Federer & Baryshnikov, Perfection is No Accident
Technique- I'm sure you've heard the word mentioned more than a few times as you try to perfect your tennis game. Aspiring dancers are also very familiar with the word, as It will define their success or lack of it as they go through their career.
So is there a comparison to be made between the Sport of Tennis and the Art of Dancing? I have always felt that there are very strong parallels between these two activities, and while there are obvious differences, there are also some very close and interesting commonalities. The main commonality is that both Dancers and Tennis Players are trying to perfect physical movement.
The ultimate success of both dancers and tennis players is very dependant on the athlete developing excellent technique.
The first thing we need to agree on is that technique plays a very key role in the success of a tennis player. While there are many different "styles" of swinging a tennis racquet, the top players all share certain common denominators, which are necessary if one is to generate the appropriate racquet speed to play at the highest level. Generating the necessary racquet speed, through efficient physical movement (applying the various bio-mechanical principles), along with achieving the appropriate racquet angle at contact is referred to as technique.
As a High Performance Tennis Coach I have developed personal philosophy's or beliefs in what is the best way to swing a tennis racquet. These "philosophies" are grounded in my own observations of the best players over the past 50 years. While flexibility of style is necessary, I have formed what I believe to be the best "technique" which an athlete should incorporate in order to be the best player possible. Having said that, if one was to observe the players whom I have coached for years, you would find quite a variance in styles, even though each student primarily was hearing the same messages regarding the fundamentals of the game. The key point here is that every player will not, and should not, look exactly the same as every other player, but they must be executing the appropriate fundamentals of each stroke in order to realize the best outcome.
It is possible to play tennis at a very high level without having the absolute "best" technique. This has been demonstrated repeatedly as most of the World's top players continue to fine tune or at times even outright change their fundamentals well into their careers. If they had already achieved the "best" technique they would not be making changes to it. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are two recent and excellent examples of this. It is quite easy to observe the technical changes in Novak's game, especially on forehand and serve over the past 5 or 6 years. Away from the racquet area his movement, flexibility, and defensive skills have all noticeably improved as well. Roger Federer has definitely improved his backhand recently, and appears to have returned to applying more pace to his first serve. While he was always a very good volleyer this area also appears to have improved in the past year or so (which makes sense as his current Coach Stefan Edberg was the best volleyer in the history of tennis).
The important point here is that if the best players in the World are continuing to work on and improve their technique even after achieving World number 1 status, the rest of us should probably spend more time making sure we get it right also! And possibly more important- The sooner we can achieve "great technique" the better- as it means every ball we strike after achieving it will be contributing to our future success. I believe that every player could achieve this (great technique) much earlier if they would spend more time shadowing off court and less time playing on court earlier in their careers.
The first step is to learn the common denominators of stroke production which all Professional Tennis Players employ.
The most important of these are-
-Early Preparation- including racquet preparation and body positioning to allow for the maximum generation of power
- Angular Velocity generated from ground through the legs and resulting in correct body rotation ( kinetic chain) and maximum generation of racquet velocity potential
- Correct body position and Racquet Angle at Contact Point
-Release of Energy through efficient deceleration of the racquet as well as correct body position and balance following each stroke
Once a Coach has an understanding of these fundamental principles of the stroke production- he (she) must then decide how best to Coach them to an athlete.
This is where the comparisons come in to play between Tennis and Dancing.
Dancers rehearse or practice their skills while watching themselves in a mirror. Errors are easy to see and can be corrected immediately.
The missing link for most tennis players is that they cannot see their technique as they practice their strokes. They are too busy trying to watch and hit the ball. They know the basic fundamental of the game is to hit the ball over the net and between the lines and they will do whatever it takes to do that! Unfortunately for nearly every player that means a breakdown in technique. Quite often miss hits will occur early on, causing the racquet to move in the players hand and voila- a new grip is born as the player doesn't realize the grip has changed. So what is actually going on here is not "perfect practice' or anything near it, but rather the forming of incorrect and undesirable muscle memory. The longer this takes place- the more difficult it will be to change later on.
I am a very big believer in the benefits of correct physical practice where the athlete will take the body through the various movements necessary to generate the best possible result on each tennis stroke (shadowing). I also believe the best way for an athlete to accomplish this- particularly in the beginning or early learning stages of development- is to shadow these movements or “swings” if possible, in front of a mirror. While practicing in front of a mirror is not absolutely critical, (shadowing with out a mirror will also have very positive results) I feel that doing this will allow the athlete to observe the entire body and therefore will lead to more efficient and accurate production of strokes. This has obvious comparisons to a dancer practicing their technique in the same manner.
Why do dancers spend 7 or more hours per day perfecting their technique in front of a mirror. Because they are judged to a very fine degree of accuracy on their precise movements- and they are judged directly on this.
What about tennis players? Are we judged directly on our technique. No.
BUT WE ARE MOST DEFINITELY JUDGED INDIRECTLY ON OUR TECHNIQUE - by the quality of our various strokes and the results they produce-
I am frequently asked by tennis students how long they should shadow or practice their swings in front of a mirror.
Well- Dancers practice for 7 hours/day in that manner-
HOW GOOD/GREAT DO YOU WANT TO BE ???