Sunday, October 22, 2006

What is Leg Speed?

Speed is the essence of pro tennis today and in my first entry, I began our conversation of tennis speed by trying to describe and define the three fundamental components of tennis speed: mind speed, leg speed, and racket speed.

Since I briefly delved into what "mind speed" is and why it's so crucial and fundamental to being a high-performance competitor, let's now get into why leg speed is so fundamental to competitive success.

Leg speed is crucial because, as I wrote in the last entry:

IF YOU CAN'T GET TO THE BALL, YOU CAN'T HIT IT.

If you can't move fast enough into a position where you can make solid, controlled contact with your opponent's shots, tennis will become a very, very difficult sport, especially if you want to be competitive at a world-class level.

Leg speed translates into rapid court movement, and moving as fast as possible on the court is fundamental to tennis success. Leg speed is crucial mainly because of the fact that in competitive tennis you have to get where the ball is first, before you can hit it.

Your opponent is generally trying his best to place the ball as far away from you as fast as possible, so if you want to make decent contact with a ball that's intentionally being placed away from you, you'll have to first get to a position where you CAN make contact.

That's how tennis really works: first you move, then you hit. Then you move again, and then you hit again. And you need to be able to repeat this sequence for as long as possible.

Therefore, because you have to move BEFORE you can hit, those players who have superior leg speed have a distinct advantage over everyone who lacks leg speed because their leg speed translates into superior movement skills to get into a solid ball-striking position more consistently.

You see, the whole key to succeeding in modern tennis is to be able to move fast enough--to outrun the oncoming ball--to a point behind the path of the bounce of your opponent's return so you can hit it as loud as possible while maintaining maximum control at the same time. How fast you can move to your optimal ball-striking position essentially dictates how much control (and power) you have over your own shot.

In competitive tennis, you are first and foremost "racing" with the ball, using every ounce of energy and effort not only to get to every ball to make contact, but to reach your optimal strike position ahead of the bounce. When you win that race with the ball, you will have almost unlimited options and maximum control over your own shot: strike it on the rise, strike it at the top of the bounce, vary the spin/direction/speed, disguise the placement of your shot, etc., etc., etc.

Want some examples of pros who win this “race with the ball” the majority of the time? How about Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Lleyton Hewitt (all of whom are multiple Grand Slam singles titlists), for starters.

On the flip side, the slower you get to your optimal ball-striking position, the fewer options you'll have returning the shot because you simply won't have enough time to execute certain kinds of shots with the necessary precision to control them.

If that's not bad enough, the slower you move around the court, the more likely you'll feel hurried to create a shot when you finally get to the ball and whenever you feel rushed, you are more likely to lose control of your shots and your game. (FYI, this hurried feeling during play is what the old-schoolers really mean when they tell you to apply "pressure" to your opponent.)

In practice, how fast (or slow) you get to that optimal ball-striking position leads to one of three situations:

1) Best Case Scenario: If you are fast enough (and disciplined enough!) to get to your optimal ball-striking position ahead of the bounce of the ball, you will achieve maximum shot control, consistency and power just like the successful touring pros.

The main reason why the pros are so consistent with their ball-striking is because they are trying really hard to be in the proper ball-striking position for each and every shot. They all understand (or pay someone to constantly remind them) that they need to meet this standard of court movement to have any chance at being truly competitive in a pro tennis match.

2) Worst Case Scenario: If you are slow and arrive late at the optimal ball-striking position behind the arrival of the ball, you will have little or no control over your return, if you make contact at all.

and,

3) The Most Common Scenario (what I refer to as "JIT" or "Just in Time" tennis): What I'm about to describe is pretty much how the vast majority of players--EXCEPT those who are already successful touring pros, or who are on their way to becoming successful touring pros--actually move on the tennis court.

When you move only fast enough to arrive at the optimal contact position at the same time as the ball--i.e. you arrive just in time (or "JIT", for short) to make ball contact, you typically end up making a very hurried swat at the ball because you have far less time to actually make contact with the ball compared to arriving ahead of the ball.

When you play JIT tennis, you usually feel like the "ball is always rushing on top of you", and then you end up rushing to make your shot. Because JIT players have less time to execute their shot, they end up hurrying their strokes to make up for the "lost time". And when you hurry, you are way more prone to making even the simplest errors.

I can usually spot a JIT player from the large number of unforced errors they tend to make during the course of a competitive tennis match. On top of reducing their own reaction time, JIT players feel extra "pressure" from always feeling hurried to make their shots, and they end up making far more unforced errors compared to players who make every effort to arrive at their strike position early.

So, if you are willing to move away from JIT tennis by consciously moving faster and focusing on winning that ongoing race with the ball, it is almost a lock that you will improve your tennis very quickly. What will happen is that you will really reduce your own unforced errors, and as a result, greatly improve your chances of winning more matches more often without adjusting your strokes.

To repeat, if you want to maximize your chances to perform at a professional standard in tennis, you need to maximize your leg speed so you can move on the court like a pro does and consistently arrive at your optimal ball-striking position well ahead of the bounce of the ball.

I hope that you are now on your way to understanding WHY leg speed is fundamental to (pro) tennis success. In future entries, I will elaborate on HOW to achieve maximal leg speed, but for now, take some time to reflect on what we've covered here and try to apply these principles to your own game. Remember, you will always be rewarded for moving as fast as possible on the court.

See you next time!

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