Learning through touch and feel
Tennis is a game you have to ultimately “feel” rather than overthink. Here’s the science behind this statement:
The human body is miraculously built to develop millions, if not billions, of neuro-pathways. Each specifically allows us to perform tasks of varying complexity. From the simplest task, such as sitting down in a chair, to one of the more complex, such as playing classical guitar, specific neuro-pathways have to be established.
At the perfection of development, each movement is automatic and free of the fatal flaw known as “paralysis by analysis.”
Here are some examples of how a beginning tennis player can tap into their kinesthetic side to get a better “feel” for playing tennis. In each example, we will offer a tip using a readily available, and practically cost-free idea, as well as a training aid that requires minimal investment. We advise performing each exercise 5-10 times until you can self-bounce or serve a ball and get the same feel and result you achieved with the aid of the practice tip or device.
Example #1: Feeling topspin from the start
Concept: Hitting topspin groundstrokes is one of the keys to playing tennis at higher competitive levels. Too many players unnecessarily struggle to hit topspin groundstrokes when a quick exercise could give them the proper feel they need to succeed.
Cost-free idea: Place a ball between your racquet and the net and hold it in position. Then, brush up the back of the ball quickly to get it to roll forwards over the top of the net.
Training aid: The Spin Doctor is a foam-injected ball on a telescoping pole and requires a partner to hold the pole in position while you lightly brush up on the ball to gain a feel and visual reference for creating topspin.
Example #2: Playing height exercise for better movement
Concept: Every good tennis player knows it’s one thing to have solid strokes, but if you’re not in position and on balance, beautiful strokes only look good. Pretty strokes alone don’t win tennis matches. Athletic movement and balance requires players to move in a playing height about six inches lower than normal standing height.
Cost-free idea: To feel your playing height, stand up straight and look at your shoe tops. Then, slowly bend your knees until the front of your knees prevent you from seeing your shoelaces. In this position, you’ll be in an efficient playing height.
Training aid: Another option is to use a resistance-based training aid like the Flex Trainer, a device that forces athletes to feel a lower playing height by physically pulling them down to a lower position.
Example #3: Serving fluid with a towel
Concept: The serve is the most important shot in tennis. No doubt about it. Effective serves at higher and higher levels go hand-in-hand with increased racquet head speed. To swing faster, the racquet must be in continuous motion and free from starts and stops. In particular, pausing in the well known “trophy position” with the racquet in the backscratch position and elbow pointing to the sky should be avoided at all costs.
Cost-free idea: Tie a knot on one end of a bath towel. Pretend the towel is your racquet but start in a modified position with your racquet hand about a foot in front of your belly button and at the same height. From there go through the rest of the serving motion and keep the knot of the towel from hitting your back by swinging in a continuous motion. If you pause in the “trophy position,” the knot will hit your lower back.
Training aid: A training aid that has been around for years is the “Serving Sock.” To create this training aid on your own, take an old tube sock, insert three tennis balls, and tape or staple a dowel or sawed off old racquet handle to the end. Then perform the same exercise as described above using a knotted towel.
Example #4: Catching for better dropshots and drop volleys
Concept: Playing tennis with improved feel for the ball includes being skillful with touch shots like dropshots and drop volleys. If you’re like many tennis players and don’t have the touch it takes for delicate shots like these, try softening up your grip and thinking about catching the ball, instead of hitting it, on dropshots.
Cost-free idea: Simply have a partner toss you a short ball around the service line. Move in and transfer your racquet to your left hand (if you play right-handed) and catch the ball with your open racquet hand. Once you succeed a few times, alternate using your racquet with the same soft catching skill. Make adjustments until your dropshots land just over the net on your opponent’s side of the court.
Training aid: The Contact Doctor Training Aid is the tool that would help train players for these delicate “catching” types of shots. Just set up for your dropshots or drop volleys and catch the incoming ball in the net.
Example #5: Use a guide to stop chopping down on volleys
Concept: Chopping down on high volleys is a common cause of hitting set-up volleys in the bottom of the net. To hit solid volleys on balls you contact well above the height of the net, be sure to check your finish. Your racquet head should not finish below the height of the net.
Cost-free idea: Place a chair or bench about ten feet from the net. Stand close enough behind the chair or bench so that if you chop down on your volleys you’ll actually hit it. Have a partner feed you a high forehand or backhand volley. Finish your volley motion without hitting the chair or bench.
Training aid: A popular training aid to develop this same skill is called the Path Pro. It’s simple, versatile, and the foam yellow guide will not break your racquet in case you accidentally hit it while acquiring this skill.
Check out the next article in this blog series right here “The Art of Tennis Coaching: Auditory Biofeedback“
Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional in both the USPTA and PTR, has been recognized with numerous national awards including the 2019 City of Dallas Humanitarian Award for contributions to inner city tennis, and has conducted clinics and exhibitions in over 50 countries. Joe is the author and editor of 9 books and more than 20 DVDs, has more than 300 published articles in various tennis and pickleball magazines, and has aired many instructional tips on the Tennis Channel. Plus, Joe’s YouTube channel has more than 2 million views and growing! His latest book “Words, Wisdom, and Whimsy” is the second volume of an illustrated series called “Poems from the Heart.” In 1994, Joe founded OnCourt OffCourt, Ltd., a company dedicated to serving the tennis, pickleball, fitness, yoga, and physical education industries with innovative training aids and educational tools. Today, he has designed and manufactured more than 150 creative products being distributed and used in 100 countries worldwide.