Friday, August 20, 2010

From “Take racket back” to “Turn shoulders”

I used to have a coach whom I drove crazy. Well not literally, thankfully. But what drove him semi-nuts was my insistence that he use precise words to describe to me what it is he wanted me to do. I tried explaining to him that I was (am) a verbal and cerebral learner and that I needed things spelled out precisely and clearly if he wanted me to follow his guidance.

We were a mismatch in many respects because verbal this man was not. He could beautifully show me what he wanted me to do, but telling me was not his strong suit. Indeed, one of his biggest criticisms of me was that I kept trying to figure out tennis. He insisted that tennis could not be figured out, could not be analyzed like psychology. He said that I simply needed to do what he was showing me how to do, and then repeat that movement or series of movements over and over until they entered muscle memory.

And so we limped along for a couple of years, him showing, me trying to follow by translating his actions into the best language fit I could get him to wrap his tongue around. And despite this mismatch of learning styles, he actually helped improve my game. In hindsight I think he stretched me by forcing me to use my eyes to learn, while I stretched him by challenging him to explain things in language that I could process.

I thought of him a few days ago when I happened across a brief clip of Nick Bolletieri explaining the set-up for the backhand. The show was one of those Tennis Academy series on the Tennis Channel. Nick looked as tan and grizzled as ever. And in the clip – which lasted for probably less than a minute – he said that he used to tell his students to take the racket back but that he came to realize that that language was wrong and that what he should have been telling them was to turn their hips and shoulders.

A light bulb immediately went off in my head. I suddenly realized why all those years ago being told to take my racket back early simply made no sense to me. Back where, I would ask. And back when?

My coach would reply that the racket should be going back from the minute the ball left his racket. And I would try. I even got a rotator cuff strain to prove it. Taking the racket back soon became one of the many little things he would shout at me from across the court. In addition to taking the racket back he was also constantly yelling at me to “Keep your eyes on the ball!”, and “Don’t forget to split-step!”, and “Go from low to high!”, and “Finish the swing!” Valuable lessons all. They are among the phrases that have left indelible memory traces in my brain.

But sometimes I wonder how many of them became part of my muscle memory. For example, I finish the swing easily on the forehand because that is my natural weapon. I don’t even have to think about it. My muscles know exactly what to do.

But on the backhand? Well, the problem with the backhand is that I never found anyone who could use the right language to explain to me the mechanics of a backhand in the first place. And to make matters worse, with each change of coach – I’ve moved around a lot – I’ve had to find a way to accommodate new and sometimes contrary information.

So at one point I used to have a one-handed backhand because that coach felt that my shoulders were strong enough to handle it. Besides if Justine Henin could do it, so could I, since we were practically the same height. And then some time later another coach switched me to placing both hands on the racket, insisting that this was the new tennis and that pretty soon no one would be using the one-handed backhand, never mind Federer. And in between, I tried slicing like Steffi.

To this day my backhand is confused because my head is confused. I can spend hours with my current coach or with the ball machine hitting a couple hundred double-handed backhands. And the minute I start playing a match, it completely disappears and out comes the defensive slice. On a bad day, it looks more like a chop. My opponents pick on it mercilessly.

But listening to Nick a few days ago, I realized that the problem is not entirely me. The problem is at least in part the language that coaches use to explain what it is they want their students to do. And the new lexicon to explain the mechanics of both the forehand and the backhand is to tell the student to turn the shoulder and hips. If you turn your hips and shoulder, the racket will automatically go back. Such a simple statement. I wish someone had told me it years ago.

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