If you’re looking to improve the tennis technique of your strokes, it’s critically important that you know how the process of acquiring and automating techniques works.
Since a tennis stroke is a fairly complex movement, the usual approach is to break it down into smaller parts which we can perform/execute successfully.
By learning the tennis technique of a certain stroke in parts, we can then attempt to combine the learned parts into a complete technique of the particular stroke we’re learning.
But this is where tennis instruction online, on DVDs, and in books typically fails to show you another critical step that is needed in order to develop technique that actually produces effortless power.
In most cases, if you just follow the above process, you may actually learn, for example, a tennis backhand technique theoretically correctly, but your backhand:
a) Is rigid – meaning that you’re tense and not able to adjust to each individual incoming ball;
b) Lacks power – even though you are moving your legs, hips, shoulders, and arms correctly, you are not able to generate power except with lots of effort; or
c) Is inconsistent – because you’re hitting with tension, you are unable to hit the ball with feel and have good control of the direction, height, depth, and spin of the ball.
The first reason why this process fails to produce strokes that generate effortless power is simple – the process of analysis (breaking down strokes into smaller parts) also breaks down the natural movement that our body uses to generates force.
Analysis, after all, is “separation of a whole into its component parts.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/analysis)
The second reason for the lack of effortless power in the strokes is that, when we approach learning tennis technique through analysis and learning strokes by parts, we use our conscious mind to do that.
We actually consciously move body parts in a “correct” way in order to develop correct tennis technique.
Our conscious brain, though, is not fast enough to put all these parts back together in a fluid and natural way – hence the popular saying “Paralysis by Analysis”.
Therefore, after we have learned the correct mechanics of a certain stroke in parts, we must apply the opposite process of analysis – which is synthesis.
Synthesis is defined as “the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/synthesis)
In my experience, though, most tennis instruction does not explain the process of synthesis or the ways of putting the parts of the stroke back together in a way that helps the body generate effortless force.
There are many reasons for this, but in my experience, the main reason is this: all of us tennis coaches learned our skills by teaching kids first – and there is a big difference between how children apply a tennis technique they have learned in parts (analytical approach) and how adults do.
There are three techniques that we need to apply in order to put a stroke back into a whole after the analytical approach and the teaching of correct mechanics.
1. Use feel-based drills that connect parts of the stroke back together in way that generates effortless force (this tip on the serve is an example of such exercise).
2. Use exercises that develop motor skills to teach the body (not you!) how to function more efficiently. See the drills Roger Federer is performing in order to improve various motor skills and hand-eye coordination:
3. Use task-oriented drills and tactical training (also by playing matches) so that you stop thinking about technique and allow the subconscious to take over.
In order to put the parts of the stroke back together in a fluid way that generates effortless force, we need to pass the information from the conscious brain into the subconscious brain.
Only the subconscious brain (or better said, the cerebellum, which is responsible for motor learning) is capable to putting the parts of the stroke back together in a coordinated and smooth sequence.
If, for example, you’re learning tennis serve technique only through mechanics, your serve might look good in still images taken from the whole sequence, but once you see it in motion, you’ll realize that the body doesn’t generate force easily.
In order to pass the information from conscious to subconscious (from Self1 to Self2), we need to stop thinking about technique or, in other words, forget about it.
We need to focus on something else!
That “else” can be drills for timing and rhythm, aiming at targets, playing certain patterns, and so on.
That “else” can also be special feel-based drills that help the body connect different parts back together.
The goal of these drills is for the player to feel:
• how energy flows through the body
• how to create momentum
• how to amplify momentum
• how levers in the body create force
All of these elements produce effortless force in the most natural way, and all these must be combined with technical/mechanical learning of the stroke in order to hit the ball correctly and powerfully without much effort.
The process of acquiring efficient and correct tennis technique is therefore a combination of analysis (learning in parts) and synthesis (composition of parts so as to form a whole) that is applied in every training session.
When we combine technical training with feel-based drills and tactical training, we enable this process of passing the technical information to the subconscious, which makes the movements smooth and natural.
In order to generate force effortlessly, our body needs to work as a whole.
It uses different parts that work in harmony with proper speed and proper leverage, and therefore the body will produce a lot of force with little effort.
The process of learning tennis technique in parts through analysis breaks down not only the stroke but also the energy flow and natural movement of the body.
Therefore, we must apply the process of synthesis in combination with analytical (technical) learning in order to give life to the new mechanical movement we have just acquired.
Just learning tennis forehand technique, for example, from slow motion videos and still images might help us move the arm in the correct way, but we’ll still be unable to hit the forehand with good pace shot after shot.
We must also stop thinking about technique, as only then will this new movement be taken over by the subconscious, which is capable of putting the parts of the movement back together in a smooth and coordinated way.
The process of synthesis includes drills and exercises that help the body generate and amplify momentum and drills that focus on tactics which take focus away from technique.
Future articles will explore more myths about tennis technique, such as how looking for the perfect form of the stroke hurts your game, how rarely technique is actually the cause of the mistake, and many more.