Practice makes perfect is probably the most repeated statement in sports. It is used by coaches, parents, television commentators and players alike. Unfortunately it is not true. If someone is practicing something the wrong way they could practice it for thousands of hours and not get any better at it. If a baseball player was swinging at too great of an angle they would have a hard time consistently hitting the ball. If a football quarterback tried throwing the ball like a shot put they wouldn’t be a very good thrower. If a basketball player decided they were going to do a 360 degree spin and roll the ball off their fingertips on every shot they wouldn’t make too many baskets. It wouldn’t matter how many hours these athletes practiced or how world class of an athlete they were. A more correct statement would be “perfect practice makes perfect,” If someone practices correctly they will get better at it. The great thing is that this applies to everyone, whether the person is a star athlete or an uncoordinated average joe. If someone practices something enough, while doing it correctly, they are bound to get better over time. Some people will pick things up quicker than others, but both types will still improve just at different rates. There are definite scientific reasons behind why this is the case. These reasons are discussed in the practice theories section of the web site located here.
In terms of tennis, pretty much every stroke is nearly impossible to do correctly without some lessons or at the very least some studying of other good players. This is because the right way to hit the ball feels very unnatural. Which leads to the obvious question… What does “the right way” mean?.
“Right” vs “Wrong”
The saying “there is more than one way to skin a cat” is very applicable to tennis. Now I, in no way, would ever endorse skinning any cute little kitties, but the general sentiment of the statement is true. There is more than one way to do it. Just do an internet search of “tennis forehand” and you will stumble across a myriad of ways to hit a forehand. Every one will profess that their way is the right way and many times they will entice the viewer by saying they can teach them to hit a forehand like the pro’s. Go to the next site and they will teach things different, but usually promise the same results as the first site.
How can someone know how to separate the “right” way to serve from the “wrong” way to serve? Well, the answers really not that cut and dry. I am about to let you in on a dirty little secret about tennis. Just make sure you clear the room out before I mention what I’m about to tell you. Alright, is the room clear? Good, now ready? The truth is, there is no right or wrong way. In fact even the United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) which trains all certified professional coaches can’t agree on a right way. I’ll give that a minute to sink in……..
OK, still here? Let me explain a little bit. While there is not a right way or wrong way to hit a tennis ball, some ways are definitely better than others. No two players hit the ball exactly the same. Just look at any two professional players throughout the history of tennis and you will see this to be the case. I will never tell another instructor that they are teaching something wrong or tell one of their student that their instructor is wrong. What constitutes better really does depend on who you ask and what you, the student, thinks is important.
My goal throughout this course and website is to convince you that my way of thinking and teaching is the best way, but not the only way. One of my main teaching philosophy is do the positives of what is trying to be done outweigh the negatives? If the positives outweigh the negatives then it should be done. If the negatives outweigh the positives then, in most cases, it should not be done.
Battle of Positives vs Negatives
In my opinion everything in life is a battle of positives and negatives. Anything someone does has potential positive outcomes and negative outcomes and in many cases both positive and negative elements will be part of the outcome. Most people will weigh these in their mind before making a choice. The more the potential decision is life altering the longer people will think before deciding what to do. For example should a person eat eggs and toast or oatmeal for breakfast? Well, oatmeal has more fiber and is quicker to make, but eggs and toast taste better (at least to the person in this example). Obvious eating breakfast isn’t life altering, but there are still positives and negatives to the choices of what to eat. A more life altering choice may be whether to take a new job across the country versus staying at ones current job. The positives and negatives of this life choice can be many. Maybe the new job will pay more, but will put the person farther away from their family. One would take longer thinking about this decision then the breakfast example.
Of course tennis is not life altering, but it is still very important to think about the positives and negatives. In tennis terms there is obviously not a lot of time to dwell on if what you want to do is likely to generate a more positive or negative outcome, especially during a match. Strategies can be thought out to a degree before a match or between points during the match, but how one actually hits the ball has many potential positive and negative outcomes. These decisions on if the positives outweigh the negative must be thought about during practice, not during matches.
My general rule of thumb for any element of any shot in tennis is does the positive (or benefit) of what is being done outweigh the negative? If the positive does outweigh the negative then it is good to do. If a student really wants to do something in a way that I don’t teach, I’m fine with that if it works. My definition of “works” is hitting a shot under pressure to a specific location on the court. If a player can do that (regardless of how they hit the ball), they will not get an argument from me about changing their stroke. Hitting a ball under pressure to a specific target is also a good indicator of when someone has mastered a new way of hitting the ball.
In the broadest sense in any type of competitive endeavor whether its a sporting event, a chess match or even a beauty contest there is only one potential positive outcome and one potential negative outcome. The competitor either wins or loses. Now from within these broad outcomes other positives and negatives can happen and in many cases a loss isn’t all negative, positives can be found even in a loss. For instance a player can lose a tennis match, but could have done certain things within the match that are positive. Maybe they have been struggling with their second serve and their second serve was good in the match. In reality the ultimate positive in tennis, down to its simplest element, is whether or not the ball lands in the court. Because at the end of the day whomever successfully hits the ball into the court last wins. This has been true for every single tennis point ever played in the history of tennis!
As a tennis player there are several elements of the game that can not be controlled. One can’t control the court dimensions or overcome the physical laws of the universe. Someone can’t totally control their opponent. Some times no matter how well the ball is hit the opponent will still return it. The weather can’t be controlled either. The only thing a player can really control is themselves. They can control how good of shape they are in, they can control how they prepare before a match (like what they eat and drink before a match) and they can control how they hit the ball. That is why it is very important to be efficient when hitting the ball.
Minimal Effort / Maximum Results
The first two definitions of efficient are: achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense and working in a well-organized and competent way. This sums up perfectly well why one must have efficient strokes. There can’t be much disagreement that if someone is well organized and maximizes productivity with minimal wasted effort that they will be much more successful then someone who does the opposite. Efficient strokes will more likely yield a positive result than an inefficient stroke.
Since every instructor has a gimmick (like teaching the “modern” game) I’ve got one too. Mine is to teach efficient strokes. The definition of efficient is so perfect to my philosophy on tennis stroke production that it deserves to be discussed further.
So many players have wasted movements in tennis that add absolutely zero to the productivity of the stroke. A great example is on the serve when a player will raise both arms up before starting the serve. Hover over the below image to see the racquets wasted movement.
This movement has zero potential of adding anything positive to the stroke and usually ends up being a negative. Especially when you consider the racquet ends up right back in the initial position. Hover over the below image to see this.
These types of movements need to be immediately eliminated. By eliminating any unnecessary movements of a swing the stroke becomes more efficient. By being more efficient the stroke becomes more consistent which leads to more balls landing in the court. Every time you hit a ball successfully into the court you give your opponent one more chance to miss. There are many, many examples of wasted effort in tennis from strokes, to excessive running, to even trying to have too elaborate of a strategy. All these negative elements of tennis should be minimized.
Wasted effort or movements also waste energy. Any movement of the body expels energy, have a lot of unnecessary movements and that can add up to a lot of extra energy being used up over the course of a long match.
Extra or inefficient movements also lead to injury as these types of movements can put extra stress on the muscles and joints. Want to play tennis well into old age? Learn to hit the ball efficiently.
Being efficient also allows a player to achieve maximize productivity. Being efficient will allow the player to hit the ball harder, this will give the opponent less time to hit the ball which means they will be less likely to be able to return it. Being efficient also adds to a players consistency. Being more consistent will make the player more likely to hit the ball into the court. As mentioned above, every time the ball is hit into the court it gives the opponent one more time to miss. Efficient strokes can allow a player to put more spin on the ball. More spin on the ball will allow it to go higher over the net. By hitting the ball higher over the net the ball will be less likely to end up in the net. By being efficient productivity is maximized as the ball can be hit harder with more spin and be more likely to land in the court with less effort then by someone who hits the ball inefficiently. All this will lead to a more likely chance of winning the match!
Being well organized is often hard to do while moving quickly, but by having a good ready position one can organize early. By swinging correctly a player can maintain good balance which can aid in a quicker recovery leading to more easily moving to hit the next shot. By moving around the court correctly a player can more easily move into position to hit the next ball.
Physics and Court Dimensions Dictate How Strokes Should Be Hit
While one can’t control the physical laws of the universe, one can minimize there negative effects and enhance there positive effects by swinging a certain way. By hitting topspin one can overcome the effects of gravity. By serving correctly one can overcome some of the drag effects that are put on the racquet while swinging. By learning to run and slide correctly on a clay court a player can overcome the physical laws imposed by the court surface.
The tennis court is actually very narrow, most people don’t realize this. There is 19.6 degrees of variance to hit the ball from the baseline if a player is standing on the hash mark.
There is even less space to hit into if pushed to one of the singles sidelines.
If a ball travels outside the range, say 22 degrees, the shot will be missed. The closer to the net a player gets, the more space there is to hit into. At the service line there is about 33 degrees to hit into.
Once a player reaches the net there is about 120 degrees to hit into.
Just based off of the court dimensions its pretty obvious to me that the more often a player can get to the net, the more likely they can hit the ball into the court.
The net is a very high obstacle. Because of the fact that the net is see through, players don’t realize how high it is, but 2/3 of all missed shots in tennis end up in the net. Because the net is high and the court is narrow, swings need to be vertical. Vertical swings are more efficient as they are overall much shorter swings then horizontal swings. Vertical swings average about 16 feet whereas horizontal swings are around 24 feet.
Shorter swings are more efficient swings.
These physical laws and court dimensions also dictate tennis strategies. By utilizing the proper strategies and strokes based on the court dimensions and physical laws, players will be more likely to win. At the end of the day that is why a player should want to train, in order to win. Of course, winning isn’t everything… In fact as mentioned before winning takes a long time when changing ones game. But following these proven methods players will get better and winning will eventually happen.