Time to get forehand coaching right

I want to share my recent research, observations, and thoughts with those of you serious about tennis, coaching, and self-development. I’m fortunate that my job at the moment is researching tennis, especially female tennis, and I want to share the findings to all the coaches who don’t have the time or luxury of doing what I’m currently doing. I have a million other things on my to do list, but feel compelled by a few recent events to put this to the top of the list. I’ve given myself the train ride to Stratford – I’ve got 30 minutes.

I’m a big believer in pragmatic tennis coaching. That’s not some excuse for a non-interventionist approach, nor a laissez-faire attitude to development. It means teach players what they use and need in matches. To do that we just need to open our eyes – watch what players are doing; observe the demands of match tennis; look at what the human body can do. You wouldn’t think that would be so hard.

I’ve just returned from the Junior Fed and Davis Cup in Budapest, which saw the top three players from the top eight qualifying nations compete. Unfortunately, Britain hadn’t qualified in either competition, but it was still an amazing research opportunity to challenge some of my long-held beliefs and measure what the best U16 players in the world are doing objectively. There were at least three reigning Grand Slam champions in action, so I really was watching the next generation of top players. Here are three things I saw, which are relevant to my recent interactions with players, coaches, and parents.

 

#1 – the obsession with teaching neutral stance forehands

Method of analysis: select a player, one at a time – count in series of 10 shots – open: closed (open includes open and semi open, and closed includes neutral and closed)

Observations: the ratio never wavered from the range of 7:3 – 9:1 average 80% forehands hit open

2017 09 28 PHOTO 00000274 300x225 Time to get forehand coaching right, WimX Tennis Academy

Coaches’ obsessions with teaching neutral stance / linear / front foot forehands is not reflected by what players are using the majority of the time. Players of top international level don’t think about their feet – they don’t have to, nor would they want to. They can execute any shot, with balance, off either foot or none, and from experience the only way you get to that level is to practice each variation with a massive volume of balls. As coaches I hope we can all agree it’s imperative to teach and practice every variation to give players a full toolbox with which to compete. However, the contentious point in all this is which to teach first or as a priority. Surely the numbers above speak for themselves? It’s not only smart to prioritise what players use most, there are other advantages of playing open/semi open.

#1   Being comfortable on the outside leg facilitates a strong anchor to achieve dynamic balance in very challenging situations.

#2   It also enables faster recovery with one less step and a stronger opposite force to push from. #3   There is lots of evidence about the benefits of open stance groundstrokes in their ability to generate angular momentum for pace and efficiency.

#4   Grip evolution over the past few years makes this even more important.

Is there a place for this in early mini tennis? Yeh, sure, it’s certainly easier to ask a tot for a unit turn than a Rafa rip forehand. Of course I get that. But let’s get those cornerstones in early, and being comfortable on the outside leg is one of the most important.

 

#2 – teaching players to catch the racket on the forehand follow through

Method of analysis: as above

Observations: I saw zero, nada, zilch occasions

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I wouldn’t normally look for this, as to me it’s a total no brainer. However, twice last week I was told by parents that their daughters, both good players, had spent the whole summer working on catching the racket with their coaches. The whole summer. Waste of time. Waste of money. Waste of potential.

I know a lot of coaches teach this, so I went to Budapest totally expecting to see some evidence of it having been taught. If you watch Wimbledon you’ll see it every now and again, especially when the baseliner is constrained by time pressure with an opponent at the net. But I did not see it at all. Catching the racket on the forehand follow through is not a teaching point. It’s an occasional adaptation to a specific situation, and therefore something that should be introduced by discovery learning, not an out-dated coach imprinting poor habits on players for a whole summer. So why don’t we catch?

#1   The most common reason I hear is to orient the racket path on the follow through. My problem is that the non-dominant hand isn’t fixed in space. It moves. How can it guide a consistent follow through when it’s wandering around all over the place? Under match pressure it often goes searching for the racket, reducing swing length and flow.

#2   Apparently it gives the non-dominant hand something to do. Again, I understand the rationale, but have a few problems with this. In a world class forehand we want rhythm and flow. We want speed of racket and body. We want commitment through contact. When the non-dominant hand comes in to play, or even worse goes fishing for the racket, it presents two subliminal choices: decelerate the racket for catching, or smash the hand. I hope you’ll agree that neither are acceptable outcomes of our coaching interventions.

#3   If you need any more convincing, then refer again to my points above about the dynamic nature of tennis. Try moving with the racket in both hands, as opposed to keeping the non-racket hand free for balance or arm pumping to break inertia – the difference is vast.

 

#3 – intervention when girls use an inside swing line on the forehand preparation

Method of analysis: observe and video each of the girls present and categorise in a spreadsheet

Observations: 93% prepared the racket by swinging across (inside) the line of the hand and body

2017 09 28 PHOTO 00000275 300x225 Time to get forehand coaching right, WimX Tennis Academy

I won’t go too heavily into this as the train is almost at Stratford, and this topic will feature in a workshop I’m presenting soon for the LTA. However, let’s just look again at the numbers. The best girls in the world are predominantly using a swing path that coaches believe or are being told is incorrect. I have two problems with this: the facts and the narrative.

The facts: These girls are good. They win Grand Slams. There are observable physical differences between their bodies and the boys’. There are observable differences in girls’ and boys’ swings. A basic principle of constraints-based coaching is that the constraint will cause adaptations. Should we then be surprised to see that girls and boys adapt differently to their different physiques for optimal stroke production? Of course the average woman and man will have variations in the process when attempting the same outcome – they’re built differently. For example, women have only 54% of the upper body strength of men. They are on average 10kg lighter. They’re shorter. Their power to weight ratio is different. And yet both clobber forehands at speeds that would get you pulled over on the M25. I don’t really feel like I have time to go on with this now, but I hope you come to the workshop when it goes on the road next year.

The narrative: Boys and men hit bigger better shots with more topspin, so their method of hitting must be the right way for everyone. Flip this sentence around. Girls and women hit slower shots with less spin, so they must be doing it wrong. This sentiment is loaded with implicit ignorance and perhaps a sprinkling of misogyny. Men and women are different. They are both amazing physical specimen capable of running 100m in around 10 seconds. They are both capable of producing ball velocity of over 100mph, and the stamina to last matches that run for hours and hours. Why can’t tennis teach coaches that those differences are not deficiencies, but in fact opportunities to optimise the person in front of you. We should embrace the differences and look to investigate further to get the best out of our athletes instead of just applying a lazy, unresearched one-size-fits-all method to everyone.

Time to pack up now. I’ve enjoyed writing this even if no one reads it. I’m more than happy to be challenged on any of the above. But please don’t offer me your opinion or your anecdotes. If I’m wrong then bring on the evidence. Show me the science. That way even if you win the debate, tennis is the ultimate winner.

Jo Ward

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