Wednesday, March 09, 2011

You Can't Teach What You Don't See - Why Your Coach, Pro or Internet Guru Won't Teach You How to Hit a Federer Forehand

To begin our discussion here, allow me to first bring your attention to a well-established (and verified) psychological phenomenon that's commonly known as “inattentional” or “perceptual blindness”.

For the sake of simplicity, let me quote the Wikipedia entry on inattentional blindness (

Inattentional blindness, also known as perceptual blindness, is the phenomenon of not being able to perceive things that are in plain sight. This can be a result of having no internal frame of reference to perceive the unseen objects, or it can be the result of the mental focus or attention which cause mental distractions. The phenomenon is due to how our minds see and process information. Closely related to the subject of change blindness, it is an observed phenomenon of the inability to perceive features in a visual scene when the observer is not attending to them. That is to say that humans have a limited capacity for attention which thus limits the amount of information processed at any particular time. Any otherwise salient feature within the visual field will not be observed if not processed by attention.”

For an entertaining demonstration of this human phenomenon, visit this webpage:

Essentially, what happens when anyone experiences inattentional blindness is that they physically see, say an object like a tennis racket, but their brain, perhaps never having seen a tennis racket or never having played tennis, doesn’t draw the (mental) conclusion that what they’re looking at is used is, in fact, a piece of equipment used to play the sport of tennis. They might actually come to the conclusion that it’s a new-fangled kind of snowshoe.

It is beginning to dawn on us that the tennis coaching establishment has been experiencing their own brand of inattentional blindness in many subjects near and dear to their hearts, namely in the area of stroke mechanics.

Even with the growing use of high-speed video that delivers the power to reveal the smallest details of the movements used by the greatest players in the sport, somehow, the overall understanding of the body movements used to produce the sport’s greatest strokes appears to be at best, stagnant.

Rather than being able to “reverse-engineer” the stroke mechanics behind the Roddick serve, the Henin backhand, or the Federer forehand, the so-called expert coaches and teachers keep regurgitating the same old, tried-and-true instructional “fundamentals” using the same old buzzwords with the idea that you can reproduce the same movements the greats do – even though those old tried-and-true ideas often have nothing to do with the movements that they visually see.

To the existing body of tennis instructional “experts”, nothing is ever new or different in tennis stroke mechanics, there can only be the re-organization or rearrangement of well-known and well-established movements that “they’ve all seen before”.

So, when high-speed video reveals that clear differences in the movements – the reality is that the established stroke “experts” may visually “see” those movements, but their brain has no idea, no understanding or inkling of what those movements “mean” in terms of contributing to the Hall-of-Fame skills resulting from them.

For them, the critical moves in the Federer forehand revealed by high-speed video are as invisible as a moon-walking bear.

Bottom line here is this: it's not that your chosen coach, pro or internet tennis guru won't teach you the forehand mechanics of either Roger or Rafa. The starker reality is that they CAN'T teach it to you because they just don't have the knowledge or understanding of what and how to move the human body - and why these moves are made - to achieve the results that Roger and Rafa do.

No one can be expected to competently teach anything they don't really see not fully understand themselves, right?

Now, how does this discussion of this epidemic of inattentional blindness in tennis instruction relate to the “500 Million Dollar Question of Tennis” we posed two posts ago in pictorial form?

OK, let’s first refresh your memory a bit…

Below you'll find the images we posted in that post and the question we posed was “what are we looking at and why is what’s shown in these images “worth” $500 million dollars?”

In this post, we'll discuss what you are seeing in these images.

What you are looking at are close-ups of how the two greatest players of this age of tennis – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – make contact on their respective topspin forehands. This is what happens at the “moment of truth”.

What you see in both sequences is that both players deliver the racket face with the face tilted forward just before impact, the racket face stays tilted forward at impact, and just milliseconds after impact, the racket face tilts even further forward (by 20 to 40 degrees, sometimes even more).

And, what is even more interesting is that based on the 400+ high-speed clips of the Federer and Nadal forehands we examined, this is how they make contact with the ball using their forehand NEARLY 80 PERCENT of the time.

Their ability to consistently produce this type of racket-string-ball contact is how they produce the dizzying array of highlight-film-worthy, super high speed/high spin forehands that tennis fans rush to upload to their YouTube channels:

- the super short-angle forehands on the dead run;

- the soft, short angle “putaway” shot in transition;

- the 100+ MPH screamers down-the-line or inside-out (the shot that Federer’s old coach, Peter Lundgren called the “Cliffhanger” because this shot would look for sure like it was headed into the fence when it so suddenly crashes down inside the lines of the court as if it fell off the edge of a cliff);

- the “Egg Ball” retrieving/passing shot (a term coined in the Japanese tennis media after one of their tennis magazines traced the ball trajectory of many Nadal forehands and learned that his trademark, super-topspin “hook” forehand retrieving/passing shots resembles the shape of an egg – where the ball starts on gradual upward path then falls steeply and suddenly) used so often by Nadal to extract himself from seemingly impossible defensive positions that flies high over the net before its massive topspin forces the ball to land well inside the service box, thereby accelerating out of the opponent’s reach at the net or baseline;

- the 3,500+ RPM crosscourt forehand that Nadal uses to control and vex Federer unendingly during their many baseline duels, especially on clay;

- Etc., etc., etc…

Now, what’s so intriguing about this observation that Federer and Nadal make contact on their forehands in this manner so frequently is this:

If we showed those same images to most tennis experts, and then ask them to characterize the contact that each player made, they would immediately characterize that type of impact as being a MIS-HIT or SHANK.

The reason for this is that the established, entrenched view of optimal contact on a groundstroke by the tennis coaching/instructional establishment is to create contact with the tennis ball where:

- The ball makes impact with the strings in the (geometric) center of the racket

- The racket face is (perfectly) perpendicular to the ground at before, at and after impact (i.e. stays perpendicular at all times, and does not tilt either forward or backward).

The fact that the images show the “distortion” of the racket face after contact would be interpreted by the vast majority of tennis coaches and instructors and even sports scientists as clear evidence of a mis-hit, rather than (what they understand to be) “clean” contact.

Now, if 25 (and counting) Grand Slam singles trophies and nearly $150 million (and counting) in prize money alone (if you count their endorsement earnings as well, their total earnings easily surpass over $500 million) can be achieved by “shanking” 80 percent of your forehands in this specific manner, maybe we need to adjust our perception and thinking about what makes for optimal contact on a tennis forehand.

And, if we should re-think what optimal contact is, then it would also be logical to conclude that we would also need to re-think how to produce the body movements required to generating the same type of contact as Federer and Nadal do on their “SlamMaker” forehands nearly 80 percent of the time.

Are the forehand mechanics used by Federer and Nadal so different from the other great tennis forehands that came before them – like those of Sampras, Agassi, Lendl, Borg, etc.?

If you have read the opinions that are out there on that question, you would mainly gather that the answer to that question is NO. In their view, Roger and Rafa’s forehand mechanics:

- Are nothing really different from other great forehand mechanics;

- Do not involve any movements that haven’t been seen or used in other great forehands; and

- Are put together using the components from the “super forehand toolbox” that all the greats draw from, just in a different way...

Bottom line is, the experts out there conclude that Federer and Nadal have either:

1) “just put together the same moves that have always been used to create great forehands together in a different way”; or,

2) “their forehand mechanics are simply a ‘re-synthesis’ of the stock moves of the great forehands in tennis history”.

According to them, there has been no evolution or revolution of forehand mechanics, just a re-hash, although it's a brilliant re-hash of the same old forehand moves by Messers Federer and Nadal...

Yet another interesting observation is that we haven’t yet come across anyone who has, or apparently, is willing or able to present anything beyond a detailed description of either the Federer or Nadal forehand.

No one has taken that next step to go beyond “describing” the movements they see, and put forth a clear instructional “roadmap” to help players develop the same forehand mechanics used by Roger and Rafa.

If such a roadmap to striking a forehand like Federer and Nadal really existed, one thing we would have already seen is a surge of young, up-and-coming players Federer and Nadal clones who strike the same massive forehands using the same mechanics as their idols. (Much in the same way that legions of young Tiger Woods clones emerged soon after Butch Harmon-era-Tiger began dominating the PGA Tour…)

Instead, all we are seeing – at least in the US – is the same old, semi-western, high-loop backswing, double-bend structure at contact, and windshield wiper follow-through topspin forehand (as demonstrated so clearly by Andy Roddick and John Isner) that’s taught as the current stock and trade “modern forehand” by today’s tennis coaching/teaching establishment.

So, our mission here is to present that instructional roadmap to help you develop the forehand mechanics used by their originators, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, to win 25 (and counting) Grand Slam singles titles.

Now, let’s give you a preview of the next stop on this roadmap to achieving Federer-Nadal forehand mechanics.

When you “see” with your eyes how the racket moves from the point where each player starts their racket toward impact until the point in their follow-through when their racket hand reaches shoulder height, the position of their racket face leading into impact (the yellow lines), at impact (the green line), and after impact (the red lines) would like the following:


If you want to reproduce the same mechanics used by Roger and Rafa, at the very heart of the matter, you must reproduce the racket (face) positions they use to achieve the same result they do.

We’ll begin drilling down into this fundamental characteristic of the Federer-Nadal forehand next time.

And we promise to not only to show you what we “see” with our eyes, we will also - at last - explain to you the how’s and why’s behind those $500 Million Moves.


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At 12:44 PM, Blogger brendan.braybrook said...

is the ball still in contact with the racquet after the racquet face breaks overtop the ball (showing that the change in plane is imparting some spin), or is it only breaking after the ball has left the racquet face (in which case it just might be highly developed timing on their part to decelerate the racket with a loose wrist)?


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