One of the most common tennis instructions when it comes to footwork is that you should take a lot of small steps when positioning for the stroke.
In fact, some tennis coaches will say that the pros take 9-11 steps when they position for the shot while recreational tennis players take only 3-4. These coaches recommend that recreational players should work on taking many more steps.
Yet, if you carefully observe the pros, you will see that they in fact rarely take many steps when they position for the shot, mainly because they don’t have enough time to take 10-12 steps.
So, what should do you now – take a lot of small steps or just a few bigger ones?
And where does that number of 10-12 come from?
The small steps myth started many years ago with the advent of slow-motion cameras and computer video analysis – and, of course, the internet.
Someone recorded top players in very specific situations and showed in slow motion how many steps they took.
And they did make around 10 steps to position for the ball.
But that was only in RARE situations where they had a lot of time to position for the stroke.
Just like the one you saw above in the video when I was positioning for the inside out forehand when I received a slow defensive ball. I took 10 steps there to get into the ideal position.
Until the introduction of the small steps myth, no one had clearly defined the number of steps that pros take to get into position (if they have time!).
This was published as something very sensational and as one of the main differences between the pros and the club players or juniors.
Unfortunately, coaches did not pass this information on to players in a clear enough manner. As such, it has been misinterpreted many times until many believe that one has to take many small steps to position for the shot.
That then results in players constantly shuffling their feet and not calming down before the shot which leads to all sorts of problems.
The reason the steps should be small is that the number you’re aiming at is 10 steps. If you need to cover only 3-4 meters to reach the ball, your steps had better be small.
There is another way of getting to this number of around 10 steps – and that’s including the recovery steps after the shot.
I believe that this was also included in that initial article that appeared online. Even so, the number is often misinterpreted as only the steps taken to reach the ball.
When you add up the recovery steps after the player has made his shot until he split steps and then you add the number of steps he takes for the next shot, you can again come close to 10 steps per shot.
So, this myth of taking many steps for the shot is unfortunately still alive and is usually not explained clearly. As a result, it’s very misleading to amateur tennis players as well as amateur tennis coaches.
Here’s a recent example I came across; check the video below, and you’ll hear this:
How many steps do you think pro players take per shot?
10-12? I am going to go 9-11.
How about the average club player, 4.0? 3-4.
While the coach then mentions that it’s not correct to instruct a player to “take little steps to the ball”, he later says, “Pro players will take explosive steps, 1-2-3, and they can cover the sideline, and then they’ll take 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 adjustment steps.”
So this is where the coach is misleading the players again because that situation is EXTREMELY RARE in pro tennis.
But he is saying it as if this is what the pros do regularly.
Again, the number of 9-11 steps is realistically happening only if you count recovery steps + split step + steps to the ball for the shot.
However, it is presented in such a way that you think you have to make 2-3 big steps and 4-5 additional small steps to position yourself.
This is what the message is, unfortunately.
The coach does later mention that players sometimes don’t have to take that many steps, but the main message of 1-2-3 + 4-5-6-7-8-9 is there, and it is not delivered clearly.
So, the myth of many steps for the shot persists.
If you look closely at a typical point in a pro match, you’ll almost never see the player take 10-12 steps to position for the shot.
The main reason, as I mentioned before, is that there is no time to take 10 steps.
The ball at a pro level is typically struck at around 110-130 km/h (70 to 80 mph), and it takes the ball around 1 to 1.2 seconds to travel the distance of the length of the court.
In that one second, the players have to:
It is impossible for them to take 9-11 steps in less than a second – since stopping and swinging towards the ball takes some time from the total available time that they have.
So, the typical number of steps pros make from split step until they hit the ball is 2 to 3!
Note – this is not my opinion; this is a fact. Everyone can look at a point at a pro level, play it in slow motion and count the steps.
If you count the number of steps Roger Federer takes before each shot in the video above, you’ll get these numbers: 2, 2, 2 steps (+ 2 very quick touches of the ground), 2, 2, 2, 3, 4, 2, 2 (+2), 0 (+2), 2, 6 (going for the volley), 1 (the smash where he simply jumps).
The average number of steps is (2+2+4+2+2+2+3+4+2+4+0+2+6+1) / 14 = 36/14 = 2.57
The average number of steps Federer took to get in a position for the shot in that rally was 2.57 steps.
This average counts those extremely short and quick touches of the ground which are not really full steps, they are just small feet adjustments.
Without those, the average number of real steps he took to get into a position is 2.14.
I found another video where he makes a few more steps to position for the first shot after the serve:
You can see more steps here, but there are still just 6 touches of the ground – or, simply said, only 3 quick shuffles of his feet to get in a position.
In most of the shots after that, he takes only 2-3 steps to get in a position.
And it’s easy to see why if you play the video without pausing and just watch how fast the ball exchanges are and how little time the player has to set up for the shot.
The only situation when he actually takes 9 steps from the split step to the hit is when he is approaching the net and he is receiving a defensive shot – that happens at 0:19 in the video above.
You will be hard pressed to find a situation when the pro players actually make 1-2-3 + 4-5-6-7-8-9 steps, which is what you heard the coach explain above as if that’s the norm.
I spent at least an hour looking at pro footage on YouTube and couldn’t find it.
It is an extremely rare situation. Yet, it is one of the first things coaches say to players as if that’s the rule and not an exception.
So, I want to point out again that to get to a 9-11 number of ground touches with the feet is to count recovery steps + split step (as 2 touches and not really one movement which is what it is) + steps to the ball.
Occasionally, you may have enough time to position for the shot and take more steps.
That’s when you are receiving a defensive ball floating very slowly toward you and you can actually take 5-8 steps to position for the shot.
The reason we want to position perfectly for the shot is that we want to have the ball in our ideal strike zone.
When the ball is exactly where we want it, we won’t have to do any adjustments with our stroke, meaning we won’t have to improvise and change our fundamental technique.
Even so, we will be able to hit the ball with the technique that we use most of the time and which therefore produces the most consistent shots.
If I take the two situations from my own video above when I was positioning for a short and slow ball, I took 7 steps for the backhand shot and 10 steps for the inside out forehand shot.
So, that’s when the idea of lots of small steps is applicable and useful – and helps us hit a better shot.
Very important: when we play, we don’t think about taking a lot of steps. We think only about getting into the perfect position and distance from the ball so that it will be the most comfortable for us to hit it.
We think only about distance to the ball and the height of the ball and not about footwork. Lots of steps simply happens if we want to position really well and we have enough time.
If you’re happy just because you know you will REACH the ball with your racket and be able to hit it, then you are not signaling to your brain and feet that you want more accurate positioning; therefore, your feet won’t move much.
So, just to summarize and hopefully clarify the confusion:
In a normal rally at the pro level, tennis players take very few steps to position for the shot, on average 2-3 steps.
That’s because they typically have only 1-1.2 seconds of time to hit the ball from the moment it leaves their opponent’s racket.
As the pro player is recovering from that shot and returning to the ideal recovery position for the next shot, they are obviously taking more steps.
If you now add up the recovery steps + split step + steps to get to the next shot, you may end up close to 10 steps.
And if a pro player receives a very slow defensive ball that gives him more time to position for the shot, then he will actually take anywhere from 7 to 10 steps to get into ideal position to hit the ball – so that’s another possibility of reaching such a high number of steps.
You may be confused now as you know that there is a situation where you should be taking a lot of small steps, but if you’ve ever tried to think about your feet while playing, you’ve surely realized that you start playing really poorly because your attention goes away from the ball.
Therefore, you don’t judge it well, don’t position well, and don’t time it well.
The secret to developing good footwork is that we practice the majority of footwork in isolation – meaning we don’t work on footwork while we play, but we do separate drills just for footwork.
In the first stage, we practice without the ball (and sometimes even without the racket).
We just repeat certain footwork patterns many times, and then in the next stage we repeat those same patterns while the player is also hitting the ball.
Here’s a typical example of how the pros work on the footwork – and let’s honor Dominika Cibulkova for this example since she won the WTA Finals in Singapore this year. 😉
Just to reiterate: when we focus on footwork, we never focus on playing. We just drill the steps many times in sequence so that we commit them to the subconscious memory.
There are literally thousands of drills for cones, speed ladders, small hurdles and other training tools that we can use to train footwork.
With these drills, we basically install different patterns of footwork in our brain so that they can be called upon by our subconscious mind during the game, allowing it to select the most appropriate footwork pattern for each situation.
After drills with no ball we drill footwork patterns with the ball but they are repetitive and predictable and the player goes through them many times in order to “store” these patterns in their subconscious. The player is not focusing on tactics here but just on specific footwork patterns.
This all happens beyond our conscious awareness. The most efficient footwork can happen only if our brain (and feet) have it at their disposal – meaning if it has been trained before.
If our brain doesn’t have a certain footwork pattern in the memory, it can’t use it.
The result is that you won’t move very efficiently and quickly. You’ll be slow to get to the ball and possibly off balance.
A typical example of a hand feeding footwork drill where focus is again on a specific footwork pattern and no tactical play except a general direction of the shots. Note that the player is doing only 2-3 steps to position for the shot.
If you want to improve your footwork, you will have to work on it separately in order to store new footwork patterns in your memory.
Only then can you expect to move well on the court.
So, what is the final answer to the question of whether you should take a lot of small steps or just a few big ones?
It depends. 😉
If you don’t have much time or the ball is coming at you, take as few steps as possible so that you’ll be in a position for the shot early and you can be balanced and calm when you hit the ball.
But when you have a lot of time, which is when you’re receiving a slower defensive ball, then you should take a lot of small steps to get into an ideal position.
The only caveat is that I don’t recommend that you think about taking small steps. Rather, you should think about getting an ideal distance from the ball and aim to hit it at an ideal height for your stroke.
As you pay attention to ideal positioning to the ball, your feet will automatically keep adjusting and you’ll take a lot of small steps when possible.