One major problem that players of all abilities tend to experience is hitting shots off-balance. An imbalance can be caused by many elements of a stroke: using poor footwork, reaching for the ball with the racquet (instead of moving the feet to the ball), or simply not having full control of one’s body while in the complex movements of moving to and interacting with a moving tennis ball.
Can a player gain better control of this elusive thing called balance? Are there ways to practice that can help a player improve balance? Can improvements in balance make for a better tennis player?
Yes, yes, and yes!
But before we talk about the way a player can improve balance, it is important to understand the things that cause imbalances in the first place.
Reaching With the Hands Instead of the Feet
Reaching with the hands instead of moving the feet to the ball is one of the biggest impediments to good balance and a habit that often prevents players from making a move to the next level. I’ve seen hundreds of players with adequate strokes and adequate physical means allow themselves to move only the minimal amount necessary to make contact with the ball. I call this action “lazy feet” and it’s really part of our human nature. Next time you’re at a pro match, watch closely and count the number of steps the pros take between hits. Often it is as many as 12 or more! This is one of the biggest differences between high level and recreational players. Pros are in continuous movement throughout the point.
Understand, most shots can be “hit” with minimal footwork. And, those who are more proficient at executing shots seem to become even lazier. This is because players who have hit successful shots from unbalanced, less-than-perfect positions on the court, tend to believe they can do it over and over again. Even after missing a number of poorly-positioned shots, such players can make just one shot again at some point and reinforce this poor habit.
Poor stroke technique is another element that usually leads to hitting shots off-balance. While a lot of stroke failure can be directly attributed to the stroke technique itself (everything from using wrist, over swinging, poor racquet preparation, etc.), many times poor swing patterns create situations where it becomes necessary to be in a relatively poor position just to hit the ball. For example, a player who opens his body up too early ends up having to hit the ball using a pushing motion with a swing that moves more away from instead of around the body. This movement forces the player to have more weight out in front of the body which then results in an off-balance finish.
The human body is a very astute machine. When a player swings early or late, the body will recognize this even before player-recognition occurs. The body then tries to compensate by slowing down or speeding up the stroke, regardless of the balance of the player. In many cases, this mistiming of the stroke changes the contact zone, moving it either more in front or behind the optimal zone. To adjust for this, the body will tend to lean back when late or lean forward when swinging early. In both instances, the player is going to swing off-balance.
There are many training exercises a player can employ to improve balance on the court.
Some of the best drills I’ve found to train this aspect of the game are one foot drills. These drills can greatly improve balance whether working with relative beginners or even world-class players. In fact, nearly all shots in tennis can be hit while standing on one foot and with great results. For right-handed players, stand on the left foot for forehand volleys, groundstrokes and serves, and the right foot for backhand volleys and backhand groundstrokes.
What is interesting is how players learn to generate more and better control while standing on one foot. The reason is that it is far more difficult to over-hit while standing on one foot (most players who try that will likely fall down!) When players learn to swing with balance, they increase the efficiency of their strokes, and learn to hit with less effort yet achieve better results.
It has been revealing to see player after player serve better after practicing on one foot. Oftentimes they discover more power because they learn to swing within a balanced foundation. The transfer of power through the kinetic chain is maximized when players swing balanced. And again, because they are standing on one foot, they swing within themselves. Try it for about 30 serves or so and see if you don’t discover how to improve your balance for more effective serves.
Here are two drills I use within various clinics to incorporate one-footed groundstrokes: first, I have players standing in place and on one foot and simply feed them balls (a right-handed player would stand on the left foot for forehands and the right foot for backhands). In the second drill I introduce movement by having players hop from left to right across the service and I feed them three balls to hit. For example, moving from the deuce court to the ad, right-handed players hop on their right foot hitting backhands. More advanced players can hit from near or behind the baseline. These two drills accent not only balance but also help players learn to hold the finish, a factor in almost all skilled strokes. Again, players who swing too hard will not be able to maintain their balance.
Finally, the same movement drills and foot patterns used in the previous groundstroke drills can be used to hit volleys. Players learn to get sideways, limit their swing, and gain control because they are forced to hit while standing on one foot.
A final point of standing on one leg: such practice builds strength in each leg and is a great way for pros and coaches to change up the same old drills with one simple exercise.
Caution: As with any drill or practice that uses balancing on one foot, pros and coaches will want to watch closely (especially older players who might want to try these drills). Turning an ankle, twisting a knee, or simply straining muscles because of using unfamiliar movements and balance points can occur. Take extra care looking for that potential and build up slowly to any more demanding drills that use this type of exercise.
These one-footed drills can really improve a player’s balance and perception of balance. For pros out there, these drills can make the difference between “good” players and “great” players. If, for no other reason, the use of these drills and exercises can add to any practice session. Try it for a few weeks and see if you don’t recognize improvement in yourself or your students.
David W. Smith is Senior Editor at TennisOne. See more of his work at TennisOne.com.
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