Saturday, October 20, 2007

Is it possible to have too much racket speed? (Of course not!)

Sorry about the rather long "pause" between posts...

I've been quite busy with the business of TennisSpeed including getting two more NCAA teams started with SpeedChain training (Colorado Women's Tennis (Big 12) and Syracuse Women's Tennis (Big East)) and attending a number of tennis events, including a charity event, one state high school tennis championship tournament and several instructional clinics. And somewhere mixed in all that, I also spent 10 days tuning up the game of one of my touring pro clients.

Anyway, the past two weeks have been especially interesting and I thought I would share some of the things I’ve learned about the state of American tennis from the viewpoint of a wide cross-section of American tennis community.

In particular, I want to bring to light the viewpoint expressed by the typical American tennis parent. Because based on a number of conversations I have had with junior tennis parents over the last 18 months, there are a lot of parents out there who believe that their children have more than ample racket speed to succeed in competitive tennis.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you would understand that this common perception is patently false based on the various stroke speed surveys I’ve done at collegiate dual matches and dozens of professional, junior and high school tennis matches (I was able to obtain stroke speed measurements from high school varsity tennis players at a recent Boys’ State Tennis Championships, and I will report those speed measurements in a future post) over the last 18 months.

So, here’s a conversation I had with a parent of a female tournament player (12 years old) whom she claimed was ranked among the Top 3 players in her home section.

Our conversation went something like this:

Parent: “Oh, my daughter has more than enough racket speed. Racket speed is not her problem whatsoever. Actually, I think that she has too much racket speed and it’s not helping her game.”

Me: (addressing the player) “So, what is your first serve speed? (Head shaking and shrugged shoulders from player)

Parent: “Her coach says that she has plenty of racket speed.”

Me: “That’s interesting, you don’t even know what her stroke speeds really are, but you and her coach are sure about her having plenty of racket speed… By the way, did you know that both Venus and Serena could serve over 100 MPH at the age of 12? When Venus played her first pro match at 14, she was serving over 115 MPH.”

(addressing player) “Do you serve over 100 MPH right now?” (Head shaking from player)

Parent: “Well, actually she’s injured right now, so maybe she’s not capable of swinging that fast…”

OK, let me add some context to this conversation…

This particular conversation occurred in front of an information booth for TennisSpeed and all of our speed training products, including the Tennis SpeedChain, at a recent, local charity event. It may well have been that the purpose of this parent was to say something to avoid the possibility of hearing my “SpeedChain pitch” as she read through the information at our booth.

However, based on this parent’s unwavering tone and choice of words, I concluded that she really believes that her daughter has more than sufficient racket speed, and won’t need to improve her racket speed now or in the future.

In fact, that her child swings her racket so fast that her incredible racket speed actually hinders her tennis progress because she understands that high racket speeds (“hitting hard”) compromise her daughter’s ability to control the ball.

And this was not the first time I have heard a tennis parent firmly and decisively assert that their child has terrific, if not incredible racket speed, and that racket speed will never become a factor that will limit their ability to succeed in tennis.

I didn't know that smoking c---k had reached epidemic proportions among junior tennis parents these days.

This point is worth mentioning over and over until the majority of conversations I have with junior tennis parents come to focus on this question:

“How can I help my son/daughter maximize their racket speed?”

As competitive tennis today has evolved into a “true sport” where speed is the single most important physical attribute required to perform at the highest possible levels, the concept of having “too much speed”, whether it be foot speed or racket speed, is simply unthinkable.

Imagine a baseball player complaining about having too much bat speed (fearing that they would hit the baseball “too far”) or throwing speed (throwing too hard where opposing hitters can't hit their pitches). Oh, the horrors of too much speed!

How about a football quarterback complaining about having too much arm speed that he throws the ball “too far that his receivers can’t catch up to his passes”, or a running back or receiver that outruns the defense “too often”? (OK, non-football fans, what happens in those situations is that most football coaches will go out and find receivers who run fast enough to catch the “too strong-armed” quarterback’s passes and find ways for his “too fast” running backs and receivers to touch the ball as much as possible during games…)

As you can see, this concept of “too much speed” in other sports sounds patently absurd, so why does this idea persist in competitive tennis?

Here are a few observations of mine over the years that might explain why this perception of racket speed being a “luxury” or a ”hinderance to development” continues to perpetuate itself in US Tennis:

1. Parents/Teaching Pros/Coaches typically only understand how to teach the sport using bygone classic tennis principles where racket speed couldn’t be readily generated (rackets too small and heavy) nor adequately controlled (not enough topspin production).

2. The last time most coaches/parents played/watched pro tennis LIVE AND IN PERSON was back in the 1980s or 1990s when the game was measurably slower.

3. Most players/coaches/parents have no idea what their (student’s/children’s) stroke speeds really are and seem to have no interest nor motivation to find out. The typical excuse for not knowing their stroke speeds comes out sounding like “who has a radar gun lying around anyway?”

4. Most players/coaches/parents don’t know what the “speed profile” of the top pros really are. They may know their serve speeds, but what about the speeds they achieve on their other strokes like their forehands and backhands? Every coach/parent knows goal-setting is critical for competitive success, but when you don’t know exactly what the goal is… How successful can you expect to be?

5. Tennis on TV does not accurately depict the actual ball speeds, nor variation in ball speeds and spin, and can’t be used to familiarize and educate players/coaches/parents on the physical realities of today’s pro game.

6. Coaches/Parents “indoctrinate” players based solely on their perceptions and understanding of (classic) tennis that based mainly on anecdotal information, out-dated, false or outright misinformation. The typical teaching pro's understanding of tennis in US is based on the near-complete ignorance of facts and reliance on perception rather than detailed analysis.

How should we then begin to educate these speed-challenged members of the tennis community so they can understand the reality that maximizing racket speed is essential and necessary to succeeding in competitive tennis today?

Let’s begin by repeating these basic facts about racket speed in modern tennis:

1. Players must maximize racket speed and spin production to be successful in modern competitive tennis at the pro level.

2. High spin rates are the basis of maximizing stroke control and consistency at high racket speeds.

Having “too much” racket speed or foot speed in tennis is, quite frankly, as ludicrous a concept as “having too much money”. For all practical intents and purposes, having too much foot speed and racket speed is the condition that we should be striving to achieve, not avoid.

Junior tennis parents (and coaches), it’s time to get informed about the impact of speed on your child’s tennis. At least be willing and interested in taking the first step of actually measuring their stroke and foot speed(s). All you need to do this is to get your hands on a stopwatch and a radar gun.

By doing this, you will all know how fast you really are and how much you will need to improve if you want to perform at a level that’s truly comparable to today’s top professionals.


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