After weeks of preparation, anticipation builds toward the first match of the season. Goals have been set, skills refined, team positions announced, and game plans made. How you handle the practice the day before a match, and the prematch gathering, can influence your team’s performance significantly. Most experienced coaches report that establishing a routine that addresses all players’ needs leading up to a match helps to reduce their anxiety and nervousness. Once you’ve established a prematch routine that works, let your older players take the lead and have them help younger players get ready.
Conduct Prematch Practice
Prematch practices should typically be shorter than normal and high in intensity and quality. This is not the time to introduce new techniques. No player will be able to learn much the day before a match that he can use under pressure the next day. Your primary goals are to focus players on the next day’s matches, to allow their bodies to be fresh and rested, to build their confidence, to provide emergency stroke first aid, and to anticipate distractions that might be present the next day.
A word of caution: Never schedule challenge or ladder matches the day before a team match. If you do, your players’ energy and emotion will be wasted on competition within your team rather than saved for the opposing team. The day before a match is the time to focus on teamwork, support for teammates, and determination to perform well against another school.
In practice the day before a match, after the normal warm-up and stretching routine, spend some time building confidence by allowing your players to practice their strengths. Let them hit their favorite shots. As they practice, show enthusiasm for their success and assure them that you think they’re ready to compete. Resist the temptation to dwell on weaknesses, because this will only reinforce those limitations. Under pressure the next day, any new technique will break down during the match.
Talk with each player about performance goals for the match. Focus on things under her control such as working her way into the point, playing at a controlled pace, coming in to net on short balls, or improving her percentage of first serves.
Before practice ends, check that each player has a game plan so that there is time for her to think about it overnight. You’ll find it helpful to have each player write her plan out on file cards. This will allow her to review the plan that night, the next day, and even during the match when pressure sometimes causes confusion.
Be optimistic and enthusiastic about the upcoming challenge. It’s what you’ve all worked hard for—so enjoy it!
Simulate Match Play
Every prematch practice should include playing points in a competitive situation. You could try 10-point games where one player serves the entire time; when someone earns 10 points, the two players switch roles. Tiebreaker tournaments are also good because they review the tiebreaker order and add the element of pressure. Another good idea is for players to do 10 repetitions of specific shot sequences they favor--for example, serving wide to the deuce court and hitting the second ball deep to the backhand corner.
In general, don’t play normal sets and don’t emphasize winning and losing during a prematch practice. You want every player to feel success and confidence. Construct situations that ensure success for each player at some point during the play.
Use your scouting information to devise situations players will likely face the next day. You can even use some junior varsity players to imitate the next day’s opponent, just as football coaches do. (You might have to give the JV a handicap advantage to make it realistic. For example, if you know one of your players will face a big serve the next day, let the JV player serve from a foot in front of the baseline.)
This is an excerpt from Coaching Tennis Successfully.