Better Footwork In Tennis: Small Steps Or Big Steps?

Nov 03

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 Myth Of Lots Of Small Steps And Why It’s Still Alive

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.

tennis footwork with small steps

It took me 10 steps to run around my backhand and position for the forehand

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.

footwork steps in tennis

Adding up all steps from one shot to the next one: 7 steps in this case

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 Number Of Steps In A Typical Rally Point

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.

atp tennis forehand speed

Note the forehand speed of Djokovic and Murray (Image credit: jimfawcette.typepad.com)

In that one second, the players have to:

  • move to the ball,
  • position at the right distance,
  • stop moving and
  • execute the stroke.

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.

big steps in tennis

An example of Federer doing just 3 steps to position for the backhand

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.

The Number Of Steps When Receiving A Slow 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.

footwork positioning in tennis

It took me 7 steps to position for this attacking backhand

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.

The Source Of Confusion: Training vs Playing

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.

Leave a Comment:

(15) comments

Arturo Hernandez November 3, 2016

Great post Tomaz! This reminds me of comments people made about Robert Lansdorp, the legendary coach who trained Sampras, Sharapova, and Tracy Austin among others.

He would feed students incessantly with very fast balls. His claim is that players had to deal with balls that were skidding off the court very quickly.

In fact, apparently he initially yelled at Sampras when he would reverse his forehand. Pete said that the ball was coming too fast and that he had no choice.

Based on this article and Lansdorp’s view the main problem with having juniors play too much tennis is that they have to move very slowly with a very slow bouncing ball.

Does this mean that juniors should practice hand fed drills and other types of drills where the ball is relatively easy to hit but requires a lot of very fast footwork to develop?

In other words, should young kids be moving fast at least for some of their training and not so worried about hitting slow high bouncing balls.

Thanks for the great post!

Reply
    Tomaz November 3, 2016

    Hi Arturo,

    There are different aspects we want to train. Throwing slow balls allows the player to focus on the exact footwork pattern because their brain is not taxed with judging the ball.

    Since we asked them to think about their feet we need to make it easy for their brain to pay attention to the feet and not so much to the ball. So we must give them the easiest ball possible.

    And since we practice very specific footwork patterns we need to place the ball very accurately so it’s best to throw it by hand.

    That’s the aspect of storing footwork patterns to the memory.

    Feeding very fast balls to players is another aspect: and that’s training the brain to judge the ball better.

    We must challenge and push the brain’s ability to judge the ball to the limit and over and only then it will adapt and learn to process faster.

    Since kids from 7-14 play fairly slow tennis between themselves their brain is not pushed to the limit to improve ball judgment ability.

    But this age is also the golden window of opportunity when the brain and body ARE able to improve in various areas like reactions, timing, ball judgment, coordination and so on.

    After the age of 16 the brain cannot change as much and improve as much in these areas as it can in that golden period between 7-14.

    That’s why we must “artificially” force the brain to judge the ball by feeding very fast balls as it is now the best and ONLY time to develop this ability to the maximum potential of the player.

    While the player will not be needing this ability for quite a few years, we have now stored it in the brain for the future.

    Roger Federer for example was a very good badminton player and it is there where his brain was forced to track a very fast moving “ball” even at an early age.

    That is surely one of the reasons why he can react and read the game so well.

    I know I got my skills from volleyball where we had to receive very fast spikes from the attackers and our brain was constantly challenged to see and calculate the ball’s flight in that very short amount of time that we had.

    After these trainings a tennis ball in a normal rally seemed like it was flying in slow motion. That’s simply a sign that the brain now works very fast, it is processing the ball’s flight very fast and therefore the ball seems slow – hence there is good timing, no panic, calm positioning and calm execution of the stroke.

    Speeding up the brain in early age is in my opinion one of the most important skills one must develop in juniors if they ever want to have a chance to read and return well pro serves and play well at the net where reactions are critical.

    Reply
Ken P. November 4, 2016

Tomaz…!

Cibulkova’s win just awesome; only 5’2″ and all offense, amazing win and great play to watch…

So – could not agree more about footwork, and that one must practice enough so that you *never* ‘think’ about it; have you checked out David Bailey’s work…? You’ll easy find a few overview modules on internet and I think many have appropriated from is curriculum… (Etcheberry, others: however as humans we always create on the back of prior work…!)

Great module – much to think about – I have an old clip of Oscar Wenger saying ‘never think about the feet; you’ll ruin a good tennis player; just move to the ball’, yet right after he goes into a routine of amazing footwork drills…

Just don’t call it that…!

Reply
    Tomaz November 4, 2016

    Yes, “never think about your feet” – when you play. But you have to think about your feet when you focus just on footwork drills since I as said if you don’t programme certain patterns in your brain and feet, they won’t happen.

    Unless you played soccer or basketball or anything similar in which case you have excellent foot coordination and your brain can then “assemble” correct step sequences needed for tennis footwork patterns.

    Reply
Ralph November 4, 2016

Saw a video in which Todd Martin talked about steps in a shot. He agreed with you. I have seen coaches count out loudly to get players to hit that magic number of steps. It makes no sense to me. Getting on the load foot as efficiently as possible does.

Reply
GEOMAR November 4, 2016

CONGRATULATIONS FOR YOUR LESSONS. I’M BRAZILIAN. I STARTED PLAY TENNIS IS ONE YEAR. I LIVE IN BELÉM-PARÁ, BRAZIL.

Reply
    Tomaz November 4, 2016

    Thanks, Geomar, keep in touch!

    Reply
Chloe November 5, 2016

Thanks for clearing this up for me, Tomaz! I don’t know how many times I’ve been told by instructors to take lots of small steps before every shot. The only thing I find it accomplishes is making me very uncomfortable and much more tired too! Honestly taking 7 or 8 small shuffle steps before every shot is exhausting.

I do agree small steps are needed on slower, higher bouncing balls and I also find they help on windy days since I find it more difficult to set up properly for balls that don’t have as clear of a path. If I’m lazy and take fewer steps for these balls I often end up reaching or getting jammed.

Thanks for another great lesson and looking forward to more from this series 🙂

Reply
    Tomaz November 5, 2016

    Glad to be of help, Chloe!

    Yes, as I mentioned this “lots of small step” has been misinterpreted although sometimes we might exaggerate in training to try and speed up the feet so then we do ask the player to take a lot of smaller steps but it must be clear that that’s an exercise and not the actual way to move.

    Thanks for stopping by! Great blog by the way, keep up the good work.

    Reply
Alex November 6, 2016

Hi, Tomasz!

I think the higher number of steps makes sense as an advice for the beginners and even intermediate players. We do have a lot more time to setup (the return shots are not as good as those from pros). In addition our sense of distance is not as well developed as the pros have. So for us to create proper distance between the body and the ball we are probably better off making a lot more steps. As our judgement of proper distance improves our step counts will certainly go down. Of course this leads to another problem making more steps requires fitness levels that most beginners do not have …

I think, on the question of steps what makes a lot more sense is to take as many steps as you need (a lot of beginners, I believe do not even understand that making steps is a good idea) and as your skill level improves you should aim for 2-3 steps – just like the pros.

I really enjoy your site, thanks for making it available. It is a treasure trove of tennis wisdom.

Reply
    Tomaz November 6, 2016

    Hi Alex,

    While a beginner has in reality more time he / she perceives very little time because of poor ball judgment skills.

    The sense of distance will improve if you challenge it meaning you set up quickly and then you see how well you did it.

    If you constantly shuffle your feet and keep adjusting you don’t even know that in the beginning you were set up incorrect.

    Now what may be the key point for beginners is that they are NOT moving their feet when they play. They just stand after they’ve hit the ball and therefore a lot of coaches will try to get them moving by saying keep your feet moving, keep making little steps and so on.

    That’s a different objective.

    Also, in my experience the number if steps does not go down as the ball judgment improves because by then the constant shuffling of the feet has become a HABIT. It is an unconscious habit that keeps taking the time from the player and I correct that DAILY with almost every adult recreational tennis player.

    They all do way more steps than needed because of this habit that they have acquired at some point and because of the anxiety when the ball is approaching.

    One must consciously try to minimize the foot movement for a while and optimize the footwork and then the brain will start finding the simplest and time efficient steps for each shot.

    Reply
Greg November 6, 2016

Great instruction, makes a lot of sense. And I love the idea of your new series “It Depends”. Tennis is such an open-ended game, so many things (including stroke technique) are situational and constantly changing even within a single point. Which is why it is such a great game, never really gets boring (at least to me).

Reply
    Tomaz November 7, 2016

    Thanks, Greg. My main goal is to free players from one-sided thinking as to what is right and what is wrong.

    I hope to show that there are many ways…

    Reply
Grahame November 7, 2016

Hi Tomaz,

A post of this quality really deserves a ‘Hall of Fame’ recognition. I have used a bracket around the hall of fame reference only to highlight that every tennis loving country should recognise the quality of this online post.

Reply
    Tomaz November 7, 2016

    Much appreciated, Grahame!

    Reply
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