Impulse, Restraint, and Compensation
Judging by the title you may suspect this article is a Sunday school sermon directed to teenage boys or an inspirational mantra for Overeaters Anonymous. In fact I will try to explain how these forces; impulse, restraint, and compensation, are fundamental in the development of proper technique in tennis. In the modern era of power tennis where balls are hit at awesome velocities by both men and women, the natural inclination is to be overcome by the speed of things. We are immediately impressed by the incredible speed of the swings. The racquet seems to flash as a blur through the stroke. However, looks can be, and in tennis, usually are, deceiving. Although it appears that the players are simply “unloading” on the balls, I would suggest that they are at the same time exercising tremendous amounts of restraint through the stroke.
Click photo to hear
Doug King talk about how power is naturally built in the game and the unnatural restraint of impulse required
to control it."
To explore this hypothesis let's start by asking why tennis is so darn hard to learn. The answer, to put it simply, is tennis is very “unnatural.” The tennis swing, the equipment, the court, and the rules, in a way are all designed to undermine our natural impulses. The swing for example is built on a centrifugal system. You hold the racquet at one end; hit the ball with the other end. The arm naturally becomes an extension of the racquet and the body becomes a central axis which this arm/racquet unit swings around like a whip. This is an extremely inefficient, in fact, extremely challenging, and even “unnatural” way to hit an oncoming ball in the center of the racquet and direct it in a straight line to a target.
Look at a game like pool as a comparison. In pool, the hitting surface (the tip) is in direct alignment with the ball, the target, the rest of the cue. The pool stroke, as a result, is relatively intuitive. Of course, using a pool cue to hit a tennis ball would be ridiculous but the fact remains that we must learn to compensate for the natural impulses of arcing that cause conflict in the tennis swing.
Now let's look at the equipment. The tennis racquet and the tennis ball are springy and bouncy. There is a natural explosiveness to the contact. The court is relatively small with an approximate three foot hurdle to clear across the middle. The player must hit a bouncy ball with a springy racquet using a naturally whippy swing over a hurdle and have the ball land inside a relatively small court. It is not like baseball where you have a dead ball and bat and your best shot is to hit over a wall some 400 feet away. Nor is it like racquetball, squash, or handball where the ball is naturally restrained by a wall. In some games restraint has been removed by the rules, in others by the design of the playing field, in tennis restraint is at the heart of the game.
When you put these two aspects of the game (the natural power built into the game that must be tamed and the natural inaccuracy of the swing that must be compensated for) you can see the inherent difficulties. The natural impulse of the body and the mind is to “swing” this arm/racquet unit around in whip like motions. As we get more excited and more active the impulse increases. Even the natural impulse of energy is to flow to the tip of the racquet increasing the power and the arcing of the swing. This, however, decreases accuracy of contact and increases power of the collision between ball and racquet.
Note how Andy Roddick holds the tip of the racquet forward with the left hand even as the body makes its unit turn.
The only way we can overcome these impulses is through the proper exercise of restraint and compensation. It is exactly like a well trained fighter who knows that the real knockout punches are rarely flashy. They are not the wild haymaker swinging punches favored by street fighters but the concise, compact blows that are ruthlessly effective in their efficiency and restraint. I would contend that the power modern game is built more upon restraint than the playing styles that we have seen in the past and I will attempt to show you why.
First, look at how the left hand works in the swing. In one handed stokes we see the left hand restrain the racquet much more in both the backswing and the follow through. You never see the racquet swung back early in the backswing (although some commentators would lead you to believe that this is happening). Notice how the body turns, the elbow lifts, but it is actually the racquet which is the last thing that goes back.
Secondly, look at how the racquet follows through in the modern swing. We see a windshield wiper forehand finish, follow throughs over the head, behind the same shoulder, dying into the opposite side. These are all example of “restrained” backswings. The racquet is held back on the finish so that it doesn't follow the “natural” impulse to swing out into the court. This is exactly the kind of compaction that is favored by the professional fighters - no roundhouse, extended swings in the modern game, only compact, powerful straight jab drives.
Even the open stance is a restrained form of weight shift – restraining the impulse to step into the ball, to shift the weight prematurely which only increases the centrifugal momentum of the swing. You can see restraint in the grips. Notice how the racquet is folded back in the wrist through contact. The natural impulse is for the wrist to snap forward, not to be restrained as we see it. Further restraint and control is provided by rolling of the ball (spin). This is essential to control the stunning power derived from the combination of precise timing, perfect alignment, and explosive acceleration.
Roger Federer is the master of restraint.
And look at the master of restraint, Roger Federer. Notice how he keeps his head back on every stroke, exaggerating the restraint of the most wild and unmanageable piece of equipment in the game – his mind.
Yes, in this day of power tennis it is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of speed and impulse. Our natural impulse is to wonder where that power comes from. But when we see the ball being hit so hard the question we should be asking ourselves is not, “How do they hit the ball so hard?” It should be, “How do they keep such a hard hit ball from flying out?” And, “How do they manage to meet such a hard hit ball in the center of the racquet so often?” For if we look close we can see that the power we see from the top players is attainable only through the more subtle but equally important role of restraint. So when you start getting anxious to hit the ball as hard as the pros do, take this friendly bit of advice, “try a little restraint.”
Go to the website to see Doug's article explaining how to learn the proper techniques of restraint that will help you to master the secrets of the power game.
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