Last month, I focused my column on the importance that visual learning can play in improving a player's game. Certainly, good numbers of us are visual learners, but some of us actually learn better through audio explanations or through what might be called kinetic learning. The latter is where an individual incorporates the sense of touch or feeling into the learning process. To a greater or lesser degree, each of us probably leans in one these three directions more so than the others when it comes to how we learn.
Still in my opinion, each of us can and do learn using any of the three methodologies listed above. This month, I would like to discuss how feeling can and does play an important role in playing this wonderful game of ours and with respect to improving our games.
The first comment I must make is that I doubt that many of you reading this have really thought about feeling and the sense of touch as they apply to tennis. Believe me. You are not alone.
Generally, we seek to improve our games by looking at others or ourselves on video. Frequently, we seek advice in verbal ways that involve either printed material like this column or instructions from a teaching pro or coach. Rarely however, have many of us directed our attention at the whole concept of feeling.
To start with, I would ask the reader to consider the general question of what she/he feels in her/his hands as the racquet is moved to produce a stroke.
The first and perhaps only concept associated with our hands that we consider serious involves "grip." Actually, this is not a foolish place to start. I believe the famous pro, Rod Laver, once said: "In the final analysis it all boils down to grip," or words to this effect. I couldn't agree with him more.
However, grip involves many different specific aspects.
First, the player must consider what size grip is best. There are really no hard or fast rules associated with this decision despite the myriad methods of measuring, etc. that tennis salespeople or tennis instructional materials would propose to answer this question. I have seen players with small hands who prefer larger grips (e.g. Level 5 or 4 and 5 eighths inches). And, I have seen men with large hands who prefer a smaller grip (e.g. Level 3 or 4 and 3 eighths inches). Trial and error is the only way that a player can arrive at the proper grip size for his/her game.
As a suggestion, not a rule, I would encourage any player to use the smallest grip possible. I realize that many articles have been written that say to use the largest grip possible... especially if one wishes to avoid tennis elbow. Truthfully, tennis elbow rarely is a result of having a grip that is too small. Nor in my experience, is it likely that increasing the grip size greatly helps the healing process if one does experience tennis elbow.
Modern racquets are made of synthetic materials that make them light and rigid/stiff. In the days of wooden racquets, a larger grip was probably necessary to swing the heavy weight associated with the racquet and maintain any control. However, I must confess that Oscar Wegner shared with me his experiences watching the famous Tony Roche literally shaving the grips on his wooden racquets down to what Oscar called "pencil width." I am sure this is an exaggeration, but Tony Roche executed some of the best volleys in the game. Oscar attributes Tony's volleying skills in part to the small grips he used.
So, why would Tony Roche shave his racquet grips to make them smaller? Why do I recommend that each player use the smallest grip that she/he believes is viable? Very simply put, the smaller the grip size the more "feel" you will have in your hand as you make contact with the ball.
In selecting a racquet, you should be aware that not all grips are the same shape even though they may be the same size. Prince and Babolat grip "shapes" are different from the shapes found on Head racquets. If you are shopping for a new stick, you want to keep this in mind as you make your final selection.
I am not a fan of overgrip. Most players do use overgrip. It is a useful accessory! I prefer to have the "cut" of my racquet grip as sharp as is possible to improve my feel when changing grips during play. Unfortunately, any overgrip "softens" these racquet grip "cuts." When I find my racquet handle is to moist to hold, I tend to use a powder product to help dry the grip. If this doesn't work, I may switch racquets entirely. Fortunately, I own five frames. My approach is not for everyone to be sure. I am constantly using replacement grips as wear and tear take their toll. However before you commit to overgrip, you may want to experiment with a racquet that has no overwrap.
Most TV tennis commentators only refer to "feel" when they describe a pro's proficiency at volleying. I would propose that every stroke requires the player to have good "feel."
Feeling the ball at the moment of impact is an important way in which the player receives important stroke feedback! Indeed once you are positioned and begin your stroke motion (regardless of the stroke), the only real feedback you receive is through your hand(s) on the racquet.
Simply taking time to focus upon the feel in your hand(s) as you strike the ball can provide lots of useful information about how well you are producing a stroke. The most obvious of these is that you may be holding your racquet in a slightly different manner and not realize the difference.
When a stroke breaks down and produces lots of errors, players almost always have a sense of "panic." This is particularly true if the stroke that breaks down is one that you consider a "weapon." You will hear the player make comments about timing, movement, or myriad other components of a stroke. In many instances, simply spending some time focusing upon the feel in your hand(s) as you make contact with the ball will provide the real answer. Normally, the answer is not something that your conscious mind can dissect and analyze. More often, the simple difference in feel gives your non-conscious mind (where your muscle memory is stored) the data it needs to make the proper correction.
If you are a player who suffers from "paralysis from analysis" when things go wrong with your stroke or game, forcing yourself to simply "feel" the ball as you make contact may often times provide the inexplicable change that corrects the problem.
Crazy as it sounds, I have often coached collegiate players in this situation. During a game changeover, I will simply tell him/her to focus on "feeling" the ball. Truthfully in my experience, this simple suggestion ultimately leads to a resolution to the problem.
The player frequently would say to me, "Coach, I have no idea what I did to correct the stroke but somehow I did."
My explanation for this phenomenon is simple. Our conscious mind should really be nothing more than an attentive source of data for our non-conscious mind. Just as when we drive a car, our non-conscious mind is what really controls our stroke production. How many times have you driven a car safely from point A to point B while your conscious mind is elsewhere (talking with a passenger, listening to music, daydreaming, etc?)
How does this happen? Well, our conscious mind is simply providing sense data to the non-conscious mind. The non-conscious mind makes the thousands of little adjustments needed to keep us in our lane, turning properly, etc. All of these adjustments are made seamlessly.
Well in this great game of tennis, I would suggest that the sense of touch can be the solution to many stroke production problems. Through an almost "trial and error" process the non-conscious mind takes this information and makes the adjustments necessary to correct the problem. It may take a few strokes to give the non-conscious mind the data it needs to make the proper adjustments, but almost with certainty, the "problem" will be corrected.
The second most important part of the stroke that involves "feel" is the follow through. If every time you stroke the ball you had a consistent follow through, I assure you that your stroke accuracy and consistency would greatly improve. Spending time focusing upon the feel of your follow through (especially in pre-match warm ups) can be invaluable in improving your game. Here again, the conscious mind should simply be the provider of sense information to the non-conscious mind.
Sound crazy? Well, this is no more crazy than literally taking your life in your hands by driving a car when your conscious mind is focusing on everything but actually driving.
The third area of "feeling" that is important to the tennis player is an awareness of how her/his feet feel as she/he moves.
Sometimes, our feet feel heavy. At other times we may feel almost light on our feet.
I have even experienced situations where I have noticed that the bottom of my feet actually hurt.
Whenever your feet feel heavy or hurt, it is a clear indication of fatigue. Your feet will always let you know when you are tiring and/or moving slowly.
So, the reader may ask, "How is this information useful, Ron?" Well, whenever my feet tell me that I am fatigued, I change the nature of my play to slow the game down. I hit groundstrokes that are hit higher and deeper. If I am really fatigued, I will start to "moon ball" my opponent with very high, topspin lobs. Why? I am trying to regain strength. I am hoping to decrease how much I have to run, and give my body a chance to recuperate.
During changeovers, I will increase my fluid and "sugar" intake to help restore my energy level. If you watch pros on either tour, you will see that they frequently are ingesting an energy drink, bar or other energy product. The science of nutrition has come a long way over the years. There are many products that can provide a quick source of energy that helps minimize or eliminate fatigue.
Believe me. I learned the hard way. There were many matches that I played in the past where I became fatigued. My strokes may have deteriorated, but my movement always suffered. Sometimes the added fatigue is a bit subtle. One may not really be aware that he/she is tired and unable to move as well. Then, I started paying attention to how my feet feel in between points and during game changeovers.
If you can realize any fatigue as soon as it rears its ugly head, you can take the necessary measures to alleviate any potential problems before the fatigue significantly affects your level of play!
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of "feeling" that needs to be addressed when playing tennis occurs before the match even begins.
There was a time that I would enter the court for a competitive match having stretched a bit, participated in the 5 minute warm up, and then, I would begin the match. Sound familiar?
Then, I was competing in a USTA match in Andover, MA. I had won my first two matches on a Saturday, and stayed over at a motel for the match or matches that I would play on Sunday. Although, I had won my Saturday matches, I had also driven about three hours early on Saturday morning to get to the tournament venue. My Sunday match was scheduled for 9:00 AM. I retired early, found a diner and had a good breakfast. I like my coffee, and of course, I had a couple cups while breakfasting. By the time I started my 9:00 AM match, I was fatigued, stiff, feeling a bit full, and frankly, I was probably a bit dehydrated. Needless to say, I lost this match to a player who I had beaten on two previous occasions. I was not happy.
What I learned from this experience is that I need to assess how my body feels the night before a match and prepare appropriately for the match or matches the following day.
If I am playing a match, I will carbo-load the night before with complex carbohydrates that are healthy. In the morning, I will limit my food intake. If I have a match that is scheduled later in he day, I will eat several small "meals" of oatmeal spread over time. I always force myself to drink plenty of water on the day of match. I begin this process as soon as I awaken. I make sure to eat a banana early in the day to assure that the fluids that I take actually stay with me. If you don't like bananas, taking a potassium supplement may be a viable alternative.
Before I leave to compete, I do an overall assessment of how my body "feels," as much as time will allow. If I am stiff, I tend to take a couple aspirin early on to help reduce pain and inflammation. If I have suffered an injury in the recent past, I will assess what I may need to do to make sure that it doesn't affect my play. Even though a sore wrist or a twisted/sprained ankle may have healed, I assess how it feels at that given moment. If necessary, I will use an ace bandage or brace, if I think the injury is not completely capable of handling the rigors of the match.
Match play is very different than practice. An injury that has healed that feels fine during practice may actually flare up in a match. Why? Well in part, competitive matches put us under lots of emotional stress. This stress frequently can create conditions that force an old injury to reappear or at least impact our playing level.
My point is simple. Long before you play a match, you really need to take a personal inventory of how you really "feel." Once you identify your overall condition, you can take any extraordinary measures or precautions to make sure you are at your physical best when it is time to compete.
Learning to "read" one's body is a process. It takes time to really understand how your body will really feel when it comes time to play the match. But once you spend some time learning your body's idiosyncrasies, you can take the actions necessary to be certain that you are in the best possible "form" to compete. Just remember that some days it does not matter how well you assess and prepare, your body is just not at peak level.
Related to this is the situation that occurs when you win a match and have to wait a while to play your second match of the day. Here again, learning your body's signals is a process. Simple things like getting out of the sun, stretching at the end of your first match, changing clothing to feel "fresh," even taking time to lie down and rest may be part of the ritual you need to perform to recover properly to be best able to compete in your second match. Every tournament player needs to understand what she/he needs to do to "recover" fully in between matches played on the same day.
There are no universal rules. Each of us is different. Yes, there are guidelines that more often than not pay dividends, but for every "rule" there is at least one player who should do the opposite.
The last element associated with "feel" relates to an assessment of the playing conditions. What is the temperature? Where is the sun? It there any wind? From what direction is the wind coming? Is it a strong wind or mild? Is the wind constant or intermittent? Are there moving clouds overhead? How does the ball "feel" the surface in terms of bounce height and spin potential?
I grant you that not all of the above directly involve "feel." But in a very real sense they are related to feel once the match actually begins. The answers to these questions must be made by the conscious mind. Given the answers, you can "remind, command or reprogram" your non-conscious mind to take these into account as you begin play. I know it sounds too simple but simply drawing attention to these areas without making a conscious effort to decide "what" needs to be adjusted will ultimately find their way into your non-conscious mind's programming.
As a final comment, I would encourage each reader to spend at least one practice session per week focusing upon nothing but "feeling." Focus on your grips. Focus on your feet. Give some attention to all of your joints. (Tennis is a game that puts strain on virtually every joint in our body.) Monitor your energy and level of fatigue. Monitor what goes awry when you are tired or suffering from a lack of energy. Experiment with water, sports drinks, energy bars, etc. and what effect they have on your overall energy "feeling."
As is the case with everything in this wonderful game, one needs to spend time in practice focusing on all aspects of feeling to be able to use them to advantage during a match.
I assure you that if you do begin to truly "feel your tennis game," you will soon become a