As you start your journey of improvement in tennis, you undoubtedly start playing with fairly poor technique.
You then take lessons, buy video courses and start improving your technique which in turn helps you play better shots. But, there is a stage in tennis where the approach of mechanical corrections of your strokes actually creates more problems than it solves.
Contrary to popular belief that it’s always your stroke technique/mechanics that causes a poor stroke or a mistake, there are in fact many more reasons.
At the beginner stage, technique plays a very important role and there is very strong correlation between improvement of your technique and improvement of your overall quality of shots; however, the importance of perfectly correctly executed tennis strokes diminishes as you progress in tennis.
Your stroke may in fact look really good, but it does not accurately nor consistently go where you want it to go.
As you know, only a small degree of change of the racquet angle creates quite a big error on the other side of the net.
Until now, you may have been able to correct the movement of your arms or torso because your movement was far from the correct technique which is based on sound biomechanics.
You had to make big changes in your movement like preparing with a unit turn instead of taking the racquet back, rotating more into the ball rather than hitting forward in a straight line with your arm, using your non-dominant arm to help with body coiling and so on.
In other words, your corrections were quite visible compared to how you used to play.
What you learned is that improving your technique improves your game.
What is critically important to understand is that this approach works ONLY up to a point.
Since you’re now roughly close to the point where your technique looks very good, the changes that you now need to implement will be smaller and smaller.
We are talking small degrees, centimeters and even milimeters, and these changes need to be made at exactly the right timings which can be measured in hundredths of a second.
You CANNOT perform these corrections consciously any more.
Beware of any coach who tells you to open or close the racquet face more when you’re hitting the ball.
Are you really capable of controlling the racquet face for a change of one or two degrees in a split second while you are swinging toward the ball?
You cannot do that consciously, but you CAN achieve a change of your racquet angle unconsciously by focusing on the ball flight, seeing where the ball goes and IMAGINING a higher or a lower trajectory, then simply doing it without being conscious of how much your wrist or forearm changed the racquet angle.
This is a process of adjusting, and we are all using it very naturally throughout our lives.
When we learn to drive a car, the instructor does NOT tell us to turn the wheel for two degree more in order to make the turn in the middle of our lane.
We simply drive, aim in the middle of the lane and repeat the process many times so that our mind and body “get on the same page,” and in time we learn how to accurately adjust to drive and turn in the middle of our lane.
Everyone, including the instructor and the beginner driver, is perfectly fine with no exact instruction for how much you need to turn the wheel so that you go where you want to go.
You simply see where the car is going, and you unconsciously adjust. You simply WANT to go more to the left, for example, and your hands do the necessary correction.
For some reason, this same common sense logic doesn’t seem so common in the tennis community…
The coaches keep telling the players the micro corrections they should be doing 0.017 seconds before contact with the racquet angle open at 88.6 degrees while their racquet path needs to be steeper by 2 degrees.
Sure, they don’t use these exact numbers, but this is what they ask of you since your shot landed slightly short of what you aimed at.
The players are also on the same bandwagon and keep asking the coaches what they need to do to make their lob land deeper, for example.
I am not making this up. I have been asked this on the court as well as many other similar questions.
The advice to aim deeper or longer or higher above the net seems too simple for them, and they look for some magic formula that will instantly and permanently make their lobs land in the last foot of the court.
But the process from here on is not conscious like what you were used to when you started improving your game.
It is now much more unconscious in terms of being aware of your body parts and how to move them through space.
What you need to pay attention to now is how the ball flies and where it lands.
If it’s not where you want it to be, you need to imagine the correction for the next shot.
Simply said, you need to ADJUST.
With more and more repetition, you will become more and more accurate.
It’s like darts or basketball – you try to hit the target, and when you miss, you try again, this time with a slight adjustment.[box type=”info”]You know consciously ONLY how you want the ball to fly, but you adjust unconsciously. You don’t know by how much or even which part of your body has moved differently.
This is the process of adjusting, and it is BY FAR the most important part of your tennis training.[/box]
You will surely agree with me that there are thousands of tennis players out there who never had any lessons (or very few) and yet they play extremely well.
They simply played thousands of times and tried to hit certain areas of the court without really knowing how they need to do it.
They held the racquet in their hand and tried to steer the ball to the target. At first, they were inaccurate, but in time they got better.
Of course, if you combine this process with a solid foundation of tennis technique which is based on biomechanics, then you’ll be able to hit targets with much less effort, more power and much better accuracy in the long term.
The process of adjusting your strokes unconsciously is well-known to most coaches.
Just drop by an academy or a club, and you’ll very likely see a feeding drill or a playing drill where there is no isolated correction of technique, but there are a lot of repetitions.
So, just for the record, I agree that if the foundation of technique is really poor, repetitions make it even more habitual and harder to correct later.
But if the main foundations of the stroke are there, the player needs to hit a lot of balls into targets as that process will polish the little technical details by itself.
There are a few keys to good improvement with this approach:
1. No pressure. The player must perform a lot of repetitions (drills, games, patterns) without pressure first – meaning that there is no scoring.
This is important because that allows the player to be more relaxed, and ONLY in a relaxed state of mind and body can the body make the necessary adjustments.
If your body is stiff, it cannot adjust to a different ball at a different height, for example, because it’s simply stuck at a certain position.
So, it’s critical that through no-pressure situations you also consciously try to be looser and allow your joints to adjust to different types of shots.
I’d like to point out here that, in my opinion, the main reason for poor stroke technique of recreational tennis players is playing for points way too early before their basic technique has been established and ingrained.
If you haven’t yet read the Myth of the Tennis Technique, please do so in order to get more familiar with what you’re reading here.
2. Enough time and repetitions. It takes some time for the mind and body to adjust to a certain type of shot, so you must give them enough repetitions to start adjusting.
The minimum time period in my experience is 5 minutes, and usually the maximum is 20 minutes before taking a break.
It will be very difficult to keep high focus for more than 20 minutes. When you lose focus, you will also time the ball worse, see it worse and therefore hit many more inaccurate shots.
Unfortunately you will probably attribute those inaccurate shots to your stroke that you’ve been working on and again lose confidence in it.
In reality, it’s not your stroke that’s faulty and the cause for errors; instead, it’s your loss of focus.
But, as I said, there is this unfortunate association that keeps happening which is that players always blame their stroke technique for mistakes and rarely their mental skills.
3. Playing the same stroke with little variation. When you’re working on adjusting, you need to keep hitting the same stroke at the same target.
That’s because, with every shot you make, you get instant feedback on what went wrong (ball landing too short, for example) and what you need to aim for on your next shot (aiming deeper).
If you keep changing targets and strokes – for example hitting a baseline shot, then an approach shot, then a volley and then a smash – you are not really developing stroke technique through adjusting. You’re practicing something else.
You’re actually tying it all together which is the next step of training in tennis.
True, there is no clear line between all stages of training on the court in real life, but in theory there is.
So, at first you need to try to stick with a certain stroke or perhaps add just a little variation like sometimes hitting cross court and sometimes down the line.
There are many simple patterns of baseline strokes that combine cross court shots and down the line shots, and pros work on them daily.
Peter and I played a 2 cross/1 down pattern, and below you can see another pattern played by Tomas Berdych:
Tomas explains that it helps him feel the strokes better, feel the ground, feel more stabilized, be accurate when he’s tired, learn to move well and so on. Not once does he mention technique.
Your argument may be that he doesn’t need to correct it any more, but I assure you that he was doing a massive amount of drills like this even when he was 12 years old and his stroke technique was not close to how he hits the ball now.
So, in summary, hopefully you understand now more the process of adjusting, which is the unconscious correction of your technique that polishes the small mistakes in your technique.
Basically it means that while your stroke technique looks quite okay, the ball doesn’t really go where you want it and you have a lot of spread around your target.
The cause for these mistakes are minute changes of racquet angle and path that are caused by incorrect positions of your wrist, forearm, body alignment and so on, and these small mistakes CANNOT be corrected consciously.
They correct themselves unconsciously through lots of repetition and the process of adjusting where you don’t focus on your body parts (and how to move them “correctly”), but you focus on the ball flight and keep imagining based on previous shots how you want the ball to fly.
You learned many other skills in life through this process of adjusting, like driving a car, using your computer mouse (try it with your non-dominant hand and see the process in action) and getting better at many games and sports like darts, basketball, pool and others.
And lastly, part true and part for fun, the reason why you don’t read more about this process (and yet it’s what you’ll see in every tennis academy for the majority of training!) is because the tennis industry cannot sell you repetition; they can sell you only instruction. 😉
Yet it’s the repetition, practice, drills and other types of training that amount to the vast majority of tennis training whereas stroke technique amounts to only a small part of training.
Remember the last key point: when your strokes don’t go well, especially at the start of your session, lesson or a match, DO NOT start messing with your technique first, but instead WAIT at least 5 minutes for the process of adjusting to start affecting and correcting your strokes.
See where the ball lands, adjust in your mind only and let your body find and correct those minute changes in the racquet angle and swing path so that the ball starts following your intentions more accurately.
Exhale with every shot. Try to stay loose and, if you can, enjoy the process.
Enjoyment of hitting the ball and the challenge of trying to hit the target over and over again will create that right mixture of focus and relaxed alertness that provides the mind with very clear feedback and allows your body to adjust easily to different movements.