Your Level Best - 5 Tips to play at your best!

by Adrian Coles, Tennis Canada Coach 3

December 2023

The thrill of going for the 'near-impossible' for a chance of fleeting locker room adulation can take over. How can we summon the courage, and sense, to play well within our capabilities?

Are you one of the growing number of players wanting to get more competitive with your tennis? Do you want to move on from pick-up games to playing league or team matches, or even entering local or provincial events?

'The Competitive Edge' by lifelong player and coach Adrian Coles, features easy to digest tips and strategies to help keen recreational competitors play smarter. Improving stroke technique certainly helps but that requires a great deal of deliberate practice. A quicker way is to sharpen tactical skills whilst still using the strokes you've already got! He will cover topics often overlooked or even glossed over in on court instruction when hitting lots of balls is what is appreciated most.

This ONTENNIS exclusive series is a must-read for anyone who plays tennis at the recreational level and is interested in optimizing their match-play competitive experience. To access the other stories in the series, visit

The ONTENNIS Competitive Edge Series, Part 5:

Your Level Best - 5 Tips to play at your best!

In our effort to play better is it inevitable that we must eventually reach our own level of incompetence? If we are never satisfied with our own true level, then we pursue the impossible dream of hitting the ball harder and faster, and closer to the lines, daring the tennis gods to grant us the luck and talent to perform outrageous shots that even the 'GOAT' would not attempt! The thrill of going for the 'near-impossible' for a chance of fleeting locker room adulation can take over. How can we summon the courage, and sense, to play well within our capabilities? To play without the lure of the adrenaline rush that accompanies that rare impossible winner? Is it in our nature to play in a way that we often sneer at in others, that safe 'vanilla' seemingly mediocre, no risk, no talent, just-get-it-back style? It may not win us momentary applause from passers-by, but it may win us more matches!

Take your game to the next level.

Trying to do more with the ball than you can reliably do means many more errors. This results in having to win more points just to stay even. Trying to hit more winners means attempting to make put-aways off inappropriate balls, in other words poor shot selection. Trying to create more service winners off first serves leads to more second serves, thus increasing the chance of double faults!

In our dreams our best tennis would be error free, we would feel in total control, never rushed, being fit enough and smart enough to wait for the right opportunity ball and having the patience to enjoy being in control of the rally, delighting in having our opponent reacting to our every shot. It is possible to have more success, to compete better, without going through the drudgery, tedium, and frustration of trying to get to, and play at, the 'next level'! Here are 5 tips to help you play your best at your level.

1. Increase your 'Rally Speed'

Your 'rally speed' is the speed of shot that is dependable, and neutral, neither forcing your opponent, nor giving them the opportunity to attack you. Maybe this is between 60- 70% of your top speed. This is the speed that you could reliably maintain during long rallies. Your shots will have good shape and depth. By being so steady, you challenge your opponent to go for more to win the point. You are teasing them into 'over pressing', going for a shot that is riskier. Usually the player with the faster 'rally speed' will prevail. So, try to gradually increase your safe speed, rather than blasting the ball as hard as you can, hoping that the law of averages will eventually work in your favour.

2. Know your strengths & weaknesses

Gradually increase your “rally speed”.

Be aware of your best and worst shots. Try to understand what shots reliable, and what type of balls create problems for you. Maybe you could have video of yourself playing taken on your phone! You might then realize that what it feels like is not always the way it actually is. Slow motion can reveal things not noticeable at normal speed. Play to your strengths as much as you can and avoid being too ambitious on the difficult ones. If your backhand is a little weaker than your forehand, for example, try running around your backhand to hit more forehands. The best players do that a lot!

3. Use 'deliberate practice' to improve weaknesses

To improve you will need to work on specific aspects of your game, broken down into small, deliberate practice sessions, with a feedback system to measure progress. It is difficult to work on problem areas when competing or playing in your regular games. Set aside some extra time to have sessions with a purpose. Just hitting more balls, doing the same old things in a general way, will not produce the desired progress.

4. Avoid these 'over pressing' traps

Going for low percentage shots is always risky, and an all-too-common reason for errors.

Hitting down the line is always a low percentage shot. The net is higher, the distance shorter, and the margin for error width-wise is very small. When in doubt hit cross court! The net is lower, the diagonal distance is longer, and your recovery position is closer!

Hitting 'inside in' forehands can often lead to giving your opponent a big space to hit into. This too is a low percentage play! Again, the crosscourt shot is your safest option.

It is all too common, even in the pro ranks, for errors to be made off apparently easy shots. Why? We tend to give full attention to difficult shots, then relax a bit when the degree of difficulty appears less. It is a concentration issue. The best players try to follow this: 'The easier the shot appears, the more care I will take!'

Don't try to hit a great shot when a good one will do! Don't go for over-kill on an easy putaway. You don't get extra points for speed or style!

5. Play against weaker players!

This is counter intuitive! Surely you should play with stronger players? Yes, but there are valuable lessons to be learned from competing against lesser opponents.

Playing much better players may get you used to receiving faster, more penetrating shots, but you will just be reacting to their play. When you play opponents who do not challenge you as much, then you have to learn how to dominate, how to construct the point, how to create the openings.

It is a trap to pitch your effort level to the perceived threat level. It is very easy to get lazy when you don't feel it necessary to play your best. Learn to play the ball, not the opponent. It is a challenge to your ability to stay focused!

Against weaker players you have the opportunity to practice shots and patterns you don't use much. How about serving and volleying? Even the top pros are using this more. What about drop shots? Do you need to practice approaching the net off a mid-court ball?

By practicing against weaker opponents, you actually get to experience what it would be like to be playing at a higher level, as you feel less threatened, more in control, and winning more rallies! Nice to get used to that!

In conclusion, rather than trying to play too well, trying to hit the ball harder, and faster, trying to win the point sooner, why not try to play more consistently at your reliable rally speed. When your opponent knows there will be no easy points off your racket, the pressure is on for them to do more, to take more chances. They will end up giving you more points! If you want to play your level best, make your existing level your best. Trying to up your level means you will play with more errors, and that makes winning much more difficult!

Adrian Coles, Tennis Canada Coach 3 and Tennis Analytics Certified Technical Analyst, brings a wide variety of perspectives to his new series 'The Competitive Edge' based on his decades of involvement in playing, coaching and managing. His success as a top British junior player, plus his time as the touring coach for his world ranked daughter, enable him to offer useful insights to players aspiring to compete in local, provincial or national events. Having witnessed the evolution of the game from the beginnings of Open Tennis to its current iteration, Adrian is familiar with many different styles of play giving options to players of different ages, interest levels and abilities. His passion is to help as many players as possible get the most out of this wonderful sport of a lifetime.

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