Essential Tennis Mechanics

Tennis, like most sports, is played from the ground up. Transmitting force, gracefully, and in balance is the key to accurate shot making results. In mechanical terms, “gracefully” means without discontinuities or what a coach would call “hitches” in the motion. Minimizing the motion’s unnecessary stops/starts is the major factor to its efficiency.

HantuchMuscleBackhand

Balance gives the billions of eye/hand calculations the best chance of accuracy.  That is why if an athlete is off balance, their performance must take on more conservative/defensive choices in shot selection.

The more often the player is connected solidly to the ground during ball contact, the more often that player can dictate play and remain on offense. Lack of balance usually, but not always, means the player is on defense.

Interestingly in this sport, hand skills, dexterity, and experience responding to the opponents position, can make up for a deficit in strength, mobility, and foot speed. Age can often triumph over youth for this reason. On and off the court, knowledge is power!

00BestSharaToss

Harder Or Higher?

Hey TennisDr:

This may be a stupid question, but I’m having trouble getting depth on my groundstrokes.  What’s the best way to do that?

Shorty From Miniville

Dear Shorty:

Don’t make the mistake of hitting the ball faster. Imitating what they see the pros doing can be “fools gold” for recreational players.  Stay within your most accurate racket speed range and just aim higher above the net. Unlike the pros, recreational players should be hitting their ground stroke about TEN feet above the net to get depth. Good luck with your groundies!

TennisDr

 

RB’s & ASCT’s

Hey TennisDr:

What is the latest advice from the on air pundits and professional coaches that I can put into my game?

Regards
Tiger Topspin

Hey Tiger:

Great question!  When I watch recreational players, I see some of the same issues that touring pros face.  Too many singles shots in the net, usually when they are out of position.  Here are some tips from world class authorities:

1) Tennis pundits and pro coaches use the terms “Rally Ball (RB)” and “Aggressive Shots to Conservative Targets (ASCT)” frequently on the air.  Recreational players need the same advice.

RB means a ball that has no business being anywhere near the level of the net.  Typically, you are out of the center or off balance at the baseline and your shot selection is not appropriate.  Loop or floater are the correct selections.  Like the chant at a basketball game,  “D-D-D-D-Defense!”

2)  ASCT:  EVERYONE, pros included, goes through patches in which the confidence/accuracy in your aggressive shots is dips.  ASCT means to try that same racket speed a few times down the middle of the court to the T to get your confidence back.  If you are still missing after that, slow the racket and use RB’s (see above).

If you need help with these, ask your local pro.
TennisDr

On Changing Your Serve

This is a note I sent to a 3.5 league player who came to me for a 4.0 level serve.  His serve was predominantly flat and deserted him when the stress was on.  What he needed, but did not know it, was a serve with spin, arc, and shape that could stand up to stressful situations and be more precise.

He SAID he wanted to change it, but did not know what the task entailed.  Here is that note:

Dear Jim:

People come to me who want to change.  When it comes to tennis movements,
 you need to understand that when your body tries to move differently, attention to 
making the ball strike the center of the racket is TEMPORARILY distracted.

It is INEVITABLE that anyone will mishit and frame shots during this process.
  If you are standing near the net, the racket velocity is lower and the shock 
to the arm is much reduced during this stage of learning.  

I realize you were not comfortable with that part of my training, but it was very necessary.

The body can basically learn one thing at a time before it can incorporate 
multiple skills.   You are no different than anyone else learning skills EXCEPT
 you are more reluctant to trust me during this stage of development on your serve.

The serve is very likely the most complicated performance in ALL sports.  That is the reason 
why it is so difficult to improve it without help.  IFFFF you want that, you are in the right place, but you have a choice.

We can spend your LivingSocial purchase fine tuning other shots and avoid changing
 your serve OR we can do both if you trust the process I’ve developed over 30 years that is 
backed by a Ph.D. in Biomechanics/Exercise Physiology and has been used with players of 
ALL levels from beginner to elite University team members.

You are the customer.  It is your choice.

Sincerely,
TennisDr

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Racket Sports Biomechanics: Brain Function, Eye Skills, and Table Tennis

How closely related are table tennis skills to tennis? Can ping pong help my vision skills, reactions, and balance? Can table tennis help improve brain function or help me read better? These kinds of questions about the impact of table tennis on brain function and motor skills are starting to capture the attention of researchers. The author has some unique credentials to help bring the reader up to speed on these questions by first looking at the unique qualities of table tennis, then their application to brain function.

First, ping pong can definitely help anyone learn tennis and other racket sports. One rough measure of mastering a tennis movement is the creation of spin. With the exception of flat ground strokes, elite players prefer extreme spin to add control and can make the ball rotate several thousand times a minute. In order to do that the racket must pass steeply through contact. The more steep the path, the more spin is imparted, but as the path becomes faster/steeper it becomes less tolerant for error. That’s where better skill comes in!

Since ping pong helps teach players spin (its elite players also want fast rotation for control), that makes table tennis motions great preparation for learning spin for tennis. Further, these sports also use subtle forms of side spin, another rare stepping stone between these two sports. But table tennis can go much farther than good preparation for tennis.

The connection between the brain and visual/motor skills required to play competitive table tennis are useful to practically ANY other sport and even reading as noted below. Many athletic abilities are improved such as eye muscle tracking, recognition, decision making, response time, muscle activation, and rhythmic muscular response are all ramped up.

Eye muscle tracking skills may be the most unique set of physiological skills enhanced by table tennis. Most sports emphasize distances for eye teamwork beyond 15 feet, also called “Optical Infinity”. Within 15 feet the eyes work much harder to track, diverge, and converge on objects.

To prove this, stay focused on your finger at arms length as you gradually move it toward your nose. See how it becomes more difficult to keep focused until the eyes “give up” and create a double image? Most of ping pong’s tracking skills occur within or near this convergence/divergence range for the human visual system. At the same time, the basic manual task itself is relatively easy.

According to Dr. Gary Polan, a pioneer in the field of Vision Training (VT)/Sports Vision Training (SVT), eye hand skills like ping pong help stimulate the visual/motor system in similar ways to the skills needed for reading performance. Every day at his office he helps patients improve their reading challenges by exercising the visual cortex, the interocular muscles which control the lenses of the eye, and the extraocular muscles which control eye teamwork. Dr. Polan says that EVERY reader and athlete, even elite athletes, can improve performance with VT/SVT. Better eye performance makes better readers AND better athletes because–ALL eye skills are learned!

The attribute of “ease of use”, the usability of table tennis, has other huge advantages. Table tennis allows almost every first time user, from kids to seniors, to quickly feel competent. After that, its easier than most other sports to ramp up overall physical performance in the first few sessions, without coaching. This “ease of use” attribute has captured the attention of scientists too.

Some researchers are interested in ping pong’s influence on the brain, its ability to adapt, improve function, and ward off chronic disease. Dr. Mehmet Oz calls it his favorite “Brain Sport” because it improves cognitive function and motor function which, help prevent and ameliorate Alzheimer’s Disease. Nerve conduction speed actually increases, and with it, the ability to faithfully reproduce a motor program more quickly. It’s great brain exercise!

That principle for human muscle in sports medicine is called “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands” or the SAID principle. Like a skeletal muscle, brain function can be improved, IF it is pushed to improve, at ALL ages. We now know that the brain also responds to the SAID principle and reveals what researchers now call “Brain Plasticity”.

For rehabilitation needs in a small space, ping pong can be a potent tool. Remember the table tennis in Forrest Gump? To learn more about table tennis therapy, see the SAEF Table Tennis Therapy Program (SAEF.us). This organization is preparing to launch an in depth study of the effects of table tennis therapy on Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a fascinating and FUN form of physical therapy because almost ANYONE can “Be a Menace” with table tennis”!

Biomechanics: Can Racket Sports Skills Be Transferred?

Can ping pong help me learn tennis? Will racquetball hurt my tennis game? Can badminton help me play better table tennis? These kinds of questions about the transference of skills between racket sports come up all the time. The author has some unique credentials to help answer these questions. We will examine some of the mechanical similarities and differences between racket sports to help answer some of these questions.

To best compare the mechanics of tennis, table tennis, or other racket sports requires a bit of basic kinesiology. If you are standing relaxed with your hands at your sides, palms facing forward, you are in what is called the “Anatomic Position”. If you angle your fingertips away from your thighs, the max being about 45 degrees, that movement is called “Wrist Abduction”. Reversing that small movement is called “Wrist ADDuction”. Kinesiology students remember the difference by visualizing that this body part is being “ADDed” toward the midline, or long axis of the body and like to capitalize the first three letters for clarity.

Wrist posture is one very important difference between table tennis, tennis, racquetball, squash, badminton, and even fencing. Picture a fencer with a sabre or foil in their hand thrusting toward the opponent. In order to make the foil tip reach as far as possible, the wrist must be fully adducted. The wrist posture for table tennis is nearly the same but used for another purpose, not just for extending the reach.

In table tennis, the wrist is adducted to allow it to express whip during forward motion at contact. The legs, torso, shoulder, and arm start the movement and transmit momentum in what is called a “Kinetic Chain”. That chain of movement snaps the table tennis racket like a bullwhip at the ball. This kinetic chain of momentum from the ground, up through the body, then culminating at contact is actually common to most, if not all, contact/collision sports such as football and baseball. In contrast to table tennis, the wrist in tennis is usually “ABDucted”.

With the brief exceptions of reaching defensively to get to a ball or reaching upward for a serve or smash, the wrist posture in tennis is more like holding a hammer, much more “ABDucted”. This posture does several things for a tennis player. First, it makes bearing the extra weight and length of a tennis racket easier by it being above the hand vertically.

Second, an “ABDucted” wrist is a stronger, more controllable wrist posture. It is more able to resist the high impact forces of a tennis ball and also more able to resist the high twisting forces of off center impacts. Obviously, these kinds of impact forces do not exist in table tennis and learning this posture requires a great deal of practice and discipline. Unfortunately, as the author has found, that same “ABDucted” wrist discipline painstakingly learned to play better tennis is difficult to set aside when one tries to play ping pong with its “ADDucted” wrist.

This is THE main complaint of table tennis coaches, when teaching those who have come from tennis, that they must constantly remind them to “drop” or “ADDuct” the wrist. The author’s own ping pong coaches just smile and point now! In the authors theoretical and practical opinion, It appears that among racket sports, tennis requires the most discipline in terms of wrist “ABDuction”. Tennis, and perhaps ping pong, may also require more discipline in its strokes in general. Again, some additional basic kinesiology is useful.

From the “Anatomic Position” described above, if you bend your wrists so that your palms face upward, you are FLEXING your wrists. When you return your hands to the position in which your fingers point toward the floor, you are EXTENDING your wrists. When you rotate your forearms so that your thumbs are next to your thighs and your palms face behind you, you are PRONATING your forearms. The opposite movement is called SUPINATION. Both PRONATION and SUPINATION are defined by the two bones in the forearm rotating around each other, movements which are distinct but often confused with flexing the wrist.

Because the target for badminton, squash, and racquetball is so large, acceleration of the racket and contact speed is usually top priority. To do that, both flexion and pronation is used in the forearm to obtain the highest velocity. The target in tennis and table tennis is smaller than the other sports and maximum racket velocity is less often desired. The notable exceptions are the tennis serve and smash, but even those strokes generate racket velocity by almost exclusively using PRONATION, not FLEXION of the wrist. Pronation is also the dominant forearm movement in throwing a fast baseball.

What does this tell us about transferring skills from one sport to another? Does this make one racket sport easier to learn if you are already familiar with another? These are obviously difficult and complex questions even for a biomechanical specialist in racket sports, but if we isolate just the differences discussed here, one path to the answers can be found.
When it comes to the wrist and forearm discipline described above, we can assume that it is more difficult to acquire discipline than to suspend it. For that reason it follows that it is easier to learn racquetball, badminton, and squash AFTER learning tennis or table tennis. Conversely, it is more difficult to acquire the forearm discipline required in tennis and table tennis, AFTER learning the other sports which emphasize laxity of both forearm motions described here.

Beyond its biomechanical logic, this principle is born out in the author?s personal experience in racket sports and over 30 years of coaching. His tournament experience in racquetball followed that of tennis and it always seemed easy to relax the discipline of tennis to “snap” at maximum velocity at a racquetball. Over these years many students struggled to learn the additional discipline of tennis after the other sports. In short, the author recommends learning tennis and/or table tennis BEFORE branching out into the other sports that are dominated by whipping arm swings.

Line Calls, Friendships, & The Human Eye

A couple courts away, I heard “friends” in a heated discussion about a line call.
When they emailed me about the USTA rule that applies I wrote this in response:

For over 20 years now we have known from research in sports medicine and orthoptics that the brain is only piecing together images of a tennis ball during its travels. Essentially, above about 30 mph, the human brain is guessing at what it sees of the path of a tennis ball. Please see the section called “Biomechanics” at TennisDr.com for citations/details.

Still many players, even some of my students who know these facts, have difficulty conceding such frailty in the human visual system. They are convinced that their opinion is the correct opinion. Often, their off court business affairs hinge on one minor point to gain the advantage or maintain a successful campaign or account. These sensibilities can be difficult to leave at the office.

To maintain friendships, my job as their coach is to teach them how to be generous with points, respect that others views are scientifically PROVEN to be as valid, or more valid than our own, and maintain the spirit of camaraderie that is the reason for “playing” together in the first place.

In short, line calling rule number this or that, SHOULD only matter to those making a living playing competitive tennis, IF anyone!

What matters for the rest of us, is that the widest variety of people will enjoy “playing” with us in the future AND that the strength of our character is above wanting this or that particular point, which never really matters in the outcome of a match anyway.

This is not work. Humans play to have fun.

Sincerely,
TennisDr

Non-Dominant Arm Mechanics in the Serve

Q: What are some of the important considerations for the non-
dominant arm during tennis?

A: This is a topic that comes up frequently during biomechanics
discussions in all sports. In tennis, the role of the non-dominant
arm/hand is more important than one might think. Here’s one great
example illustrated in an email I just sent to London:
————–
July 2, 2010 (Nadal/Murray Wimbledon Semifinals)

To: Miles Maclagan, Head Coach Andy Murray
C/O Lawn Tennis Association
National Tennis Centre
100 Priory Lane
Roehampton, London SW15 5JQ

Dear Mr. Miles Maclagan & Other Coaches:

Andy Murray is one of the only elite players I’ve ever seen
who throws the tossing arm away and back during the follow
through of his serve and I can prove, in mechanical terms, that
it is a significant disadvantage.

In the vast majority of sports movements leading to asymmetric
impact or acceleration of one body part, the concept of “breaking”
is universally employed. What is “breaking”?

Breaking is easy to notice. In place kicking the non kicking foot plants
abruptly so it can pass its momentum to the kicking leg. In loose or wet
turf, that is why kicks cannot go as far.

In throwing, the kinetic chain passes momentum all the way up the
body starting from the ground. For a one armed throwing motion and
tennis serve, the kinetic chain transfers momentum from the ground,
through the legs, to the torso, then into the arm, hand, and racket.
Each passing its momentum, like a whip, in a snapping acceleration
toward the hand. To pass its full momentum onward, each segment
stops, like a billiard ball hitting a row of others which are touching.

In most serves, and right handed throws, the left arm comes across
the torso to help counter or stop the trunk rotation, thereby sending
more momentum into the arm.

Murray’s left arm does not. It goes away and behind without helping
to stop the trunk rotation. It does not supply any “breaking”, or opposing
motion, to the torso. Mechanically, less momentum passes into the arm.

Andy Murray’s serve is certainly a great one. But at this level of expertise
in any sport, one percent improvement can make a huge difference!

Good luck with all your players.

Sincerely,
TennisDr

Jonathan Bailin, Ph.D., USPTA
Exercise Physiology~Biomechanics~Ergonomics
Sports Medicine & Ergonomics Associates