Friday, July 03, 2009

Technical Training II - Video doesn't lie: How to use video to improve your game

You know what they say about good intentions…

I remember starting off this year - 2009 - saying that I would post more frequently, and well, you all know how that has gone in reality .I really do want to post more often—rather, more consistently—here, but as life goes, things happen and time flies by.

So, let’s consider this (another) a fresh start…

Oh yes, I also wanted to tell you that I do read every one of the precious few comments to these posts, and this post is based on a comment left by Wildvolley regarding an earliest post (Technical Training I — Looks define the result).

Wildvolley's comment was this:

A key to doing this is to take video of yourself hitting. It is usually enlightening to see the difference between what you feel your body doing and what it is actually doing. Video can allow you to develop the form you want to have.

If you look at some of the tennis boards, there are a lot of young players who mimic the mannerisms and dress of the top players but not their actual strokes when hitting. It is easy for players to be delusional about their game unless they "see" what they are actually doing

Amen, Wildvolley, I could not agree more…

It’s one thing to study video taken of other players...

It’s far more valuable to study video of your own game.

I remind all my players that “video doesn’t lie” and watching themselves perform on video is a very important and powerful tool for improving virtually any aspect of their game: technical, tactical, even mental.

Video reveals the cold, objective truths about your game—and when you see yourself and your game the first time out, that truth may be shocking, perhaps even embarrassing in terms of how different your own internal perceptions and sensations (“feelings”) of your tennis movements and tactical choices may be from the reality depicted on the playback screen.

Some common examples of the truths of your game that video reveals are:

1) your complete lack of knee flex in all aspects of your technique from your ready position to your serve motion;

2) the fact that you look like you’re ducking under a too-low door frame instead of exploding at full extension to impact on your serve;

3) how slowly you really move around the court, especially when changing directions;

4) your wide open racket face at all phases of your forehand and backhand, especially at contact that launches the ball straight into the windscreen behind your opponent on the fly;


Video will also not only reveal the truths of your game, but also the truth about how much or how little your teaching pro or coach really knows about tennis…

The potential of such a revelation explains why so many in the teaching and coaching establishment marginalize the value of video in training/helping their players…

They’re afraid that video will also reveal their fundamental tennis knowledge deficiencies and shortcomings along with those of their players!

Then again, there are those in the tennis teaching establishment who base their instruction on video footage (e.g. FYB, Hi-Tech Tennis, etc.) and end up describing concepts that aren’t even demonstrated on the video... Concepts that likely exist only in the mind of the “instructor”. The bottom line is the same—they end up unmasking their own knowledge gaps - chasms, really — whether they know it or not.

So, let me include this addendum to Wildvolley’s comment about “(I)t is easy for players to be delusional about their game unless they "see" what they are actually doing.”

IMHO, we should give credit where credit is due...

A large proportion of these “delusions” that the great majority of players have about their games is fundamentally “enabled”—if not entirely driven—by the dreadful instruction they get from just about everywhere—from their own pro/coach, the vast majority of “free web instructors”, their friends and league teammates, etc.

They did not arrive where they’re at without “help and support” from the available “experts” and resources that they trust blindly.

The question of why these players trust so blindly and implicitly in such flawed ideas is the subject of a separate post - in a different blog.

Now that my editorializing is concluded for the time being, let’s cover some simple fundamentals about how to reveal the truths of your game using video.

1. Shoot your video with a high-speed video camera

If you (or your coach/teaching pro) are serious about using video to improve your game, you need to make your video using a video camera that is capable of shooting high-speed video so you can see your game in ultra-slow motion.

Personally speaking, I don’t even bother using normal speed video anymore. For instructional and learning purposes, it is nowhere as informative and useful as high-speed video.

The amount of useful information that’s available when you can see movement in a high-speed video is simply astonishing and reveals an entirely new, previously hidden world compared to normal video. Once you see yourself (and others) in ultra-slow motion, normal-speed video (even HD video, however pretty it looks) will leave you unsatisfied and disappointed.

There are 3 such high-speed video cameras available on the consumer market today, and they’re all made by Casio: the Casio EF-X1 ($1000 MSRP); the Casio EF-X20 ($500 MSRP); and the Casio EF-X100/X10 series ($350 MSRP).

Each one of these Casio cameras can take high-speed video starting at 210 frames per second (7 times slower than normal video—which in the US is 30 frames per second), and can shoot up to 1200 frames per second (40 times slower than normal video) with amazing clarity and resolution.

If you are a teaching pro or coach, you should definitely invest in the higher end EF-X1 or EF-X20 models so you have maximum control of the image quality, but if you are a casual player, the newly introduced “take-down” version (EF-X100/X10) will do just fine—especially given the price.

One limitation of high-speed video I need to mention upfront is that in order to maximize the brightness/clarity/sharpness (the “resolution”) of the footage, you will need to shoot the video in high-light conditions.

This means that the best quality high-speed videos will be shot outdoors in full sunlight, and the image quality will not the same when, say, you try to shoot high-speed video indoors under the typically overly dim lighting of your local indoor courts (unless you are willing to go through the trouble of lighting your indoor video session in a professional manner using high-intensity lamps, reflector screens, etc.).

As far as which setting to use for your videos, 210 or 300 frames per second is plenty fast (slow?) enough to reveal the smallest details of your strokes, movement, etc. Shooting at higher speeds is even more revealing (i.e. 420, 600, 1000, even 1200 frames per second), but for the basis of fundamental analysis of your movements, 210 or 300 frames per second is more than satisfactory.

2. Use a tripod when shooting your video

Even with image stabilization built in as a standard feature on the Casio cameras, you need the stability of the tripod to guarantee a clear, focused image—especially when you’re shooting high-speed video.

Set the tripod such that the camera pointing somewhere between your waist and shoulder level. When the camera is set at this height, you will appear at a, natural-looking, “eye level” perspective when you’re on-screen.

3. Place the camera in the right positions

You need to know where to place the camera to get the most useful perspective(s) of your game.

For all practical intents and purposes, there are only two camera angles you need to shoot from to learn the most from your strokes:

a) Side view: place the camera perpendicular to where you’re standing at the baseline or net, so you can see your entire stroke movement from the side.

b) Back view: place the camera directly behind you, parallel to the baseline so you can see your entire stroke movement from the back. (FYI, playing on a sunken court really makes this perspective informative as well as convenient to shoot from!)

4. Frame yourself properly

You need to know how to “frame” yourself in the video so you can maximize the amount of information you can get from the footage.

In general, I suggest framing yourself in a way where you—the player—take up roughly 1/3 of the total on-screen area. There should be only a little space over your head (except when shooting video of your serve, where you want to be able to see ball contact overhead, so there will be more space visible overhead), but wherever possible, zoom in/adjust your tripod so there is very little “extra” court area visible at foot level.

In addition, I am very interested in seeing the initial 4 to 6 feet of ball flight after impact, so I suggest factoring in this increment when setting up your shot (this will be the subject of a future post—the highly valuable information that’s available by studying the first few feet of the ball flight of a groundstroke).

Finally, I strongly recommend that you take the 3 to 5 minutes total to make sure that you “frame your shot” properly so you can get the most usable information from your video.

5. No panning!

Last piece of advice when shooting your tennis video: avoid (as much as possible) panning the camera (i.e. move the camera to “follow” the player as they move around) when shooting your video.

Yes, there may be some upfront investment (both time and money) involved in putting yourself on video, but the payoff will be well worth it!


P.S.: The player images (US junior Shane Vinsant; ATP players Tobias Clemens and Thiago Alves, and WTA player Dominika Cibulkova) you see here were clipped from our extensive high-speed video library of ATP, WTA and junior players taken over the past 2 years, mostly shot from live tournament practice and match courts.

Typically, we shoot a player’s serves and groundstrokes from player practice sessions during live tournaments to observe their “base” techniques, as well as a few (practice) points if possible.

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At 9:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have been reading your blog posts and they seem interesting. I subscribed to H Tech tennis a couple of times and watched the videos, but you said that a lot of stuff out there is junk.

I am still at a 3.5 level and want to really develop as a tennis player... not competitively as I am 25, but I would like to get to a 5.0 level.

I am a bit confused as to the best place to start is. I live in Canada and there is not any good local coaching. I can definitely try and mimic what I see through videos but at the same time I don't exactly know from watching a video what muscles etc are contracting.

For example I am still not sure what is happening on a forehand. I heard stuff like push the ball off the racquet and let the arm lag behind while turning your torso toward the ball.

I hit the ball long a lot on my forehand. It would be nice to have some instruction or some guidance as the desire is definitely there.

All the Best,


At 11:56 PM, Anonymous speedmaster said...


Let me start by defining more precisely my view of the general state of online tennis instruction.

IMHO, the instruction that's posted online is neither different nor better than taking a private lesson from the average teaching pro in the US or Canada.

Some might argue that at least (some of the) online instruction is free compared to private tennis lessons at $50 to $65 per here in the US. My response to this is to point out that by (my) definition, the vast majority of online instruction should be free because it's not worth much-if anything-at all.

Your comment: "For example I am still not sure what is happening on a forehand. I heard stuff like push the ball off the racquet and let the arm lag behind while turning your torso toward the ball" is telling.

These types of "instructional ideas" are recycled everywhere on forums (the most dangerous place for instruction, where 99.9% of the posters have no idea what they're talking about, regardless of the number of posts they've made and many of the posted "tips" will cause injuries), online instruction sites and yes, park and club lesson courts across the globe.

A ton of tennis instruction today is simply bunk and these ideas you mentioned, in particular, will lead to chronic arm and shoulder injuries in the long-term.

So, not only are the great majority of instructional ideas being tossed about today (whatever the medium) fundamentally flawed or incorrect in some basic way (i.e. violate sound biomechanical/physiological/anatomical principles), they also lead to injury. (Whatever happened to the idea of "do no harm"?)

So what can you do?

I don't know exactly where in Canada you are, but as long as you're not in a totally remote part of the country (i.e. Labrador, the Yukon Territories, etc.), try to find out who has coached at least 4 or 5 top junior players (as in National-level junior tournament competitors) in the past 5 years in your relative vicinity (say 30 to 45 minutes driving time from your home max.) and see if you can get regular instruction (i.e. at least one session every two weeks for at least one year) from him/her.

I'll respond to the other points you raise here privately.

Email me at speedmaster[at]tennisspeed[dot]com and let's talk.


At 9:04 PM, Anonymous Wildvolley said...

Nice post. I've just been shooting video with a regular Canon camera, but those Casios are amazing.

What shocked me by watching video was I found I was fanning the racket face open at the start of my forward swing and then trying to close it before contact. I had myself convinced I was keeping the racket face closed like Federer and Nadal, but I wasn't.

Your advice on angles was helpful, as was the information on trying to see the ball path when shooting from the side.

This next year I'm going to try to video my high school players early in the season and at regular intervals.


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