The perfect forehand release is elusive.
That loose, explosive, natural flick through contact feels amazing when it works, and when it’s not there it feels… frustrating. One day you’ll have it, and the next day you won’t.
Actually, the variation is even more extreme than that. One set you’ll have it, the next you won’t. Sometimes you’ll even lose it game-to-game, and sometimes even shot-to-shot.
Long term, every player’s goal should be for that perfect release to become habit, thereby leaving the realm of conscious competence and entering the realm of unconscious competence.
In order to lay down the tracks of habit in the brain, a human being must perform the same action, the same way, repeatedly. The tough part, when it comes to the forehand, is that since the perfect release is so elusive, it’s hard to actually execute these beneficial repetitions. You could have an entire two hour practice session, during which you hit a few thousand balls, and none of them could be high quality reps.
Raise Your Practice Standards
Unlike during a match, practice is the time to be hard on yourself. The repetitions where the stroke feels wrong aren’t that valuable. You are your practice, and if you’re practicing things that don’t feel right, you’re becoming a tennis player whose strokes don’t feel right.
Your practice is only useful insofar as it constitutes practicing things that you actually want in your game. Here’s an example. Let’s say you:
- Split step on time
- Move explosively to the ball
- Prepare well
- Swing poorly
That repetition was… decent. You’re practicing good habits with your movement and preparation, and you’ll certainly get a minor conditioning improvement from a session of reps like these.
The practice would be so much more useful, though, if the swing was also working, because when the swing isn’t working, the executing-the-swing phase of the practice movement has no value – during the swing, you aren’t practicing the movement you want to habituate.
How do we fix it?
You’re in practice, and your stoke feels wrong. Repetitions are not the answer, experimentation is. Here are a few suggestions for how to get the feeling back:
1. Weighted Swings
This is the single most likely thing to help reset your brain and get you swinging correctly again.
Adding weight to the racket, or swinging something heavier than a racket (like 2 rackets, or a ball hopper) forces your body to use its strongest muscles to generate acceleration. If your stroke feels awful, try taking a few weighted shadow swings, then go back to your own racket, and then repeat. Usually, the extra weight will force your body to move in a different, more efficient way.
Let the weight of the object do the work of the swing. Let it pull you forward. Notice how far out in front of you the dynamic action of the weight occurs.
As you do this exercise, ensure your feet remain free. Remain on the balls of your feet, and also allow the entirety of either foot to come off the ground as the weight moves. Never plant your feet while swinging something heavy, as that’ll put heavy stress on the knees. My father actually tore his right ACL doing just that – he planted his feet and twisted while launching a heavy piece of furniture into a dumpster.
2. Dial Down the Acceleration
Mistakes tend to be exaggerated at higher speeds. Accelerate less when the stroke feels bad, and just work on creating clean contact. Remember, if you can’t do it slow, you can’t do it fast.
Taking fast reps with the wrong stroke isn’t productive – you aren’t getting better at tennis while doing it, so why bother?
3. Audit Your Stroke
Is it every stroke that feels bad, or just some of them? Is it only the low ones? Only the high ones? Only the fast, or the slow ones?
If there’s a particular situation under which your stroke feels great, then it means your issue on the others is not the swing itself, but rather improper adjustment to a non-standard situation. Experiment with different forms of adjustment, like tilting the torso, or sitting lower with the legs, and see if you can fix it.
4. Cycle Through Your Cues
Throughout your tennis life, you’ve told yourself many, many things. Most of them did nothing, but a few of them really worked. Start cycling through your cues from the past, and see if any of them make the stroke click.
Testing Your Contact
There’s actually a great test for forehand contact, specifically:
Without your racket, drop a tennis ball in front of you, and then attempt to catch it with your forehand swing motion.
If your forehand feels off today, I guarantee you’re going to hit the ball away instead of catching it.
If you hit the ball away, it’s because you are accelerating too early in the swing. We need to wait until the elbow has passed through the plane of the hip before accelerating in earnest, otherwise, the kinetic chain just doesn’t work the same.
Once you fix it, and you’re catching the ball every time, it’ll feel like practically the entire motion is transpiring in front of the body, and that’s exactly right. Both the forehand and this practice drill take place primarily in front of the body.
The correct forehand motion is not best understood (as it commonly is) as:
backswing → forward swing
but rather as:
The forehand is a motion that occurs in front of the body. Once that becomes habit, the inconsistency will end.