“Good” and “Bad” Mistakes

How to manage and define risk and unforced errors.

  1. There will be times when things are not going so well, where you will make mistakes. There will also times when things are going well and you make mistakes. The reality is that mistakes are very much part of the game. The important thing is to recognize and distinguish what constitutes a “good” mistake (not that any mistake is necessarily good) from a “bad” mistake.
  2. Right away you need to take away the net as a hindrance. This means no mistakes in the net and any mistake in the net is always considered a “bad” mistake.
  3. Similarly, you want to eliminate mistakes hit wide of the sidelines. Aside from the serve (which I will get to later), mistakes missed out wide are generally considered forced mistakes and should be avoided. The focus should always be to stay in the point by making your opponent “hit one more shot”. If you are hitting from a disadvantaged court position and given an extremely narrow down-the-line passing window, rather than trying to make the spectacular pass and risk hitting the ball wide of the sideline, think of other options. Consider chipping the ball at the feet of your opponent or hitting a defensive lob. At the very least, make your opponent “hit one more shot”. Every shot requires a quick risk/reward calculation of best options. If in your analysis your only option is to aim directly at the sideline, understand there is most likely a 50% chance you will miss wide. In most situations, you need to establish a margin by aiming at the very least several inches inside the sideline.
  4. So, what constitutes a “good” mistake. Missing a target and sending a ball long of the baseline when trying to get additional depth and spin would be considered a “good” mistake (except if the mistake was caused by a lack of weight transfer and follow through). Missing a ball long due to a tightness in the arm and racquet head deceleration would be considered a “bad” mistake.
  5. Positioning (where you are positioned in hitting the ball) is a major factor in determining your risk in making any shot. You can be decisive with confidence when hitting the ball from inside the baseline. Making a mistake when attacking from inside the baseline (where the probability of success is high) is unfortunate but still considered a “good” mistake (particularly when hitting to a big target area). Trying the same shot from well behind the baseline is a low probability shot and not so smart and is considered a “bad” mistake.
  6. You are rarely operating in a vacuum. If you have a history of consistently making a shot or executing a pattern that on one level seems risky (such as pulling the trigger early in a rally to redirect the ball up-the-line or stepping around your backhand to hit an inside in forehand), the few times you do make a mistake attempting the same shot or pattern would not be considered “bad” mistakes. This does not mean you can be free swinging. There is a fragile line to being careless. You need to build margin into any shot or pattern. You also must be cognizant of your positioning and preparation before attempting any shot (but particularly a shot that has a lower probability of success). On a related subject, beware of succumbing to the allure of a big shot. Proceeding to make a series of mistakes trying to replicate the impossibly difficult shot you made in the previous game is not smart.
  7. The score creates a context for defining risk and the number and types of mistakes that are tolerable. Going for huge shot and making a mistake at 40 – 0 in a nonconsequential game would not necessarily be considered a “good” mistake but would not be a “bad” mistake. Making the same mistake at two all in the tiebreaker is a “bad” mistake. Making an error in trying to do something new to add versatility to your game when ahead in the score would be an example of a “good” mistake.
  8. There are statement shots that serve their purpose even if resulting in a mistake. Targeting the alley off the return in doubles lets your opponents know you are not afraid to hit down-the-line and that they should be wary of poaching. Going at your opponent (although not the nicest thing to do) can have reverberations well past the initial shot.
  9. Matchups and styles of play influence the number of acceptable errors. The number of unforced errors and winner to error ratios do not always show the true picture. For example, if you cannot stay (on a consistency basis) in the point from the baseline nor power through the court to get balls past an opponent, you will need to find ways to come into the net which requires a different mindset and the likelihood of more errors. A player who attacks and comes in on everything should never expect to win every point. The goal is not to win all the points but just most of the points. For another example, a player with a strong and dependable serve secure and confident in the ability to hold serve can be more aggressive off the return. It may lead to more mistakes with the return and quick service games but there is always the chance of hitting a few return winners in succession perhaps resulting in a nervous double fault and “boom”, the set is over. As a final example, a high-risk big hitter with a lively arm and explosive groundstrokes who has the potential to quickly reel off a series of spectacular winners but is also prone to just as quickly hit a series of mistakes can be extremely disruptive to your ability to find rhythm. This player may not present the cleanest stat sheet (with a high number of “bad” unforced errors) but as an opponent, can present a formidable challenge. It is difficult to feel in control or establish any rhythm and timing when playing this playing personality.
  10. Managing risk with the serve and the acceptance of a certain number missed serves or “good” mistakes is based on a calculation of four factors – 1st serve percentage (the percentage of first serves put in play), the percentage of points won when getting the 1st serve in play, 2nd serve percentage (the percentage of 2nd serves put in play) and the percentage of points won when putting the 2nd serve in play. It is hard to do the calculation in your head while playing but with match play experience it becomes more intuitive. Your percentages are based on how well you are serving (serving rhythm and timing, ability to hit your targets and ability to generate pace and spin) which can vary match to match and the ability of your opponent to neutralize and attack your serve. There are many other factors which influence your success in winning your service games other than the serve, but it is interesting to play with the numbers. Strategies are not so obvious as highlighted by this simple case example. If you hit 70% of your 1st serves in play and win 70% of the points when getting your 1st serve in play and then get 90% of your 2nd serves in play and win 50% of the points when getting your 2nd serve in play and play a total 100 points with your serve, you would win a total of 63 points (with three double faults) or 63% of your service points. Interestingly (and you will have to trust me with the numbers), if you were to hit two 1st serves or the same average velocity for both your 1st and 2nd serves (which many would feel is reckless) while maintaining the same 1st serve percentage (70% of all serves put in play), you would double fault nine times but would still win 64 points (one more than you would win with the more standard serving strategy). Would you tolerate nine double faults to win one more overall point with your serve? Perhaps not, but what if you were able to win 75% of all your serves put in play while still maintaining the same serve percentage of 70% with this same two 1st serves strategy? Would nine double faults be more acceptable? What would be the result if you could increase the average velocity of your 1st serve to get more free points (unreturnable serves) and a better 1st serve winning percentage but in doing so, lowered your percentage of 1st serves put in play? What would be the result if you could close the gap between your 1st and 2nd serves by not necessarily hitting with the same pace for both serves but by incrementally scaling back your 1st serve and incrementally beefing up your 2nd serve? It is fun to play with different scenarios to analyze risk and determine what it takes to win the greatest number of points with your serve.

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