Counting Your Way to Better Tennis

One of the fundamental exercises in Tim Gallwey’s best-selling tennis book “The Inner Game of Tennis” is to listen to the ball contacting the racquet on both sides of the net as well as the bounce and audibly say, “Hit. Bounce. Hit.” as each occurs. Rhythm and timing skills are essential to playing good tennis and one can safely say that by improving these skills as they relate to tennis, a player will automatically improve.

Here’s just one example. Coaches around the world have been teased for decades by the phrase, “Racquet back, bend your knees, that’ll be $20 please.” Of course, this insults the sophistication that goes along with coaching a complex sport like tennis. But, from the player perspective, students often hear just simple phrases like “racquet back” repeated until they almost tune out the words completely. Let’s talk about the instruction “racquet back” in the context of this article. First, let’s list some common synonyms for this instruction:

  1. Turn
  2. Unit turn
  3. Early preparation
  4. React to the ball

Now, let’s talk about the sights and sounds on a court that can and should trigger that essential skill set. Remember that ball recognition, movement, shot preparation, shot execution and shot recovery must all take place in fractions of a second. 

Here are some exercises to increase your awareness preparation and to efficiently improve your preparation skills.

Tip #1: Counting for Better Rhythm

Concept: Timothy Gallwey’s suggestion to focus on hearing and saying the word “hit” when your opponent strikes the ball is still a great tip.  Similar to the fact that every piece of music has its own rhythm, tennis is the same with one important distinction: The rhythm of a tennis rally is almost constantly changing! In other words, the time between one player hitting the ball and the other player contacting that same ball will usually be different. Perhaps only if you have two steady baseliners who hit balls at similar speeds will players experience a steady baseline rhythm. In order to be successful in competition players definitely need to cope with the changing rhythm of various opponents and styles of play. 

Drill: Rally from baseline to baseline with a partner. Call out “hit” when you contact the ball and call out “and” when the ball is halfway between the hit and the bounce. Then call out “bounce” when the ball bounces followed by “and” between the bounce and the hit. Each rally will sound like “hit and bounce and hit and bounce and hit.” If you’ve ever played a musical instrument, you’ll recognize that it is the same as counting out eighth notes in a measure with a 4/4 time signature. Your hit is the first beat of the measure. Your shot bouncing is the second beat, your opponent striking the ball is the third beat and the bounce of your opponent’s shot is the fourth. Then, when you strike the ball again, it is the first beat of the next measure.  

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