The shoulder over shoulder technique in a tennis serve is a term that coaches use often to describe the position of the shoulders at the contact point and immediately after it.
The reason this technique is so important to work on is that, in most cases, the players misinterpret what they see when other players are serving and therefore hit their serve incorrectly and very inefficiently.
I believe there are two main reasons why so many players pull the arm and the shoulder down too quickly.
1. Using “pushing” as a main generator of force instead of transfer of momentum
If we want to move something heavy, like a sofa, we will use the “pushing” type of force where the more resistance we get, the more force will be needed to move the sofa.
That type of generating force is very natural to us, and it also makes us feel that we are really exerting a lot of effort.
We also feel in CONTROL of the racquet head, which of course is possible only when we move it relatively slowly and have a stiff wrist.
The other type of generating force is transfer of momentum, where we use acceleration and deceleration of body parts in a certain sequence in order to achieve the maximum acceleration of the last part in the kinetic chain.
This type of generating force is not that natural to us although we all use it unconsciously in certain situations – like when we throw an object or dust off an old cloth.
2. Misinterpreting the proper serve technique
Because the serve motion is very fast through the contact zone, our eyes cannot pick every little detail of the movement.
Therefore our eyes and brain SIMPLIFY what we perceive.
In most cases, in a fast serve, we will “see” these three images before, at, and after contact:
Once we perceive these three images, we will try to move our body parts very quickly “through” these body positions in order to copy what the tennis pro does.
Since the last image shows the shoulders almost in a horizontal position, we will consciously or unconsciously try to move our shoulders in this position and therefore “push” our shoulders and arm down.
And therein lies the biggest mistake most tennis players make – you are not aware that what you see is not what really happens.
What you see is a simplification of the movement, and when you copy it, you find it strangely ineffective.
The reality of the serve is that it is based on the transfer of momentum.
While the whole body from the legs to the forearm is engaged in this process, the main one that you’re missing is the deceleration of the body in order to accelerate the arm.
Once you focus on the moment of contact and just after it, you can see something that you cannot really explain.
As you can see in the image above, Federer’s arm has moved from the contact point to an almost horizontal position while his body position has NOT CHANGED.
That means he has decelerated his body and stopped it, and this has caused a transfer of momentum to his arm.
Since the arm is much lighter than the body, it needs to accelerate in order to preserve the momentum.
That is how a tennis player achieves very high speed of the serve in the most efficient way.
If you don’t really understand it, you will simply IGNORE this part and persist with your idea of generating force through pushing.
Hopefully with this deeper understanding of the transfer of momentum, the shoulder over shoulder serve technique is now easier to implement in your serve movement.
In my experience, most players are somewhat uncomfortable with keeping their head and shoulders tilted while the arm is moving forward.
This is an uncommon body position, and most players are anxious to see what happens with the serve and where the return is going to go.
In order to become more familiar with that body position, follow these steps:
1. Lie on the ground on the side (bench also works fine) and hit a few gentle serves in that position.
Get used to being tilted THROUGH the contact zone.
Of course, lying on the side is an exaggeration of what you want to achieve in the final serve technique, but it gives you a very good idea of what you’re looking for.
2. Hit a few serves while keeping your head and body tilted throughout the contact and the follow-through phase.
Again, you need to exaggerate the position and the time you stay sideways in order to get a really good feel of what needs to be done.
3. Eventually implement the shoulder over shoulder technique into your serve while serving with 50% of your speed and see if you can feel a transfer of momentum.
You need to feel that your arm is being thrown forward when you decelerate the body.
There is a split second when the body is not moving and the arm is accelerating.
Immediately after that, you release the body so that the arm pulls it and it starts moving again.
Because this happens quickly, even if you watch a serve in slow motion, you might miss this short moment and “conclude” that it is the body that keeps pushing forward throughout the serve.
In reality, the sequence is this:
See if you can spot this sequence in this slow motion video of Roger Federer’s serve.
Look at the moment of impact.
Note how the body stops moving for a moment and how he MAINTAINS a slightly tilted position of his head and shoulders through the contact and part of the follow-through phase before he allows the arm to pull his body forward and complete the serve movement.
In a serve where there is no transfer of momentum, there is also no sequence.
It is simply one action:
That’s it. That’s the process to which you have probably simplified your serve dynamics, and that’s why the recreational serve almost never breaks 150 km/h – and that’s why your shoulder hurts. 😉
In order to learn the transfer of momentum and a more effortless tennis serve, you’ll need to work on the shoulder over shoulder technique and try to feel what the transfer of momentum is.
You’ll also need to let go of control and not try to hit the court!
One of the main reasons your serve is still “locked” is that you always want to hit the ball in. In the process, you start to control, push, and steer the ball toward the target zone.
That way you’ll never develop an effortless serve.
An effortless and powerful serve needs a lot of repetition where you just work on the dynamics of the serve (and not on mechanics!), meaning you try to accelerate the racquet head in the most effortless way through transfers of momentum.
Here’s an great video showing the difference in speeds of the arm and the racquet head for Roger Federer’s second serve.
Most recreational tennis players who use the “pushing / muscling / steering” approach to hitting the ball will have the same speed of the arm and the racquet head…
If you want to discover more about developing a natural and effortless serve, take a look at Serve Unlocked video course, where I discuss many other mental and physical locks that hold you back and show you drills that enable you to unlock them to finally have an efficient and technically sound serve.