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by TennisTom 2010

An early learner is a conception which I frequently use on this website. By early learner I refer to a player who is beyond beginner level and is able to maintain a slow to medium-paced rally during a point, and who, importantly, is motivated to learn how to play better. (A similar term is “improver player.”) The early learner is still in the initial stages of becoming skilled at shot production and is concentrating on learning strategies and honing shot skills.

Generally the following National Tennis Rating Program playing level characteristics apply to the early learner. [See instructional NTRP General Characteristics of Playing Levels]:

“This player is fairly consistent when hitting medium-paced shots, but is not comfortable with all strokes and lacks execution when trying for directional control, depth, or power.”

Due to significant differences in player background experience and abilities, great variability exists in early learners. They may have played anywhere from less than a year up to a number of years. Some early learners have taken, or are taking, lessons. Many have already come to love the game.


At the risk of over simplification, the two basic styles of playing, are:

  1. Playing mostly not to lose the point – based on trying not to miss the shot

  2. Playing mostly to win the point – based on forcing point opportunities

This has importance in social and league tennis because 1) You should know in which style you own game is based, and 2) It can be helpful to recognize the playing style of your opponents so that you will more easily anticipate their shots.

Although virtually no one plays exclusively in one mode or the other, players usually adopt one style based on their pre-tennis life experiences.(!) In tennis the decision is often unpremeditated and just naturally happens.

For the early learner, somewhere in the continuum, consistency, i.e. playing not to lose, will produce the best results. Players who play not to lose primarily do so because of their comfort zone, and we often find these players hanging back at the baseline. There are fundamental problems with playing back at the baseline most of the time: Between equally matched doubles players 3.5 or below:

  • It is very difficult to hit winners from the baseline, and

  • its almost impossible to win at doubles with both partners back at the baseline when the opposing team has control of the net

If both teams are stationed back at the baseline, you are playing near beginner type tennis, which is OK for beginning players, but I encourage all players to eventually learn how to play to win the point. I am admittedly biased, but I feel that the game of tennis is inherently a competition. If the element of competition did not exist, tennis as a sport would not exist. And, for most players, playing to win is a lot more fun than playing not to lose.

All of my students and hopefully many of my readers, should be slowly incorporating tactics and strategies into their game which increase point making opportunities.

Explanation: Strategy vs Tactic. On this website, a strategy is a game plan or overall blueprint; relatedly a tactic is a maneuver or ploy. An example of a strategy in doubles is constantly lobbing an aggressive team who like to monopolize the net. Another example of a strategy is to adjust your game to a more conservative playing style if you are losing the set. An example of a tactic is to repetitively hit short angle shots against a baseliner opponent who is slow to move. Another example of a tactic is to hit slice in order to keep your shot low against a hard hitter.

WHAT WORKS BEST. With one exception, ” Watch the ball,” no rule in tennis is absolute. The instructions in this website are a result of analyzing what works the best for the most players at certain levels. So when given an instruction by your coach, if you discover that you are producing “yes but” excuses, then you might rethink that. On the other hand, if you have a definite concern with an instruction, then craft it as a question to your coach and you are engendering the learning process. Coaches love questions.

As an early learner, it is your charge to continue learning by playing to win rather than playing not to lose. Playing to win at this level is not about aggression; it’s about using your tennis smarts.



There is a clear difference in playing to win the point with your tennis smarts and playing to win the point with aggression. [See the instructionalPlaying Smart by TennisTom.”]

Many men tend to play overly aggressive tennis due to their socialization. This tendency includes choosing to attempt winners when their past playing reveals a poor win-loss shot history. This type of risky tennis only works OK if your more-or-less equal opponents play just as risky as you do, or if your team is simply has better players in the first place.

I have seen a number of clinics given by other instructors where they calmly tried to force feed their 2.5-level students into being aggressive. The instructors had their students’ best interests in mind, but the fatal flaw was that the students simply couldn’t learn the maneuvers that were being fed to them. Example. Last season I watched a coach try to get her charges to hit midcourt volleys with a topspin “swing volley,” which is used by many professional players on TV. The students simply couldn’t reproduce the necessary timing and movements involved in a swing volley. Although the instructor’s information was “spot on” from a technical viewpoint, she wasted the students’ time and money.

The bottom line here is: You can’t win by overhitting (hitting harder that you can control your shots). Hitting hard is a learned skill over time. If you try to skip this learning step then you will pay the price of excessive loses. Counterintuitively you learn how to improve more shots in mindful practice than in actual competition. Playing is more fun that practicing. A tennis T-shirt I have might be addressed to this situation: “Life is crap® ☺


[1- Early Learners & The Two Playing Styles by TennisTom] [Rev 5-5-11]


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