Performance improvement is all about hard work, and you need to work as hard as you can, right?
Wrong! Hard work is important, but the ultimate goal is to be as productive as you can and this comes from finding just the optimal balance of effort and temperance. Remember … smart work is your best work.
To illustrate this idea, imagine a car stuck in a snow ditch. If you press the accelerator too softly and the power that the wheels produce is less than gravity, you stay stuck. Even worse however is too much power. If the power of the wheels are greater than friction, you will dig the car deeper into the ditch. Similarly, the sweet spot of tennis performance is a delicate balance here in areas of stability, mobility, effort, rest, focus, flow and temperament.
I often challenge my young students to "Get the ball from my hand" and after they unsuccessfully wrestle me, I explain that "It would have been easier and more effective to just ask for it."
Powerful efficient strokes and explosive controlled movements are the result of high quality efforts and have several keys components that are worth exploring in detail.
1. Powerful strokes start from the ground and work their way upward in a sequential series of movements called the "Kinetic Chain." For simplicity sake, it's useful to think of this chain as starting with your legs driving your hips, which in turn drives your torso, which swings your arm and racket to strike the ball. Many players try to create that little bit of extra power with extra arm effort resulting in less power and accuracy and increased injury potential because the kinetic chain is disrupted.
2. A strong connection between your hips and torso is essential to ensure power transfer and to prevent unwanted sway or rotation. A great saying in the sports performance world is "to learn to rotate with power, first learn to resist rotation."
3. A loose wrist promotes racket speed much the same way a pliable tip of a whip results a forceful "snap." An active wrist does little to add power but a passive flexible wrist will transmit the forces created by your legs, hips torso and arms and display this force as speed.
4. Pushing the racket away from your body with the racket face turned slightly down on ground strokes will promote the production of a linear swing. It should be noted that the ultimate goal of the kinetic chain is efficient racket speed and the single biggest enemy of your racket moving fast is nonlinear racket movement. A racket which takes a straight path moves much faster and truer.
5. The primary goal of sound footwork is a quick start with as much positive acceleration as needed to meet the ball and perform a controlled slowing and stop which transitions to another quick start. This goal is in contrast to the common and harmful bit of advice to "run as fast as you can to set up to hit the ball." Such unnecessarily fast movements are an enormous waste of energy which requires greater effort to start and stop much like racing from stoplight to stoplight in a car is wasteful of gas and hard on the engine and brakes. Balance which is defined by achieving zero acceleration in movement is enhanced by efficient movement. It's understood that getting to the ball late is bad but that does not make a compelling case for the requirement to sacrifice body control to get to the ball early. Get to the ball on time and save your big efforts for challenging full effort runs and fast recoveries.
Training is an art, but the prerequisite to this discipline is following the principles of science that guide high performance.
Steve Kaplan is the owner of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as the director of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation. Over the last 34 years, Steve has been the longtime coach of more than 600 nationally-ranked junior players, 15 state high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous touring professionals and prominent coaches. Steve's students have been awarded in excess of $8 million in college scholarship money. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.