As a teaching professional, speaker, and writer, I am always looking for ways to help players master shot-making skills. And, when I say “players,” I mean many players, as in thousands. This is because I often address hundreds of players (and coaches) at a time when I speak, or, if I’m on the court, sometimes dozens of players when working with groups. Over time, this adds up to thousands of players and instructors. I want these people to walk away from the experience with a better understanding of the game and their own abilities.
Unfortunately, many players have perceptions of the game which are either not in sync with progressive patterns (and, as such, have great difficulty mastering or acclimating their bodies to learning such patterns), or they don’t understand how certain stroke techniques will further their game and advance their abilities.
The volley is one of the most fascinating shots from this perspective. Because several factors interrelate within the skilled volley pattern (these include how the grip affects the racquet position, how the player’s footwork and body position relate to the contact point, or how the racquet face interacts with the angle and spin of the incoming ball), players can often do everything right except for one thing and still fail at learning to volley well.
So, when players are learning a shot like the volley, they need to address all the interrelated elements in a way that does not sabotage the attempt, either through extraneous unconscious or previously programmed movements that don’t contribute to the whole of the concept.
Bean Bag Drill
Any understanding of the game (correct understanding, that is) is usually a culmination of experience and education. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have been surrounded by pros and players who, like me, seek out tools, analogies, technical advice, and other playing and teaching aids that increase the likelihood of students understanding, and eventual mastery, of each tennis stroke.
One tool that has been very helpful for players learning to volley, or changing a flawed volley technique for that matter, is the bean bag. The idea of using a bean bag is simple: catch a tossed bean bag on the strings of your racquet and hold it for a moment before tossing it back. How bean bags help players master the volley are several fold:
1. Instead of “hitting” balls tossed to them, catching the bean bag changes the mental perception of the volley from a hitting mindset to a true catching or blocking one.
2. Instead of focusing on trying to hit a ball over the net and/or to a target, the student can focus completely on technique.
3. Players working on mastering the continental grip for the volley can literally feel the racquet in their hand as they catch the bean bag — a far different sensation than that of the very fleeting moment of impact when hitting a ball.
4. Catching a bean bag changes the perception of how the eyes see the object. Instead of trying to see the ball as it comes in and then rebounds off the racquet, the eyes are more easily trained to see the bean bag to the racquet. The problem of quickly looking up toward a target is eliminated. There is no reason to look and see where the ball is going after the hit, something that does not contribute to clean contact.
5. Catching a bean bag helps players learn the relative position of the incoming bean bag to their racquet. One of the biggest problems for beginners is learning to “find” the ball in the hitting zone and in the center of the racquet. Mis-hits not only are common among beginners, the simple act of mis-hitting balls often causes players to change the stroke pattern to accommodate where they think they should hit the ball.
6. Catching a bean bag helps players limit the backswing and more easily enables them to set the racquet face throughout the volley. Another big problem for players is the tendency to take the racquet back too far, literally forcing them to swing to achieve the desired angle. This always causes players to over-hit the volley or prevents them from hitting the angle or desired trajectory with consistency and command.
7. Catching a bean bag helps players learn and develop touch or feel.
Next time you are working on your volley or helping a student learn the volley, reach for the old bean bag and use it in some tossing and catching drills. Regardless of the age of the student, his or her current ability, or the size of your class, the bean can make a world of difference.
Finally, have the students try to sense this same catching feel with an actual tennis ball on the strings. Master this and it will translate into players discovering great touch and control of the racquet on the volley and help them gain real confidence. Very soon they will be hitting volleys better and better.
David W. Smith is a Senior Editor at TennisOne. Read more at www.TennisOne.com.
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