What is a “forehand,” really? For many, it’s simply a tennis stroke, but for us, it’s something else.
We consider “the forehand” to be a class of related movement patterns. The entire class constitutes “the forehand.” To master “the forehand,” you need to master not just one specific stroke, but rather the entire class of forehand-like movements.
There are four main attributes to any shot you attempt:
- Target on the other side of the court
- Amount of spin
- Height over the net
- Velocity of the ball
The class of forehand movements contains many different exact strokes, each of which manipulates these attributes in one way or another.
Mastering the forehand constitutes mastering this movement class to such an extent so as to be able to manipulate any or all of these four goals at will.
And that’s quite difficult to do.
Most forehands are not correctly built from first principles, but rather from downstream details and implementations. The result is that most players have no idea how to correctly manipulate one or more of these four goals without their swing breaking down.
Here are some examples:
- Trying to move your target by looking at it.
- Trying to get more spin by “wristing” the ball using your forearm.
- Trying to increase height over the net by “swinging up” with your arm.
- Trying to increase velocity by accelerating with your arm muscles.
I could go through and explain why each one of these is a bad idea, but that’s not the point. The point is that each mistake reveals a critical misunderstanding of how its corresponding goal is achieved. In order to manipulate an attribute of your forehand, whether it’s target, spin, height, or velocity, you need to understand, within the class of movement that’s happening on the forehand, how that attribute is properly controlled.
Building From the Ground Up
Exact footwork patterns and swing mechanics are not first principles on the forehand. They are derivatives off of those first principles, and because they are derivative, they’ll change from situation to situation.
This is why, at Fault Tolerant Tennis, none of the drills we recommend involve practicing a particular swing or footwork pattern. Instead, the drills we recommend place the player in the most common and demanding situations, and let them fend for themselves.
We teach you the first principles, then throw you to the wolves and let you apply them. The goal is for you to discover the most common exact swing mechanics and footwork patterns on your own, as your brain attempts to construct a shot from the fundamentals.
Now, we’ll occasionally make an exception when the details are difficult to find on your own – when liberating the hips, many students need to be told to unplant their feet – but this kind of instruction is the exception, not the rule. Coaches are guides along the path of a student’s own experimentation, and there are certainly a few times the guide must instruct a little more than usual, but they’re rare.
Natural talent helps a lot in tennis. For any or all of the four attributes of a stroke, many players understand how to control it without requiring much instruction.
Some players just get how to aim their strokes. Others find hitting spin or flat to be trivial – just hit spinnier or flatter, of course. Some can easily vary their height over the net, and when it comes to velocity, usually strokes break down when accelerated, but, for some players, they simply think “hit harder,” and it works.
For most players, though, at least one of these four fundamental goals, and almost certainly more than one, does not come naturally, and because it doesn’t come naturally, there exists no athletic understanding of how to manipulate it.
“You Can’t Teach That”
Actually, you can. Almost always. There are very few things that actually can’t be taught, like height and fast twitch muscle fiber density; almost everything else can be.
The “you can teach that” line irks me because it’s not quite accurate. Well, actually it is:
“You can’t teach that,” but I can.
I teach my students first principles, then let them experiment.
All of the brilliant improvisational shots you see on the tour are derived from the same fundamentals as the regular ones. The best improvisational players are the ones with the best athletic understanding of those fundamentals.
When Roger Federer blocks a tour level serve to his backhand up the line for a winner, that looks like natural talent, and it is, but it’s also something else. It also demonstrates a precise athletic understanding of how to control his body in space in order to block that serve.
This athletic understanding, for Roger, came naturally, but that doesn’t mean it had to come naturally. I can guide you along the path to hitting the same shot. I can tell you to use your upper back to stabilize and drive the racket, to hold the racket at 90 degrees with your forearm, to track the ball off the bounce, into a contact point well in front of your body.
We can train what it feels like to drive the racket with your upper back, instead of with your triceps. We can take one, two, three hundred reps where we just focus on tracking the ball into the right contact point.
Learning the Class Instead of the Stroke
Everything that happens on a tennis court is a result of simple movement, and that movement can be broken down into even simpler parts. The brilliant shots you see on TV – those are certainly out on the edge of their particular movement class – but they’re still movements, still governed by the same rules as the rest.
Improvisation of all kinds is simply the brain working forward from a correct baseline understanding. Whether natural or taught, the stronger the fundamental understanding, the better the resulting improvisation.
Here’s something I see every day – all of my students occasionally finish over their head on their forehands, and yet I’ve never told a single one to do that. They were merely applying the fundamentals. Their brain has internalized the forehand as twisting explosively into the ball, and, in order to do that when late, the follow-through goes over the head. The follow-through happened automatically, not by design.
Learning a tennis stroke is about learning the fundamentals that govern that class of movement patterns, and then practicing with those fundamentals as a starting point. Learn like that, and unique situations – high or low contact, passing shots, shots on the run, shots stuck behind you – they won’t be novel, low-percentage, awkward feeling situations.
They’ll just be… situations. Situations in which you apply the same fundamentals you apply on every other shot. Train like this, and your rate of improvement will skyrocket.