The following is a page from The Fault Tolerant Forehand, available in eBook and paperback formats on Amazon (click here).
There exists an extremely common issue impeding forehand development across the world today, and drop feed solves this issue. Just drop the tennis ball on the hitting side of the athlete’s body, roughly at their contact point, and have them hit in either direction as effectively as they can.
(Here‘s a good example of the drill)
Drop feed’s defining attribute is that the dropped balls have zero pace; any time a player hits a dropped feed over the net, they’ve generated 100% of the forward ball speed on their own. As we’ll see below, this property is what makes drop feed such an effective tool for fault tolerant forehand development.
The Common Forehand Development Issue
Here’s the typical case – to start, ever player’s forehand is not fault tolerant, meaning that their stroke cannot tolerate a small fault and still succeed. If they swing a little early, or a little too late, they miss. If they prepare a little too close, or a little too far, they miss. If their string angle is off by 4 or 5 degrees, they miss. Unless they strike the ball perfectly, the stroke fails.
And the faster they swing, the more amplified this effect.
Therefore, the work around for a stroke that lacks fault tolerance is to swing slower. The slower a player swings, the less every fault I just mentioned above effects the ball’s trajectory. By swinging slower, the player has effectively restored enough of the swing’s fault tolerance to make it usable in a match.
It’s at this point in a player’s tennis development that they typically follow one of two paths.
Some players, for whatever reason, reject the slower swing. Perhaps they’ve always wanted to hit really hard, so a slow swing doesn’t interest them. Maybe their favorite player is Jennifer Brady, and they’re committed to learning how rip 3500rpm forehands like she does.
Whatever the reason, to them, slowing down the swing (and thereby fundamentally altering it) to “get the ball in” is unacceptable. Due to this, they actively seek out coaching and instruction to fix the explosive version of the stroke.
It’s often a very messy road, varying significantly depending on the quality of instruction they find. But ultimately, they tweak and practice the real thing until it’s usable in an actual match.
This kind of self-evaluating, self-starter typically ends up fine (and may discover drop feed training on their own).
The Match Player
But then there’s the very common case of the player who doesn’t realize how non fault tolerant their explosive stroke really is, and how much they’re altering it to make it match usable.
To compensate for their poor mechanics in matches, this player does down their swing, allowing them to keep the ball in play. But this means that, during nearly all of their hours playing tennis, they’re not actually practicing a modern, explosive, rotational shot which can develop into something elite.
Instead, they’re simply redirecting their opponent’s pace and blocking the ball back over the net. They might “turn sideways,” and they might “swing low to high,” but those things aren’t being done to generate explosive racket head speed – they’re just being done because there’s a vague idea that you’re supposed to do them.
The result is that the common match player develops a strange hybrid forehand between an actual swing and a defensive block shot. Except that the defensive block shot is actually their only remotely fault tolerant shot – they can’t hit anything else with any consistency.
That’s also why this kind of player struggles so much on any high or short ball – they don’t possess a fault tolerant stroke to use in an offensive situation. If they find themselves in one, they only have two options: block the ball back in like usual, or miss.
Drop feed to the rescue
So why is the forehand drop feed drill the solution?
This drill forces you to swing fast. Since there’s zero pace on the ball to start, if you swing slowly, the ball won’t go anywhere. Players with non fault tolerant strokes slow down their swing to restore consistency, but it only works because their opponent’s ball has some velocity on it that they can redirect, some pace that they can use to block that ball back over the net.
Well, in this drill, there’s no pace to block. It’ll force the player to swing, and it’ll force them to confront the flaws that are destroying the fault tolerance of that swing.
But Balls in Real Matches Have Pace
Most do, but some don’t.
Ever seen this clip of a challenger level player losing a set to a player with an injured shoulder, who could only serve underhand? It’s a clip that exemplifies everything wrong with modern tennis coaching.
And it’s a great example of why our primary goal is not to drill and drill and drill the exact kind of ball we think we’re going to see in a match – that kind of works, and if you play against someone who gives you that exact ball, you’ll do fine – but tennis isn’t always that simple.
That’s why, instead, we train fault tolerant mechanics, which apply no matter how the ball is hit at us. We aren’t training “the waist height forehand” or “the running forehand” (at least not as its own concept). We are developing a proprioceptive understanding of the principles by which we move our body in space to produce our desired contact with the ball.
And someone who understands those principles will easily adapt and crush an underhand serve.
Shouldn’t Training Mimic Match Conditions?
Sometimes, but not usually.
Training isn’t about practicing exactly what we do in matches. There’s a time for that, but most players spend far too much of their time on that part of the equation. For optimal performance, we want to spend a large amount of our time training things that are harder than what we do in matches. That way, the shots we need in matches become completely routine.
We train on drop fed, low balls, with zero pace because they are extremely punishing of bad mechanics.
By doing so, we take full advantage of our mind’s reward/punishment system. In training, every time we use poor mechanics, we want to miss – we want our brain to feel that pinch of negative emotion, so that it associates that movement pattern with “wrong.”
In match conditions, it’s the opposite. Even when our mechanics are a little off, we want our stroke to succeed. But when the mediocrely executed stroke succeeds, our brain sends us a reward signal. That’s why it’s very difficult to fundamentally improve a stroke in match conditions – often when you mess it up, your brain still tells you that you did a good job.
Good Players Should be Training Live-Ball
Yes, they should, and the better the player is, the more live-ball training is useful.
But they shouldn’t only be training live ball. Drop feed, especially drop feed with awkward feeds, is a great way to do a quick little refresh on fault tolerant mechanics.
Even just 30-40 drop fed balls before a hitting session is a great way to see if, on that particular day, there are any lingering old bad habits or technical glitches present in your swing that will be more difficult to diagnose once you move to live ball.
Making it Harder
Once an athlete has made, say, 20 drop fed forehands in a row, it’s good to change it up. Lightly toss the balls in different locations around them. The hardest feeds are the ones tossed both at their body, and behind them. The easiest are tossed in front of them, and to their hitting side.
Generating 100% of your own pace on a ball is hard enough – moving around and then doing it is even harder. Specifically, this version of the drill teaches the athlete two critically important skills.
1. What constitutes perfect position for a shot
Since they’ll be forced to move differently for each ball, they won’t be able to execute their movement by habit. Instead, they’ll need a mental idea of what the optimal relative position between their body and the ball should be when they swing, and then they’ll move to get into that position.
This is exactly what we want. Again, just like with the stroke itself, we are not training the movement to the shot as an exact series of steps that the feet must perform, a series which applies only in certain situations. Instead, we want the athlete to have a goal in mind – get my body in a certain position relative to the ball – and then improve at executing that goal.
2. How to generate pace out of imperfect positions
Of course, in a match, your opponent is doing everything in their power to prevent you from getting into that perfect position. Therefore, it’s also an essential skill to have a stroke which succeeds when out of position.
The drop feed drill with moving feeds helps train this too. The better your student is at moving, the more awkward you should make the feeds. Keep dialing up the difficulty – right up to the edge of what you feel is appropriate (gauge your student’s mental state – we all need enough successes to keep us going).
All the time on the tour, we see players generate crazy power and spin out of what seem to be very compromised positions. This is one of the many skills most believe is simply natural talent.
It’s not. it can be trained, and drop feed is a great way to train it.
Drop Feed Will Reveal Your Flaws
Drop feed is the gold standard for ironing out mechanical glitches. There are other essential skills that it doesn’t teach – tracking the ball over the net, and timing the swing on an incoming ball – but it’s still an incredibly useful tool.
It’s punishing, and that’s what matters. Unconscious incompetence is the most dangerous place for any athlete – not only do you have a technical flaw, but you don’t know, that you have that technical flaw.
Whatever flaws a forehand stroke has, drop feed will expose them; that’s its greatest virtue. And once that flaw is exposed, once you know what to work on, you’re already more than half way to fixing it.