Many skills in tennis are easily visible – any casual Wimbledon fan will be quick to gawk at Carlos Alcaraz’s incredible forehand or be awed by Roger Federer’s immaculate feel. Movement is equally visible – when we watch Iga Swiatek defend like Rafael Nadal at Rolland Garros, it’s quite clear she’s in a league of her own.
Other tennis skills, like balance (and vision), are less visible, and due to their lack of visibility, they are under-discussed, under-coached, and under-trained.
Your ability to balance effects your performance everywhere on the court. It effects your serve, your return, your recovery, both ground strokes, your entire transition game, your net game, and I could go on, but you get the point. Add balance work to your training, and your entire game will benefit.
“Monopedal” is a fancy word that means “on one foot” (if you dig into the research, you may see it referred to as “monopodalic”).
If you improve your balance on one foot, you will improve your balance on two feet. Though most of human movement occurs on two feet, much of that bipedal movement is really just a combination of coordinated, sequential, monopedal movements. This is why single-foot balance work is such an effective general purpose balance training tool.
Even though, ultimately, we are trying to master bipedal movement, the issue with training on bipedal movement is that it’s too easy. Bipedal movement rarely creates a training stimulus stressful enough to drive significant adaptation. By training with the more difficult monopedal movement, we can drive adaptation past what is required for merely adequate performance, in order to achieve the exceptional performance we’re aiming for.
Goals When Training on One Foot
When training balance, we want to improve both overall balance and balance in certain tennis specific situations. To improve overall balance, many single-foot exercises are effective, and to improve tennis specific balance, single-foot preparation shadow swings are ideal.
The Sideways Jump and Land
Here’s one of my favorite general purpose single-foot balance drills:
- Start on your left foot. Jump to the right and land on your right foot.
- Hold that landing position, balanced on your right, for at least 5 seconds.
- Then, jump back to your left. Again, hold the landing for at least 5 seconds.
Continue like this for 10-20 reps. The goal is to develop a strong proprioceptive awareness of the interaction between your foot and the ground. The more you can feel the ground as you work on balance, the more effective your training is going to be. To progress this exercise, you can:
- Jump diagonally forward or diagonally backward.
- Jump farther, more explosively.
- Work on sticking the landing – no extra hops or waving around.
The sideways jump and land is a great exercise for a few reasons. First, like all dynamic monopedal exercises, it trains the skill of balance.
Second, it trains landing with balance: the skill of efficiently absorbing the force of an impact. Correct landing helps tennis players recover efficiently, and maybe even more importantly, protects the feet, ankles, knees, and hips from injury.
Third, the movement pattern is similar to the final step you take when receiving a wide forehand or backhand. We aren’t going to pause in our landing position while playing, of course, but developing a sense of balance in that position is quite important.
Single-Foot Preparation Shadow Swings
When it comes to tennis specific balance training, single-foot preparation shadow swings are highly effective. The process of training them is quite similar to that for a regular shadow swing, just with preparation on one foot instead of two:
- Get in your forehand or backhand preparation.
- Pick up your front foot.
- Hold for at least 5 seconds.
- Imagine a ball in front of you.
- Drive forward and swing.
On the forehand, most players will feel comfortable simply driving off the back leg. You can step into your shot if you want to, but in many situations, especially fast paced situations, firing off the back leg by itself is ideal.
On the backhand, in contrast, you’ll almost always want to take at least a small step into your shot and use that step to transfer your weight forward.
Balance Exercise Progression
Losing your balance can be injurious, so be mindful while progressing your balance exercises. Fall gracefully when you fall – put your other foot down, rather than hitting the ground – and don’t increase the difficulty of an exercise until you’re at least competent with the less difficult version.
The principles behind progressing a balance exercise are the same as those for progressing any other exercise. Make the training stimulus more and more challenging, such that the athlete can further and further adapt. Our tools to make balance more challenging are primarily:
- Single foot exercises
- Closing the eyes
- Balancing on an unstable surface (like a half bosu ball)
With respect to our previous examples, a great progression for the lateral hop is:
- The exercise described above
- Same exercise, eyes closed
- Same exercise, landing on a bosu ball
With respect to, say, a monopedal forehand shadow swing, we’d skip the eyes closed part, since gaze behavior is important to shadow swing practice.
- Prepare on two feet, then swing.
- Prepare on the back foot only, then swing.
- Prepare on the back foot, on a bosu ball, then swing.
At each level of the progression, practice strokes of all contact heights, in all directions, and using all three of positive, neutral, and negative balance. Again, I recommend purely driving off your back foot for the forehand, and stepping into your backhand.
A Few Clarifications
Some single-foot exercises make sense to practice on each foot, while some only make sense on one foot, but not the other.
For general purpose balance exercises (basically anything without a swing or a racket), always perform the exercise on each foot.
For tennis swing specific exercises, it varies. On high forehands, for example, the front foot contributes very little to loading or force generation, so when practicing high forehand balance, it’s only worth training on your back foot. In contrast, low forehands are typically played off of both feet, and you’ll often load your two feet differently depending on the exact ball you’re playing. When you’re practicing low forehand balance, perform your swings off of each foot.
Balance and Vision
You might not notice it, but your brain is actually using a lot of visual information to balance you. Don’t believe me? Perform a challenging single-footed balance exercise, and then try the same exercise with your eyes closed.
In tennis, we want our eyes focused on the ball, and nothing else (you can watch your opponent with your peripheral vision). The better your natural balance gets, the less your brain needs to recruit your eyes to balance. You’ll find that your mental snapshot of the ball is much clearer on shots for which you were on balance, than on shots for which you were off.
If you’ve hit a vision plateau – you feel like you’re seeing the ball decently, but can’t get to that next level of clarity – take a break from focusing on your eyes, and do some balance training. You’ll be amazed how much more control you have over your gaze after you do.