How many times have you watched your child receive a soft second serve, their eyes light up, they move into attack their ball, unleash a forehand topspin down the line… only for the ball to sail a metre long? Maybe they’ve hit a good serve, their opponent plays a short return to their backhand, they stalk the ball, hit a vicious double handed backhand only to hit the ball too flat and the ball hammers into the net.
As a parent it can be heart breaking to see the look of anguish on our child’s face and the slump in their body language. We try and remind ourselves of coach’s words and lines in books that for younger children, the important thing is that their intention are right, the execution will come with practice.
This may be right but at the same time, we want our children to have success, win matches and there is no doubt that children who can reduce their unforced error count will win more matches.
One of the things that I have been talking about with my son has been, can he reduce his number of unforced errors so that he stays in the point longer. He has commented on other children that they don’t necessarily hit the ball any harder but they just keep getting it back.
This week, coach was unavailable so I took on the role of hitting partner. We agreed that we’d both work on reducing the number of unforced errors we made. First we warmed up and played lots of points but did not keep count. In the second half of our practice we began to play tiebreaks but created our own scoring system. The agreement was, if you won the rally with a winner you got one point but if you lost the rally with an unforced error, the other player got two points. This really focussed our minds. However at the same time we did not just ‘moonball’ or play ‘pattercake’ tennis we went for our shots. By the fourth tiebreak he was making fewer unforced errors and hence thrashed me. We both left the court with smiles on our faces.
In his next competition, he was up against a really good player in the first round. I never expected him to win but we talked about staying in the point as long as possible. The match unfolded and after losing the first set, I decided to keep some records of the second set. I could see he was playing really well but if the score board did not show this I wanted to give him some evidence of his improvement.
I kept count of unforced errors and winners and there in black and white was the fact that my son was making the most unforced errors. However this was not the true tale. This was two boys who were slugging it out from all round the court. They were putting everything into their shots and rallys were regularly longer than 20 shots. At some occasions my son just had to lean over this racket to collect his breath.
To me, this was the situation were an unforced error isn’t an unforced error. If you’ve hit 15 shots from all angles of the court and run 100s of metres and then hit it into the net, you haven’t made an unforced error, instead you’ve been pressurised.
In terms of the score line my son lost comfortably but he came off the court pleased as he knew he’d played well and he forced the other player to work hard to win the match. This then becomes our job as tennis parents to highlight that positivity of progress. Our unforced error would be just looking at the score line or our own statistics. Our winner is any smile on our children’s faces.