Sunday, December 11, 2011

Swinging Volley

My forehand backswing tends to be a bit long and "slappy". I've been trying to shorten the swing, but haven't had much luck.  Being almost 50 years old with 40 years of tennis under my belt makes any change tough.  One thing that seems to help is taking the ball out of the air from the baseline, a full-court swinging volley.  He's a compact version of my forehand doing just that.

Compare the length of that swing to any of the swings below.

Forehand Balance and Swing Exercise

The exercise below, borrowed and slightly modified from Ray Brown, has been helping me make my forehand better. I'm trying to keep my racquet up until my legs begin to extend. I'm also trying to delay the forward swing of the racquet until my hips then shoulders have begun rotating toward the ball.

I'm trying to do this exercise a couple of times per day (backhand, too) for maybe five or ten minutes at a stretch. Then I try to feel this rhythm and timing in my swings when I hit balls. So far I feel like it's helping. At the risk of falling for the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, I had never hit a 91 mph forehand before doing this exercise, but did afterwards.

Better than B.E.S.T?

OK, so the study looked at complex pattern recognition not tennis strokes, but the little cartoon in the video intro shows a tennis player.  So...

Check this out.  "Learning high-performance tasks with no conscious effort may soon be possible."

Sweet.  Bring it on.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mike Agassi, B.E.S.T. Pioneer?

Below I wrote a bit about Brian Gordon's B.E.S.T. System for tennis mechanics. As the game of tennis has evolved, players have less and less time to execute their groundstrokes. Incoming ball speeds are getting higher and higher. In order to achieve high racquet speeds under extreme time duress, players have learned to shorten their backswings yet still produce high racquet speeds. They do this through what Brian calls "neuromuscular optimization".

Working with Rick Macci, Brian has developed a method, a progression, for teaching these optimal neuromuscular processes in young tennis players. I don't, yet, know the details of this teaching methodology. I hope to learn it in the next several months. In the meantime, I remembered the early training of Andre Agassi as Andre described it in his book, Open. Below I'll describe roughly what Andre described on pages 26-30 of that book. It sounds like Andre's dad, Mike, was following a B.E.S.T protocol, though the abuse Andre describes probably isn't part of Brian and Rick's system!

So how did Mike Agassi train Andre? First, the set-up.

Mike rigged up a ball machine to shoot balls at 110 mph down at Andre from an elevated position at the net. The placement and orientation of the ball machine did two things. First it deprived Andre of time. A ball shot at 110 mph from about 39 feet away was till traveling at 87 mph at the bounce. That's an average speed of about 145 feet per second. With Andre crowding the baseline, he had about 270 milliseconds from the time the ball left the machine until it hit the ground. That's very near the limits of human reaction times. Mike was definitely putting Andre under time pressure!

Second, the angle of the incoming ball forced Andre to take the ball on the rise. I don't know how high the machine was, but it's likely that the balls would still be rising as they hit the fence behind Andre if he didn't hit the ball. An ascending angle of incidence is the most difficult for applying topspin, meaning you need more racquet speed to put topspin on a ball ascending into your strings than on one descending into your strings. So Andre was forced to swing fast if he was going to put topspin on the ball.

Finally, Mike made the net six inches higher than standard so that Andre would be sure to clear regulation height nets. If Andre was going to get the ball over this higher net and down into the court at high ball speeds, he would need tremendous topspin to do so.

So what did Mike want Andre to do in these conditions? Well, first he wanted him to hit a million balls. Literally. Each year. Mike's goal was for Andre to hit 2,500 balls per day. That's 17,500 per week and almost 1 million balls per year. Brian Gordon says that extreme repetition is the only way to ingrain the neuromuscular patterns necessary to hit tennis balls well. Check. A million hits a year is a lot of repetition.

Second, Mike insisted that Andre take the ball early, take it on the rise. He wanted Andre to shorten his backswing. Always short. That's the modern evolution Brian talks about. No time for a "backswing the size of West Texas" he told me the other day. Check.

Mike insisted that Andre swing hard. "Hit the ball hard," he kept saying. So a short backswing while generating high racquet speed. Modern. Check.

Mike was constantly on Andre to "brush the ball", to hit topspin. "More topspin," Mike would yell. So by taking the ball on the rise, hitting hard, and brushing the ball for topspin, Andre had to swing very fast. Modern.

Mike was also intolerant of errors, particularly errors into the net. Mike would "foam at the mouth" when Andre would hit the ball into the net. He was unhappy with errors wide and long, too, but the errors into the net seemed to set him off.

Mike forced Andre to hit literally millions of shots under extreme time pressure, with short backswings, high racquet speed, while generating high ball speeds and spins. That's what the modern game demands of players. That's what the B.E.S.T. System seeks to train, if I understand it well enough.

I'm not endorsing Mike's methods for everyone. Andre clearly hated every second of this experience.  But it looks to me like Mike trained Andre well for the modern game of tennis. No question Andre learned what Mike wanted him to learn.

Friday, December 09, 2011

100 mph Forehand

Huh.  The crappy pro from Case 2, Miikka Keronen, hit a 100 mph forehand today.  My 91 mph forehand from Wednesday looks wimpy.  No data on the revolutions per minute.  That will have to come later.

Does this mean we're qualified to teach high speed forehands?  To a moron, it means exactly that.

Good Player to Good Coach Paradox

In order to perform motor skills well, especially under stress, the skill needs to be automated.  Conscious control of the process destroys performance.  Implicit learning, learning a player cannot articulate, appears to produce the most stability under stress.  So even conscious awareness of mechanics early in the process may not be the best way to learn.

So, a good player is an "unconscious" player.  How does John teach Tom how to do something that John does unconsciously?  One way is to simply demonstrate the skill and say "Do it like this."  If John goes beyond that demonstration and simple instruction, he's flying blind.

What's  most likely is that John will simply say things he's heard his coaches or other coaches say about how to perform a stroke.  Those things may or may not be correct and have nothing to do with John's skill as a player.

The only way for a good player to become a good coach, at least for automatic processes, is for the good player to learn all about mechanics and how people learn.

What advantage does the good player's skill offer in that process?  I'd say it's at least as likely to be a disadvantage as an advantage.

UPDATE:  Here's a nice little article from Psychology Today on unconscious competence and what conscious thought can do to performance.  It's based upon an anecdote, but an interesting one.

B.E.S.T System

I am highly skeptical of the role of coaching, particularly when it comes to telling tennis players how to hit the ball.  I don't think we coaches know much about mechanics and I think we know less about helping players learn proper mechanics, if proper mechanics even exist.

There is one notable exception.  Brian Gordon has done extensive, quantitative, precise work on tennis mechanics.  He has the science education and more importantly the science experience to back up what he says.  Brian and Rick Macci have worked to put together a method for teaching highly advanced stroking techniques.  I haven't seen or evaluated their teaching progression, yet, but based upon what I know of Brian, I'm betting it's many steps ahead of what most of us coaches are doing.

I highly recommend you visit his site 3D Tennis Technologies and have a look around.  The best information on the B.E.S.T System is a bit hard to find.  Click the Enter Here button under the Information Zone.  See below.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

91 mph Contact Point

I don't hit the ball particularly hard.  I generally hit a rally ball in the mid-50s mph.  If I want to be crazy steady, I'll drop that below 50 mph.  Part of that is because I live and play at 5300 ft above sea level.  Controlling the ball in this thin air isn't so easy.   If I want to push the issue a bit I'll up it to the mid-60s.  My big shots tend to be maybe 75 mph.  Nothing special about those ball speeds.  Many kids and all really good college and professional players can do better than that.  I've been clocked hitting over 80 mph in rallies on occasion, but that's pretty unusual for me.  Over 90 mph?  I'd never done that.  Until yesterday.

I hit a forehand yesterday that was measured with a RADAR gun at 91 mph.  That's very fast for me. For several minutes before cracking 90 mph I was hitting only in the low 80s mph due to a contact point not quite far enough in front of me.  Maximum racquet speed doesn't occur alongside the body.  It occurs at a point somewhat closer to the net.  Moving my contact point roughly foot forward gave me roughly 10 mph more.

So if you're having trouble hitting as hard as you think you should, check to see if moving your contact farther in front, toward the net, gives you a little more pop.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Careful, Teaching Pros

Check out this forehand and tell me if you think the technique is sound based upon traditional forehand templates:

Looks downright crappy to me and everyone I've showed it to.  It elicits chuckles.  Nobody chuckles when it comes at them from the other side of the net!

If your concept of a technically sound forehand doesn't include what you see in that video, you'd better rethink your concept of sound technique.

Oh, and I'm not sure how you'd have to define "still" to say his head is still on any of the shots.

Practice with Lesser Players

I just stumbled across a good post by Jeff Salzenstein.  It shows Colorado junior Max Roder hitting with ATP pro James McGee.  Both players are getting a good practice session.  Jeff's message is that you don't always have to hit with better players to get good practice.  That's obvious, but parents and kids way too often forget it.  They say they have to practice with better players to get better.  Not true.  If it were true, Roger Federer could not have practiced and improved over the last decade, since until recently there were no better players for him to practice with.  Even now, he doesn't practice with Djokovic and Nadal very often, if at all.  I guess none of those guys can improve.  Ha.

To amplify Jeff's message I thought I'd post a video of Dominic Inglot, former Virginia Cavalier and current ATP pro who was also in Colorado recently.  Dominic joined Miikka for a hit at The Ranch Country Club in Westminster.  Here's a few seconds of Dominic warming up (Sorry, no audio so don't adjust your speakers!).
Obviously Dominic is a way better player than Miikka, but Dominic didn't complain for a second.  He got a great workout and excellent practice.  He was grateful for the opportunity to come and practice while he was in town.

Don't be a snob and think you're too good to practice with someone.  Don't fool yourself into thinking that you can only get better by playing with better players.  The only way to get better is to practice.  So practice.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Rules or Exceptions?

"Watch the ball into your strings."

"Keep your head still."

"Stay sideways." (usually said about a one-handed backhand)

"Stay down."

If these are rules, then I sure see more exceptions to them than I see great players following them.  Maybe these are rules to be broken.