When tennis is played at its best, there is an effortless coordination between the conscious mind and what many refer to as muscle memory. Watching players like Justin Henin and Roger Federer blend these together in matches beautiful to say the least. Bringing these two elements together in harmony in our own games is ecstasy!
Those of you who read my column on a regular basis know that I have a firm belief that the conscious mind should be alert but not thinking per se during match play. The analytical nature of the conscious mind can really mess up a persons game.
To prove my point, consider the following. You are playing a point. You have finally been given a short ball by your opponent. You are moving in for the kill. You have practiced the crosscourt put away shot over and over. It is where you "naturally" want to place this winning shot. As you setup, you change your mind and decide to go down the line instead. Result? You miss the shot and the opponent wins the point. The conscious mind got in your way.
Another example? You are at the baseline ready to serve your second serve. A thought for unknown reasons pops into your conscious mind, "I am going to double fault." Sure enough, you do indeed miss your second point. Here again, the conscious mind got in your way.
Being consciously mindless on the court is not all that desirable either. For example, not realizing that you are playing a lefty (assuming this is a new, unknown opponent) happens more frequently than you imagine.
Not knowing which is your opponents better wing (forehand or backhand), is a cardinal mistake in competition. Only the conscious mind can arrive at these insights.
So, truly "perfect" tennis requires both conscious thought and "autopilot" muscle memory. When you have both going at the right times, your game can literally soar to new heights.
When playing a point, it is of key importance to put the conscious mind on "awareness only" mode. Dont evaluate what is going on during the point. Simply, try to observe what is going on, and be alert with respect to the ball. If you are focused on the ball with a relaxed body and quiet mind, you will probably find that your muscle memory kicks in quite nicely.
The time to let the conscious mind be analytical (and it is always striving to be analytical) is in between points, or better yet, during game changeovers.
There are lots of ways to quiet the conscious mind, and if you are like most tennis players, you will need to use all of them.
To have muscle memory you need to practice. Drills, practice matches, backboard work, etc. need to be done regularly to allow the other-than-conscious-mind the opportunity to learn what it needs to learn.
Having said all of this, my column this month is going to focus upon mindless movement on the court.
We spend lots of time practicing our strokes, but very little time working on how we move to the ball. If we move to every ball in an appropriate manner, our chances of hitting well go up precipitously!
First, there is the need to do foot drills to help our muscle memory mind learn how to move appropriately.
Here are two drills that I believe are the most beneficial to helping this learning occur in a rapid manner.
- SQUARE THE CIRCLE: In this drill, you simply go to a court and literally run the baseline, sidelines and an imaginary horizontal line that is directly in front of the net and parallel with the net.
When you are on the baseline or the imaginary net line, your steps should be side steps. By this, I mean that you are facing the net and shuffling your feet. You take a stride to the right, lets say, with your right foot. You then bring your left foot to the right to be adjacent to the right foot. You want to make certain that your feet are on the baseline or imaginary net line at all times. You then repeat this process until you reach a side line.
Now, you begin to move forward, lets say. Take each step as a short step (no long strides). These small steps are the steps we need to adjust properly as we approach a shot in a game. Do these forward, mini-steps, as fast as you can. If you hear your shoes squeaking, you are doing this correctly.
If you have completed a horizontal series of side steps at the imaginary net line, and reach a side line, you will want to move backwards. Here, you want to take rapid steps backwards making certain to keep your feet on the sideline (not that easy to do). Pump your arms hard to force rapid movement. Always be on your toes as you move backwards.
The complete cycle of moving with side steps at the baseline, forward mini-steps at a sideline, side steps again at the imaginary net line, and backward steps at the other sideline has every important foot movement needed in the game of tennis.
Practice this drill regularly! Do it in a clockwise direction for 5 to 10 cycles. Then, perform the drill in a counter clockwise direction.
If you are not near a court, you can use a parking lot or a gymnasium floor and pretend the court lines are there.
During the off season, this drill can be very useful in helping you maintain proper muscle memory with respect to footwork.
- SADDLEBROOKS: I have given this name to this particular foot drill because I learned it while training at the Wesley Chapel resort with the same name. I must tell you that this drill is going to make you become winded very quickly. But, it builds speed, endurance and "wind" in addition to helping with footwork. My collegiate players hate this drill because it is so demanding. However, it pays huge dividends in terms of fitness and footwork.
In essence, you are going to do ten 40-yard sprints. After each sprint, you jog back to the starting line to begin the next sprint. Be certain to jog slowly. This replicates the running/stopping/running nature of playing tennis.
The first two sprints are straight on sprints that one normally associates with a wind sprint.
The third sprint is a side step sprint, where you move as quickly as you can. Lets say you begin with moving with your left foot to the left. Of course, the right foot moves to meet the left and you do the side step again. In this example, you are moving to your left with the side steps.
The fourth sprint involves side steps in the opposite direction. Remember that you have jogged back to the starting line. So, you will have to turn your body around to move to the right (since the third sprint was done to your left).
The fifth sprint is a backwards sprint moving as quickly as you can. You need to pump the arms as you move backwards, and stay on your toes. You want to make certain that there are no obstacles or pebbles, etc. in your pathway, as you will literally not be seeing where you are going. Often times, I will do this sprint and pretend that I am hitting overheads as I move back.
The sixth sprint is another, traditional forward sprint.
The seventh sprint involves crossover steps, lets say to your left. Literally, you are putting one foot in front of the other as you move it. In this example, you take your right foot and move it to your left. It crosses in front of your left foot before touching the ground somewhere to the left of this left foot. Now, you bring the left foot to the left moving it behind the right foot as you do so. The left foot in this movement lands to the left of the previously moved right foot.
Players need to develop crossover steps to move well when approaching the net and when moving back a distance to hit an overhead smash. We dont practice these nearly enough.
The eighth sprint is a crossover sprint moving to the right. Remember that you have jogged back to the starting line. So, you need to turn your body around to move to your right, in this example.
The ninth sprint is the same as the fifth sprint
a backwards sprint.
The tenth, and last, sprint is a straight out, traditional, forward sprint done as fast as you possibly can. Now, you jog back to the starting line wheezing for oxygen! Be certain to walk around (dont stop moving) in order to get your breath back.
If you can do three of these Saddlebrooks in one training session consider yourself an expert!!! Two is the maximum number recommended. Believe me. You will feel the benefits of doing this drill.
So with these two foot drills, you are beginning to drill into your muscle memory the basics of proper court movement. However, applying them in a match requires some different practice.
When you are practicing with your hitting partner, dedicate a little focus to how you approach a ball to hit it. I believe that the mind should have easy to remember methods of moving to balls and following shots/serves. If you spend some time working on the following in your practice sessions, you will find that your conscious mind will not need to remind you how to move in a match. Your muscle memory mind will have been trained to incorporate these into your "autopilot."
When moving to hit a ground stroke, always move as if you want the ball to hit the center of your chest. This technique will automatically force you to be at the right height to hit the ball properly. If the ball is bouncing low, your chest goes down, and you are forced to bend at the knees, not the waist. If the ball is bouncing high, you will find yourself going up on your toes, as you should to make proper contact with the ball.
In my "off season" I will even practice this movement using a wall or backboard to refresh my muscle memorys hard drive.
I promise you that if you move to each ground stroke in this manner, your footwork will improve automatically without any analytical process needed. You will find your timing to the ball automatically improves because this technique will force you to make little mini-step adjustments as you approach the ball. If you need to run to get to a wide ball, this technique automatically will help you make a great first step, which needs to be a powerful stride.
When volleying, the secret to proper movement is to pretend that you want the tennis ball to hit your head. (Not to worry. This wont happen.) I learned this technique from Oscar Wegner some years back. It is simply the best way to teach proper movement at the net. You will bend your knees when you should and you will find yourself moving forward after each volley.
After you have hit your shots, proper movement is still needed! Again, I have some guidelines to help you deliberately work on this during your practice sessions.
After hitting a ground stroke, the rule has always been to get back to the center of the court. This is well founded, but I would modify the adage a bit.
After hitting a ground stroke, drift back toward the center of the court. This drifting will necessitate the use of side steps which we practiced in the two drills described earlier. By drifting, you have time to really see the ball come off your opponents strings. If you are focusing your conscious mind on just seeing this, you will automatically know what direction in which you need to move. By drifting, you will have enough time to run to a ball that is going to force you wide, and you will probably find that you are rarely, if ever, having a ball hit behind you.
With serve/volley, chip/charge, approach shots and volleys
always follow the path of the ball. (If you are not planning on following your serve in, you will, of course, not be following your ball.)
With all of the shots mentioned above, I have observed coaches and tennis teaching pros make what is very simple become very complicated.
By following the ball, I mean this. Lets say that I am serve and volleying. I hit my serve wide to the deuce court to my opponents forehand (assume he or she is right handed). Well, the path of my service was a line that moves to my left. If in my imagination, I follow the path that the ball actually traveled, I will automatically be in the ideal position for my volley. I may get passed, or I may miss the volley
but my court position will be ideal, given my opponents possible replies.
Lets say that I am hitting a backhand slice approach shot down the line. I, again, should follow the path of the ball which would have me move straight ahead. Now, I am probably somewhere between the center strap and the left hand post (I am right handed). I am automatically in the ideal place to cover both of the possible replies (down the line or crosscourt). Statistically, the down the line response is more common. By following the path of my approach shot, I am shading a little bit in favor of this reply.
In the volley game, it is imperative that the net person be prepared to hit another volley. This is definitely the case in doubles. By moving in the direction of my volley, I am automatically positioning myself in the most ideal location for a second volley if needed.
Finally, we have the movement associated with moving back to hit an overhead smash. Again, there is a simple way to practice these where you muscle memory will take over and your conscious mind needs only to see the ball.
Pretend that you want to catch the lobbed ball with your non-racquet hand. In doing this, you body will automatically move as it should to put you in a position to hit the best possible overhead. You will find that if you have practiced the aforementioned drills that your feet will either move in crossover steps or rapid back pedal steps as needed. You wont have to think about it, it will just happen.
Hopefully where you live, you will have a few more months of great tennis weather. This game is, in my mind, best played outside in the elements.
However, many of us north of the equator are going to find ourselves playing less tennis during the winter months. This is not a bad thing. We all need give our minds and bodies some rest from competition.
But, I promise you
If you spend the remaining time till the spring rolls around again practicing these two foot drills, and consciously training your muscle memory to learn "mindless movement" on the court, you will be a definite, tennis overdog!!!