(by Larry Hodges)
Long ago, I used to coach developing players to return serves aggressively. But then I noticed something – players who did that often never learned to handle the opponent’s attack as well, while those who were more willing to push serves back long as they developed became comfortable when the opponent attacked, whether blocking or counter-attacking. And if you watch the top players, you realize that while they are mostly better on the attack, they are all comfortable whether attacking or reacting to the opponent’s attack. At all levels, the difference is not just who attacks better, but who reacts to the opponent’s attacks better.
At higher levels, players often flip or push serves back short, using long pushes as a variation. But that only comes after years of developing control by pushing long and by handling the opponent’s attacks. If you aren’t comfortable when the opponent attacks, then instead of avoiding it, develop that part of your game – push serves back long, let the opponent attack first until you are comfortable dealing with their attacks. (The reverse is also true – if you are comfortable pushing and blocking, but not with attacking, then that’s what you should be working on.) Once you are comfortable with an opponent attacking, then perhaps focus more on taking the attack, perhaps by flipping or pushing short.
The conclusion here is that you need to develop a solid, all-around game if you want to reach your potential. This doesn’t mean 50% attack, 50% defense; it means being comfortable whether attacking or reacting to the opponent’s attack in some way. (Usually that means defending, such as blocking, but it also means counter-attacking, such as counterlooping.) When you have such a solid, all-around game, then you will have no major weaknesses – and your level will shoot up.
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