Misapplications, misconceptions and mistruths of some common teaching clichés and their unintended consequences
  | By Steven Kaplan

The ancient Roman playwright, Terence wrote: “Moderation in all things.” He could have been referring to optimum tennis performance. Often, I hear both players and instructors repeating phrases of tennis wisdom that, while partially true when applied in the right context, can be undermining of performance when misused. I will address three of these erroneous clichés here.

 Watch the Ball!
Who would agree the validity of that statement? I would!
You must watch the ball at some point, specifically went it leaves your opponents racket. Few players, in fact, are careful observers of the ball interacting with the racket on the other side of the net, and as a result, they do not react as quickly or accurately as possible. You must also watch the ball well, up to the point at which you make those swing decisions that put your racket on an inevitable collision course. Once having made those decisions, however, watching the ball is insignificant for two reasons. First, as Professor Howard Brody of the University of Pennsylvania points out in his book Tennis Science for Tennis Players, no one has the visual acuity to see the balls’ impact with the racket. Simply, it happens too fast for the eye to see. Furthermore, even if you could see the impact, there is little you could do to correct the path of an errant racket as a result of what you have witnessed. If the ball is moving toward you at 100 miles per hour for example, you would have to make the decisions and resulting racket commitment maneuvers before the ball has traveled 50 percent of its path. After that time, the racket is on an inevitable track and watching the ball will not help, in fact, it could compromise your movement.
I repeatedly see players attempting to serve and struggling to perform this skill. They will explain to me that they have been instructed to transfer their weight forward as they hit and also watch the ball at impact. Of course this is a physical impossibility. Ask a member of the high school wrestling team and they will tell you that wherever your head goes, your body will quickly follow. You cannot keep your head up and bring your body forward at the same time. Well, maybe you could once, but then you would have to reconnect your head to your body. Therefore, a more specific and correct statement is: “Watch the Ball Carefully When Making Hitting Decisions and Then Allow Your Head to Move to Accommodate Your Body and Your Swing.”
Please note that this should not be interrupted as meaning that a still head at contact is unimportant. Rather, it means that a well-directed head facilitates a smooth, fluid and mechanically sound hit.
The Faster You Swing, the Harder You Hit … Swing Faster
Great advances in racket technology have furthered the idea that swing speed is the most important quality for the achievement of tennis success. While there is truth here, like many generalizations, it is only partially true, and provisionally sound advice. It is important to recognize that tennis balls, tennis rackets and tennis strings are very flexible objects. They deform and rebound and do so at a consistent rate or frequency. As you swing faster you will hit harder until you reach that point at which the speed of your swing matches the frequency tendency that the ball, racket and strings rebound. After this point, you will reach a plateau of power. Think of jumping on a trampoline. When you jump slower you flex the trampoline more, when you jump faster the trampoline bends less. Within a significant range the resulting power is about the same, and usually not worth the extra effort and risk of a faster movement. Of course there is a threshold at which a faster racket will yield more power, and at this point, speed, if negotiated well, is desirable. From my experience, however, that point is rarely relevant to young players even when they are highly skilled. Keep in mind that the faster you swing the more forces you will need to manage. Therefore, even if you do get to the point at which you get greater power from your racket, speed is only an advantage if you can maintain body and racket control. A better statement for the above situation should be: “Swing Faster Until You Get No More Power or Until You Cannot Manage the Movement With Enough Control.”
Topspin Increases Reliability … the More Topspin You Use, the Steadier You Will be
Topspin creates a wind draft that pushes the ball downward in the air. If the ball is pushed downward, then the shot can be aimed higher. This extra cushion of height provides a greater margin of error. Thus, conventional wisdom is that the more topspin you hit with, the greater your resulting shot reliability. This is true, all thing being equal. Unfortunately, there is a cost to the creation of topspin. Greater topspin requires more precise timing in the ball strike and a greater ability to keep the racket stable as a result of additional twisting forces or torque. Thus, while the hit gains reliability because it’s a higher trajectory arc, the strike is more difficult to execute, and therefore, rarely provides a net gain in player steadiness. Thus: “Topspin Will Result in Greater Steadiness, Provided You Do Not Compromise Your Stroke to Execute It.”

The purpose of this discussion is intended to provoke players and instructors to question information. Specifically at issue, are those generalizations that, when viewed superficially, seem useful, but when carefully examined, are flawed. It is my experience that adherence to clichés causes greater playing problems than they correct, and should be applied with care and temperance.

Steven Kaplan

Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation, and executive director and founder of Serve &Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally- ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.