Beneath The Surface Of Tennis

When trying to forecast the outcomes of our decisions, one of the more widely used mental models differentiates between first-order and second-order consequences. First-order consequences are the more obvious, surface-level ones. They also tend occur relatively early after the decision is made. Understanding second-order consequences requires a deeper analysis, looking beyond the obvious. Second-order consequences also tend to manifest themselves after a certain period of time has elapsed following the decision has been made.

For example, let’s say a tennis player decides to skip a warm-up at the beginning of a training session. Through a first-order lens, this might be a positive; the player has an extra 10 or 15 minutes to work on her strokes. But through a second-order lens, the skipped warm-up looks more like a negative; the player increases her chances of injury, is not physically prepared for the first few drills of the session, and might learn to place a lesser importance on her physical preparation overall.

A few examples of first-order thinking in the tennis world that have recently caught my eye are:

Don’t work on overheads, you never hit them in matches. This statement is true on the surface. In matches, we hit way more groundstrokes, serves, and returns than we do overheads. Practice time is limited, so why waste it on a stroke that we might hit once a set. If we look a bit deeper though, we realize that a player who doesn’t spend any time on her overheads will not be confident in that stroke. As a result, that player won’t be comfortable coming to the net during the matches. Spending time on the overhead, even though it is a relatively infrequently hit shot, is an important aspect of developing attacking tennis players with a well-rounded game.

Focus only on singles. When playing tournaments, doubles can often be an afterthought. After all, the majority of practice time is traditionally spent on singles, and very few juniors initially aspire to be outstanding doubles players. When looking a bit deeper though, if doubles is not taken seriously, we miss out on an opportunity to work on serves and returns – the two most important strokes in tennis – in a match situation. We don’t take advantage of thinking through movement, angles, and positioning in a different way than in singles. Finally, we don’t learn how to win and lose as a team, and how to communicate with our partner – all skills that extend beyond the tennis court.

Only practice with players better than you. Initially, that seems to make sense. When training with somebody who is better than us – hits the ball harder, is in better shape, can exploit our weaknesses effectively – we can clearly see which areas of our game need improvement. In a group setting, if we are one of the weaker players, it forces us to focus harder and push ourselves more than if we were one of the stronger players. Upon a deeper examination though, playing with weaker players has a lot of positives too. We can adjust our game style to work on things that are outside of our comfort zone. For example, serve and volley once a game. Play only through the middle. Tell yourself that you’re not allowed to hit winners and instead outlast your opponent. Play with only one serve. Start every game at 0-30. There are countless ways how to make practice productive when we are the stronger player.

I’m sure there are a lot of other examples of first and second order thinking in tennis. If you think of some good ones, leave them in the comments!

1 Comment

  1. Matt Knoll says:

    Great work Michal. Thanks for sharing.


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