Advanced vs. beginner players
Hi Oscar, in your teaching methodology, you have emphasized natural and intuitive methods of learning to hit the ball rather than rigid formalisms. I believe this is great for beginners, and less advanced players. Do you recommend the same techniques for more advanced players, or does your methodology emphasize the technical aspects more?
For example, does the advanced player need to hear things like, "Lay the wrist back, tuck in the elbow close to the body, lead with the elbow," etc., for executing an advanced forehand? Will concentrating on specific things like these actually set one back as compared to continuing to do drills more naturally and intuitively? That is, is there a way to lead the advanced student to execute strokes effectively and with the appropriate form without "intellectualizing" it?
I don't know if I have made myself understood well, but I am very interested in your teaching philosophy, so please let me know if I need to clarify my question. Thanks!
Who is playing? (continued on the next posting to fit this forum's rules)
Bjorn Borg used to say, “Tennis is a simple game. Just hit the ball over the net one more time than your opponent.” That is the essence. Yet for all its grace and simplicity, too often the game and the mind are cluttered with a myriad of extraneous thoughts that only confuse and restrict the flow. Most teaching pros try to instill a series of ideas into the conscious mind i.e., take the racquet back early, bend your knees, etc., these well meaning concepts only serve to make a simple sport very difficult. To learn to play tennis well, I ask only that you empty your mind and, using a simple, uncomplicated technique, focus on the feel and sound of the ball on the racquet.
To clarify this concept, perhaps I need to get into the philosophical aspect.
To best understand the causal relationship between mind and body, ask yourself the question: who is the operator, the source of the decisions of the action? The operator of the body-mind-thinking process is the being, that which is sometimes called the soul, or spirit, the center of awareness, or consciousness center. When that being departs, the body ceases to function and death occurs. So it is obvious that this spirit is central to existence. While it is true that we cannot physically touch the soul, or spirit, that is who we really are.
A simple test developed by L. Ron Hubbard (www.scientology.org) reveals who is in command. Close your eyes and picture a cat, or a dog in your mind. Clearly see the picture you created. Move it a bit from side to side. Now ask yourself the question, who is looking? Who created the picture? Who is in control? The answer is you, the soul, the actual source of your decisions and your existence.
So what is the mind? You just looked at it in the previous test. It is the complete collection of mental image pictures, including all perceptions, a record of all the experiences of life. It is a tool that the being uses to decide present and future actions, even those that operate below the level of awareness.
How does this work in tennis? What would be the most practical way to operate?
Tennis is a sport for the being, rather than the mind. The being thrives on feeling, on aesthetics, on beautiful coordinated moves; while the mind thrives on pictures, perfect poses, right-wrong computations.
The best tennis pros are artists who operate at the higher harmonics of aesthetics flows, with little thought involved, just like concert pianists at their best and you too can learn to play this way. This level of optimum performance is sometimes called the zone.
To handle something well you need to put your attention on it. You can place your attention on many things at once or focus on just one thing at the time. What is most interesting about tennis is that while you are focusing your attention on one thing almost exclusively, everything else gets aligned with that instinctively. Especially when you operate by feel!
Playing tennis on a conscious level which operates by using several mental image pictures of consecutive body positions, is too mechanical and slow and therefore inadequate.
Pro tennis players operate on an instinct level, avoiding as much as possible to think about the task at hand. They remember a stroke by what it feels like, not how it looks. They don’t look into their mind to recall its mechanics. They play by feel, and consciously slow their mind down. Breathing or walking are things you do on an instinctive level – hence they are smooth and effortless. Unlike say, balancing your checkbook, which requires great mental effort.
When playing tennis that would be the ideal: to operate on instinct and feel. Follow the ball attentively. Trust instincts. It either feels good or it doesn’t. You’d be the judge.
You can try different techniques, but beware of falling into anything purely mechanical. Choose the one that gives you more ease and a better and longer feel of the ball.
Judge your strokes by these simple criteria. Does it feel natural? Does it get the ball in the court? Do I mildly resemble my favorite pro? (Who has obviously mastered the stroke)
By copying your favorite pro you are actually using all the years of practice that he or she needed to perfect his feel, his technique. If it doesn’t work well for you, you can pick the stroking of another pro. You may learn in a few days by copying what it took the pro years to find.
The simpler you make your task, the easier it will be to know what to practice, what to put your attention on, and what not. Again, you need to trust and develop feel. Do not strike the ball head on. It won’t stay on your strings much and the feel is too short. Brushing it up with topspin, for example, makes the ball stay on your strings much longer. Starting and prolonging this contact on the strings below the center of the racquet helps you feel the ball even more.
Focus on repeating that which feels best. Improve it, again by feel, practicing to get certainty and confidence. Practice until it works.
Tennis is movement. First of all, find the ball, then stroke it wherever you find it - all this by feel. Use your mind to reinforce one thing, finishing your swing. Make a picture of the position of your arm at the very end of the swing and repeat it over and over. Leave the racquet at this position for a bit, looking at the landing of your shot, even while turning and recovering, relating this physical finish position of your racquet to your placement of the ball. This particular process will give you a comfortable correlation between cause and effect. The racquet up there, the ball landed there. Easy! Confidence builds up!
It is the best way to occupy your mind. Follow the ball into your racquet as long as possible and “finish” the stroke. It will help calm your fears and make sure you don’t freeze or change something half way through the stroke. You may swing slower or faster, but make sure your racquet goes all the way to that “finish”, repeating it each the time. Observe Federer, Henin, Agassi, the William sisters, Hewitt, Davenport. These pros “finish” all the time.
On the volley, which is a punch, this “picture” of the finish would be the impact point, which acts as a stop. Prime example of this would be John McEnroe, perhaps the best volleyer of all time.
Practice your groundstrokes by simply finding the ball, tracking it into your racquet, and feel it across your strings, propelling it over the net while finishing your stroke. No power yet. Mainly feel. Drill. Repeat and repeat. The ball speed of your strokes will slowly increase. You’ll know how to apply more and more power without losing control.
To focus attention on anything else like feet position for example, will only impair hand-eye coordination. It takes something you learned by feel, instinctively, at a very young age, and brings it to a conscious level. This floods thought patterns, impairs observation, and actually serves to confuse. You in fact begin to resemble a puppet, working out which foot to put first, and where. And while you are worrying about this, the ball may hit you on the head!
Another all too common error is taking your racquet back too soon, a teaching method that fortunately is on the way out. This also clouds thought, because it forces you to imagine and adjust to the ball’s path ahead of time. Racquet back early, separates it from the path of the ball and is a killer of timing, coordination, and of ease of play.
In tennis, as in many other sports, the less you think about positions and of what is going to happen in the future, the more feel you’ll have. Tennis pros play in the present and so should you. Trying to judge the speed of the ball only makes tennis more difficult. But here’s the secret, you don’t need to judge it. If you look at it carefully, you’ll see how much it slows down, first in the air, then a lot more after the bounce. Research has shown that from baseline to baseline, the ball loses close to 60 percent of its speed. And it always curves down, less speed, more curve! Just be ready to approach it from below!
Take your time, and become an observer, while you are still running to the ball. Your legs may be going fast to get to the ball but your arm can wait a lot longer for the ball to get near your grasp.
Tennis professionals have favorite body positions when executing their strokes, if they have available time. Those preferences were acquired after much practice and determined by feel, not by thought. Furthermore, in professional tennis you are usually on the run, and the player easily abandons those preferences and follows and stalks the ball with the racquet. When he gets it within his grasp, he then concentrates on getting it over the net, moving the arm and hand independently of the rest of the body to accomplish that aim. In other words, they play tennis with the hand, and the rest of the body acts in an instinctive way.
How would we define instinct? This takes us back to where we started, in the beginning of this article.