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Most of us know how important it is to relax in order to perform in tennis. We are frequently reminded of this by coaches and pundits. When we watch a top tennis player either rallying or playing we are often struck by how relaxed and fluid the movements look. An accomplished player can make the game look as effortless as taking a stroll through the park. If you were to watch Roger Federer practice you might think he is actually in some somnambulistic state as he seems to float around without a care in the world.
Relaxation gives us the ability to move more freely, with less effort, and increased range. Relaxation allows us to clear our minds of distractive thoughts and improve our reflexes. But we must be careful not to get too relaxed lest we lose structure and intensity. We need proper levels of stimuli and energy in order to respond to the strenuous demands of the game. Tennis is a game of balance and rhythm. Everything exists in complimentary form. Along with relaxation there must be tension to achieve the proper intensity to play well. Some people call this dynamic, “relaxed focus.”
The Movement Dynamic
The interplay between relaxation and tension is at the core of movement. Much of the movement in tennis is achieved through putting the body into stressed positions and then releasing it back into more relaxed positions. This is what loading and unloading is all about. It is the basic formula of stroking (wind and unwind). An absence of tension would be an absence of movement.
On the other hand the tension that one must avoid is “rigidity” or stiffness. Stiffness will hold the body in a state of tension rather than allow it to shift between tension and relaxation. This is why it is always best to start from a state of total relaxation and from there, adjust your level of tension.
Click photo to go to website: Notice how relaxed Federer appears on this aggressive shot,
even at contact.
If we take the “Ready Position” as an example, we can see much of what we are trying to do. While preparing for the Ready Position, start by eliminating as much tension as possible. Relaxed breaths and loose, shaking movements of the limbs can help to reduce stiffness and bring back a better level of relaxed balance. Clearing the mind of stress inducing thoughts will also help to achieve this calm, mental balance.
When assuming the Ready Position one must adjust the levels of physical and mental tension and intensity. The body is kept relatively relaxed but some tension should be maintained in the legs, back, and shoulders.
Flexing the knees and shifting one’s weight to the balls of the feet puts the legs and back into a dynamically stressed position. The bounces one feels when gently shifting on the balls of the feet is a bit like that of a trampoline as it stretches and loosens in a rhythmic flow. It is important to keep this rhythmic spring going in the legs so that you can react properly to the ball. The “Split Step” is critical to getting the right spring off the court to assure the quickest response to the ball. This again requires a dynamic interplay of tension and relaxation.
In the Ready Position be careful not to allow your arms too drop too low (especially when close to the net). The hands and racquet should be held just above the navel. This requires a certain amount of tension in the shoulders. If the hands are held too low you may be slow reacting to higher balls. Low held hands also encourage a tendency to simply swing the arms back to prepare the racquet rather than execute a proper turn of the entire body.
The parts of the body that should remain most relaxed are the hands. There is an almost universal tendency to over-grip the racquet. This causes rigidity and this rigidity in the hands will seriously interfere with fluid movement of the entire body. Learn to cradle the racquet and feel the weight of the racquet in your hands. You will have an automatic firming of your grip that will occur naturally in response to contact. Keep in mind that holding the handle loosely does not imply that you should whip the racquet. You want to achieve a relaxed stability in your grip. Imagine your hand and racquet are encased in a soft, flexible cast that maintains structure without stiffening.
Good Tension and Bad Tension
Tension is required not just in the natural dynamic of movement but also to maintain proper structure or form in the game. A certain amount of tension is required to maintain the body in the proper alignment required for balanced, coordinated play. If the body is allowed to simply “flop around,” play becomes haphazard and erratic. Physical tension, or strength, is required to keep shape to the movements of the body throughout play. This is what we refer to as “maintaining form” in sport.
Just as tension is a natural part of the dynamic of movement, tension is also required to maintain mental alertness and to sustain levels of energy. Excessive mental stress can create mental disorientation. In some cases our minds can become overactive and scurry from place to place. In other situations over stress can cause the mind to become numb and overwhelmed. In a similar way, if one is too relaxed, the mind may wander aimlessly, become lethargic, and lose focus.
Likewise proper tension is required on an emotional level to maintain energy required to fuel the body. Proper emotional tension must be maintained in order to avoid letdowns and apathy.
Although we often think of tension as a negative element, in reality it is a natural and necessary part of the game. If used properly tension will help us to maintain structure to our bodies, focus to our concentration, and intensity to our energy. Remember it is not so much tension that we must learn to avoid as it is stiffness and rigidity. Stiffness prevents you from making the proper shifts from relaxation to tension. Certainly it is extremely important to learn how to relax, but too relaxed a state can leave you as vulnerable as too stiff a state - both will rob you of the desired responsiveness and range of movement required. The key is to find balance and rhythm between relaxation and tension. This is the essence of fluid, dynamic form in all sport.
See Doug King's Acceleration Tennis Program at the Meadowood Resort, Napa, CA.
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