Poor decision making is a frequent cause of errors in tennis. It can be
described as an inability to know what to do at a certain game situation or changing
the previously made decision in the last moment. The player who decides to move
up to the net after the short ball, and later changes the mind to go back to the
baseline is likely to lose the point. Players struggle to make proper choices in a
number of situations, such as attacking and defending, returning the serve, or
coming up to the net. Decision making can be improved in training through the
right drills and progressions.
An effective way to train the decision-making is to have the players say out
loud what they intend to do. The verbal cues can be used to increase the attention
and trigger a particular response of the student.
Exercise 1. Choosing the direction: cross or line.
Coach feeds the ball from the basket and the student has to say “cross” or
“line”. At the beginning of the exercise, the coach explains to the students when it is
better to hit crosscourt, for example on deep or wide balls, and when it is more
preferable to hit down the line, like in the more attacking position, when a player
has time to set up. The pro can give the athlete different feeds and the goal of the
student is to make a decision early on where he or she is going to hit the ball. The
primary focus of the student would be on choosing the direction for the shot and
the feedback of the coach should be related to how smart is the decision and how
quickly it is made.
a. A variation to this exercise for the more advanced athletes would be setting
up four cones of different colors in various areas of the court. The players
would have to call the color of the cone they are deciding to hit at. Choosing
between four variants is more difficult and the players learn to decide on
whether to hit short or deep, as well as crosscourt or down the line.
b. Another variation for the students is to start the point with a serve, where the
receiving player would call the intended direction on the return.
c. The progression to the first exercise would be a full-court rally with two or
four players, where they have to call “cross” or “line” before every shot. The
students may choose to hit with any direction and their goal is to make a
d. The next progression will be open game situation, where the players call
“cross” or “line” only on the first shot they are receiving, then play out the
point. A pro may vary the depth, speed, and direction of the feeds to
encourage thinking and decision-making. The points in this game may be
awarded to players for making good decisions as well as for winning the
Exercise 2. “Red, Orange, Green”.
In this exercise the coach gives the feeds of various difficulty and the students
have to decide whether they should defend, create the advantage, or attack.
o Players should call “red” when they get most difficult feeds. When receiving
those balls, the goal is to defend, hit the ball in the court, and prevent the
opponent from attacking.
o Students would call “orange” if they think the incoming ball is of medium
difficulty. Those feeds represent a large number of shots that occur in the
rally during a match. When getting the “orange” feed the purpose is to
neutralize and create the advantage before the next shot.
o Players must call “green” when they think the feed is comfortable enough to
attack and go for a winner. Those feeds are usually short and slow enough
for the player to get inside the court and set up on time. Students should try
to hit with maximum power and aim for a winner.
The teaching points of the pro should be related to the ball recognition and the
different tactical responses made by the students. For example, when the student
receives a deep wide ball, calls it “red” and then hits hard down the line, that
wouldn’t be a good decision and must be addressed by the coach.
a. As a progression to this exercise, the students would make decisions during
the rally with another player or coach. They would call “red, orange, or
green” depending on the ball they would receive before every shot. The
point could be played on a half court or a full court depending on the number
b. In the next progression, the coach or a student feeds the ball anywhere, the
player calls “red, orange, or green” only on the first shot, and after that
students play out the point. The scoring may be introduced.
c. Return of serve variation; this drill is great for working on receiving the
serve. The player has to make a quick decision on what type of serve is
coming and what he or she has to do on the return.
Through this sequence of exercises the students learn to make decisions when
to attack or defend depending on their court position and on the shot that they
Exercise 3. “Up or Back”.
Sometimes tennis players struggle to decide if they should move up to the net or
go back to the baseline following a short ball. As a result, they get stuck in the
middle of the court and become vulnerable. In this exercise coach feeds the ball
approximately at the service line (sometimes shorter or deeper).
a. The student hits the ball, and then call “up”, if he decides to follow to the
net after the shot, or “back”, if he chooses to return to the baseline. A pro
then feeds a second ball and players who came to the net hit a volley, and
those who returned to the baseline hit a groundstroke. The goal for the
students is to make a decision quickly following a first short to avoid
getting stuck in the “no man’s land”.
a. As a progression, the student would choose to move to the net or back to
the baseline depending on the feed, and then play out a point against
another player. This exercise is also great for working on passing shot
decision-making for the defending player. When attacking player comes
to the net, the other person is working on choosing between a variety of
passing shot options, which may include hitting crosscourt or down the
line, as well as playing it low to the legs of the net player or going for a
The ability to make decisions when playing matches is a vital skill for tennis
players. One of the techniques that help to improve decision-making is the use of
verbal cues. Coaches can teach the students to apply cue words in a variety of drills
for different game situations.