How to serve up a dominant strategy
The killer domino
As an adult the epic follies of your own youth-era athletic training become crystal clear, especially once you’re a parent. I suspect that this clarity helps explain why those parents take their daughter’s soccer game way too seriously. So much of what the competitors should be doing on the field is simply “obvious” to that sage who sitteth afar amidst the other elders atop his foldable Coleman throne, mighty Coke Zero in hand.
Nevertheless, I’d do so many things differently if I were to go back in time and pursue those dreams of “making it,” either in tennis or soccer, to “the show” as author David Foster Wallace calls it. For instance, practice one thing until you’re perfect at it before moving on to the second thing. Piano teachers have known this since the piano was invented. Granted, it’s awfully hard to keep a kid’s attention this way. 
But this is not a piece about how to Richard-Williams your kids to be the GOAT of curling or badminton or Eschaton. This is a piece about one approach, the only one that matters: the dominant strategy.
Surely you jest
I’ve played a ton of tennis in my life and happen to be reading Wallace’s Infinite Jest now, much of which takes place at a fictitious Boston-area tennis academy.  With quarantine I’ve found myself on the court more often lately, and this has gotten me thinking.
I should make clear upfront that I am not a tennis coach. I coached peewees when I was a teenager, but no one would exactly confuse me for Nick Bollettieri. Caveat emptor.
My latest drill (pour moi) is to just hit serves. Given I don’t have a practice partner every time I want to play, this is about all I can do without Prime Airing myself a ball machine. It’s convenient that serving ball after ball on an empty court is incredibly meditative. Take that, Zoom fatigue.
I don’t “just hit serves,” though. I’m obviously Lifehacking that s — . I pick either the deuce court or the ad court. If you don’t know what that means, just imagine Michael Phelps picking one side of the lane to swim on.
Then I stay there. Sometimes for an hour or more.
I don’t just “stay there.” I’m obviously Marie Kondo’ing my practice time. First, I narrow my focus. In the SEAL Teams we used to say, “Aim small, miss small.” As a Navy SEAL you shoot insane quantities of rounds over and over at tiny targets. ’Cause there’s another saying: “There’s two ways to train: perfect and again.”
Aim small, miss small.
So I pick a tiny little part of the service box to aim for, and I outline it ahead of time with other tennis balls. I’ve thought about lining the box with My Little Ponies so any near-misses are akin to pulling a Keanu and shooting the hostage. The only difference is that Keanu is in favor of shooting hostages, while Navy SEALs such as this author and really any respectable human think this ill-advised. 
I think of how I want each iteration to feel. I make myself forget that you get double faults in tennis; each attempt needs to count.
Then I serve. Just. Serve.
Tennis: A case in point for dominant strategies
Many of you have never even played tennis. So what’s the point?
The point is that for life and tennis, there sometimes exists a “dominant strategy.” I’ve generalized this narrow concept from game theory to mean the following:
A dominant strategy is that coherent set of actions that will produce a positive outcome with inordinate probability if pursued aggressively.
I had a revelation while serving by myself out there. Kids beginning competitive play in the early age groups (10- to 12-year olds) could greatly improve their win probability if they possessed a great serve. I am confident that the most reliable way to produce wins for kids is to focus the majority of their effort on this area of their game. 
The fact is that most kids suck at serving. Heck, most adults suck at serving. But kids are suckier. I nominate that to be a real word.
Just as important is that kids are suckier-er at “groundstrokes” (as basic as they sound: just your run-of-the-mill forehands and backhands). Because of this their “unforced-error rate” is obscenely high compared to more experienced players.
So… if you can just serve reliably well, it will more than make up for skills deficits elsewhere.  The youth opponent is very likely to screw up as long as you get the serve in. Even better if you can place it to her backhand every time — with occasional deviations just to keep her honest (i.e. not let her “run around her backhand”).
The hardest kind of backhand to hit is a ball that “kicks” due to topspin. It helps our hypothetical youth player that a kick serve is more likely to land in reliably than one that is hit “flat” and generally harder.
The hardest area of the service box that ball could bounce, for returning purposes that is, is close to the corner.
So now we’ve pinpointed a focus (serve), an area of the court (backhand corner), and a type of serve (kick).
Finally, it’s important to address the fact in tennis that you get two chances to land your serve fair. For the uninitiated, first serves can be feared. Second serves are the kind on which the returning player moves up a few steps. Occasionally you can actually see them salivating across the net.
Meanwhile, double-faulting is such a demoralizing way to give up points that it can have a self-reinforcing psychological effect on a player who is struggling with his first serve.
So what should we do? Focus on first serves obviously. Take practice over and over without changing pace, spin, or aim. With the same routine: same place you look around between serves, same kind of breathing, same thing your think about (close to nothing), same foot position, same number of bounces on the ground as you ready yourself, same place you look on the ground as you’re bouncing, same ball toss, same place your eyes go as the toss goes up… bang. Rinse. Repeat. Do something like “2,000 makes” per day like Kobe Bryant used to. 
Do it until your first serve is uncannily consistent in terms of placement. Meanwhile, because you’ve practiced every serve the same, your second serve will be incredibly consistent as well — without the usual reduction in speed and technique that makes second serves less reliable and (if they land in) less potent than they should be.
The result will be a player who seldom defeats herself and directly exploits the weaknesses of the competition to their maximum advantage. More importantly, this will establish confidence and a strong base upon which to build a full kit of skills.
There is plenty of data to back this up, but I have never heard a tennis coach come to the same conclusion. I believe this is because dominant strategies are often uncomfortable. 
How to dominate off-court
Dominant strategies are often hard to see, painful, and boring. They might be risky at times, but I suggest that they are often so low-risk that they can be mistaken for a waste of time. If you saw a kid who wanted to be a pro tennis player just serving all the time from the same side of the court at the same target, you might respect his determination. But you might not conclude that that alone would be instrumental in setting him up for the U.S. Open.
Reading every day to your kids from birth is an unbelievably great way to set them up to be successful in work in life. If there’s only one thing you did for your kids to achieve what they want one day, reading is not a bad choice. Yet many people still don’t do it. 
Writing or producing videos as your full-time job requires lots of reps to get there. Countless successful content creators have reinforced the adage that “success is what you do consistently.” It’s not about the equipment, the branding, etc. Those will come. The dominant strategy for content creation is merely to keep it up.
Meanwhile, failure to see dominant strategies can have catastrophic consequences. For instance, if your business offers a low-price product with limited differentiation from alternatives, you are playing a game of scale whether you know it or not. The dominant strategy in the market will be to reduce cost of production through investment in hard assets, process, and technology. This is where the game-theoretical version of dominant strategies provides a useful caveat to my earlier definition.
Dominant strategies work. Until everyone else figures them out.
About the author: Sri hosts The Warrior Poet podcast, a show on the philosophy of leadership based on his experience in the SEAL Teams, at Harvard Business School, on Wall Street, and in tech. Shows every Monday. Follow him on Instagram @sri_the_warrior_poet and @sri_actually.
Edits and tennis expertise from Joe McCauley really helped this piece.
All the way wet (aka the footnotes)
 “All the way wet”: Something an instructor might say to students at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training.
 Karate senseis have a much easier task than piano teachers. All that yelling and thrashing of limbs have an effect on your attention. Plus, there’s the prospect of being a badass (dubious in reality) and the presence of other kids your age.
The beautiful thing about golf is that you can use the same swing for 90% of the game. It’s just that that one swing is incredibly, incredibly difficult to understand, master, and consistently employ. It is an incredible testament to the human spirit that so many of the middle-aged and paler males of our western species toil away in an effort to master a skill that is so complex in the face of its so powerfully boring qualities.
 I hated Infinite Jest for the first 150 pages and somehow stuck it out. I’m around 400 now and am rather enjoying it. The book is celebrated by lots of white males and critics and especially white-male critics — while despised by a non-miniscule number among the population at large, so YMMV. Full disclosure: the link to the book is an affiliate link.
 Aside from the (hopefully obvious) fact that I don’t own any My Little Ponies, I wonder whether I’m not doing this out of fear of what other people would think of me or instead whether I fear what this would say about myself. Probably just laziness really but fun to ponder.
Anyway, I make a little target box using tennis balls instead. They have a satisfying action should I hit one of them with a serve. As I write this, though, the whole thing strikes me as fostering a cruel and cannibalistic relationship among balls that share the same hopper.
 Re: “suckier-er”: In other words, kids trail adults in groundstrokes more than they do at serving. This is despite the fact that kids’ forehands and backhands are usually a lot more reliable than their own serves. It’s just that adults’ groundstrokes are often very consistent while the serves of amateur adults are not often weapons so much as necessary evils.
 For our purposes let’s say a player has a great serve if they can land their first serve in a large majority of the time (e.g. >60%) and rarely double-fault (e.g. less than 3 times per match).
 Seriously, don’t actually have your kid do that many. They’ll need Tommy John surgery by 15.
 Although I arrived at the idea for this particular dominant strategy through hardened experience as a youth tennis player and cold logic, there is empirical evidence to back me up. See the data and analysis in this interesting post by the blog Heavy Topspin (aka TennisAbstract). There are key caveats and exceptions noted there, but they apply far less to youth tennis than pros due to an orders-of-magnitudinally higher rate of unforced errors by the former.
Admittedly, “everyone” knows that experienced singles players are seldom “broken” (i.e. lose a game in which they are serving). This implies (duh) that there is an advantage to serve. However, the real “aha” here are (a) that first serve percentage should be emphasized more and (b) that a 10-year-old boy could — perhaps should — focus almost exclusively on this part of his game (and very narrowly at that).
 Some readers may raise correlation-causation questions on the reading-produces-success point. Believe what you will. I’m more on the side of causation on this one.