Cat and Mouse – the Waiting Game – Training for Positioning and Movement

Mouse: cornered, no options desperate, will move first

Cat: playful quick, waits for the mouse to move then pounces

And for sure on court it is fun to be the cat!

To play very well, you must hit sound shots and move quickly, and very little else.

But … the real time connection between hitting and moving may be the most important thing to learn.

This connection is the knowing and feeling of when to start to the ball, and the knowing and feeling of how to best position prior to the start to have the best chance to get to the ball.

And truly what goes for the cat and mouse, is identical between you and the ball – provided you treat the ball as the mouse, and you move like a cat

As a player, I have been on both sides of this game. Years before I came to understand cat and mouse, I remember some matches where I was totally frustrated, feeling cornered, without options, and always-wondering why.

Now I realize, my opponent had controlled me, moved me to a corner, and then waited for my reply to which they quickly and easily responded.

Cat and mouse. Emphasize cornering, waiting, options, and pouncing, Practice the following drills to move quickly and efficiently, quick as the cat.

More than anything else, the second shot passing drill highlights the baseliner’s readiness, and ability to react quickly AFTER  NOT BEFORE the opponent’s (or practice partner) volley.

And to my eye often players overhit their first shot in this sequence, for the speed of their shot from the baseline to the volleyer deprives the baseliner to truly be perfectly ready


1. Waiting for the ball – When to move
This dead ball drill trains footwork reactions after the ball has been hit rather than before. Student on the service tee, coach/practice partner on the opposite service tee. Feed in a specific pattern, such as forehand-backhand-forehand-backhand. Emphasize the footwork you prefer for these shots. Ideally the feeds should be a few feet from the student so that the crossover step enables them to reach all shots with the least effort. Now change to a random feeding sequence, and observe their reactions and their technique. Feed with disguise, and the drill becomes very challenging. Whenever they guess and are wrong footed, explain that they moved prior to your hit (the mouse), something cats never do. This dead ball drill trains the waiting, and reinforces the correct footwork sequence to the ball.

2. The two shot volley sequence – Cornering
In this live ball drill, position as before, with the student on the service tee and the coach/practice partner on the opposite service tee. Feed the first shot off center, so the student must make a crossover step to volley, but now the coach and student play the point. Ask the student to volley so the coach can indeed return their initial volley (don’t let them club the ball). The coach agrees to rally, and only to hit a winner if there is an obvious opening. Now, if the student moves to the forehand and volleys crosscourt, the coach can easily hit to the open court. (In this instance the cat/student has moved the mouse to a corner that the cat/student cannot protect {see Angle of Play}). If the student moves to the forehand and volleys down the line, the student will more easily cover the coaches return. Moving to the first volley and playing down the line, or in the same direction as they had moved, immediately positions the cat for the mouse’s reply. This is a real breakthrough for the student, learning how to “corner” the opponent with their first volley.

3. Timing the split step – Cornering and Pouncing
Similar to the two shot volley sequence, but now the student positions two steps behind the service line, and the coach/practice partner moves to the opposite baseline. Feed the first ball either off center or to the student, and after their initial shot ask them to close and time their split step to your (coach/mouse) moment of contact. If the student doesn’t close far enough, show how you are not cornered by hitting a simple passing shot to the open court. If they close too far, show you are not cornered by lobbing. If they close correctly but are off time with their split step, show how they weren’t perfectly ready to pounce. And if they close and time their split step just right, allow them (the cat) to make a successful volley. Trains quickness, timing, pouncing, and confidence in moving to the ball.

4. Internal noise – Silence
Don Kerr taught tactics with reference to internal noise, concentration and effortless play. He knew (correctly) that most people could only pay attention to one thing at any particular moment (span of control) and confusion results when one tries to concentrate on two or more stimuli at the same time. Tennis players deal with both external and internal stimulation. External stimuli arise from seeing the ball, hearing the sound of the hit, and court sense (knowing where you are at any moment on court). Internal noise, an additional stimulus, not an external stimulus but rather within, is the silent dialogue that often occurs in our head. We all have had silent conversations from time to time, “How can I be this bad”, “Get ready now watch the ball,” “What if my friends can see my mistakes,” “How can I possibly explain this loss to my wife.” All examples of internal noise, and all genuine distractions when timing the split step, reacting quickly to the opponents shot, pouncing on the ball. The cat has it so much better than we do on this one. Having no language (that I know of), the cat has no source of internal noise. And absent the internal noise (can you imagine a cat thinking, “What do I tell my pals if I cannot catch this mouse”) the cat is totally concentrated on the pouncing. When some of the above drills become too challenging, and truly they will, take a break, relax the student, and encourage them to diminish their internal noise. When champions recount their greatest moments on court, they describe letting everything flow, time slowing down, allowing themselves to play rather than making themselves play. No internal noise, perfect concentration on the ball, silence…. So many mice, so little time.

Cat and mouse
Cornering the opponent
Feeling you can get to everything
Knowing when to move
Waiting Silence Pounce
It’s fun to be the cat

“In searching for the ‘sound’ of sport, one quickly hears the roar of the crowd, the crack of the bat, and the thundering of racing feet. But if one listens a little harder and a little longer, one comes to hear silence. There is silence within the performer, in the tenseness of the crowd, in the fear of the hunter and in the beauty of the ski slopes. Man soon learns that silence is an integral part of life and that certainly it is prominent in sport. Silence is not simply the absence of sounds. Rather it is presence. It is the presence of the dimension of time. A realization of the instant and the situation”
Athletic Excellence by Jim Loehr

My cat Alex was playful, harmless, and rarely killed the little animals she captured. Once on the scent of a mouse, Alex would chase like mad until finally cornering the animal. Now the fun (for Alex) really began. Facing the cornered and (now) hapless mouse, Alex would crouch, perfectly ready to pounce, and then just wait silently for the mouse to move. Always Alex would wait, as would the mouse, when finally the mouse could wait no longer, Alex would pounce to block the mouse’s escape. Never did Alex move first, never was Alex slow to move, and never was Alex off balance.

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