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Entries in Ball Machine (4)


"It's Amazing...": The Eureka Moment



I kept the right ones out
And let the wrong ones in
Had an angel of mercy to see me through all my sins
There were times in my life
When I was goin' insane
Tryin' to walk through
The pain
When I lost my grip
And I hit the floor
Yeah,I thought I could leave but couldn't get out the door
I was so sick and tired
Of livin' a lie
I was wishin that I
Would die

It's Amazing
With the blink of an eye you finally see the light
It's Amazing
When the moment arrives that you know you'll be alright
It's Amazing
And I'm sayin' a prayer for the desperate hearts tonight

That one last shot's a Permanent Vacation
And how high can you fly with broken wings?
Life's a journey not a destination
And I just can't tell just what tomorrow brings

You have to learn to crawl
Before you learn to walk
But I just couldn't listen to all that righteous talk, oh yeah
I was out on the street,
Just tryin' to survive
Scratchin' to stay


The year was 1993 and I was a 16 year know-nothing living and trying to develop as a tennis player in the Midwest. Aerosmith had just released the album "Get a Grip", their first album since 1989 and the band's best-selling studio album. This was a time before cell phones, mp3 players, laptops or even internet (yes, it existed, but, due to the costs of computers and access, not all of us had access to it so it was, by in large, meaningless). CDs and CD players were also a novelty and I was very excited when my parents gave me some cash to buy a CD player (instead of lugging around heavy, portable tape-players).

So into the store I walked, excited about the possibility of owning one of these amazing pieces of "modern technology." I was even more stoked (too antiquated?) when the salesperson threw in a copy of Aerosmith's new album as a promotional incentive. I was more into Metallica back then but, what the heck, $24 (cost of a CD) wasn't exactly burning a hole in my pocket so I said "what the heck" and I took my new purchase and popped the new CD in. For some reason, the song "Amazing" really resonated with me and, particularly, the references to learning to crawl before learning to walk, life's a journey not a destination and "with the blink of an eye you finally see alright" (full disclosure: I always thought that they sang "see the light"). It was this last bit that stood out for me the clearest and the longest. It was only later in my life that I put "2 and 2 together."

You see, at 16, I felt that as I tennis player I could go "toe to toe" with anybody in the world my age. I had a good, hard serve, steady ground-strokes (could pin-point my shots with precision, pace and a variety of spins), solid volleys and I was fit. If anything, I was obsessed with fitness and, in addition to grinding on the ball machine 2 hours a day and hitting hundreds of seres, I spent a great deal of my day in the gym. It was at this age when I realized that winning in tennis was more than just about forehands and backhands. I had the forehand and the backhand and the serve; this allowed me to stop worrying about what was going on 2.5feet in front of me at the end of my finger tips (e.g. whether I had this forehand or that; whether the face of the racket was opened or closed; etc). In other words, it was as if the fog had been lifted off the court and I was no longer focusing on my side of the court but my opponent's. I looked up and forward instead of down. 

In other words, for the first time in my tennis-playing life, I was seeing things clearly. I was reading my opponent's body language and knew what he was planning and how he was feeling. I was becoming attuned to situational awareness and knew how the point was going to unfold within 2 shots. In other words, I experienced a "Eureka" moment..the point where I finally "got it". Now, bear in mind, I was still no world-beater. However, I felt that at this point I was beginning to have a global perspective of the sport and studying the game's many facets became an addiction. Scientific research supports the notion that when something is learned through-trial and error, the brain builds new pathways indicating the the subjects had a "sudden insight" about how the world works, Abrupt transitions between prefrontal neural ensemble states accompany behavioral transitions during rule learning (Durstewitz D, et al.; Neuron, May 2010). Later, I realized that the Eureka moment is not something that is limited to tennis or even sports. Some musicians, business people, inventors, artists, professionals, politicians and others experience this at some point in their life. Unfortunately, the vast majority experience it too late to be able to make an impact in their own lives or the lives of others. Some "desperate souls" might not experience this moment of clarity at all.

What sets some people apart? Why do some experience the Eureka moment at an early age while others struggle with their search for enlightenment? Why did Nadal break into the top 100 so soon and achieved such great success at such an early age? Same with Sampras, Chang, Agassi, Although empirical data may be lacking, one can't help but wonder whether the "10,000 FOCUSED hour rule" is involved. For example, legendary coach Robert Lansdorp is of the opinion that by age 16, there is very little that can be done in terms of performing a major technical overhaul on a player's strokes. It all starts at around 8 years old and then, by 16, everything should sort of gel into place from a technical standpoint. Tennis legend Johan Kriek agrees: "...by 16 it should be 'all there'...minor changes possible after that but not much more." In other words, the players who make it tend to emphasize the technical aspect of the sport first (i.e. refining the gross motor skills) and, as they start to get this part of the game - as the strokes become rock-solid, powerful, efficient, adjustable - they begin to shift the focus towards the tactical aspect (of course, strategy is also learned when one is very young and very small, but in manageable, age-apropriate doses).  

Nevertheless, too many young kids are thrown into tournament after tournament and they never have the opportunity to master the basics of the game. Many struggle with the meat-and-potatoes of the game long after the substantial emphasis should have shifted to tactical and physical training. If you're in the tennis-teaching or tennis-developing business, you are familiar with a great number of 16+ year old players who have a ton of potential but whose chance have been ruined by not learning the "correct" things the first time around. In other words, they don't spend enough focused hours honing their basic skills and, after each tournament, they have to go to the drawing board in order to clean up the mistakes that they have learned over the weekend. So instead of a learn-solidify-learn-solidify-learn-solidify process, it's a protracted learn-unlearn-learn-unlearn-learn-unlearn system. When results are starting to matter the most (U18s), players are still tinkering with glitches in their strokes.

If there is an all-encompassing answer, I'm not certain that CAtennis.com has it. The simple advice (from experience and observation) is for player (and parents) to focus on strokes first and slowly incorporate more and more strategy into the practices. The initial focus should be on having the players lay down a solid tactical foundation - mastery of every stroke under all possible scenarios along with a general understanding of use and application. Fretting about results too soon or too often could be detrimental to the overall learning process (and quite expensive). Remember this expression from the field of law: touch a file once (i.e., do it once; do it right).


Whip The Ball For Better Topspins

When trying to develop monster topspin shots off your ground strokes, it is important to visualize a whip. A whip is thicker at the handle and tapers down towards the tip. When snapped, it can create speeds surpassing the sound barrier (cracking sound). Your body is similar to a whip in design: your trunk/torso is generally thicker and moves slower. However, your shoulder, biceps and forearms are considerably smaller and, therefore, move faster.

Once you start uncoiling into a shot - particularly the forehand - the momentum generated travels through your arm towards the racket. Here is where things get interesting: although your arm moves in one direction following its natural path, the wrist often snaps (or, some say, forearm rotates) in order to generate topspin (a deviation from the normal angular momentum of the arm). This "snap" is a slight (for some, not so slight) brushing of the ball which creates the spin. However, to do so, the wrist must deviate somewhat from the natural path of the arm (obviously, it still remains attached to it) while holding on to an object (racket) about half its weight (human hand weighs between 22 and 30 ounces). 

The issue that we're dealing with is control of the racket. In order to have a good topspin it is important to have a strong grip (although not choking the racket) as well as a strong forearm in order to commence the topspin motion. Remember that momentum = Mass times Velocity. In this regard, although the hand (tip of the whip) weighs less than your body, it's also moving faster thereby creating momentum in a certain direction. To "break away" from its natural path, a greater "force" is necessary (i.e., forearm and hand strength). Tennis players, like baseball players, have understood the importance of hand and forearm strength for decades. Some have squeezed broken tennis balls as a way to cross-train; others have lugged around forearm builders such as clamps and pulleys.

One of the best way to develop forearm-grip strength for tennis is to practice a lot of drop-feeds where you are isolating this portion of your body. Try to LIFT the ball 6 feet over the net by BRUSHING the ball (rather than scooping it). Once you get the concept, you can transition to slightly more sophisticated workouts such as hitting against rapid-fire balls on the ball machine (minimum of 300) or hitting 1000 volleys in a row against the backboard. The key is to "feel the burn" in your forearm and develop grip and forearm strength. This concept is particularly important for female players. Unlike guys, girls tend to not be gym rats and they don't often play sports which require arm strength (e.g., baseball or football). Therefore, although girls generate a great deal of force with their torsos, shoulders and arms, they tend to fall just short of mastering the topspin due to their relatively low forearm strength. As a result, a lot of female player tend to have flatter shots and a lot of teaching pros perpetuate this mistake by teaching the shots that they see on TV rather than addressing the physical issue. 

Nevertheless, things are starting to change and some players have broken away from the general mentality. Take, for example, Samantha Stosur. When she first started on tour, she was a very good player but her shots lacked the "bite" necessary to penetrate the court. Take a look at the size and definition of the arm, particularly the forearm (note: size is only one indicator of strength but it's not exclusive).

Now take a look at the picture on the right taken in 2011. Forget about the racket finish - we are only using this picture to point out the definition of the arm, specifically the forearm. If you watch Samantha play now, you will notice that she plays similar to a male tennis players: not just powerful shots (Venus and Serena have been doing that for years), but shots with heavy topspin. 

Given the pace of the game, these shots would not be possible without forearm and grip strength. Therefore, rather than making excuses as to why you're not hitting decent topspin, take the initiative and start improving yourself physically and then see how it goes from there. With modern technology (lighter rackets; more powerful strings; awesome gym equipment), there's absolutely no reason why you should not be able to generate monster topspin groundstrokes.

Of course, don't forget about the other components of the shot (e.g. footwork, balance, torso, preparation, etc.) and to practice, practice, practice. Before you attempt to tear phone books and crush rocks (and destroy fluidity and range of motion in the process), know that this is only a small piece of the puzzle (Stosur's as well as yours). However, when encountering obstacles in the development of these shots, keep in mind the strength ratio between your body/arm and forearm/wrist. 


Practice Makes...Imperfect?

Let's study these two pictures of the GOAT in action. Besides his impeccable preparation and picture perfect timing can someone tell me if they notice something that stands out?! I'll give you a hint...the head. Still not enough? OK, how about this - the eyes. Specifically, which eye is in front on the backhand and which eye is in front on the forehand?


After studying the picture for a few seconds, you will notice that the right eye is in front on the backhand while the left eye is in front on the forehand. Immediately before the contact point, let's try to guess which eye "sees" the ball first? I think that we can all agree that, under most circumstances, the eye that's in front (linearly speaking) of the other picks up the moving object first. Ocular dominance, sometimes called eye dominance, is the tendency to prefer visual input from one eye to the other. According to the article from Science Daily, "[i]n normal binocular vision there is an effect of parallax, and therefore the dominant eye is the one that is primarily relied on for precise positional information. This may be especially important in sports which require aim, such as archery, darts or shooting sports."

Why is this important for tennis players? Well, for one thing, much like baseball players, tennis players are engaged in a hitting activity. As suggested in the psyched.com article, a study of several University of Florida baseball players suggested that the best players were cross-eye dominant (i.e., batted right; but had a dominant left eye - the eye that saw the ball first): "College varsity level baseball players are twice as likely as the general population to have crossed dominance. The incidence of central eye dominance is considerably higher than the general population. The best hitters were centrally eye dominant or crossed eye-hand dominant." See also this abstract.

Much like hand-dominance, eye dominance is both innate but can also be trained. For example, Nadal is a natural righty but he has learned to play tennis left-handed. With respect to eyes, a player may very well be naturally right-eye dominant but by practicing a certain way - for example, hitting thousands of forehands (on one side of the body) and only a couple of hundred backhands (on the other side of the body) - it is possible that the player will train the left eye to take over. This could be detrimental to the backhand since, on the other side of the body, the left eye may be "further back".

As a result, it's possible that the player may be seeing the ball - and striking it - early on the forehand but late on the backhand (i.e.,  hitting it only when the ball has entered the field of vision for the left eye). If you suspect that this may be the case - for example, if you find yourself striking certain shots "off the front foot" and others "off the backfoot" - then, perhaps, your stroke is not to blame... maybe you've practiced a certain shot so much that it has had an effect on the eyes which, in turn, have affected when and how you hit another shot. I mention this because, often times, I see juniors hitting forehands in a 4:1 ratio to backhands (backhands are, sometimes, a mere "afterthought" if the forehand doesn't work out). There is at least some risk that disproportionate training - intentionally or inadvertently - on one side of the body may lead to an imbalance in perception which can have a detrimental effect on your strokes (and what you can do with the ball - i.e., someone who sees the ball late and hits it late might be unable to go down the line very well). The good news is that it seems that occular dominance (or balance) can be restored. Some baseball players use eye patches when doing their batting-cage practice (see The Baseball Coaching Bible by Jerry Kindall and John Winkin, p. 138) so there's no reason why a tennis player with a similar issue can't do the same (i.e. put an eye patch over one eye in order to train the non-dominant eye to see the ball sooner) on the ball machine or backboard. 


Why Are You Not Doing This?

The hand to eye coordination needed to play baseball is one of the most demanding in any sport. Players, whether juniors, college or MLB pros, spend hundreds of hours per year in the batting cages to groove their swing and improve their hand to eye coordination in order to find the sweet spot when it matters. Working on the fundamentals - even for players who have mastered the game - is a continuing process. Hitches and kinks in the stroke appear all the time so it's important for the players to go back to the basics in order to correct the motion. 
For some reason, however, American juniors have an aversion to a similar training tool that is available to tennis players: the ball machine. Why is that?! Do you think that because you have a bigger racket head that somehow the ball is easier to hit?! Let's put it this way, the average strike zone for baseball is a mere 500 square inches (basically, that's the width of the home-plate x distance between chest and knees) [yeah, yeah, some baseball players will probably want to debate this...not interested]. In addition, the baseball bat sweet spot is not bigger or smaller than the sweet spot of the tennis racket. In tennis, however, the opponent does not have to hit the ball TO you. The tennis "strike zone" is a whole lot greater: width of tennis court (27 FEET) x length (39 FEET) x height at which contact can be made (e.g., high backhands/forehands, overheads, low slices and drop shots, etc.) (let's say 7 FEET). That's an area of SEVEN THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-ONE CUBIC FEET (7,371ft3). As tennis player, you have to become proficient at hitting the ball FROM anywhere (in your court) TO anywhere (in the opponent's court). Furthermore, the skill necessary to accomplish this task resembles hunting with a spear (or bow and arrow): you have to hit a moving target (prey) with a moving object (weapon) while you yourself are on the run. Same concept applies to tennis: you have to hit a moving object (the ball) with a moving object (racket) while you yourself are in motion (sometimes more, sometimes less)....and you have to hit the court... and maybe keep it away from the opponent. This is not just hand-to-eye coordination - it's hand-to-eye-feet corrdination (and you have to do it over and over again throughout the match). And yet, not many players deem it worthwhile to groove their strokes on the ball machine. Then, they wonder why the shots aren't going in during a match. There's simply no better way hit 2-3000 balls per day than on the ball machine. Done right, this  becomes purposeful practice. So try this:

In the diagrams above, the white "X" represents the placement of the ball machine and the yellow circle represents the contact point (more or less). The blue line is the path of the ball FROM the ball machine; the red lines are the paths of the ball FROM you. Instead of setting up the ball machine in the MIDDLE of the court, place it off-center (WAY off-center) and practice changing the direction of the ball. Rather than doing side-to-sides for 7 minutes and then quitting (because you're not used to hitting 300 balls in a row), practice hitting from a set location while keeping "light" feet...learn the "dance" steps immediately preceding the contact; hit and recover (or, like boxing, "stick and move"). Changing the direction of the ball is usually where all the unforced errors in tennis take place. So reduce the likelihood of mistakes by learning how to adjust for every angle. That is, how to hit a cross-court from a down-the-line; down- the-line from a cross-court; or a sharper cross-court from a cross-court. Again, keep your feet moving and groove your strokes (to the point where they're "in your blood"; AUTOMATIC) so that they don't break down under pressure. Supplement your lessons with ball machine training since, it's not only important to learn a good shot (something that lessons are intended to accomplish) but also to FORGET the bad strokes. To use an analogy, tennis is a lot like sculpting a statue: you have to do the hard chiseling and hammering work; the master (tennis pro) is the one who helps you bring out the details with the fine sandpaper...but then it's back to the chiseling and hammering work. This is YOUR project, not your coach's, so make sure that you take ownership of it