I was watching a show on ESPN about famed pro football coach, Bill Walsh, who was particularly notable for his success in producing great quarterbacks (Joe Montana, San Francisco 49er Hall of Famer, amongst others). In describing Walsh’s techniques, one young quarterback told of how Walsh stood directly behind him in an early practice session and kept telling him to throw the ball “easier.” As he mastered the ability, under pressure, to throw the ball “easier,” the young man commented that it made his passes more accurate in addition to making the ball easier for his receivers to catch. What, you may ask, does this have to do with tennis? A great deal, it turns out.
Staying loose: Walsh was really suggesting that the quarterback be more relaxed and smooth when he threw – that forcing the toss, “muscling” the ball by trying to throw it too hard – made it more difficult to control. When one’s muscles are tense and stiff, coordination is adversely effected. And it is smooth coordination, rather than sheer muscle power, that allows athletes in various sports to generate great power with little effort and to control that power. The same factors are at work when one hits a baseball, throws a javelin, swims, sprints, or, most importantly for our purposes, hits a tennis ball. In all of these activities, relaxation and smooth coordination produce the best results. Trying too hard, becoming stiff and forcing one’s muscles is invariably counter-productive.
Staying relaxed increases racket speed. Most knowledgeable tennis professionals accept the idea that groundstroke racket velocity is largely generated by rotating your upper body forward. This whips your arm forward to power the stroke. But a crucial additional factor is to keep your arm and racket hand relaxed and flexible during the stroke. This improves control and “feel.” It allows you to smoothly adjust to awkward positions, bad bounces, or misjudged ball velocities or trajectories. In contrast, when you use your arm muscles to power the stroke or if these muscles become tense and stiff because you are trying to hit the ball too hard you will sacrifice control, flexibility, and ultimately power as well. (A rigid arm can not be muscled forward with as much velocity as a loose arm can be whipped forward by body rotation.)
The same factors are equally important when serving. Maximum racket velocity comes from rotating the shoulders while straightening the bent torso and legs. Keeping loose and relaxed during this process is essential. Stiff arm muscles and an inflexible wrist inhibit the whipping arm motion that gives the serve its power. Great servers deliberately relax their arms and hands just before they serve and rely, for high racket velocity, on a well-coordinated, smooth service action. (Think Pete Sampras) Overtly trying to hit the ball too hard, rushing, or muscling the serve results only in reduced velocity, inaccuracy, and a sore shoulder.
Relaxation helps movement. Looseness, flexibility, and smoothness are equally valuable when it comes to movement on the court. You can move fastest and change directions best when you are relaxed. Moving any limb requires that when one muscle contracts its opposing muscle must be simultaneously relaxed. Otherwise the limb can not move. Becoming overly tense causes all muscles to contract, and when muscles fight each other like this movement slows down.
Roger Federer is a beautiful example of how relaxation promotes smooth, graceful, and incredibly rapid movement. Because he is so loose and well-balanced, Federer can change directions in an instant. This makes it exceptionally difficult to catch him moving in the wrong direction. He runs easily – so easily, in fact, that his speed is not at all apparent. Rafael Nadal’s speed, by contrast, is often noted as a key to his success. Speed is obvious in his case because he runs rather hard. Although Federer is equally fast or even faster, it happens so smoothly that it is deceptive. The great movers of the past were equally relaxed, smooth, and unobtrusively fast. Players like John McEnroe, Ken Rosewall, Bjorn Borg, and Pancho Gonzales, like Federer, tended to draw comments on their spectacular shot-making, but their speed around the court was the glue that held it all together.
Make an effort to deliberately relax. Since many of us are not naturally relaxed, smooth, and graceful on the court we must make a conscious effort to improve in this area. This is an important addition to developing proper stroking technique. When you are working on your strokes make relaxation, smoothness, and good balance part of your agenda. On all strokes, watch the ball while deliberately keeping your arms and hands loose and flexible. As for movement, relax and stay loose as you lower your center of gravity in preparation for initiating movement. Then try to run gracefully and light, gliding to the ball rather than straining and forcing movement.
Since most of us have been taught the virtues of effort and hard work, there is a tendency, when we really want to win, to push ourselves over the top, both physically and emotionally. On a big point we may simply want it too much and stiffen up with determination. Recognizing this danger, it is useful, at such times, to pull back slightly. Instead, keep your eyes wide open and alert to the whole court situation, while you remain, above all, loose and flexible.