For decades, the issue of footwork patterns has been discussed and analyzed. Arguments surrounding the best “first step,” whether it be a cross-over step, a jab-step, or a gravity or drop-step, have been discussed and studied by pros and players alike. There are many good books on footwork patterns, especially fellow Editor Jim McLennan’s books, The Secrets to World Class Footwork, and Tennis Footwork.
However, in my opinion, there exists a subtle problem among all levels of players. I summarized this problem with this saying: reach with your feet, not with your hands.
This saying can help change the mindset of players when faced with balls not hit right to them, (say 95% of all shots!), but shots that are reachable with nominal effort.
The human body is lazy by nature. That is, when faced with the need to move, we generally try to move within the most efficient, economical manner, using the least amount of energy. The way we do this is by reaching out with our arms, hands, and racquet towards a ball hit away from us and lean towards the area we need to make contact with the ball. Only when necessary will we take one or more steps to make contact.
This action is the reverse of the way the pros play the game. Pros initiate movement with the feet, usually moving in a relatively balanced motion. (We often see the use of a “gravity step” to initiate movement, a footwork pattern that does displace balance to allow the body to basically “fall” in the direction we want to move. However this is what I call a controlled use of imbalance, a way to get the body in motion more quickly.)
On average, the typical pro takes approximately 10 to 12 steps between each shot. In comparison, the typical recreational 3.0 player takes about 4 steps between each shot. This highlights one of biggest differences outside of stroke technique between the pros and the recreational player — a difference the recreational player can improve upon, without retooling stroke mechanics.
This difference in footwork patterns can point to one of the reasons recreational players can be so inconsistent. Recreational players have difficulty hitting several shots using a reliable, repeatable swing pattern. One reason of course could be poor swing mechanics. However, many players, even those who have been taught good stroke techniques, still find themselves hitting from poor positions, poor balance, and poor footwork. The cause of this is the simple fact that these players only rarely get in an optimum position to hit the ball well.
I often see this limited footwork pattern among players who are indeed good ball strikers. Some players are capable and have the hands and coordination to hit balls from questionable positions. Consequently these players tend to have lazy feet; they take minimal steps because they know they ‘can’ hit the ball from these positions. However, they are more susceptible to hitting shots poorly. Because they have, in the past, executed such shots, they consciously — or unconsciously — only take enough steps to hit the ball that way again.
One reason players perform better when taking a lesson from a pro is that the pro is adept at feeding the ball into the student’s optimal hitting position. The trick for any player is to move so they can hit every ball from this optimal position. This is the secret touring pros have mastered.
One of the things you will see stressed when watching professionals train is that they literally condition themselves to move for every shot like it is match point. Instead of taking the risk of hitting a shot poorly because of position, pros work themselves into the best position for each and every shot when and where possible. Any player seeking to reach higher levels of skill must understand this phenomenon — lazy feet encourage poor shots.
When it comes to role models, John McEnroe was one of the best at “reaching with his feet, not with his hands.” Federer is also one of the best movers, seldom off balance or in poor position on any given shot. When proper footwork occurs, the complexity of the stroke is simplified because the player is in a balanced position. We have all felt that perfect forehand, backhand, volley, overhead, etc. Remember what you felt before hitting that perfect shot? I bet you could see yourself hitting that great shot well before you struck the ball. Why? Because when you are in perfect position, the stroke almost executed itself!
Next time you go out to play, work more consciously on moving to balls in a way puts you in the best position to strike the ball. The first few days you do this, you may find yourself over-running or miss-timing the shot. This is because you are trying to be consciously aware of your feet instead of letting your body do move naturally. But, to make such extra movements natural, you need to consciously do it many, many times.
In time, you will see your game elevate to higher levels. You will become far more consistent and have more control on more balls. Work your feet with that phrase in mind: reach with your feet, not with your hands, and you will indeed become a better player.
David Smith is a Senior Editor at TennisOne, you can read more from him at www.TennisOne.com.
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