Why “Swing Low-To-High” Instruction Doesn’t Work And What To Do Instead

May 22

One of the most common instructions tennis coaches like to give to players is to “swing low to high” on their forehands and backhands to apply topspin to the ball or to just play the ball higher above the net.

While this instruction seems to be good at first glance since the racket does follow a low-to-high swing path, it turns out that players misinterpret this advice in various ways and end up hitting their forehands and backhands without much power and effortlessness.

I have found two ways to help players develop the right swing path that work much better than the swing-low-to-high instruction.

Before I explain them to you, let’s see why swinging low to high doesn’t really produce the desired effect.

3 Reasons Why “Swing Low to High” Is Not Good Advice

1. Loss of Momentum

When we instruct players to swing low to high, they will picture a straight line starting at a point lower than the ball and ending up higher than the ball.

They will typically start their forehand or backhand as usual with the racket head up in preparation and start their downward swing, but then they will either slow down or even stop their racket at the lowest part of the swing in order to FIND the “low” starting point of their low-to-high swing.

Since they visualize the low-to-high swing as an upward line, they will try to find the starting point and then swing up.

backhand low swing

Player tends to look for the “low” starting point from which he will swing up “high”

This process of trying to find the starting point will significantly slow down their racket which has already built up some momentum from the downward swing. It will therefore cause the racket to lose the momentum and speed it has built up.

In other words, the racket will slow down and lose power.

The player will consciously or subconsciously feel that and try to get some power going now.

They will very likely accelerate with a jerky movement and tightness in their muscles and consequently play very inconsistently without much power.

2. Swinging Up Too Steeply

The second common mistake players make when instructed to swing low to high is that they imagine a very steep swing path going upward as they don’t really know the actual angle of the swing path.

Since the coaches really emphasize low to HIGH, players think that they really need to swing up high.

Incorrect low to high swing path

In my experience players imagine a swing path this steep when they are told to “swing low-to-high”

But, in reality, the swing path is quite shallow, typically between 20 and 30 degrees. In contrast, players likely imagine a swing path of 60 or 70 degrees.

actual forehand swing path

The actual swing path is much more shallow for a typical groundstroke from the baseline

As a result, they swing up very high on the ball and just brush it a bit without giving it enough forward force. Therefore, the ball lands very short on the other side.

Players again try to compensate for that by hitting more forcefully and in the process mishit the ball often and can’t play consistently.

3. Focusing On The Body And Not On The Ball

Whenever we pay attention to our body – like how to move our arm from low to high – we will pay less attention to the ball.

You can imagine the brain like a computer processor that has to devote some processing power to conscious thinking and actual movement of the arm and some processing power to calculating the ball flight and timing.

When we use some of the processing power for thinking, there is less left for ball judgment and timing.

As a result, we will not judge the ball well enough, and we may position too close or too far from it and time our swings poorly.

So, as we start to think about the swing path, we will now play even worse.

We coaches are aware of that problem. That’s why we usually toss the ball with the hand or feed very nice balls to the player when we ask them to think about their body.

hand feeding tennis drill

I hand feed often when I work on correcting technique mechanically since the player has to think

Players themselves often don’t know this and try to think about their body while they play. They receive all sorts of uncomfortable balls, and the result is usually very bad.

That’s why we must look for solutions where the attention is on the ball yet we still find a way to develop the correct swing path.

This leads us to the first solution that works much better than the swing-low-to-high instruction.

Tip #1: Hitting The Ball Below The Center (Equator)

Instead of thinking to swing low to high, imagine hitting the ball below its center – in other words, below the equator if you imagine planet Earth.

Most players don’t even think where to make the first contact with the ball because it seems obvious that we need to hit the ball squarely at the back if we want to hit it forward.

But that’s not the case since we don’t want to hit the ball in a straight horizontal line. Instead, we want to hit it in a trajectory, even if it’s a low one.

Therefore, we need to hit the ball slightly upward and with some topspin when it comes to topspin forehands and backhands.

So, we must imagine hitting the ball slightly below its center.

where to hit a tennis ball

This is where on the ball you should imagine making the initial contact with it

You can start to practice this first by imagining making contact with the ball at a 45-degree angle below the center.

Then imagine brushing up across the center line and leaving the ball with the racket just above the center while you’re swinging forward, pressing into the ball.

While all this will not happen in those 0.005 seconds that the ball and the strings are in contact, it will help us shape our swing toward the ball and consequently hit the ball with some lift and topspin.

We cannot possibly teach what to do in 0.005 seconds because our conscious mind is too slow to track just a short amount of time.

Therefore, we use a mental image of what we should try to do with the strings of the racket to the ball, and this turns out to work really well.

where to hit a tennis ball

Once the player attempts to hit the ball below the center and just finishes their stroke, they will see that this works and very quickly learn to trust this process.

Because every ball is different in tennis, we cannot say that we need to hit every ball at a 45-degree angle below the center. Even so, this is a good foundation for typical incoming balls at a waist height that you try to hit about 1 to 1.5 meters (3–5 feet) above the net.

In time, you will unconsciously learn to adjust to different balls through a lot of repetition and will not have to think at what exact angle you want to hit the ball.

The main reason this approach works really well is that the player is not thinking about their body – namely how to move their arm.

Rather, the player focuses on the ball and where they want to hit it, and the subconscious mind will adjust the arm movement.

The subconscious mind is always more precise and smooth when it comes to controlling the movements of the body than the conscious mind.

The player also has their full attention on the ball as it’s coming toward them because they have to look at it and imagine where to make the initial contact with it.

That will again help the player judge the ball well and position at the right distance from it.

Tip #2: Swinging Down First

As I explained above, one of the usual problems with the swing-low-to-high advice is that the players lose speed and momentum of the stroke because they start to slow down or even stop the racket at the “low” position that they are trying to find.

A very good way to counter that is to tell the player to just swing down first from their preparation, which should be with the racket head up whether on the forehand or the backhand side.

I usually push the player’s arm downward quite forcefully so that I break their habit and that they really feel how much momentum and speed this generates.

swinging down backhand technique

Take a leap of faith and swing down first and you’ll see how much easier it will be to swing up eventually

I also make them aware that, even though I pushed their arm downward, it still swung upward since it’s attached at the shoulder, which acts like a pivot point so the arm cannot go anywhere else but upward eventually.

While it feels a bit strange to swing down when you want to hit the ball upward, it’s the same approach as we use on the serve where we must learn to swing upward even though we will hit the ball downward.

In summary, I have found that telling players to “swing low to high” is a really ineffective instruction. It causes more problems than it solves, and it fails to actually help players hit the ball with topspin and some arc.

Aiming at the bottom part of the ball is much better advice. It is similar to the advice given when we teach a topspin serve and imagine brushing the ball from 7 o’clock to 1 o’clock for righthanders.

This is not what actually happens, as you can tell if you observe the slow-motion videos.

The contact time between the racket and the ball is just around 0.005 seconds, and there is not enough time for the strings to actually travel from 7 to 1 in the case of the topspin serve or from 6 to 12 in the case of a topspin forehand and backhand.

However, this mental image does help us develop the right swing path and the right feel to hit the ball with topspin and the right trajectory.

Give these ideas a try and share your experiences in the comments below!

Leave a Comment:

(40) comments

Imran May 22, 2017

Hi Tomaz,

Thank you for another great lesson.

I really appreciate your videos and this one was excellent. I am slowly understanding the mechanics of improving my game and I always feel better after watching your videos and look forward to applying what I have learned!

Best,
Imran

Reply
    Tomaz May 22, 2017

    Glad that the video helped, Imran.

    Let me know how it goes once you apply the two ideas from above!

    Reply
Jose May 22, 2017

In this video, what could happen if I find the incoming ball with the racquet head open?

Reply
    Tomaz May 22, 2017

    It depends on what the angle is – but an open racket face hits the ball up. You can’t trick the laws of physics…

    Reply
Kevin Foehrkolb May 22, 2017

Hi Tomaz, Thanks for the lesson. If this doesn’t work for me I’m going to give up. I’ve been trying for over a year to hit the ball harder on the forehand side and just can’t seem to make it happen.

Unless I really brush straight up on the ball, I only get topspin on about 10% of my FHs, so if hit it harder it goes out most of the time. I am constantly amazed and in deep admiration of how hard the pros can swing at the ball and bring it down in the court.

I think part of it is that I don’t hit the ball out in front far enough. But how do you hit the ball in front when you are running toward the sideline and your right shoulder and arm are behind your body??? I can’t turn my body that far while moving on the court, which is on nearly every shot. But the pros do it. They can be running full speed, swing as hard as they can, hit it about 90 MPH, and keep it in the court! It’s almost miraculous to me.

The other reason could be racket head speed, but if I swing for the fences, I usually hit the fence!

I do try to hit the spot under the ball, but if I try to hit it hard, it’s often a pop fly that sails long.

Should I switch to a semi-western or western grip? When I try semi-western it usually hits the ground before the net!

I’m thinking it may be hopeless for me.

Thanks, Kevin

Reply
    JC May 23, 2017

    It’s hard to be sure just from words but I think you’re right about your problem being late contact point, Kevin. As Tomaz says in the post above, you can’t trick the laws of physics and if you hit right under the ball, it will hit the fence. And with late contact point, there is a greater chance of this happening.

    Imagine a sort of contact zone instead of a single contact point – with good early contact point, this zone is stable and the racquet face doesn’t change very much even if you slightly mistime the contact (common for all of us mere mortals). With late contact point, slight wrist movement is enough to make a big difference to approaching racquet face (I think Tomaz has an early video on this concept).

    If your problem is that fundamental, you should probably forget about power and just see if you can hit 20 forehands in a row without effort with good contact point. Beware of copying pros, especially complicated forehands like Federer/Nadal – Tomaz has lots of videos on forehand fundamentals. Also nothing beats a video of oneself.

    Reply
George May 22, 2017

Hi, Tomaz:

I think this is one of your most insightful and useful videos. I recently came to the same idea as you through many weeks of trial and error.

However, I found that aiming for the bottom of the ball didn’t give me much more topspin and control than hitting flat. Now I aim about a racquet width below the ball as I start my foreswing (which is about the time the ball has bounced on my side of the net).

By the time I contact the ball I probably am hitting the ball about where you mentioned but by that time the ball is just a blur I am doing just what you say at the time of hitting the ball. The difference is where I aim to begin my forward swing.

Keep up the great work; it is greatly appreciated!

George

p.s. What a beautiful location for your video!

Reply
Aine May 22, 2017

Hi Tomaz:

Thanks for astute tips re achieving topspin…

I have tried brushing up, swinging low etc. as instructed and have had “mixed” results.

Your advice is so much simpler – better as it also forces me to constantly watch the ball in order to hit it below the “equator” line…

I love your tennis website…

Thanks,
Aine

Reply
    Tomaz May 22, 2017

    Thanks for the kind feedback, Aine! Keep in touch…

    Reply
Ben May 22, 2017

Hi Tomaz,

another great video. I really like the idea of swinging down first, will try it as soon as I get a chance.

Thanks,

Ben

Reply
    Tomaz May 22, 2017

    Thanks, Ben. I’ve been doing that on forehands and backhands but backhands are more prone to locking up and not really going smoothly down and up.

    It REALLY helps if someone physically pushes the arm downwards, then you’ll have no doubt what to feel…

    Reply
John Shea May 22, 2017

Hi Tomaz, thank you all your videos have been very informative. Also easy to understand.

I think that’s what you’re trying to teach – easy is better. You’re a great teacher.

Reply
João Alcoforado May 22, 2017

Hi Tomaz, I’m from Portugal and i appreciate very much your lessons. I play and i teach and your tips and the way you explain are very good and clear.

Thanks, João

Reply
    Tomaz May 23, 2017

    Glad that I can help, João!

    Reply
Bakthan May 22, 2017

Yet another pearl of wisdom.Swinging forcibly down before lifting up is a great idea.

Thanks.

Reply
Roger Pist May 23, 2017

Hi Tomaz, I am a right-handed player with two-handed backhand. I fell that i am brushing my topspin backhand.

Do i need to make tip #2 with The left hand or both?

Can The idea of forehand “hit the ball like a bowling” help the depth of my backhand?

Thank you again.

Reply
    Tomaz May 23, 2017

    Hi Roger,

    You can just swing down with both arms. And sure, imagine bowling and actually try to do it with your left arm alone a few times.

    I will work on the two-handed backhand course hopefully soon so stay tuned, all the answers will be there.

    Reply
      Roger Pist June 11, 2017

      Thank you Tomaz, you are The best coach of The world. I read and Watch all your articles, e-books and courses.
      I’m aguarding anxious The backhand course.
      I considere me a good tennis player, but with your courses I iniciated a process to be a good hitter.
      After 15 days working a lot, forehand and serve are changing.
      Tennis is greatful to you.

      Reply
Mike Cheatham May 23, 2017

I have watched several of your videos and they have all given me great insights into ways to improve my game.

Thanks!

Reply
paul May 23, 2017

Hi Tomaz,
Another great video, can’t wait until the weekend to get outside and practice this. Enjoy your videos and tips. I had the good fortune to make it to last January’s Gladiator camp with Mark and Robert in Florida. Wish I could make it to the July camp in London.

Thanks again for your always helpful instruction videos.
Paul

Reply
    Tomaz May 23, 2017

    Thanks for the feedback, Paul, glad that you enjoyed the camp!

    Reply
Dan May 23, 2017

Tomas is the best instructor with very useful instruction.

Reply
JC May 23, 2017

I love the swing down idea – that’s genius. One question is for high balls – some coaches still talk about low-to-high swing on these, meaning that racquet still moves slightly downwards before the forward swing (while the whole swing takes place much higher off the ground). I wonder what is the helpful analogy there if you want to avoid stiff arm at the shoulder level – perhaps swing away from the body?

Also, I’ve found it helpful to visualize a particular ball trajectory at contact to achieve the same thing as what you’re talking about with hitting below the “equator” of the ball. This trajectory is forward and slightly up (almost like throwing a skipping stone but with topspin). By imagining a very fast and forward trajectory with only just a slightly upward direction which is enough to clear the net, I find correct weight transfer can happen automatically.

Reply
    Tomaz May 23, 2017

    Hi JC,

    On high balls you can imagine just hitting the horizontally and swinging across them to give them side spin.

    You shouldn’t really think swinging up but it may happen unconsciously because you have a relaxed arm and wrist.

    Here’s more on the topic of hitting high balls:

    http://www.feeltennis.net/how-to-deal-with-high-balls/

    Reply
Amir May 23, 2017

Hi Tomaz,

In the photo where you are holding the ball and demonstrating with your hand how the racket face should be initially contacting the ball, the racket face (your hand) is very open, whereas in a typical shot my understanding is that the racket face will be vertical or slightly closed, which actually makes it impossible to contact the ball below the equator.

Could you please explain this a little bit more? Is it that one should be aiming for 45 degrees below the equator anyway, even though the actual contact will happen elsewhere?

Many thanks,
Amir

Reply
    Tomaz May 23, 2017

    Hi Amir,

    The explanation is very simple. 😉

    I cannot touch the position under the ball with a vertical hand or racket face. If my hand is vertical I can only touch the equator of the ball.

    So if I want to show you where exactly I am imagining hitting the ball then I have to open my hand to show you where the IMAGINED contact happens.

    Obviously I have to exaggerate because in reality I might hit the ball 3 degrees under the equator which you cannot possibly do consciously.

    So for the conscious mind we give this explanation and through feel and repetition you will train your subconscious mind where exactly to hit the ball.

    KEEP IN MIND that the MAIN GOAL of this mental image is to have you SWING from below upwards towards the ball so that you create spin and lift and NOT EXACTLY where to hit the ball.

    Because IF we tell the player to aim at the equator of the ball then they will swing horizontally towards the ball because they will aim at the equator WAY TOO EARLY IN THE SWING!!!

    So they will hit the ball horizontally and it will end up in the net a lot.

    I hope you see my point.

    These mental images are all TRICKS we use to trick the stubborn logical conscious mind which keeps trying to consciously play tennis but in reality it cannot.

    You cannot possibly consciously KNOW every single angle of the swing and of the racket at contact if the forward swing lasts 0.3 seconds and contact lasts 0.005 seconds.

    So stop thinking and analyzing and start JUST DOING.

    Reply
Marcelo May 23, 2017

Great advice Tomaz !!! As always very important instruction.
Besides, this advice is another reason to watch the ball all the time and judge the ball (direction, amount of top spint, etc).
Thanks a lot.
Marcelo from Argentina.

Reply
Ben May 23, 2017

I tried the idea of swinging down today. I had a hitting partner push down my arm the way Tomaz does in the video, then feed me nice slow balls.

This is working great ! I could produce a cleaner spin off my backhand. Somehow the idea of hitting below the equator of the ball didn’t really work for me.

I thought of registering the momentum of the racquet as it goes down, and gently amplifying it.

Tomaz mentions a similar process in the serve: how we should feel the momentum of the racquet in the first part of the backswing and gently amplify it, then later register the racquet falling down behind our back and amplify its fall by keeping a loose wrist.

Does this comparison with the serve sound about right, Tomaz ?

Thank you for this great lesson.

Reply
    Tomaz May 23, 2017

    Sure, Ben, all strokes are based on same principles of physics and biomechanics.

    The serve is just more loose because we don’t have to adjust to each ball so this allows us to be more relaxed and just swing.

    Reply
Guillermo May 26, 2017

Hi Tomaz,

Another great video. This idea is really very SMART.

I fully share the concept of “deceiving” the conscious mind so as it leads the body to do the right movement.

I can generate top spin naturally on my FH, but I found this video yet very useful because it helped me improve my confidence: when I miss a FH, I tend to “blame” the power and the racquet head speed, so on my next shot I swing really slow in my attempt to avoid missing, to an extent that is so big that I end up altering my stroke.

The mental image of hitting below the equator allows to hit as hard as I want, as long as I am able to maintain the accuracy in that spot as the speed increases. The result is that I swing at 100% speed on my FH, which of course produces superb results.

I have been struggling with my confidence since I begun practicing tennis, and this concept looks like a “hook” to grow it.

I am also very curious on the swing down concept (or swing high for the serve). Without having hit the ball I can imagine how the speed will raise and how much power will be generated almost with no effort. On my BH side, as you mention, is where this change looks more challenging. I will ask my instructor to “phisically” drag my arm down.

You have brilliant ideas to teach this sport Tomaz. Congratulations for that and I encourage you to keep going!

Guillermo from Argentina.

Reply
Alex May 27, 2017

Hi

In Tip #1 you suggest to hit the ball below the center. Can you please tell the angle of the string bed at the moment of impact. it is certainly not exactly vertical because then you’ll hit the center. Is it a few degrees off?

Thanks a lot

Reply
    Tomaz May 27, 2017

    Hi Alex,

    We IMAGINE hitting the ball below the center but in reality we rarely do hit below the center.

    You are taking my instruction too literally – and I know it’s confusing to those who are very analytical and want to do things right.

    So what I am suggesting is a TEACHING METHOD, it is a TRICK of what you should imagine – and with this I want to trick you to swing under the ball and upwards.

    If you follow this trick idea then your racket will have an UPWARD MOMENTUM (force) as it hits the ball and this upward force will create topspin and lift the ball over the net.

    But in reality you will hit a vast number of balls with a perpendicular racket head or even closed by 1 or 2 degrees.

    The racket will NOT be open and you will hit the ball square in the center.

    Again, you simply visualize hitting the bottom part of the ball but you hold your racket perpendicular to the ground as usual.

    Do not apply this with your conscious mind analytically because the stroke happens in a split second and it’s too fast for you to track that.

    That’s why we cannot teach tennis consciously and analytically even though analysis shows us some data.

    We teach tennis through certain tricks and mental images that help the student develop the correct technique and swing path and yet not think too much and try to execute something consciously that happens in 0.02 seconds for example.

    As an example take a look at one of my previous articles where I showed how Federer’s racket is not correctly aligned to hit the ball for most of his forward swing until up to 0.02 seconds before contact.

    So how are you going to consciously try to do that and copy that if our conscious mind is not fast enough to register 0.02 seconds?

    You CANNOT! Therefore we must use some imagery and various visualizations in order to help the player develop advanced stroke technique.

    Reply
Rubina May 28, 2017

Hi Tomaz,
Amazing technique!
Really worked well. Thanks!

Reply
Jose May 29, 2017

Tomaz, I read several doubts about the point of contact of the racket with the ball being made below the line of the equator and many believed that to do this they would have to open the racket head.

I imagined not a line, but a plane parallel to the ground that passes through the center of the ball and, to a certain angle to raise the ball, this angle would be tilted a few degrees down, this would move the point of contact below the point of contact original without any opening of the racket head giving a tospin on the ball.

Reply
    Tomaz May 29, 2017

    Thanks for sharing, Jose, hopefully that helps.

    Reply
Ged June 2, 2017

Wow, just when I thought I knew everything that could be known about ground strokes technique; this teaching about how to impart top spin is revolutionary!
Yes, we throw the racquet down in the swing path just befor contact, and the raquet path as it hits the Apex of the downward swing natural come up imparting topspin!
And it happens effortlessly with looseness and momentum, raquet head speed…

Reply
Ged June 2, 2017

Hi Tomaz,
Just to add a bit to my previous comment. As I was hitting the other day thinking to apply this new top spin technique.

I was amazed at how well it improved my one handed backhand.

When we try to hit a low ball with topspin, it is hard to get enough lift on the ball, as many pro players choose to slice a low backhand…

But an added benefit I found when I for fully swing down at the ball, ( below the equator) I automatically ALSO got more lift over the net! Yay!

Reply
    Tomaz June 5, 2017

    Glad to hear that, Ged! Thanks a lot for sharing your experience!

    Reply
Tom Barabas June 12, 2017

There are many good instructions on the web
but your explanation is far the very best.
I cant tell u how much I learned from u.
Thanks a million
Tom

Reply
Nils June 20, 2017

The tip of hitting below the equator has helped me a lot. I had always problems to get over the net.

Thanks Tomaz.

Reply
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