Most tennis players strongly believe that in order to improve they have to practice with better players. Ironically, these same players tend to forget that in order for them to practice with better players, the stronger players have to practice with a weaker player.
In reality, if you cannot have a great practice with a weaker player, you are probably not much better. If you were, you would be able to guarantee a positive and productive experience for both.
Here are some ideas that will help you turbocharge your practices with a weaker partner:
1) Practice your weakness
If your “A” game is too strong for your partner, use your “B” game. Play points forcing yourself to use your weaker shot as much as possible. If your slice backhand is much stronger than your topspin backhand, use only topspin. If you struggle with your spin serve, use it exclusively. If you do not know how to hit drop shots, practice them.
Similarly, practice your weakest strategy. If you feel unsure attacking the net, move forward as much as possible. If you tend to get impatience, work on long rallies. In other words get uncomfortable!
2) Work on your footwork
Weaker players are the ultimate footwork coach. If they hit the ball softer than you, run around their shot emphasizing your footwork. Try to hit only forehands or only backhands or even more challenging, hit a forehand if the ball comes to the backhand side and vice versa. Similarly, work on hitting every ball either on the rise or at its highest point.
If your partner’s problem is not a softer game but lack of control, great! Time to chase down random shots. Make an effort to return every single shot, regardless of where it bounces. There are no lines for you that day!
3) Practice your control
Weaker players are also superb control-teachers because unless you are able to hit the ball in a way they can control it, the practice will not work very well. If your partner is a bad mover, shrink the court - play only to half the court and let your partner play anywhere. If you want to challenge yourself more, give yourself an even smaller area to hit into. Another option is for you to have to hit only in one direction, for example, every ball crosscourt. That is, your partner knows where the ball is coming every time giving him/her more time to set up.
If movement is not a problem but rather your partner’s strokes are not very good, play every ball so as to facilitate your partner’s task. If your partner has a very weak backhand, hit everything to the forehand and so on.
4) Practice your concentration
One of the main reasons practices become unproductive against players that can’t push you, is the tendency to lose focus, so challenge your concentration.
Trying to win every single point or as many points in a row as possible is an excellent way to remain intense. Alternatively, work on following the ball to the strings on every shot or try to minimize mistakes by challenging yourself to hit every ball into very specific areas. Additionally, you may try counting every single hit at the moment of impact to keep you focused (1, 2, 3...) Turn the session into a meditation practice: ball, ball, ball…
By using one or a combination of all these strategies you can improve your game regardless of the level of your partner. A better player will automatically push you, but when on the court with a weaker partner you have to find ways to push yourself. So put your ego aside and make every practice work for you, and remember: If your practice against a “weaker” player in not productive, you may not be as good as you think.