TennisTip: Train Like a Boxer For Better Footwork
In the previous tip, I alluded to ‘hearing’ your feet while practicing as a means to produce fewer steps and more adjujstment in setting up to hit the ball. It’s very difficult to hit a good shot without the body being in proper position. My biggest footwork issue is taking too few steps and getting in position early. Instead of stepping into the ball as part of the stroke, I’m already setup, so I have to ‘muscle’ the ball with my upper body and arm.
In searching for a drill to help alleviate this tendency, I looked at other sports where the pace of action is fast and footwork is extremely important. Martial arts in general, and boxing in particular fit the bill. One of the old-school techniques for teaching balance and footwork in boxing is to tie a string between the boxer’s feet while standing in a ‘ready’ position. Either through shadow-boxing or moving with a partner, the boxer must quickly move into a variety of positions without breaking the string. This forces the boxer to make adjustments in small steps, allowing him to more quickly react to an opponent’s move in mid-step. Not all that different from tennis; making adjustments for wind, ball spin, the ball hitting slick spots on the court, misreading a volley angle, etc.
So, I tried it … at home, of course. Just hitting a foam ball up against a wall. Freaking amazing drill. What I thought was a small step broke the string instantly. Then, I videotaped myself and saw what I was doing; trying to ‘position’ myself as quickly as possible, then hit through the ball as opposed to a single, fluid motion. I comapred this to some video I recorded of Federer. It’s interesting how many times his strokes have been analyzed and I never hear anyone talk about his feet. His stroke production really begins there.
So, I continued with the drill until I could hit some really basic forehands and backhands without breaking the string. I try to duplicate this motion when I warm up. When doing so, I always tend to hit much better than when I warm up thiking only about stroke production in the upper body.
This is a drill that is not easy to migrate to the court, so I typically relegate it to indoor practice when it rains. Breaking and retying a string is tedious, but don’t use a flexible cord as that could easily induce tripping. In fact, I would recommend just practice moving into position without hitting a ball at first. It’s a bit risky, but I found it to be an incredible drill that I can do at home. If you don’t want to try it, at least have your local USTA pro analyze your footwork with you on video. The bottom line is to consciously make an effort to keep the feet moving and constantly adjusting to the ball. Always think of the stroke as starting from the ground; not the hips or the shoulders or the arm. It’s the feet!