Well… no. Not empirically, anyway.
Just look around at your local courts, club, or league, and you’ll see plenty of “wrist snapping,” despite seeing precious little, you know… good serving.
The cue just doesn’t work, and for good reason. When people hear “snap your wrist,” they think wrist flexion (the wrist bending such that the hand moves closer to the inside of the forearm).
The serve is a throw, and throws are powered by an external → internal shoulder rotation flinging action. What the apparent “snapping” really constitutes is primarily internal shoulder rotation, rather than wrist flexion.
If we look at the greatest server of a generation, Pete Sampras, you’ll see very conservative wrist flexion, and yet an extremely exaggerated internal shoulder rotation.
So if “snap your wrist” doesn’t work, why do coaches keep saying it?
In short – because we are stuck in an inadequate signaling equilibrium.
Signaling Equilibria 101
Human beings are constantly in competition to signal their value to other human beings. Most people are familiar with this idea in a mating context – lipstick and blush for women, shoe lifts and muscles for men – but what many don’t realize is that signaling effects all walks of life, not just sex.
A CEO, for example, has to do more than just make good decisions – he also has to look like someone who’s in charge, he has to act like someone who’s in control, and he has to sound like someone with all the answers.
These signals of competence, in the human world, unfortunately often matter more than competence itself. This is where we, as a civilization, fall into inadequate equilibria – situations whereby both parties are harmed by deviating from the status quo, and yet the status quo is woefully inefficient.
This is a massive topic, so I’ll leave two amazing sources here if you’d like to explore human signaling further:
Inadequate Equilibria – How and Why Civilizations Get Stuck
The Elephant in the Brain
Signaling in Tennis Coaching
“Snap your wrist” is a signal. Every coach says “snap your wrist,” and because every coach says “snap your wrist,” every other coach also says “snap your wrist.”
This cue has been enshrined in the Good Tennis Coaching class of cues. When a coach says it, they signal that they can produce cues from this Good Tennis Coaching set of things.
Critically, it doesn’t actually matter whether or not “snap your wrist” is good or bad advice, it simply matters that it exists in the Good Tennis Coaching set. So long as that remains true, it’s very unlikely that a coach’s reputation will be harmed by producing it.
“Snap your wrist” is not unique. Many of the things your coach tells you aren’t that useful, but merely exist to signal that he can produce well known members of the Good Tennis Coaching set on command.
It’s important to understand that your coach doesn’t actually get paid to make you better. Your coach gets paid when he successfully signals to you that he’s a good coach. Due to that, many of the things he tells you serve the sole function of signaling to you that he’s a good coach – a distinct goal from the goal of making you a better player. This is subconscious of course – almost no coaches are actively aware that they’re doing this.
It’s important to state here that it really is your coach’s job to signal to you he’s a good coach. It’s not wrong that he’s focused on signaling – if he doesn’t make you aware of his coaching ability, you won’t come back. For your coach, the signaling is the more important goal, because his livelihood depends on the signal getting through.
The Solution – Goal Alignment
It is your job, as a paying customer, to make sure that the coach’s goal of signaling competence and your goal of getting better are aligned. It’s your job to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate signals of good coaching. Cues like “snap your wrist” only permeate the coaching landscape because students, and the paying parents of those students, accept this poor signal of good coaching as an accurate signal.
Accepting poor signals of good coaching is what causes students everywhere to continue paying for coaches who aren’t providing much of a differential impact at all.
The easiest signal to look for in your coach is also the simplest – are you getting better? If yes, that is the strongest signal you’re getting what you pay for.
In your first few interactions with a coach, this “making you better” can take the form of very little improvements, rather than big ones – things like improving your understanding of something or answering a long standing question you’ve had.
What’s important, though, is to discard the signals of good coaching that don’t matter, the most common of which is producing Deep Wisdom from the Good Coaching Advice set that isn’t helpful.
I come across so many students who discuss disheartening experiences with learning how to serve, and, fascinatingly, these students frame themselves as the issue:
“He just kept telling me to snap my wrist, but I just don’t know how to do that. I guess I’ll never be able to serve.”
This, clearly, is not a student failure, but a coaching failure. Serving is difficult. Only the most talented natural players are going to figure it out on their own.
Allow Yourself to be Judgmental
Be ruthless in your search for a good coach. Many students feel guilty leaving a coach, or asking to switch coaches at their club. It feels inappropriate to suggest that a coach may be wrong, and you, the lowly student or parent, may know better.
Who are you, after all, to doubt someone who can produce sacred wisdom like “snap your wrist” on command?
This is where you need to develop your coaching immune system. Retrain yourself to find the signals in a coach that actually indicate they’ll be able to help you, and ignore the noise.
A Compromise – Expensive Signals
Certification attempts to solve the signaling problem, and it does an alright job. Certifications are expensive, both in time and in money. Due to that, they are signals which are hard to fake.
Compare something like the “snap your wrist” signal to the USPTA Elite Professional certification. For the first, you need to learn a phrase, and the rough rules on when to apply it.
Student serves poorly, probably by pushing the ball over → “snap your wrist.”
For the second, you need:
- to spend hundreds of dollars
- to spend 10s of hours learning material
- to complete extensive on and off court testing
Which one is a stronger signal?
By investing so much of their time and effort into the certification process, a coach signals to prospective students a commitment to the craft, and that signal is worth a lot.
While the education aspect of a cert is certainly valuable, what’s even more valuable than the education itself is the message it sends about the coach – a coach with a certification has proven to be the kind of coach that seeks out further education.
Remember The Best Signal? Well…
The best signal of a good coach is that you’re getting better… right?
Actually there’s one caveat to this signal – talented players. Exceptional athletes will improve regardless of their environment. Yet, despite the athlete improving with our without quality coaching, the athlete’s coach will always get lots of credit.
Most people don’t realize this phenomenon at play. Throughout all of sports media, coaches are constantly getting credit for things their players do. One has to wonder, in these cases, had the player been with a different coach, would things really have turned out any differently?
Coaches desperately want their name attached to exceptional athletes. If a certain kid ends up nationally ranked, at a D1 school, or, even better, on the tour, then the reputation of every coach, trainer, adviser, etc that touched that player’s career gets a boost proportional to that success.
A child phenom is a wellspring of money and status that everyone wants to be a part of. Nick Kyrgios, in this mostly fun, but occasionally serious interview post his Aussie Open Double’s win, alluded twice to what I believe was this very phenomena effecting his young life:
2:22 “In the past, I haven’t had that many good people around me. They’ve taken advantage of me.”
And contrasting his own situation to Ash Barty’s:
4:47 “The people, around her, that have actually done so much, and actually care about her well being.”
Back to First Principles
We’re always talking about first principles here when it comes to tennis strokes, but the idea of first principles applies to coaching itself as well.
When looking for a coach, you’re looking for a teacher. You’re looking for a guide through this complex game, and you’re looking for these things because you want to improve.
You don’t have to blindly trust your coach that produces deep wisdom like “snap your wrist” from the Good Coaching Advice set. If it’s not helping you, it’s not helping you.
But when you have those “ah, ha” moments, or when, momentarily, everything clicks into place, those are the signals you want to look for. Pay attention to those signals instead, and you won’t be out their “snapping your wrist” to produce an awkward 70mph serve into the middle of the net.
March 28, 2022
I’ve had maybe 20 group lessons/training sessions and a handful of private lessons in my life. I find that I make the most significant improvements in my game when I experiment by myself or with a hitting partner. Whatever instruction a coach tells me won’t ever be as good as working on my stroke and making my own adjustments. Especially on the serve.
March 28, 2022
Unfortunately, that’s a super common experience. I’m glad your experimentation is going well, though!
March 10, 2023
Im 6′ 3″ but for some reason people much shorter than me at my level(4.5) serve far better than I do. I think this is because I never actually learned how to throw properly. Am I supposed to purposely internally rotate my shoulder, or should this happen naturally? Are there any cues for this? I’ve always tried to just snap my wrist like my coach told me and have been wondering why at my height I cannot serve well despite large amounts of practice. Thanks.
March 11, 2023
You can check out this for the basics:
As for the ISR itself – it should happen mostly naturally, but you’ll often encourage or resist it depending on target.
The real trick is to allow your elbow to lag behind your chest during your initial drive. That lag is what distinguishes a flinging throw – like a Javelin throw – from a pushing throw – like a Dart throw.
There aren’t many great tennis sources on this; the best one I’ve found is from a pitching academy: Tread Athletics. I would timestamp it… but just watch the entire thing. I know it’s long, but it’s worth it.
Eventually I’m going to publish another 5 serving insights with things the first one is missing, like ISR discussion, as well as the role of the left hand/arm when serving.