While there are numerous different teaching mistakes that lead to ineffective coaching, many of them stem from the same fundamental misunderstanding – confusing cause and effect.
Some body movements are actively, volitionally caused by the athlete; in order to hit an overhead, the athlete will consciously throw their racket up and out to the ball. Other movements, though they do happen, will happen automatically (and often subconsciously) as a result of the forces generated by other volitional actions.
Cuing these subconscious movements is a recipe for disaster.
A dynamic position is a position that is only entered while in motion, and it is almost never volitional. A static position is a position that is entered into and then effectively held in place, and it is almost always volitional.
Here are some examples.
End of the forehand backswing
- Static – Though most professional players never completely stop here, you could, and it wouldn’t effect the swing that much. The final position of our body before the forward swing is very volitional, and should be entered consciously.
Wrist lag during the forehand swing
- Dynamic – Inertia causes the wrist to lag backwards as the body’s rotation pulls the racket forward. This happens passively as a result of a relaxed wrist during the swing. The tighter the wrist, the less this happens, and the less effectively the wrist functions at transferring force from the rotational chain into the racket.
Trophy position during the serve
- Static – Similar to the backswing in the forehand, most players don’t actually have a totally stationary trophy position, but, again, you could, and the forward swing would be almost unaffected. In fact, you see this when players hit overheads during points – their final position before the swing is almost completely static, and yet their power is barely effected.
Back scratch position during the serve
- Dynamic – Just like forehand wrist lag, the back scratch position is reached because of inertia. When the upper body rotates in a throwing motion, throwing the racket out to the ball, the racket and wrist naturally lag behind the arm, and the shoulder rotates. This external shoulder rotation, like the wrist lag in the forehand, is passive, and, like the wrist lag, is more effective the looser the wrist and arm are.
Implications for Coaching
Very rarely is it appropriate to attempt to directly cue an athlete into a dynamic position, even though the positions themselves are still useful coaching tools.
Dynamic positions do give a coach useful insight into how their student is performing the volitional parts of the stroke. If their wrist is lagging on their forehand, they’re probably swinging right. If their racket is back scratching on the serve, they’re probably serving right.
But these positions are only useful as checkpoints used for evaluation, not as body alignments that students should try to enter with conscious effort.
Almost all dynamic positions in tennis work better the looser the involved body parts are. This means that it is wholly and completely counter-productive for the athlete to pay any conscious attention to those body parts (well, other than keeping them relaxed).
How do we move our body around? By contracting muscles. Movement necessarily entails a lack of relaxation. In order to move the body, a muscle must flex. Therefore, we need to make sure the things that we actively try to do, the positions we consciously try to enter, are the ones for which contracting our muscles is appropriate. I want to tighten my glutes and hamstrings in order to prime my legs. I want to contract my trunk in order to turn my chest sideways before swinging.
What I do not want to do is in any way contract the muscles of my hand or wrist (except sometimes slightly in order to change the direction of the ball). This is why the “point your butt cap at the net” cue is so damaging – it leads to a tight wrist, which causes precisely the opposite result we were aiming for: when tight, the wrist functions less efficiently as a hinge to transfer force.
The backscratching cue on the serve is almost just as bad. Teaching our students that the back scratch is a static position damages their serves for as long as they believe it. The serve is a throw. Imagine teaching a baseball player to rotate their shoulder back, pause, and then throw from there. Ridiculous? Of course.
Cue Static Positions (and then actions)
Every quality instructor, in all athletic activities, not just tennis, needs to understand which positions in their particular sport are dynamic positions, and which positions are static positions. Static positions should be cued. When an athlete is hitting their static positions correctly, they will often naturally enter the dynamic positions effectively, too.
Dynamic positions should not be cued. If an athlete is moving from a correct static position into an incorrect dynamic position, the solution is not cuing the dynamic position. Doing so just creates harmful tension. Remember, dynamic positions are not reached volitionally, so the knowledge of what the position is supposed to look like is useless to the athlete.
Instead, the coach must figure out which force vector is misaligned or lacking, that, if correct, would lead to the correct dynamic position. “Throw your racket out more.” “Rotate a little earlier.” “Whip your chest around.” These are the kinds of cues that fix strokes.
When attempting to fix a dynamic position, cue actions, movement patterns, rather than joint angles. Your student has no idea (and should have no idea), what the precise angle of their external shoulder rotation is during the back scratch position as they serve. What they need to know instead is to throw their racket up and out to the ball from their trophy position.
So let’s stop creating hitches in swings and tension in limbs by irresponsibly cuing dynamic positions, and leave “point your butt cap at the net” and “scratch your back when you serve” permanently quarantined in the coaching cues hall of shame where they belong.