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.

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