In tennis, we are always trying to hit the ball in the court. That’s how our scoring system works. We try to play as deep as possible and as close as possible to the line. If we miss the ball by two centimeters, we lose the point. So, we’re always a little bit conservative in exploring what it is to play deep or what it is to play more to the sideline.
Variation Scheme theory takes me back to my days at university. I’m (Carl Maes) a master in exercise physiology, and what we learn in motor learning is to have parameters to execute a certain movement. Now, this principle, if you apply it to tennis and you look from a motor learning perspective, in order to find the sideline or the baseline, we need to learn how to hit out because it’s only when we hit out that we feel the difference on what it is like hitting the ball inside of the lines.
I don’t recommend doing a drill like this the day before you play a match, but on some occasions, we need to let our players hit out on purpose. Let them hit the ball out, because that will, from a muscle memory and a learning perspective make them feel the ball better and know better how to hit a certain target.
An example could be practicing the sliced 1st serve e.g. in deuce side. We want to keep our percentage high on the first serve, but still apply pressure to the opponent. Once in a while when you are practicing the sliced serve try putting some cones in the middle of the doubles lines and let them aim for the cones using their sliced serve. What you will likely experience is that the players will not hit the target that you have put up in the middle of the tram lines, but instead go very close to the sideline of the service box, right where a perfect sliced serve from deuce side of the court is meant to be.
It’s ingrained throughout the years for us to play inside the line. There is an expression to “think outside of the box” and I (Carl) believe that in certain moments it’s very important to also practice “hitting outside of the box” because the variation scheme theory tells us that we need to practice the 2 extremes to identify what’s in the middle.