Pro Players Have Skill, You (Probably) Don't
Imagine this scenario. An amateur player takes a lesson from a coach with the hopes of hitting a forehand like Roger Federer.
Let’s say the coach plays along. He/she presents a sequence of images to the amateur in order to see exactly the various phases of Roger’s forehand. Next, the amateur performs shadow swings, going through each position as carefully as possible. The coach then feeds the amateur a few balls, providing feedback ONLY on how close the stroke looks to Roger’s.
Now let’s say you’re watching on the sidelines. You notice that balls are flying all over the court. Not only that but the amateur makes contact with the sweet spot perhaps 1 in every 10 swings. But the swing...the swing looks amazing.
The truth is, we can provide the amateur, the beginning junior or even the aspiring competitive player with the ‘perfect’ swing but that doesn’t assure the result will be the same as Roger’s.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say that Roger stepped onto the court - you changed his grip, his stance, made him hit on one leg, with a different racquet etc. - and gave him a task to hit a target on the other side of the court. You think he could do it?
For sure! And so could all elite players. You see, there’s a difference between skill and technique. One can be skillful at hitting a target using a variety of techniques. But if you don’t possess skill, the perfect technique won’t help much.
The problem is, we often forget this by pursuing technical corrections without reason (I've been guilty of this on many occasions).
And that’s exactly what I see with a lot of players - amateurs and developing players alike. Their focus tends to be on an internal aspect of their swing, to the exclusion of other, fundamental factors that will have greater transfer on the success of their shots.
Technical cues are necessary - I am not saying they aren’t. In fact, there’s always a bandwidth of acceptability when it comes to technique/form (if there wasn’t, every player on the ATP & WTA tours would have the exact same stroke...this is hardly the case).
But emulating the pros can have a downside. Is your body type exactly like Federer’s? Do you see the ball, the court etc the same way he does? Have you had the exact same experiences as him? The answer to all these questions is a profound NO.
Here’s a better approach. Focus on building skills.
While the best in the world don’t have the exact same strokes, they share common attributes that lead to the success of their shots (and ultimately, their on-court performance). These are called fundamentals.
One of these 'fundamentals' that every great player shares is an appropriate impact point (or contact point - these terms will be used interchangeably) given the shot they are receiving and the intent of the shot they are sending.
In this post I will present the key features of a solid impact point as it relates to rally shots - in other words, when in a neutral phase of play - neither player on defence or offence. I'll also add some defining characteristics along with additional benefits when a) working on your impact point and when b) your impact point improves.
One note, I wrote in another post, that technique is a function of tactics. While this is definitely true, skills can be improved upon irrespective of technique and tactics. For instance, the impact point is something you can practice with a partner when hitting up the middle, doing crosscourt drills and even when one player is at net working on volleys. You see, while you may watch the pros performing simple cross court rally drills during practices, they are undoubtedly focusing on something without the casual observer knowing it. And often times, the impact point is one of those ‘somethings’.
In another post we'll explore the impact point as it relates to the other 2 main phases of play - offence and defence.
4 Factors for a Solid Impact Point
#1 - Impact Height
Nothing gets me going more than watching junior players hit balls without being mindful. Many of these juniors even possess beautiful, crisp strokes. What you'll notice, however, is one ball struck at knee height, the next at head height and only when movement isn’t a requirement, is the ball hit somewhere in between.
A recent study (Reid et al 2016) found that pro players at the Australian Open had a mean shot contact height of 0.95m (just over 3 feet). That’s about waist height (check out the image of Sharapova above). Of course, there are instances when players are attacking and the ball is struck at a higher point or the ball is very low because of a slice, drop shot etc and is therefore struck below that height.
But for the most part, in rally situations, the height of a player’s impact should be somewhere around their waist. Believe it or not, this isn’t an easy task.
This is tennis basics 101. Yet so many players - especially amateurs - aren’t focusing on this.
Note - For the purposes of the following arguments, let’s assume the player is not taking the ball on the rise.
When rallying - in order to have an impact around the waist - there are a couple of critical requirements. First, a player must perceive the oncoming ball - should I move forward to meet the ball at the right height, should I move back, diagonally etc? Second, they must move well in order to get into the appropriate spot, based on their perceptual analysis. The faster they can make this movement, the better will be their set-up - which opens up a variety of options in terms of how they want to play the ball.
Many amateurs and developing players, however, see the pros hitting and focus a lot of their attention on how (form) their swings look - and attempt to copy these swings - instead of what their swings produce (function). The pros have strokes that are so well tuned that they can essentially play the ball towards the same relative target on every shot during practice settings. Thus, they don't seem to be moving much (but in fact they are...and it's more than you think). This ability, along with their technically efficient strokes, has taken years for them to develop.
Amateurs and most juniors aren’t good enough to do this. In order to meet the ball with their racquet at the appropriate height, they’ll have to make a lot of adjustments with their movement.
Take home lesson:
While rallying, focus on making contact with the ball around waist/hip height (at minimum, above the knees and max, below the shoulders). This will require that you track the ball well (using your anticipatory and perception skills to ‘receive’ the ball appropriately) and make the necessary adjustments with your footwork.
#2 - Lateral Impact Distance
If you ever get to witness a practice run by a highly seasoned coach, you’ll probably hear the word ‘space’ floated around a lot. Or ‘create space’. What does this mean exactly? Essentially, this means having enough room to swing the racquet freely. Again, if you don’t move around the ball, or away from the ball, it’ll be quite difficult to make an unencumbered swing - you’ll almost feel jammed up.
The opposite is also true - if the ball is too far away from your body (laterally speaking) - it’s difficult to make a powerful, coordinated cut on it. In many cases, players will use more arm then body - again, assuming that this is a rally setting.
Take home lesson:
While rallying from the back of the court, focus on meeting the ball with the racquet far enough away from your body that you have room to swing freely but not too far where you feel like you’re reaching/extending yourself too much.
#3 - Horizontal Impact Distance
Similar to lateral impact distance, horizontal distance refers to how close or far away the ball is in terms of forward and backward. In rally scenarios, the ball should always be in front of the body but how far depends on your grip, how long your arm is, the path of your racquet and so on. With all these variables, it’s tough to give an exact location (as you are probably aware by now, exactness/perfection etc. doesn’t exist).
For example if your grip is more western and you attempt to hit the ball way in front, you’ll often see the ball landing short or dipping into the net - because the angle of the racquet (another topic we’ll leave for a later post) is facing downward at impact. Many players who do this actually compensate by swinging heavily from low to high - but this only partially solves the problem as now there is a lot of topspin on the ball but it doesn’t really have any pace to it.
Take home lesson:
While rallying, focus on meeting the ball in front of your body - your grip and racquet path being the primary dictators of how far forward your strike of the ball will be. Experimentation is your friend here.
#4 - Strike Quality
This is something I believe many amateurs and juniors fail to even consider - how pure was their contact. If you’ve played a significant amount of tennis, you’ll know the difference between hitting the ball clean and hitting it off-centre. Not only do you ‘feel’ the difference (more vibration is felt through the arm when it's not clean) but you hear the difference (that crisp thump/thud when you hit it centred).
But how often do you actually practice hitting the ball ‘pure’? In golf, I recently read that pro players are able to tell you exactly which groove they attempted to hit on the club face AND which one they actually hit (Young 2015). Now that’s feel. I know certain pro players that actively work on trying to hit the ball clean with a relaxed swing. Not only will this produce the most effective ball response coming off the string bed, it’s also better for your arm health.
Here's proof - a study by Li et al (2009) found that hitting closer to the tip of the racquet (called the ‘dead spot’), produced 1.6 times more force compared to hitting in the centre (the ‘sweet-spot’). Similarly, hitting the ball towards the throat of the racquet or off-centre (towards the outside borders, relative to the sweet-spot), produced 1.4 times more force compared to hitting it in the centre.
Does that mean that hitting cleaner can also have a positive impact on injury prevention/attenuation? Looks to be that way.
Take home lesson:
Provide feedback to yourself based on the feel of the ball leaving the racquet. If you DO hit it crisp, you’ll feel as though the swing was effortless. The same can be done by listening to the sound of the ball and trying to emulate a ‘crisp’ sound; ball after ball.
Some Secondary Comments on Improving your Impact Point
There are various ways you can give yourself feedback when working on your impact. Telling yourself ‘yes’ or ‘no’ after each contact (whether you thought it was at the right height/distance away from you), the sound the ball makes coming off the strings and the resultant shot etc.
With all 4 factors from above, there’s always variability and no 2 shots will have the EXACT SAME impact point. This is fine - aim at getting as close to perfection as you can while knowing that subtle differences exist - the process will allow you to refine your impact quality as you practice more.
I call this type of training ‘skills practice’ (I kind of stole this from a colleague of mine but love the idea). Skills and technique practice, like we said earlier, ARE NOT the same thing. I can be skillful at hitting the ball into one area of the court, with a variety of techniques (good or bad). A seasoned coach can provide technical feedback to help improve a certain element of your impact point. Technique almost becomes a tool to improve skill.
If you mindfully focus on creating a more repeatable/reliable impact point, you will notice that early on, you may get fatigued. This is normal as a new set of muscles, activation patterns and so on are now being used. Once your practice this more often, it will again become more autonomous and a greater sense of relaxation in the working muscles will manifest itself.
Further to point #4, focusing on a repeatable impact point will often improve technique without any technical cues. This is especially true when you combine impact point training with another goal/aim - an example being hitting the ball with depth. The feedback from your shot will allow you to naturally adjust your swing to meet the desired demand. This is a form of constraint-led learning.
Another added benefit when focusing on a solid impact point - you’ll inherently work on other abilities. Your focus to ‘track’ (perceive) the ball sooner will heighten. Your desire to move with intense effort will augment. For coaches, instead of telling players to move more or better, be demanding (and precise) with where you want them to meet the ball.
When I was a younger coach, I had the chance to work alongside some really great coaches - at Tennis Canada, Tennis Scotland, on tour. In most of these settings, the players (who ranged in age from 10 to 25) were all considered elite with respect to their age groups. And in all cases, you’d be surprised at how much time these coaches spent on impact points.
These were coaches who were either former players or had worked with some of the best in the world. In fact, very little practice time was actually spent on traditional ‘technical’ training (compared to what you see on social media these days). Again, I’m not saying that technical training (form) doesn’t have a place but it should be implemented to facilitate either improved skills, to produce a better shot given the tactical scenario or because it is mechanically deficient and could lead to an injury in the long run.
That said, the proportion of time spent on technique - from what I see - is misaligned. Focusing on skills will often times improve technique more than trying to hold a mental image of a body part while swinging. This process, according to Timothy Gallwey (author of the Inner Game series of books) and Adam Young (golf coach and author) call ‘the natural way of learning’.
One last comment - unlike less experienced players, the pros are able to hit the ball at a variety of locations and still produce GOOD shots. They know however, that hitting at the right spot will give them better chances at hitting GREAT shots. Take a page out of their book...build this skill and you'll see large improvements in your game.