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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!