Tangled up in technique

As I’ve noted before, I’m a big believer in the idea that you develop strokes through feel and repetition, not the application of verbal instruction. A believer, yes, but an inconsistent follower.

In my own game, I struggle to shut down the conscious mind and let the body and autonomic nervous system take control. I can generally subdue the conscious mind’s impulse to direct the action on my groundstrokes. Three or four shots into a rally, my consciousness is subsumed in the rhythmic patterns of footwork, contact, and follow-through.

Inevitably, maybe after stroke eight or nine, the spell is broken. “Get low, and step into the ball,” my conscious self shouts at its unconscious doppelganger. The magic vanishes. I shank the ball, dump it into the net, or drive it long as I make a conscious effort to apply more topspin.

For a few precious moments, however, I experienced tennis as I dream about it.

I have yet to experience these moments of perfection on the serve. I’ve taken lessons, read countless threads on tennis-warehouse.com, committed Tennis magazine’s occasional features on the serve to memory. And yet the stroke has never made intuitive sense to me. Until my 20s, I served with an eastern forehand grip. The results were so horrific that I grudgingly acceded to a tennis pro’s plea to use the continental. I stared at the grip, the racket face perpendicular to the ground, certain that the edge of the frame would chop through the ball like a hatchet.

That didn’t happen, of course, because of something called pronation, which was just about impossible for me to conceptualize. But I soon ran smack into another obstacle: an inability to keep my serving arm loose. I read the gurus. I know that my arm should be like a whip snapping through the ball.

But when I watch tape of Federer, Sampras, and Roddick, I can’t reconcile the deep knee-bend, the uncoiling of the kinetic chain, and the explosive release of potential energy with the idea of “looseness.” The world’s greatest servers look like muscle-bound strongmen, not limp lengths of rawhide.

So I strain. I tighten up. The more I try to put on my delivery, the tighter I get. My wrist locks. The ball lands two feet long. There’s a metaphor, an idea I haven’t yet discovered, maybe even a simple image, that will help me translate these ideas of looseness and fluidity into something I can understand and apply. But I haven’t discovered the magic metaphor, not yet. Until I do, my conscious self will remain in control, snapping to attention as the service toss rises above my head, and barking orders at my body.

–A. Clarke


4 responses to “Tangled up in technique

  1. What helped me improve my serve was to take all the pieces of the motion apart to its bare essentials: continental grip, toss, racquet drop, pronate and hit. Add knee bend, shoulder rotation, arched back gradually to add more racquet speed. If you want to take away the ball toss, get a football and try to spiral it up as far up into the air as possible. It’s virtually the same throwing motion.

    Since the serve has so many moving parts, I’ve always tried to pay attention to my own body and teach myself what the correct motion through kinesthetic feedback (a la Inner Game of Tennis).

    • Thanks, that is good advice, though I personally find that the more I analyze each component of the serve discretely, the more I tighten up. As you reference to the Inner Game indicates, that’s not what you’re doing. You’re somehow managing to focus on the different elements of the serve as an almost disinterested observer That’s the state of mind I aspire to.

      I played this morning and found that Whisper’s suggestion to take everything at about 75% (see comments below) was helpful.

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