The vast majority of e-mails that I receive from readers deal with questions about stroke production. Serves, forehands, volleys, overheads, backhands, half-volleys, returns... many readers are concerned about how to improve one or more of these strokes.
Generally, their questions focus on grips, contact points, stances, tosses, footwork, etc. These readers are right to focus upon these and other aspects of producing a reliable, and perhaps, formidable stroke.
But, there is one common denominator among all strokes which most players do not address fully, if at all... "What am I doing with my head at the moment of contact?" By this question, I do not mean what a player is thinking. Rather, I am addressing how much head movement is there in executing strokes.
In my mind, the single most important aspect of producing a proper stroke (other than having a consistent and full finish) is quieting one's head during the stroke. Simple as this may seem, it is the most common comment I make to players who come to me for lessons! It is remarkable to see how much better players can hit any stroke in this wonderful game when the head is motionless during the entire stroke.
Some years back, I had the opportunity to train with Oscar Wegner author of Play Better Tennis in Two Hours. Okay, the title may be a little overly ambitious, but the content of this book is well worth reading.
Oscar stressed upon me the reality that we have much more time to produce strokes than we believe. He proved this point to me by having me take volleys at the net. He would have me count: "1, 2, 3." Amazingly, I almost always reached 3 when I actually made contact with the ball after his reply to my previous volley. Yet, most of us are feeling rushed and pressured when we are at the net.
This sense of "urgency" translates into other aspects of our games. We feel that we do not have enough time to get to the ball. We often times feel that we cannot fully prepare to hit the stroke needed. Sometimes, the pace of our opponent's shots seems to put us back on our heels. The net consequence is that we rush our strokes, usually move our head in some manner while making and executing strokes, and thus, produce strokes that have less than perfect form.
Given this, the reader rightfully poses the question, "How can I quiet my head and still be able to see my opponent's reply with sufficient time to move and prepare?" Well, I assure you that it is possible, and indeed, probable.
Let's examine why "quieting" the head during a stroke is so important. First, a quiet head results in a better balanced body. Our bodies almost always seem to follow the leads presented by our head movement. For example, simply stand erect. Now, turn your head to either the right of the left. Perceive the slight variance in your body's center of gravity. Almost without failure, you are probably leaning a tiny bit in the direction in which you are looking. I grant you that this change in balance in the example is very minor and it may be imperceptible to some. But, tennis is a game of tiny variables. It is not a game of inches. Rather, it is a game of millimeters. The slightest variation in grip, timing, and balance will result in profound changes in how your shot travels. For me, this is one of the most fascinating and engaging aspects of this great game of ours.
Second, a head that is not quiet (motionless) throughout the shot results in a player taking her/his eyes off of the ball... if only momentarily. Seeing the ball is critical. In fact my very first Turbo Tennis column from back in 1996 is entitled "SEE the Ball." I cannot tell you how many times I have seen pros, intermediate players, and of course, beginners miss easy shots because they did not quiet their heads during the entire motion of their strokes. The temptation is to look where your ball is headed... before you really have completed the stroke. I think Oscar's insight about our "feeling rushed" accounts in part for why we are prone to this. Equally important, we are eager to see if our ball does in fact land where we intended it to land. Finally, we seek to better anticipate our opponent's reply. So, looking away from the stroke seems to provide us with this edge. I am not certain that it does.
Every stroke in tennis can benefit from a quiet head! Every player should focus on "seeing the contact point" (In reality, we never really see the contact on groundstrokes, but we should try.) throughout his/her entire stroke! Thus, the head is "frozen" for a long fraction of a second. Let's examine why this is the case.
The serve is the most important stroke in the game. It is the only stroke that a player completely controls, and it is the only stroke where a player is given two chances to hit it right! A proper serve will keep the head of the server up and looking at the contact point for a half second or so. How many times have you or another player hit a serve into the net because you/he/she didn't "keep the head up!" In photographing many pros on both tours, I have come to learn that those with the most consistent serves always... I mean always... keep their heads up for quite a bit of time before they look to see where their serves have actually landed. In a somewhat similar manner, those hitting overhead smashes need to have the head remain upward after contact is made with the ball.
The open stance forehands of the modern game are a little less likely to be affected by the lack of a quiet head. Why? Well, the open stance is so "natural" (similar to how we stand and walk) that we are practicing this stance every day! So, we can maintain a solid stroke even if we take our eyes off the ball a bit early. Our bodies adjust as they do when we walk through a crowded street. We have more experience with this stance in our daily lives. So, it is not surprising that it is more flexible and adaptable when we play tennis. Of course, there are times when we simply cannot hit a forehand from the open stance because we are stretched. We end up hitting from a more closed stance in these situations. When these are forced upon a player, she/he must make a concerted effort to "freeze" the head during the entire stroke.
If, however, you use the eastern forehand grip, you are probably standing more sideways as you hit the ball. If you move your head during your forehand groundstrokes, you will invariably have great difficulty controlling your shots. Most likely, your forehands will go deep or wide.
The same is true when you hit a one-handed backhand. Whether the backhand is sliced, hit flat or hit with topspin; you are most likely in a sideways stance. Again, moving your head during the stroke almost always results in an errant shot.
When you move your head to see where the ball is headed, the head movement is more severe if you are in a sideways stance. To understand what I mean, try this little experiment.
Stand in an open stance. Rotate your hips to the forehand side. Now move your head from what would be the likely contact point to a straight ahead view. Note how much your head has moved and how much your body is changing balance.
Now, stand sideways and repeat the same experiment. You will note that you have moved your head a bit more. But, what is really significant is the end point. When you are looking in the direction of where the net would be, your neck is turned or twisted. In the open stance forehand, the head is in a natural position when you end your head movement and look towards the direction of where the net would be. The same twisted or turned head "ending" occurs when you hit the one-handed backhand because this stroke benefits from a sideways stance.
The strained positioning of the head when it is moved while using a sideways stance creates much more body imbalance and muscle "strain." Thus, your shots are less consistent.
Two-handed backhands can be hit from either an open or a sideways stance. If hitting from the open stance, quieting the head is important, but not as important as when hitting this shot from a sideways stance.
Return of serves act the same way as normal groundstrokes. Open stances are a bit more forgiving with respect to any head movement during the stroke. Closed stances are not.
Roger Federer is in my mind the archetype with respect to hitting with a quiet head. If you look at Roger's backhands, he is always completely finishing the stroke before he looks to his opponent's court. His one-handed backhand is truly a thing of beauty. On the women's side, Justine Henin is equally good at freezing her head during her absolutely gorgeous one-handed backhands.
Both of these players have great forehands. Their stances are more open on this wing. They can be a little off with respect to completely freezing their heads during their forehand groundstrokes and still produce outstanding shots. The open stance is just more forgiving in this area. But, both players are pros, and it is rare that they deviate from quieting their heads during any stroke.
One of the things that can really improve one's volley is making a concerted effort to freeze the head during the entire stroke. Now, good volleys have little backswing and really are more of a punch, block or poke than a full stroke. Still, we are frequently moving forward to the net when we hit volleys. This forward motion is completely different from the side to side movement that is really the foundation of the modern game and its emphasis on groundstrokes. Simply trying to freeze the head for a fraction of a second at contact and a moment after contact will go a long way toward improving your volleying form. In my teaching experience, asking students to focus on this aspect usually results in their stopping forward movement at the moment of contact (or at least slowing down the forward movement), and it often times helps students to make contact in front of their bodies... which is the ideal location for volleys.
Half volleys are a somewhat rare shot. Timing in the half volley is of critical. Quieting one's head while staying low through this shot will invariably improve the overall timing.
Essentially, one of the absolute pillars of a good tennis foundation is the quieting or freezing of the head through every stroke.
A great way to practice freezing the head is to use a wall or a backboard. Try to track balls as they come off of the wall with your eyes and with as little head turning as is possible. As you make contact with the ball, stop any motion of your head. Indeed, keep looking at the ground as you finish the stroke.
You will probably believe that you won't have enough time to respond in a timely manner and prepare properly for the next ball to come off the wall. This is almost always not the case. However if this is something that presents a problem for you, try letting the ball bounce twice before hitting it toward the wall. This will certainly provide sufficient time. As you become more accomplished, you will be able to move forward, and take the balls on a single bounce while freezing your head for a fraction of a second after making contact with the ball.
Whenever I find myself becoming careless with respect to head movement during my strokes, I always return to the wall or backboard. When I am comfortably hitting balls and keeping my head quiet, I immediately go to a court and continue the process with either a ball machine or a hitting partner. I find that once that I am actually on the court, I make a deliberate and exaggerated effort to freeze my head. Eventually, I return to a normal stroke production that naturally and effortlessly incorporates a quiet head.
In my mind, quieting one's head results in several essential ingredients that lead to proper stroke production.
First, quieting the head almost always results in a complete and proper stroke finish.
Second, the quiet head usually puts the body in a better balanced position when one makes contact with the ball.
Third, quieting the head takes away the sense of "urgency" when we play this wonderful game of ours. Generally, we tend to realize that we have more time to recover from a shot, focus on our opponent's contact with the ball, and move to make our reply than we imagine possible... but indeed as Oscar Wegner has proven to me... we do have plenty of time even in high paced, "difficult" matches.
So as you begin to really hone your strokes for the summer leagues and tournaments, do not neglect to really practice freezing your head momentarily during every stroke. I promise if you do that you will soon find yourself becoming a tennis overdog!