple that you would say to yourself “who would ever get those two hats mixed up ?”
Well trust me, I have seen so many players get totally mixed up with this simple idea. The main reason for getting it wrong is that emotions and beliefs kick in and destroy any possibility of rational thinking. More about this later.

To start with let me explain the concept of the two hats to you.
This paper/presentation refers to that group of players who are working on improving their game. Most likely they are taking lessons in one form or another.
There is another group of players who have only one hat. These players are not truly working on improving their game. They often dream and wish they were better, but they have not actually embarked on a programme with the intention of making large steps in their tennis game.

So the first group is constantly involved with wearing two different hats. If they are playing a true match they need to be wearing their Match Play hat. If they are taking a lesson they need to be wearing their Lesson hat.
Things go terribly wrong when the player wears the wrong hat at the wrong time !!
Their Hats of course are symbolising the players attitude, goals, direction, focus and purpose on the court.
If the player gets it right ! ………………………
Then during a lesson the player has the Lesson hat on and is focused on making specific improvements to their game.
And conversely during a match the player has the Match Play hat on and is focused on what they have to do to win that match.

Sounds easy…….right ?

I should say now that a percentage of players are very good at this. Another percentage of players have it totally wrong. The remaining players will be quite good at it, but slip up every now and again.

So it really does begin with Attitude. If you have the correct attitude you will automatically do the right thing, whether it be practice, a lesson or a match. Hence you will be maximising your valuable time on the court and giving yourself your best chance of making maximum improvement. If you have an incorrect attitude not only will you be wasting your valuable time on the court but also slowing down your improvement and more importantly developing bad habits. Probably you will not even know you are developing these incorrect habits.

Regarding habits, I see many pupils develop some very poor tennis habits. It is strange because if I ask them how good a player they want to become, they immediately put up their hand and indicate a high level of tennis standard. But, right before their own eyes they are developing some disastrous habits, like taking the ball on two bounces in a warm up session. Everyone knows that you cannot take the ball on two bounces hundreds of times during the week, and then on Saturday match play expect to run down every ball like Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Lleyton Hewitt etc. And yet no matter how many times I tell them about making bad habits…….it goes straight over their heads.
I used to get frustrated over this (see my blog The Perfect Lesson) until I decided that I had better get my thinking straight. Since then I have realised that the real issue is the player’s psychology. This type of player is so busy thinking about other things and or so obsessed with other things/thoughts/ideas that they are incapable of absorbing what I am saying to them and they simply let my advice go over their heads or they sweep it under the carpet.
Hopefully you are not one of those players !!

The sketch below shows a junior player sweeping things under the carpet , following a match he has lost.



There are three main sessions a tennis player will come across. Lesson, practice and match play/tournaments.
Lets start with Lesson sessions.
If you have your thinking correct you would be absorbing everything the coach is telling you and if the coach is correcting some part of your game you would be listening to everything the coach is telling you AND then trying to apply that new information to your physical movements. As an example a common error on the backhand is to take the racket back too high (and then usually not far enough back). You cannot imagine the number of students I have seen who hear what I say, but on the very next ball… change to the swing. Ok, fair enough, that was the first ball. I explain again…..still no change. Ok try it again……still no change ! By the time I get to the tenth ball….I know I have a problem. This pupil is incapable of transferring my instruction to their own physical body. I do know that breaking old habits is extremely difficult, but to have absolutely no change from a person who is physically gifted……..points to another problem, as I have previously mentioned.
I will give you another example. Some years back a very smart girl (intellectually smart) was taking regular private lessons from me. She was physically gifted. She basically did not play any other tennis; occasionally she had a hit with her parents.
After about two years I said “ ok Suzie (not her real name), it is time to go in a fun, social tournament and there is one coming up in three weeks time”. She went into panic….”oh no, I cannot do that. Anyway, I cannot get my serve in !”. So I told her that all would be ok and we would work on her serve for the next three weeks. So in the following lessons a majority of the time was spent on trying to get her serve in. The problem of course was her ball toss. Now I have seen other players with an incorrect ball toss (too far back for example), but they at least had the same toss every time. Not so Suzie. Every toss was as though there was a tornado or cyclone with the wind coming from every direction. No two tosses were the same. I came to realize her left arm (tossing arm) was like a wild runaway stallion. Fair enough for someone who has never played a match, but man, I had showed her how to move the left arm correctly so many times.
I will give you an extreme example. When I was working in New York I had an ex NY Giants linebacker (American football) come to me, telling me that he had just joined the club, never played tennis before and wanted to take a few lessons. Boy, he was probably the best pupil I ever had, so quick to learn. In three lessons he had a pretty good grasp of the first serve, smash and volleys. That year he won the club mixed doubles. His groundstrokes were below average, but he sized up the situation perfectly, played doubles only and of course you can guess the rest…..rushed the net. At net his volleys were very reliable, his anticipation was superb, he was so quick, leapt a mile and had a perfect smash. At the end of the year he was in demand from all the ladies wanting a doubles partner.
So back to poor Suzie, what went wrong ? I know her body was good enough to control the toss so there had to be only one other solution. She was not able to control her left arm……thus she was not able to control her mind. Whilst we were doing hundreds of practice serves I know for sure her mind was somewhere else. Now I cannot tell you where ( a psychiatrist possibly could), but I can tell you where she was not ! She definitely was not focused on her left arm.
So I ask you again, have you ever done something like this ? Not concentrating on the specific body part whilst you are trying to change a stroke. ?

Another situation may take place like this. During a lesson the coach explains what the next drill will be. This drill includes point play and scoring. If you were involved and you are three minutes in to the drill, what are you thinking ? Are you mainly thinking about how you can beat everyone ? Are you trying to prove to everyone that you are the better player ? Or are you thinking that this drill is good for you because you lost your last match with these same drill items being a weakness in your game. And you realize you now have the opportunity to practice items which have in the past been troublesome for you.
If you have your Lesson hat on correctly you will maximize your improvement. If your mind is somewhere else you will actually be reinforcing the same old negative habits.

Practice sessions can also be a trap. You need to decide what your goals and priorities are.
Now some practice sessions are actually practicing for a match. It may be Thursday but you are practicing for the match on Saturday which is a big tournament and important to you. Thus you would wear your Match Play hat, and you would attempt to practice and play exactly the same way as you have planned for the Saturday match.
Most times though for a practice session you would have your Lesson hat on.
You would have pre-decided that you were going to be 100% focused , especially during the whole of the session, not part only of the session.
If there is no coach assisting you, you would have planned which things you are going to practice. You possibly may never play even one normal point during this timeslot. If you are working on taking a short ball….what are your plans ? Simply keep it in ? Hit with penetration? Hit with placement ? Hit an outright winner ? Then where are your aiming spots for all these exercises ?
If you have the wrong hat on you will not be focused on the above items. You will be worrying about the score. Or who is winning. Or even proving that you are the better player !

One year when I was living overseas I had two pupils stay with me for the summer. A teenage boy and girl. Our routine was breakfast first, then a hitting practice session for at least one hour before other players came and joined in. After about a week of this the girl came up to me and told me she would not hit with the boy anymore. When I asked why she explained that to start the rally she would hit the ball down the middle of the court towards the boy ( a normal thing to do in a warm up hit); he would then blast the ball into one of the corners. I say blast, because that is what he did with the result that either the ball was out or it landed just inside the corner. Either way the girl had no chance for a hit on the ball.
So what was truly happening here ? Well the boy obviously had his Match Play hat on….at the wrong time. He was unable to see that it was a practice session, a chance for both players to work on their games and make gradual improvement. This boy was actually quite weak in the areas of good footwork and consistency. He should have been eager to practice those and eventually turn some previous losses into wins. But no, he had his Match Play hat on and that meant win at all costs………even to the extent he was going to lose his practice partner.

A normal practice session would be you focusing on a particular part of your game and repeating that particular movement/drill/exercise with the plan of gradually making those correct movements more habitual. Lets say you did 1.5 hours work on a couple of items. You would have had your Lesson hat on. At that point of time it would be ok (if you wanted) to put your Match Play hat back on and finish the session with a few games of real point play. Of course your main focus would be on improving those particular couple of items, however playing real points right now would be quite suitable as it would come under the heading of lets give things a little test. If the particular items hold up well during this little test you know you are getting closer to ownership of those shots. If the items now collapse in this trial match that is still quite ok, it simply means back to the drawing board and do more basic work so that the new movements become more habitual.

And then we have Match Play time. So this one should be the easiest one to get right. Well, mostly it is. Obviously if you are playing a match you are supposed to have your match Play Hat on. And it means just that. You are supposed to know the rules of the match or tournament. You should be working out your own percentages. How many winners v how many errors ? Or what percentage first serves are you getting in ? Are you hitting deep enough ? And where/what are your opponents weaknesses ?
Players who have not done their correct homework on their own game are the ones most likely not to have their Match Play hat on. They will be too worried about what other people are thinking. Too worried about their precious standing in the club’s theoretical rankings. Too worried about what their parents are going to say should they lose. And they will lose……..they have to……..they have not done their homework. They have not had their Lesson hat on during lesson time.
Regarding match play, there actually is another hat which players often wear. The Emotional hat. I refer of course to any negative emotions taking place in the player during a match. A player’s emotions are heavily connected to the player’s attitude. Have the wrong attitude ???…………then you will have the wrong hat on.
An example of a player having the wrong attitude would be someone believing that they are better than their opponent when they are not better. They may look better, perhaps hit harder and to a degree look more professional. They will say “but look at him, he cannot serve, his style is terrible, he never comes to net, he cannot hit hard and he is simply a junk hacker”. But when the match is on our prima donna player……loses ! (See my two stories on myself in the French at Paris and Gaugestones). So this incorrect attitude will spell disaster the moment our prima donna player begins to feel the match slipping away. There will be no fall back plan for him………how could there be when he has not been doing his homework ? And so usually our losing player will become more emotionally unstable and slip further and further away from wearing the correct Match Play hat.

Sk Psy-5-revised[1]


Let me show you how the Emotional hat works (negative emotions).
In the diagram below you can see that the best performance will be gained by being In the Zone. (The narrow band at the top of the parabola).

Arousal Level

When you are In the Zone you will automatically have your Match Play hat on. If not, you will have your Lesson hat or Emotional hat on.
Being easily distracted will be one of the first signs that a player does not have their Match Play hat on. See sketch below.

If you are distracted you will not have your Match Play hat on.



The answer to distraction is to be focused on the task in hand so much that you put up your shield. See sketch below.

Sk Psy 2A-revised2


One of the biggest issues for almost all players is…..the fear of losing.
I have seen so many matches with bizarre performances by the losing player. Most times this happens when the player is playing the most important match of their life. At club level it often is the final of the junior club championships. I have seen players freeze. And I mean freeze. Cannot run for a ball which is only three or four steps away. Just last year I saw one of our local juniors go into clown mode. This player simply did not try at all (fear of losing) and played like it was a comedy act. I have seen players so nervous before the match that they were literally shaking.
A player caught in this negative package needs to assess themselves fully. What are their goals ? How much do they really want this win ? How much are they prepared to work ? And if they say they really do want it……….then do the correct thing. Start dropping those negative emotions. Get into the Now. Assess the situation correctly, then do something about it. Success will not come to you because you dream about it, you have to Earn the right to win !!
Adopt the correct attitude, wear the correct hat and hop in and do the work.
Another situation I see take place comes from a good pupil. In this case too good. This type of pupil may have learnt a new item or swing or grip or technique in their last lesson.
It may have been a grip change on their serve. They learnt that their old Western forehand grip for the serve did not have any future and that the Continental grip was the way to go.
So all of that is good, but not if that lesson was last week and this weekend you have the club championships. There is no way that this player can so quickly adjust to the new grip AND still get the ball in. This player will make many double faults and probably get well into the match before they decide to change back to their old grip…..but of course it would be much, much to late to save the match.
So the mistake they made was this. During the lesson the player had the Lesson hat on…..perfect so far. But then in their eagerness to learn as quickly as possible they kept their Lesson hat on when they went to the tournament. Instead they should have put their Match Play hat on, related to consistency, placement etc and played with their old grip and given themselves a chance to win the match. The moment they started to use the brand new grip they had no chance of winning the match.


Incorrect Grip for Serving (Western forehand)


Correct grip for Serving, the Continental (for the future)

Another disastrous result can come from young Johnny getting his hats mixed up. I have changed the name, but otherwise this is a true story. I was the coach; it happened to me.
This is the story of Johnny and his Dad.
To begin with Dad from time to time watches Johnny at lessons.
Dad does not know a lot about tennis but he assumes Johnny is an A-grade junior because Johnny looks so good in the lesson. He swings something like Federer, hits nearly as hard and some shots go into the corners like rockets. Dad is convinced Johnny is one of the best juniors in the club.
The sketch below shows what Dad is seeing Johnny do when Dad is watching some of the lessons.



Several months go by and then comes the club championships. Dad cannot watch the first match but for the second round dad is able to be at the club. Dad is excited because he thinks Johnny has a really good chance of winning the whole tournament !
Dad of course does not realize that Johnny has drawn the club hacker, the club Gaugestone. See sketch below.

Sk BT 24-Alan-square[2]

This player looks hopeless (no style at all) but he knows the real game of tennis including percentages and tactics.
So the match starts and Johnny begins by playing the same as in a lesson (Lesson hat on ).
But for you, go back and look carefully at his ball placement in the above sketch. You will notice that all shots look good but only six are in………and ten are out. So have a guess what happens to the score ? Under those odds the score slips away very quickly. There would be a good chance that Johnny would quickly go down 0-4 and from there either lose the first set 0-6, or actually run a bit lucky and kind of claw his way back into the set but only to 3-6 at the most.
So how is Johnny feeling now ? Not good. He still believes he is better than his opponent. However on top of that he has Dad watching and Johnny knows that Dad would be getting very frustrated. Pressure and distraction on Johnny.
So Johnny may simply start belting the ball in hope enough go in, or throw a tantrum or simply stop trying.
But if Johnny has half a brain he will dig in and make a fight of it. But how ? Well Johnny at this stage does not have many options left. He must reduce errors, he must keep the ball in. So he goes back to the only shots he knows which will keep the ball in. Those are the strokes he started with twelve months ago; junk, poor technique but the ball stays in.
Unfortunately for Johnny those old strokes of his do not have depth nor placement. So where do his shots go ? Down the middle of the court AND at medium pace. See the sketch below.


Of course every now and again Johnny gets frustrated and goes for a driving ball….but that will go out or in the net. Trust me on this one !
So again Johnny is forced to go back to hit the ball into the middle of the court and stop making errors.
Unfortunately there is no way Johnny can win doing this. No way at all. His opponent is too good at that game, and he has been practicing and playing matches like this all his life ! Johnny has no chance.

And now the key part of the story is that quite likely this is the first time Dad has seen Johnny play like this. And Dad is rattled and confused and embarrassed. How can his son play such terrible tennis ? What has happened to him ? Why is he doing this ? etc etc
And on a couple of occasions, after the match is over, I have had the father come up to me and demand his money back for all the lessons he son had taken. Why was I teaching his son such rubbish ? How could I call myself a professional coach etc etc
It all started of course with Johnny having his Match Play hat on during lessons instead of his Lesson hat. And add to that the false expectations of both father and son……….disaster.
So I have shown you Johnny A and Johnny B.
For his true improvement Johnny needs to become player Johnny.
He would start with Johnny B (keep the ball in) but then work on improving his technique (Lesson hat on) so that his strokes gain more depth, more placement and eventually more power.
At that stage Johnny will be able to keep the ball in but at the same time be hitting many penetrating shots which would give him the chance to either advance to net or simply put the ball away.

Summing up. This is another lesson on mindfulness. You need to check your thoughts. You need to have the correct attitude and that will tell you which hat to wear and when.
And perhaps you had better get two more hats…….for Dad.