Why Adult Recreational Tennis Players Learn Technique Differently Than Kids

Nov 12

The analytical approach to learning tennis techniques is based on breaking the stroke down into parts, learning them separately, and hoping that the player will be able to put them back together.

This process actually works quite differently when it comes to adult tennis players and kids.

Serena Williams Forehand Technique

Kids synthesize tennis technique learned in parts in a much more natural and fluid way than adults.

In fact, in my personal opinion, the analytical approach works well for kids but actually creates a lot of problems for adult recreational tennis players.

Learning tennis technique ONLY analytically, in my opinion, causes more harm than good.

Obviously, children’s brain is in the development stage and can absorb and synthesize information much better than an adult brain can. But that’s only part of the story…

How Children Are Different When It Comes To Learning Tennis Techniques

Without even thinking about it, children naturally WANT to move their bodies in a way that is the most comfortable.

Therefore, they naturally put back together strokes that we coaches have broken down in parts and worked on in private or group lessons.

Kids don’t obsess about perfect technique and it is this playful approach to learning tennis that best synthesizes analytical approach with the natural way of movement.
 

Children in tennis clubs and academies also practice a lot, and these training sessions include a lot of drills and practice matches.

They also do a lot of conditioning exercises which at young age focus on developing hand-eye coordination, general body coordination, dynamic balance, reactions, agility and many more.

Therefore, I see 5 main reasons that the process of synthesis takes place without notice when it comes to junior tennis:

1. Kids want to move in the most comfortable and effortless way – therefore, they do not force “correct technique” into their body. It merges slowly with the natural way of movement.

2. They play drills and games where they do not think about the mechanics of their strokes – and this process of repetition grooves the technique into their subconscious.

3. They do not obsess about correct tennis technique and therefore soon forget about it. That allows the information to pass from the conscious part into the subconscious part which knows how to put all the parts into a whole in a smooth and fluid way.

4. They engage in the development of other motor skills like coordination, dynamic balance, and footwork that help the body work more efficiently and develop better ways of generating force in the body.

5. Kids are not under time pressure – they are not ego-driven or impatient to develop good strokes. They accept that the process of improvement is very long and again don’t force rigid techniques into their bodies.

Most tennis instruction in private lessons with kids therefore focuses only on tennis stroke development through analysis – meaning through teachings of the mechanics of the strokes – because the synthesis simply happens with kids where there’s enough variety in tennis training involved.

The picture is completely different when it comes to adult recreational tennis!

How Adults Approach Learning Technique In Tennis

Serve of a club tennis player

Adults often ignore signals of discomfort coming from the body when learning tennis.

1. They want to develop “correct tennis technique” and do not listen to their bodies when there’s discomfort or even pain. They are willing to force their bodies into pain so that they have “correct tennis technique”.

Therefore, they kill the harmonious movement of the body that generates force easily, and they prevent the synthesis of separate parts back into the whole.

2. They obsess about perfect tennis technique and believe that the more they think about it, the better it will be.

But this approach keeps the information in the consciousness all the time and doesn’t allow it to pass to the subconscious – meaning that they do not allow the process of automation of a stroke.

The most common causes for that are actually the coaches themselves because they only correct technique rather than involve players in various drills that would take their attention off their body and make them focus on tasks like reading the incoming ball, improving timing and rhythm, improving the feel for the strokes, hitting targets on the court, working on tactics like making opponents run, looking to wrong foot the opponent, and so on.

3. They often take only private lessons and play points when they play on their own – which means that they do not have enough repetitions in situations without pressure where they could automate their technique. In other words, they don’t practice enough – they only get more information in private lessons and do not groove the strokes in practice.

Playing points creates pressure, and the person doesn’t allow the body to swing freely because that is also the process of letting go of control, and that is not possible when the match is so important and the ego is at risk of embarrassment if the player loses.

4. Most adults do not develop motor skills any more in separate training sessions. Even worse, some engage in fitness and similar health and wellness exercises that develop strength through isotonic exercises (lifting weights, pulling cords, etc.) rather than dynamic exercises like throwing medicine balls or situations where footwork, dynamic balance, and dynamic force are developed (soccer, volleyball, etc.).

These isotonic exercises encourage “slow strength” while tennis requires fast dynamic movements of mostly relaxed muscles that contract in a different way to generate speed rather than force.

5. Adults are often impatient, especially if they haven’t trained in any sport previously in their life. They have no idea whatsoever how long it takes to develop correct foundations of a stroke and therefore want to have good technique very soon.

They see themselves as smart and competent and believe that moving the racquet in a certain way shouldn’t be such a problem. Therefore, they are not patient and then want to take shortcuts in the process.

In most cases, adults simply follow the instruction of tennis techniques to the T and do not allow the subconscious to take over. In the process, they destroy the body’s ability to naturally generate effortless force through optimal speed of movement of certain levers and using certain swings and momentums.

I have personally been teaching tennis to kids and adults for over 20 years, and the difference in the learning process when ONLY the analytical approach is taught is enormous.

Simply put, kids combine the technical analytical instruction with their desire to be comfortable (which is nothing else than the body’s signal of telling you what is a natural way of generating force), while adults do everything in their power to perform the movement “correctly,” even when it doesn’t feel comfortable and it doesn’t produce any natural force.

The forehand stroke technique of a junior tennis player

Kids combine tennis technique and a comfortable way of movement into a fluid stroke

Kids also forget what they were doing the day before, while adults keep three more things in their minds besides the one or two things the coach is asking them to do. That creates confusion that results in poor ball tracking and lots of errors.

Therefore they do not get positive feedback from their attempts and unfortunately “try even harder” to think, which results in even more tension in the body.

Kids know that they are kids and that they are imperfect and not very skilled; therefore, they see mistakes as something normal. That allows them to let go and allow their body to move freely; thus, they retain the ability to generate momentum through free swinging.

Adults, on the other hand, see mistakes as something bad, as they see themselves as successful and competent – in other words, their ego doesn’t like seeing mistakes.

So, when they are learning tennis techniques, they desperately try to do the correct movement and sacrifice the body’s natural way of movement for the sake of not making mistakes and not being embarrassed.

What To Keep In Mind If You’re An Adult Learning Tennis

Therefore, if you’re an adult reading this article and you’re looking to develop good tennis technique, you MUST:

  • Backhand stroke technique of a recreational player

    Work on technique but also learn to forget and focus on simply playing the ball

    include the process of synthesis into your stroke development (using feel-based drills and tactical drills you can find on this website);

  • learn to forget about technical details at some point in the lesson and allow the subconscious to take over;
  • accept mistakes in tennis as something normal; and
  • allow your body to swing freely.

That is the only way to reach the End Goal – which is to actually be able to simply play the ball and enjoy the game or focus only on tactics if you’re playing a match.

Thinking about technique takes a part of your brain power and concentration, and you have less focus on tracking the ball – and you therefore misjudge the ball and make more errors.

As long as you’re thinking about technique all the time, you’ll be making far more errors in the game than you should be and your strokes will lack fluidity and power.

Try to become a kid again, be more playful on the court even when taking lessons, allow yourself to make more mistakes, and allow your body to swing freely.

Play many more times just hitting freely without any ego-based goal (like winning a match), and simply try to hit the ball well where you feel that your body works in harmony without any tension.

Focus on ball trajectory and how cleanly you hit the ball – this will then allow your brain to merge the technical instruction you’ve been working on with the natural way of movement that creates effortless power – and eventually sound tennis techniques will emerge that simultaneously produce a lot of effortless power and allow easy adjustments to different situations in the game.

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(22) comments

Carl Johnson November 12, 2012

Great article Tomaz! I just recently completed a PTR Junior Development clinic/certification and this is exactly what they emphasized when working with kids. They want to see the whole picture and not break strokes down into their parts. Your article takes things a few steps further–loved it!

Reply
    Tomaz November 12, 2012

    Thanks for sharing, Carl!

    Reply
    Dave Miller February 18, 2015

    Ego/fear=childISH and constrictive. Playful is ChildLIKE allows freedom from ego which results in ease and natural power. The adult self can choose when to let go. When and where it is safe. A tennis court is a safe universe with lines and rules. Those rules allow play without anxiety. Embrace the parameters and have fun. You’ve already won the hardest part and it works! (OK..I still swear my arse off, in a garbled language somewhere between a Glasgow dockyard and Babylon when I miss, but that’s fun too).

    Reply
Arturo Hernandez November 12, 2012

Great article Tomaz!

Adults are very smart. They have a lot of knowledge and experience and are used to being good at things. It is very difficult for them to let go and try to do things another way.

I am a college professor and teach a class on cognitive psychology. I teach my students about memory and emphasize to them how powerful using images can be for forming new memories. I even show them the data to prove it.

But most of them will not try to do this. Instead they simply try to memorize everything as a list of spoken facts. This language based strategy works very well and they have used it for so many years that it never occurs to them to try something else.

I have found myself doing the same thing on the tennis court. Trying to break everything down into lists of things to do (take back, loosen wrist, swing, finish across the body).

Thanks to your ideas I no longer do this. I simply try stuff and see what works and what feels better.

I now practice much more with my kids than I used to. But I am playing better. In practice I cannot even focus on myself because I am helping them.

And yet my feel and play in matches gets better. And they learn quickly. They simply watch and imitate and slowly build nice strokes.

And yet many kids end up with less than ideal strokes. They are natural looking but not always fluid like they should be.

I see it all the time. Why is this?

Reply
    Tomaz November 12, 2012

    Hi Arturo,

    That’s an interesting comparison on how adults want to process information.

    The reason why kids don’t end up with good technique even though they want to move naturally is because they haven’t done enough coordination work and because they do not have a clear mental image of how the stroke is performed.

    This is where adults have the edge because they can observe tennis stroke technique in much more detail.

    But if kids really take the time to look at the stroke from all angles, they can copy them really well.

    Their brain though still has a LOT of information missing on how to best coordinate the body not to mention how to judge the ball flight.

    That’s why in good tennis clubs and academies they spend so much time doing footwork drills, hand-eye coordination drills, agility drills, etc.

    If you give help them develop these motor skills and give them clear visual references on how to perform the strokes, they will develop very clean technique.

    Reply
Sue Jones November 12, 2012

Excellent analysis Tomaz which I am sure many of our club team players at Oadby (Leicester) will recognise when they read it! I recognise many of the adult learning situations when observing my colleagues on court!

thanks for the good feedback

Reply
Jim Anderson November 13, 2012

I accept your thesis — kids & adults learn tennis differently. But there’s a corrolary: As someone who began tennis 10 yerars ago as a retirement activity, I’m confronted by others in my over-70 age group who — I swear — began hitting tennis balls before they could walk. There’s no way I can catch up with them. Should I give up, & just play with others “at my level”? [This is a serious question.] Or should I attempt one-person drills with the aim of improving?

Reply
Guillermo November 13, 2012

Thanks Tomaz.
I see also that the coaches in US, try to change the natural shots that the children have, by trying to help them to develop the perfect technique. I have seen children with wonderful one hand backhand, that is then changed to a two hand backhand by their coaches. That does not make sense. Coaches should help the children to improve their natural shots and techniques, instead of changing everything. That, in my oppinion, is one of the biggest mistakes the coaches here in US, are doing with the children.
rgds
Guillermo

Reply
    Tomaz November 13, 2012

    I agree that the coach needs to figure out what suits best to that particular child and work on to develop that.

    The case you mention happens of course everywhere but it is possible that in the US there’s more emphasis on perfect technique (which doesn’t exist as I will show in future articles) while the European teaching system is more “game based” – meaning that the technique is developed more naturally through playing situational drills (tactics).

    Reply
      Arturo Hernandez November 18, 2012

      Hola Guillermo,

      You have my dad and brother’s name! Yes, I agree that tennis becomes very technical. I have also struggled with being too technique oriented with my kids. Thanks to Tomaz, I have used feel and imitation a lot more. I think many people in the US are plagued with the notion that faster is better. There is this sense that children should grow up faster and that learning more earlier is better. This turns into the mentality of winning now is better than playing as well as you can later. The two-handed backhand is an example of this. A younger player is much more likely to win with a two-handed backhand at a younger age. The one-hander is very difficult to learn and requires strength and very good footwork. But as I told a local pro I think there is also a downside. By using two forehands it allows people to “cheat” on both sides. My son recently switched to a one-hander just before turning thirteen. It’s hard but he now realizes how important footwork is and his forehand has gotten better because the steps he uses for his backhand have transferred to his forehand. But he is like an alien. He faces almost no other one-handed backhands in competition. So yes, tennis teaching becomes technical because the adult (pros) forget how to think like kids. They also tend to want success fast. Europeans seem to take a longer view. Maybe because their cultures are much older than the American culture.

      Best,

      Arturo

      Reply
      Jerry Broussard March 20, 2013

      First of all I want to let you know how much I enjoy your web page. Great job. Secondly I want to talk about your thoughts on the “perfect technique.” In your Roger Federer video you show how he uses a lot of different stances, not stepping through and things like that and is able to still make great shots. Then you also mention that the way he swings the racquet at contact in all of these examples is why he plays so good. In my opinion it IS because he has practiced the “perfect technique” so much that when he is put into those difficult situations he is able to bring the racquet through the ball the correct way all the time. Because regardless of what your body does your arm still has to produce the shot. All the other stuff like tack back, follow through and stepping through are just helpers to be more consistent. The way I teach my students is to “never change your stroke through the ball no matter how out of position you get.” Can you do this 100% of the time? No, but when you make THAT effort you will be amazed at how well it improves their footwork effort.

      Reply
        Tomaz March 20, 2013

        Thanks for the kind feedback, Jerry!

        As for “perfect technique”, I guess we talk about the same thing except say it differently.

        If technique is understood as “form”, then it’s dangerous because it would limit the player and not allow adjustment.

        If the player would attempt in every situation the same preparation, same racquet path and same follow-through in order to perform technique correctly, then that’s not the right way in my opinion.

        If we’re talking just about the racquet path and how to “manipulate” the ball, and that this has to be the same as much as possible, then we’re on the same page.

        I do understand your point where some players will take the idea I suggest to another extreme and just whack the ball in any way possible to make it fly over the net – but then they wouldn’t have the same racquet path through the ball and wouldn’t manipulate the ball in the same way – which would result in poor consistency.

        Reply
        albert teo January 8, 2016

        This is called letting your upper body lead you, and let your lower body adapt in real time..

        Only constant is achieving upper and lower body separation always and in fact loading of the leg should be de-emphashised and you will become a much more consistent player.

        as always always enjoy reaching your analysis from a fellow coach..

        rgds
        albert

        Reply
          Roberto March 11, 2016

          “letting your upper body lead you, and let your lower body adapt in real time..” I’d always suspected that, but no one had ever put it like that. Very interesting point. Do you talk from your own experience? Does Tomaz agree?

          This website, Tomaz’s approach to tennis, is unique in the world.

          Cheers

          Reply
Robert August 15, 2013

This discussion is very timely for me because not only is it helping me stabilize my game, my daughter is now six and showing interest in “Playing tennis.” When she was four and five that meant catching and sweeping the ball along the floor with a racket back and forth with me, and now it means gripping the child’ racket her aunt brought her with both hands and hitting FH on the soft coach’s ball I toss or hit softly to her. She is a natural leftie, and I showed her a LH grip with two hands, but often she uses the RH backhand grip instead, and I just let her go with it. What is amazing to me is how good her balance is and how well she steps in and rotates through the stroke, pulling the racket through. She is already an accomplished dancer and seems to understand how her body moves, and that clearly helps, but her synthesis of gripping, which she was taught, swinging, which she imitates, and rotating with balance is just natural.

Reply
Jae Lim July 28, 2015

This article is very helpful. I played tennis quite a bit during teenage years and now I am getting back in to tennis in my 40s. My serve and backhand feels very natural but my forehand feels really awkward right now. I started to focus on technique and it’s not going well. After reading this, it makes me think that I should focus more on timing and position with comfortable swing and come back to technique once some of the rust wears off.

Reply
John May 15, 2016

Thanks for the article. I’ve been asked to teach adults and I’m not thrilled about it because they’re a stubborn.

Reply
    Tomaz May 16, 2016

    Thanks, John. That means you’ll need to be even more patient. 😉

    It’s very rewarding to work with adults though, they try really hard and are motivated.

    Reply
Justin June 28, 2016

Tomaz
I´ve been having a private lessons for 18 months, one hour per week. and in general I play two or more sets with friends.
To continue my development, is better to keep this time schedule or change to two competitives sessions per week without lessons?
I thought I could stop classes during 4 months and return after this period.
Thanks

Reply
    Tomaz June 29, 2016

    Hi Justin,

    It depends how effective your private lessons are and what your goals are. Competitive situations do improve your anticipation, tactics and other skills in the game of tennis but almost always ruin your technique.

    At only 18 months in tennis I would suggest that you stick with one private lesson per week where you can work on your strokes in a non-pressure situation.

    Reply
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