In the game of tennis the beginning of the stroke and the end of it are not that obvious, as many players are thinking only on about taking the racquet back and hitting the ball.
So let’s divide the stroke in two time dimensions:
1. Ball approaching
From the moment the opponent hits the ball back to us, the preparation begins. Preparation is not only about taking the racquet back and moving towards the ball. Preparation should be considered as positioning towards the ball with the idea of the stroke execution or technical-tactical decision making.
Technical tactical strategic decisions are based on the information about:
The ball trajectory and preparation:
1. Ball specification (characteristic)
2. Ball bounce prediction
3. Contact point prediction
The purpose of the player having attention on the ball at the moment (and right after) the opponent’s contact is to determine type of the ball trajectory and predict the direction of the future bounce, depth of the future bounce and the amount of spin applied to the ball. The sooner the player manages to specify all these information, he/she can predict more accurately the future ball bounce area (his/her side of the court) to where the player need to position as quick as possible. As soon as the area (where) is determined, the player can begin preparing for the contact point (when + where). The foundation of the successful stroke is the perfect timing of the racquet-ball interception. Judging and specifying the ball characteristics such are the speed and amount of spin of the ball should give the player answer to when is the time to pull the racquet forward in order to intercept the ball successful.
Strategic part of the stroke and follow through:
1. Awareness about the position
2. Awareness about the opponent
3. Choosing the optimal combination of power and spin, depth and direction
In order for the player to even begin the stroke from the take back, the player has to have a clear idea about the trajectory of the own stroke. Not being aware on time about the tactical preferences can and will interfere with the technical execution of the stroke.
Awareness about the tactical preferences are related to the players position at the time of the ball interception action and awareness about the opponent’s position on the opposite side of the court.
Depending on the position of the player, he/she chooses different approach to the ball. If the player is further away from the net, for the sake of hitting the ball back deeper and keeping the opponent away from stepping inside of the court, the player will choose the stroke with more spin and higher trajectory. This type of stroke demands longer linear and vertical acceleration. The more the players moves forward, he/she will rely on the shorter linear and horizontal acceleration with the stronger angular (rotational) force etc. There are so many different patterns of the stroke decision depending of the players own position at the court.
The goal of the tennis game is to outsmart the opponent and in order to do so, the player has to be aware of the position of the opponent so he/she could make the decision about the stroke and it’s direction and depth. The combination of these two should put the opponent in unfavorable position towards the ball and with minimal chance to react to it in time and space. Making the spatio-temporal dimension of the opponent’s game restricted and the opponent guessing (not expecting or predicting) puts the player into favorable and controlling position.
So the conclusion is that if a player is aware of his/her own position related to the opponent’s position, the player can choose the optimal combination of the power and spin to create the advantage during the point.
2. Stroke execution
Proprioception (feeling about) the stroke execution
When the player decides to pull the racquet through the ball (I’m deliberately not saying TO the ball), after all the strategic decisions were made, there is no room for slowing down the racquet as it interferes with the technical aspect of the stroke. When the dominant arm is pulled forward there is only one thing: ACCELERATION through the ball (with variation of vertical impact angles for different ways of spinning the ball). For that reason (as said before) it’s crucial for the player to decide about the type of stroke during the preparation phase.
At this point, it’s about proprioception.
“Proprioception, or kinesthesia, is the sense that lets us perceive the location, movement, and action of (own) parts of the body. It encompasses a complex of sensations, including perception of joint position and movement, muscle force, and effort. These sensations arise from signals of sensory receptors in the muscle, skin, and joints, and from central signals related to motor output. Proprioception enables us to judge limb movements and positions, force, heaviness, stiffness, and viscosity. It combines with other senses to locate external objects relative to the body and contributes to body image. Proprioception is closely tied to the control of movement.” By J.L. Taylor (2009), Encyclopedia of Neuroscience
At this point is all about the control of your movement. Control about the body parts that are in usage (or should be) and the body parts that contribute to the power and the control of the stroke (again matching to the decision of the type of the stroke that the player made during the preparation phase).
With proprioception, the player is making sure that the stroke that was imagined (visual planned) at the preparation phase and that begun with the acceleration of the racquet through the ball will finish in the controlled and successful manner. For player to do so, the player needs to understand which parts of the body are responsible for which specific action and what can be the consequence of it.
Our role as their coaches is to be able to explain the whole and parts of that process in details. In this way, we coaches, are giving “a manual” to our players and making them understand that controlling their body parts will have as a consequence the successful stroke.
As I mentioned before, I consider the timing of the stroke the most important aspect in the tennis game. Timing is determined by where and when the point of the interception will be made. If the timing is correct the next most important thing such as controlled follow through phase is much easier to achieve. The power can be changeable but as soon as the racquet is pulled through the ball, the follow through motion is the key to control the direction and depth of the ball.
There are two elements that represent foundation for the successful interception and follow through. The body stability and body balance. What is the difference?
NEXT BLOG: Stability and Balance