How can you keep your head still and not look up when you’re making a shot?
Surely you’ve seen the pros do that. They keep a very still head and look up only after they’ve completed their follow-through.
And surely your coach has told you to keep a still head, watch the ball, and don’t move your head – yet you find it very difficult to do.
So, what is stopping us from keeping our head down, and how can we learn to do that?
I’ve compiled another video where I show a progression of drills that I use to teach kids the concept of a still head.
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Thanks for sharing! Please check the drills below and let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
The main reason for keeping a still head while we’re contacting the ball is that it helps us hit many more shots in the sweet spot and keep our balance at that moment.
Let’s look at each of those reasons separately:
When we are approaching the ball with the racket and we’ve lined up for the ball, our brain has calculated the exact path into the ball with our sweet spot. As soon as we move our head away, we are also going to pull the shoulders away.
The result is that our shoulders are going to move the arm, and the arm is going to move the racket a bit. We’re no longer going to hit the ball in the sweet spot of the racket.
The sweet spot of the racket is actually quite small; it’s about the size of a hand.
So, if you’re hitting the ball somewhere in the sweet spot, then the racket is very powerful and bouncy. However, as soon as you hit the ball off the sweet spot by a few centimeters, you will hit with much less power because the racket is not so bouncy as the power drops off very quickly.
Hitting by only a few centimeters off the center gives you 30 or 40 percent less power.
If you are pulling away the head, you will be miss-hitting the ball slightly; therefore, you’re not going to hit a good ball because the racket doesn’t give the ball good power.
The second reason for keeping a still head at contact is that we have better balance and more power at our disposal.
If we are moving the head away at the moment of contact, we disturb our balance a little bit because the balance is in our inner ear. That’s the main center.
If we jerkily move the head at the moment of contact, we disturb our balance some, which affects our ability to hit a good shot.
That’s because, when we’re a bit off balance, our brain is going to trigger certain muscles in the body and keep them at a certain tension as that will prevent us from falling.
But when those muscles are used for balance, we can’t use them for our strokes! As such, we lose on some power again.
So, those are the main reasons we should watch the ball and keep a still head at contact.
Now, I know that when you’re playing you probably never miss the ball, and that’s why you don’t feel that it’s so important to watch the ball.
You never completely miss the ball. You always hit the ball on the racket, even if you don’t watch it very carefully.
Even if you don’t keep a very still head, you’ll still play at a reasonable level.
That’s why you don’t feel that it’s so important to watch the ball and keep a still head.
But when you come to a bit higher level of tennis, you will start to feel a very big difference between hitting the ball in the sweet spot and hitting the ball off the sweet spot.
Hitting the ball off the sweet spot immediately makes the ball land short, and you will be in trouble. Your opponent can attack you.
So, that’s why you want to hit good shots as much as you can. The only way to do that is to really pay attention to the ball and not move your head when you’re making a shot.
Before we go on to learning how to keep your head still at the point of contact, we have to address the reasons you can’t keep your head down.
I know of three mental reasons and one physical one.
The first mental reason is that, as you’re about to hit the ball, you look up to see where your opponent is going.
You want to see if your opponent is going to the right, so you can then play to the left.
I have to tell you that an experienced tennis player is not concerned with where their opponent is going.
There are two reasons. First, your opponent is recovering and waiting for your move.
If your opponent has any skill in tennis, they’re going to go back to the middle of the angles that you can hit, and they’re going to split step.
Why are they going to split step? So that you can’t wrong-foot them.
An experienced player split steps and waits for your move.
So, there’s nothing to see.
After they’ve hit their shot, they’re always recovering on every shot that you play. What are you going to see? 😉
They will inevitably be coming back to the middle, and they will split step.
There is one situation, though, where your opponent is actually running and doesn’t split step.
That’s when you stretch them really wide and leave them too far from their ideal recovery position.
Now, they have to gamble.
They either choose to run to the open court as they are guessing that you’ll play there, or they’re going to wait in case you try to wrong-foot them.
So, that’s another situation when you might say, “Well, I want to see what my opponent is doing.”
But again, there’s no need to see what your opponent will do.
I will still choose to hit in the open court even if I sense that my opponent is about to gamble and possibly run to the open court.
That’s because, if they choose to run immediately towards the open court, they’re still going to run 8-10 meters to get to my ball, so it’s very unlikely that they will hit a good ball back.
It’s actually more likely that they’re going to make a mistake. Even if they do hit the ball back, they’re not going to hit a good ball, which allows me to stretch them again to the other side and make them run.
If I try to wrong-foot them and they guess that in their gamble, then I didn’t make them run.
In fact, they are now just waiting there for the ball, which means they can turn defense into offense. Therefore, that’s a riskier shot for me.
That’s again why I don’t look at my opponent, even if they’re stretched out wide. I still prefer to hit in the open court and make them run rather than take a chance that they’re going to read my wrong-footing shot and turn defense into offense.
It’s very important that you follow my explanation in your mind’s eye now and check what you’re thinking, what your beliefs are.
All the above logic has to be very clear to you. You must adopt it so that, when you’re about to hit the ball, you don’t feel the urge to look at your opponent. Only then can you keep your head down – unless, of course, something else pulls you up.
I am not saying you should never play wrong-footing shots but in my experience of working with juniors and adults they attempt the wrong shooting shots way too many times and make the game much more complicated than it is.The foundation of high percentage tennis is moving your opponent as much as possible which means that “by default” you play to open court and therefore there is no need to look where you opponent is going.Only when you are good at this stage of playing should you try to “upgrade” this with occasional wrong-footing shots.
If you’re still not sure why there’s no need to look at your opponent, then leave me a question below in the comments and I’ll share my views.
The next reason you pull up from the contact point is that you want to look at the target.
You may want to see where you want to play the ball. Maybe you don’t want to watch your opponent; maybe you’re fine with that, but you’re actually looking up to see where you’ll hit your next shot.
Here’s why we don’t look at the target in tennis: first of all, we don’t aim at small targets.
Maybe professionals have slightly smaller targets, yet even they don’t look up. We, as recreational tennis players or competitive juniors, should have bigger targets.
The best pros in the world receiving the easiest ball can’t consistently hit fairly big targets. How good do you think you are? 😉
We can’t have small targets – meaning aiming close to the lines – because we have a bigger “spread.” That is, we spread the balls around our target.
If we aim at a small target placed on the court, we will on average miss it by around 5 feet on the sides and by around 8 feet in terms of depth.
So, when we aim close to the lines, a large percentage of our shots will land out.
Therefore, we need to aim more inside the court, which means we have big targets.
I initially teach players to aim in the middle of the second half of the court on the left and on the right side.
Imagine a target right in the middle of each quarter between the baseline and the service line.
If you aim at those targets, you can miss a lot but your shot will still land in the court.
And because your target is very big, you don’t have to look at it!
There’s one more thing to keep in mind as you may be wondering how you’re going to hit any good shots closer to the lines.
The answer is simple: you’re going to miss the target!
Since you’re going to miss your target 99% of the time, you will spread your shots equally around your target.
That means you can hit the ball:
Based on this, we can conclude that you will hit a good shot in 3 out of 4 situations, and that’s how you’ll actually hit those good shots a lot without aiming for the lines.
You will hit those shots simply based on statistics as you’re aiming in the right place where it’s high probability that your shots will land closer to the lines but not outside of the court.
Because the target is big and you are free to miss your target, you don’t have to look at the target.
We’re not aiming at small targets in tennis. We aim at big targets, and hitting big targets is not so difficult. In fact, with some practice, we do that without even looking at them.
This brings me to the third mental reason you look up, and that’s because you don’t trust your ability to hit a target without looking at it.
And this is what practicing keeping your head down is all about.
It’s all about trusting your ability to hit your target without looking.
When you improve your ability to hit the targets without looking at them, you’ll begin to trust yourself.
Then you’re not going to look up to see where the target is or where your opponent is.
And this is what you’ll develop once you spend some time practicing keeping your head still, which is what you’ll learn just below.
There’s one more reason it’s difficult to keep your head still when you’re making a shot, and this one is more of a physical reason.
When you’re hitting your forehand or a two-handed backhand, what happens is that your body is rotating. Your shoulders are rotating forward, and it’s not very natural to rotate your shoulders but not rotate your head.
Your head naturally wants to go together with your body.
When you play tennis, you need to rotate your shoulders and rotate your body but not rotate your head.
That’s physically not very comfortable. That is not how our body likes to work.
It wants to work in harmony, so shoulders and head want to move together.
For this reason, you actually have to train yourself to keep your head still when you rotate your shoulders because that’s not very natural.
The same goes for a two-handed backhand; when our body rotates when we’re hitting the ball, the head wants to rotate, too.
Keeping your head down and still is a bit uncomfortable, and it will get comfortable only when you make a lot of repetitions.
And you can, in fact, do those repetitions even when you’re not hitting an actual ball.
You can just practice at home simulating a stroke and normally turning your body and your shoulders but keeping your head still while looking at your imaginary contact point.
It’s, of course, easier when you play a one-handed backhand or a slice backhand because the body is not rotating then.
Now that we’ve addressed the main reasons why it’s difficult to keep your head down, we can start working on keeping your head still when hitting the ball.
Once you no longer worry about your opponent or about looking at the targets and you’ve become a bit more comfortable rotating your body on the forehand side or on the two-handed backhand side, you can start working on the actual skill of keeping your head down and trying to hit the target.
I intentionally use the word skill because it is a skill. When we work on skills, we isolate them, and we practice them – and, with repetition, they improve.
For example, this skill is similar to trying to learn an open stance forehand or to learn how to hit with topspin because these skills improve with repetition.
So, the actual skill that you want to develop when it comes to keeping your head still at contact is your ability to hit a big target area without looking at it. That’s it.
When you start working on this skill, you won’t be very good to start; therefore, you won’t trust yourself to keep your head down. That’s the biggest obstacle that you have to overcome in the initial phase of practicing.
You’ll work on the skill, but you won’t be good at it – yet.
But I encourage you to persevere and stick with it because you’ll soon see that you’re better at hitting targets without looking at them than you thought.
Once you do trust yourself in this ability, you will finally be able to keep your head still while hitting the ball consistently even when you play matches.
Here’s how I suggest you work on keeping a still head:
Put a target in the middle of the second quarter of the court on the other side. Look at it for a couple of seconds, then drop feed the ball to yourself and aim at the target without looking at it.
Notice where the ball lands and then adjust.
If your shot landed too much to the left, aim more to the right. If it was too short, aim deeper – then try again.
Through repetition and adjustment, you will see that, even after 10 shots, you are now hitting a bit closer to the target.
What helps is imagining a line along which you can extend your arm towards the target.
Try to figure out the correct angle at which you must swing towards the target and then focus on that.
This is the only part of the flight of the ball you can control. After the ball is flying, you have no control over it anymore.
So, focus on this line, this track that leads towards the target, and see if you can find that exact angle under which you must swing so that the ball lands close to the target.
Your next progressions will be when you have a cooperative rally with your partner where you will do exactly the same.
Have a target placed on the court and aim at it without looking – keeping your head still at contact – and keep adjusting based on where your shots land.
You will see that you can quickly improve your accuracy after just a few minutes. It really isn’t that difficult to do when you aim for big targets.
Once you see your success, you will gradually build more trust in your ability to hit accurate shots even when you don’t look up.
Therefore, you will reinforce this skill of keeping your head still when hitting the ball.
In summary, why is it important to keep your head still when you’re hitting the ball, and how can you learn that?
When you keep your head still as you’re making your contact, you’re going to very likely hit the sweet spot of the racket. That gives you a lot of power, it gives you a very clean shot, and you have great control of the ball.
The main reason it’s so difficult to do is that you have all these urges: Something is pulling you up from the contact point.
You want to see where your opponent is. Maybe you want to aim at a small target.
Maybe you don’t trust yourself (which is very likely if you haven’t practiced this). Also, it’s physically a bit uncomfortable to rotate your body and not rotate your head.
So, you have to first remove these mental obstacles: Don’t worry about your opponent. Don’t worry about the target.
Become physically more comfortable rotating your body without rotating your head.
Once you’re clear in your mind and you can physically do it well, then you need to work on your skill of hitting the ball in the target without looking at the target – which is keeping your head still at contact.
Like any other skill, it will definitely improve with practice. Make sure you devote some time to practicing this as it will not improve simply because you read this article.
I am simply showing you the way and clearing some obstacles, but you’re the one who has to walk it.
And it is still quite a journey. The skill keeps improving, but it takes quite a few months of practice before you’re really good at it.
While some tennis tips help you play better very quickly, this isn’t one of them.
It will take you quite some time to master it, and it’s one of those skills that I call “summer projects.”
When I was working on keeping my head still at contact many years ago, I remember that it took me about one summer to become significantly better at it.
Note that I played a lot, usually twice a day, almost every day, and I kept working on this skill: clearing my mind, not worrying about my opponent, and aiming at big targets.
In time, I became more comfortable physically and also mentally as I saw that, yes, I could hit big targets pretty well. In fact, I could miss my target and still hit a good shot.
That then developed more trust in my ability to aim without looking; therefore, this skill eventually improved to a point where I do watch the ball and keep a still head nowadays at a quite high proficiency.
So, keep in mind this is a summer project; it’s not a one-week project.
If you stick to it, you will gain a lot of benefits from that because you’re going to hit most of your shots in the sweet spot and you will be very accurate.
If you have still some questions about why you don’t have to look at your opponent or why there is no need to look at the target, just let me know in the comments below and I’ll share my views.