3 Things You Need To Play Tennis The Natural Way

Aug 03

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How to control the ball in tennis

You can just simply play the ball in tennis rather than thinking about technique

When you’re learning to play tennis or looking to improve your game, there is a place for technical and even mechanical instruction.

Unfortunately, most people feel that this is the only thing there is to work on.

But the desired end result – meaning that you play tennis well and control the ball well – is not achieved by giving technical/mechanical commands to your body.

The end result is simply playing the ball – in your mind, you visualize how you want the ball to fly and simply do it .

It’s exactly the same as driving a car – when you want to turn left, your arms move the steering wheel in a way that achieves that result.

So, what variables do you need in tennis to simply »play the ball« and not give your body commands as to how to move each specific limb and other parts of your body?

 

Direction, Height and Spin

As you saw, the first two basic variables, which we call »ball controls«, are direction and height. They are very natural and almost unconscious in your mind when you throw the ball with your hand.

For some reason, once we hold the racquet in our hand, things become much more complicated – even though they don’t have to be!

Play exactly the same – »send« the ball toward your chosen target and obviously aim above the net.

tennis ball trajectory

The main variables of the trajectory of a tennis ball are direction and height (Image from dellcreativestudio.com)

This is playing now based on Self2 – your Self1 chose the end result, meaning how the ball should fly – and left Self2 to figure out what commands to send to the body in order to achieve that.

What I am explaining is no magic – it’s exactly the same process you’re using when throwing the ball with the hand – you’re obviously not thinking about a backswing or a follow-through.

Once you do that, you’ll have a much clearer mind, and you’ll see the ball well. After all, the ball is the only thing that matters, since now you want only to make the ball fly the way you decided.

What About Speed and Depth?

In order to control the ball, we need:
• Direction
• Height
• Depth
• Speed
• Spin

In real game, we control speed by rhythm. We don’t look to adjust speed by a mile per hour for each incoming ball – leave that to the pros.

Instead, we rely on a rhythm – a certain speed of shots that practice and play have shown us we control well.

So, we simply hold that tempo, and we focus on other ball controls/variables.

(The article on speed of shots is coming soon…)

Depth is determined by height (or the angle at which we play the ball), speed and spin. While you might have certain depth in mind, you need to be aware of the height and spin – since your speed is more or less constant (unless you’re attacking).

So, you’re not really aiming at a certain depth – rather, you’re focusing on speed and height and spin that create that depth of shots.

Why is focusing on depth dangerous for your game? Most tennis players, when looking to change depth of shots, will change the rhythm of their strokes. They will slow down strokes and stop rolling the ball and therefore start playing something that they haven’t practiced, which also disconnects their arm from their body. Therefore, they will have very poor control of the shot. So, you need to keep your rhythm of strokes – which means keeping a good racquet head speed while changing height and spin to control depth.

In reality, your rate of spin is also more or less constant, so you roughly have constant speed and spin, and you adjust the height of your shots in order to control depth.

Since most of your shots need to go deep (except for short cross court shots), you’re basically trying to find the right speed, spin and height, which will remain constant, and you simply change the direction of the ball for most of the baseline rallies.

How to Practice

I suggest you start and finish every tennis session on court with these drills.

The start is important so that you don’t flood your mind immediately with tons of mechanical commands and so that you learn to engage Self2 into the playing process.

After all, that’s how we play tennis eventually!

The finish of the lesson is again important since you want to return from technical thinking (if you had such a lesson) to a more natural way of playing tennis – which is to simply play the ball.

Follow this progression:

1. On mini tennis and at the start of rallying on the full court, focus only on direction and height and start rallying with a good height above the net.

2. After a minute or two, lower the trajectory of the ball and add rotation to the ball. Don’t just »spin« the ball, but hit the ball by pressing and rolling it. Of course, use feel to do that, and don’t be rough or forceful.

3. Keep those three parameters in mind – direction, height and spin – and work on changing them and adjusting them to each incoming ball.

Direct the ball slightly away from your partner while knowing exactly at what height you want to play it. Choose the amount to spin you want to put on the ball, and try to find the right amount in order to have good control of most incoming balls.

4. Look to get into a good rhythm, and after about 5-10 minutes, proceed to other tasks and things you want to work on.

5. Finish the lesson with 5 minutes of rallying (cool down) by focusing again on the 3 parameters of natural tennis: direction, height and spin.

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21 comments

  1. Christian /

    This simple Change of what to think during hitting changed everything for me. I read it before on your site, but didn’t really put it to use – until I played a tournament a week ago. As usual I really struggled during my matches, thinking about how I had to ‘bend my knees more’ or ‘hit the ball in front of the Body’. I did not imagine how the Ball should move, but how my Body should move, which leads to a lot of unforced errors, especially when the Ball doesn’t bounce exactly like you predicted und you have to move any different to your imagination. Then somehow I your Advice came to my mind and I tried to imagine how the Ball would fly, exactly with spin, depths, speed and height. My hitting became a huge lot smoother and the Balls almost magically found their way to were I wanted them to go. Despite being slightly injured I’ve played the best Tennis of my live in the last couple of days.
    Don’t think about how your body moves, but exactly imagine the Ball you’re going to hit – your body knows how to move by itself. I wouldn’t believe it works that good if I didn’t try it.
    Sorry for the long post but I just had to properly write and thank you. This Advice improved my game more then anything in the last couple of years!
    Best regards,
    Christian

  2. Matthew /

    Your advice on simply playing the ball and letting your body perform the shots that you want without focusing on technique is simple and good. I found my self down in a match trying to focus and correcting my backhand when my balls kept falling short or going into the net. Once I just stopped thinking about my mechanics and started letting my body perform better deep strokes I completed a comeback win.

  3. Tomaz /

    Thanks for sharing, guys. I’d like to add here that fixing tennis technique during a tennis match will not work.

    Your mechanics will not change during the match – so the goal is only to make the best of what you have at that moment.

    And for that reason you need to stop messing with it and focus all attention on the ball and how you want to play it – and that will give you the best probability of hitting a good shot in that moment.

    • Great advice. I have a playing partner that has one every set, every match, except one set since january.
      He always seems in control where i seem hurried and rough. I am rated a 3.4, but i feel like a 2.0! Hopefully is thought process will help me stop my compulsive thought of mechanics. Thx

  4. Tomaz, again you have put an analogy into my game that is really helpful. I love the simple approach you are using thx

  5. Kevin /

    Great instruction! Simple and clear. I’ll remember these pointers the next time I play.
    Thanks for taking the time to write your post.

  6. Kerry /

    Tomaz,

    Again, great stuff! You’re really putting a LOT of good information here, on top of the already great Mindgame site.

    I’ve really been working on integrating the things you’re putting up here into my game, and have been very pleased with the results– I’m gradually beginning to have a nearly ‘empty head’, even under the pressure of match playing (!), and only a mental visual image of how I want the ball to move. I’m still working on it, but, with the clear direction you’ve provided, I’m improving.

    Most of the folks I play with lately assume I’ve been playing tennis FAR longer than I have, and that’s very nearly exclusively thanks to the information on your site(s). Again, I have to say I really like the way your stuff fits nearly seamlessly with Oscar’s ‘find it, feel it, finish’ stuff…

    I wish I could get my high school aged step son to practice this sort of thing. I see him (and all his team mates and opponents) constantly ‘correcting’ themselves verbally (often quite abusively) after losing most points (and even some winners!).

    Thanks so much for your work!

    Kerry

  7. JAYANT GADGE /

    Thanks for good advise.Applying your tips & guidance I am playing my tennis game very well ( Perhaps better than ever ).Thanks once again.

  8. Michael /

    Thanks for the good advice. But the same variables apply to the incoming ball, too. That makes the formula more complex. Some suggested that we need to change the swing path, tempo, or even grip as to react to those variables. I personally disagree. Is there a simple way of dealing with those variables of the incoming balls?

    Michael

    • Tomaz /

      The swing path, tempo / rhythm and amount of top spin happen automatically if you just focus on meeting the ball in your ideal contact point and know exactly what you want to do with it. And of course don’t think at all about your body. It takes a lot of practice but that’s how we play eventually – there is no conscious thought about technique, we simply play the ball.

      • Michael /

        It sounds like magic! I cannot explain why but what you say does work! The more I think about technique, the more mistakes I make. My concern is that if I do not know how and why it works, I may lose it one day and do not know what goes wrong. I had that kind of experience in golf and I almost want to quit golf completely (I am talking about hitting a stationary ball here!). I do not want this happen to my tennis games, too. Comments?

        • Tomaz /

          I know what you mean, Michael. Imagine that someone is throwing a ball to you and you catch it with both hands. There’s ball judgment, timing, hand-eye coordination, movement, etc.

          All this happens automatically and smoothly if you just focus on catching the ball. It won’t go away. You’ll always be able to repeat that without conscious thought.

          It’s the same in tennis – the complex processes behind a normal hit of the ball are too complex for you too consciously do them in the right time and in the right sequence. They happen well if you focus on simply playing the ball – meaning having the right trajectory in mind early enough before the contact.

          The only real danger that you might lose it is actually by trying to be conscious of every move you do. ;)

  9. Hi Tomaz,
    All of your stuff is very good innovative and can be applied very quickly. Fantastic work! However in this particular drill it is worth saying that this wont get you playing like ‘the pros’. Muscle memory is a key for those shots and that can not be developed by thinking about moving the ball. Muscle memory is developed by constant repetition of swing with strict guidance of the coach making sure that mechanics are correct. This can work for people who already have decent swing mechanics to help them simplify the thought process during pressure situation. If you start thinking about swing mechanics during the point that usually causes ‘paralysis by analysis’ situation. When you are demonstrating this drill in this video you are using very sound swing mechanics as your body is already ‘programed’ to do so. If you say to a total novice just think about moving the ball and lifting it over the net they wont be able to have good swing mechanics as yourself. Gordan

    • Thanks for the kind words, Gordan.

      You’re right, this drill is not for beginners. The main purpose of this drill is to help players stop thinking about technique and simply start playing.

      But often times players cannot keep a blank mind and simply play the ball so here they have a certain task in their mind – direction, height and spin.

      And that will actually prevent them from having any thoughts about mechanics as we typically cannot think two things at the same time.

      Thanks for pointing this out…

  10. bachduong /

    Thank a lot for receieved your new letter,a lot of things I can learned from your site.come on!
    in fact volley at net is not easy,but from the feel,s tennis I can do it on court more comfortable.hope to receive more information with hight level.thank a lot
    your sincerely
    bachduong

  11. Georgia /

    Tomaz: I’ve read and re-read your posts as well as your videos and ….you have great instruction. They are simple direct, and concise corrections that make sense and do work. I’ve tried them and have had success and more importantly, feel like my tennis confidence has increased. I look forward to your next insightful and impactful posts.

    Also, regarding footwork…I’ve watched Serena Williams closely in the last year and she doesn’t appear to always be moving her feet. It seems as though she reads the ball so well that she is the right position 95% of the time. Have you noticed this?

    Georgia

    • Tomaz /

      Hi Georgia,

      I think Serena is not as mobile as she used to be – so her main goal is to dominate the point from the first shot.

      She is looking for a good serve and then immediate pressure with the groundstroke or an aggressive return and immediate pressure again.

      When she is attacking she can anticipate very well where the defensive balls from her opponent will be played – and yes, that’s why she doesn’t have to move much.

      Lindsay Davenport built her whole game around this concept – and so did in fact Andre Agassi who also seemed that he doesn’t have to move much.

  12. Hi Tomaz,
    Great lesson as usual!
    In my experience as à player and coach, this is true once the player got the feel.
    So when I’m playing well and feel the ball well, then I just have to think about the ball.
    But when the feel is not there I’m not able to control the ball well by just focusing om the ball.
    I’ve to focus first on the swing itself; which not mean thinking about my swing, but just swinging consciously.
    I’m wondering if you understand what I mean and if you can subscribe it?

    Paul

    • Hi Paul,

      It is possible to think about the swing in terms of technique to help yourself out. It depends what exactly do you mean by “swinging consciously”.

      If you want to feel the swing, then you’re on the right track.

      But if you want to move the arm in a certain way even though you have done that million times, then that’s not useful because it takes your mind off the ball.

      I have to say to recreational players many times that there is no need to think about technique any more. They have been working on “technique” for years and still want to “make sure” the arm will move in the correct way every tennis session.

      Of course it will – they’ve done it so many times. The movement is there already, now you need clear intention and feel effortless energy transfer into the ball.

      • Hi Tomaz,

        Thanks for your answer, I totally agree with that and think you are really progressive in your philosophy as à tennis coach!
        In my vision it has à lot to do with the mental aspect of the game. Creating the right physical and psychological state. By focusing on the goal (height, direction and spin) you give your subconscious order and direction which then takes over the performance.
        That haven said; in my experience if the player isn’t in the right state (insecure, anger, stressed, etc.) and he focussed directly and only on the goal, then he won’t performing at his best.
        I think the player has to focus on creating the right state not only in between points, but also focus on that during the point. So, in my vision if the player isn’t yet in te right state, he must focus on proper breathing and letting the energy flow during the point.
        I’m wondering if you understand and can agree with this and if you have some addittions or suggestions. I’m sorry for being long-winded and I will appreciate if you are willing to give your vision on this subject.

        Greeting,
        Paul

        • Spot on, Paul. Yes, the ideal mental state is Step 1 if we want the mind and body connection to function best.

          It’s also very hard to do for players because they need to monitor themselves and be aware of their state.

          Adjusting the state is not so difficult as it is becoming aware of it. It takes lots of practice usually.

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