Do You Play Better in Practice than in a Match?

by Adrian Coles, Tennis Canada Coach 3

July 2023

If you believe this, then you may start every match just waiting to prove yourself right!

(Photo Credit: Barry Kohl)

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 2:

Do You Play Better in Practice than in a Match?

Once you start competing you may feel more pressure to play well and so we look at the often-posed question “Why do I always seem to play better in practice than in a match?”

If you believe this, then you may start every match just waiting to prove yourself right!

“Here we go again, another "off" day!” So, let's try to derail this belief. Learn to judge your match performances realistically and stay positive. Becoming aware of the parts of your game that breakdown under pressure shows you what to work on. It is so much easier to hit the ball well when there is no pressure. It doesn't matter if your shot goes in or not in practice, just feed another ball in! And how you judge your performance is different. You remember all your best shots in practice, but in a match, after a long rally of solid hits, it is only your final error that counts! For your opponent!

In a casual hit-around all rallies are of equal value. When competing, points are not all the same. Break points, set points, & match points are much more important to the outcome than other points. Extra pressure for you then! When practicing, players are usually just trading shots, trying to give each other neutral returnable shots. Good luck trying to find a match opponent who would do that for you! The balls you receive in a match may have you scrambling all over the court!

Practice both what you can do and what you cannot do so well

So, to play better in matches you need to do more in your practice hits, more than just rallying back and forth in a casual, relaxed manner! Here are some practice tips:

1. Run for every ball.

In practice it doesn't matter if you hit some balls on the second bounce. We've all done it! “Don't want to waste all that energy, don't want to strain something!” Great movers like Djokovic, Serena and Alcaraz run down everything, even the seemingly impossible to reach. They can do this because they have done it in practice! “There is no such thing as wide on the practice court!” is a mantra of the most committed and dedicated. So, try running for more balls, even if you know you may only reach them after two bounces. This practice will help make you faster around the court!

2. Perfect First!

Focus on the task at hand

It is usually the error count that determines the match winner. The player with the fewest mistakes has the best chance for the “W”. Experienced players know that one of the key factors in reducing errors lies in their ability to concentrate, to focus, to not let the mind wander. This is a trainable skill – you can develop this when you practice.

Always check with your medical professional before taking exercise! Practice at your appropriate pace and intensity. Start off hitting at half speed, straight to your cooperative practice partner. The speed should not cause any problems, the direction is known, so the only reason you might miss is because your mind is wandering! Gradually increase the speed and try to maintain consistency.

Grand Slam legend Bjorn Borg was rumoured to have only started using the second ball out of a can after ten minutes of not missing the first one! Being “Perfect First” is the pros philosophy. Starting out error free will give you the confidence and the ability to stay focused in a close contest.

3. Vary your shots!

It is all too easy to just practice what you can do. It gives you a false idea of how well you are playing. It feels good and hides what really needs to be worked on, however, during a match in which your opponent is trying to force you to use your weakest shots against their strengths, these weaknesses are easily exposed! You need to build up your weakest shots’ reliability. In a match you may need to vary the speed, spin, height, and direction of the ball to prevent being predictable, so practice both what you can do and what you cannot do so well. Practice variety!

4. Give yourself a break!

A match is played at a different rhythm and tempo than that of a casual hit. Competitors change ends and take a break to refresh, review, and reset. This is when an analysis of what is happening can take place; solutions considered and adjustments, if necessary, are made. It is a vital part of the competitive process. Don't ignore this when you are practicing! Give yourself a break every 5 minutes or so and reflect. Become a problem solver!

In conclusion, realize you will feel under more pressure in a match. It will be difficult to play as well as you are able to on the practice court, where there is no pressure. When practicing, try to incorporate more match elements into your hitting. Don't just hit your best shots, it may give you a false sense of confidence. Hit a variety of shots, using different speeds, spin and height. To improve your agility, try running for the more difficult-to-reach balls. Remember to give yourself a break. Pace yourself as if you are on the match court by having change-over breaks to review what you are doing.

Train your concentration by being “Perfect First”.


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.

Do you have a favourite tip you would like to share, or a topic you would like us to cover? Please let us know via email at:, and don’t forget to practice your match play! “Good Luck”.