At the most recent PTR International Symposium for coaches, featuring more than 600 coaches from around the world, I was a presenter on the topic of Spanish exercises and principles.
One of the main points of the presentation was the importance of footwork and movement training in the Spanish system and how here in the United States—and many other countries—players are often not taught how to move fluidly and efficiently.
In the U.S. in particular, it’s still surprising to me how many times I observe lessons and classes that do not incorporate good movement and footwork drills, and how many players are basically taught to swing from primarily static or stationary positions.
Frequently, players drill a shot repeatedly from a singular spot on the court, with little emphasis on reading the incoming ball or proper body positioning with the feet. The stroke starts to look decent, but movement to the ball and a dynamic shot is never emphasized, and the shot will break down under movement pressure. This is a huge mistake.
Training the hands, feet and eyes: Mind in concert
In Spain, the coaches have a philosophy that incorporates the hands (strokes) and the feet (footwork and movement), as well as the eyes and mind (anticipatory reading and tactical decisions-making). The goal is to develop players who are competent in all three areas and also to develop harmony between all three areas.
Often, what I see in the U.S. is an obsession with the hands part—the strokes. While strokes are important, you cannot hit the ball well if you are not in a good position to receive it. In Spain, a lot of the drill time is focused on reading and receiving the ball well, with good anticipation by the eyes/mind and movement by the feet. In fact, this positioning is an absolute obsession in the Spanish method.
Moving well in 360 degrees
I have many players coming to me whose strokes look decent enough, but as soon as we start to play, they break down and make mistakes when moving forward and back or left and right. It’s very common to see players who can rally well from the middle of the court, but who make errors when stretched to the far reaches of the court.
Players need to be taught to move in all directions with speed and efficiency. They need to learn to set up for a difficult shot with balance, and control their body posture during the stroke. Players need to learn to hit shots from uncomfortable positions, including defensive and counter-punching positions. While some players do this well intuitively, most do not and they need to be specifically taught by their coaches.
I find it remarkable that parents paying for expensive lessons do not realize this important tenet of the modern game of tennis: That the importance of movement is at an all-time high and is a premium quality to develop. Coaches cannot just develop nice strokes and neglect the movement skills needed to be consistent and rally well, defend well and counterpunch effectively—and parents should demand better.
The scene in New York
I see this failure particularly with our New York high school junior varsity and varsity players who are rarely asked to RUN! And more importantly perhaps, are not taught HOW to run and set up well with their feet. The result is a lack of consistency and shot tolerance, which means these players cannot rally for very long, and cannot really structure points well tactically because an unforced error arises too early in the point. Many younger children are also not taught good movement skills at a time when their motor and nervous systems are primed to receive speed, agility and coordination training—which is a vital lost opportunity.
Compounding the situation, these same players, who cannot rally very long due to their poor movement skills, are taught hyper-aggressive games where they must attack every ball. They adopt a very risky style and strategy, and their tactical decision-making skills deteriorate. Often, they will rush haphazardly to the net because they know that, on the baseline, they are toast if the rally extends relatively long. I’ve discussed the danger of rushing to the net irresponsibly in my article “Lessons I’ve Learned From Spain” in the January/February 2018 issue of New York Tennis Magazine. The end result is that we are left with many New York players who are inconsistent because they do not move well and play with very high-risk games. A double whammy!
Of course, this is anathema to how they develop players in Spain, where the coaches are obsessed with developing good movers who can make a lot of balls over the net and rally well. Consistency is prioritized over power shots. Defense is of equal importance as compared to attack. Great praise is placed on players who run well and suffer well to make one extra ball.
I think it’s ironic that our ultra-disciplined New York area high school kids—who are going to some of the toughest academic schools in the country, studying extra hours late into the night to score top grades, and juggling intense school and extracurricular activities—are not asked to channel some of that discipline into their footwork and movement on the tennis court. These are successful human beings—future champions of the world, who understand what it takes to be a winner off the court. On the court, however, the standard they are asked to uphold is surprisingly low. If the coaches demand it, these kids can supply it!
Around the country
Around the U.S., it is common to see a lack of good defense, especially to the backhand corner and weak backhand acceleration. In addition, players often struggle to use a good open stance backhand for defense and emergency shots. This can be seen all the way to the pro level with many well-known American players struggling with their movement, their footwork and running stroke mechanics to the backhand side, such as past champions like Andy Roddick, and currently, Francis Tiafoe, among many others. This phenomenon has been noted by Tim Mayotte in a previous article for New York Tennis Magazine—and he is correct.
At the junior development level, it is remarkable how many kids come to me from around the U.S. with stiff two-handed backhands and an inability to load and play off the open stance. Those two skills, in particular, need to be trained better. We need to develop better acceleration on the backhand and better movement laterally. This is an area that USTA Player Development, under the guidance of Jose Higueras, has started addressing and we now have more players with better running backhands, acceleration and footwork.
Lateral sliding and moving forwards diagonally
I also see many players from all over the U.S. who have rarely, if ever, played on clay, and they don’t know how to slide laterally or move forwards diagonally to retrieve short balls. If we want our players to compete well internationally and win at clay court events in Europe, these also are essential skills. There are pockets of the country that just don’t have many clay courts and rarely have a clay court tournament. This is another area where the USTA is facilitating change across the U.S., by installing many green and red clay courts at the new National Campus in Lake Nona, Fla., and promoting more clay court events around the country at the junior and pro level. When players play more on clay, they tend to develop better balance and agility, sliding and defensive skills, and their acceleration is enhanced because the courts are slow and the players must inherently learn to generate more spin and racket speed in order to survive.
It’s a disservice not to teach good movement and footwork skills to our American players around the country. Because speed and movement is at a special premium on the international level, we cannot compete as a nation without better movers. On a local and individual level, players will also always have holes in their games if they are not taught these important skills. Especially in at the local high school level in the Eastern Section, it’s currently a travesty how poorly our junior varsity and varsity kids are moving. Their footwork, in particular, really needs to improve. In addition, be on the lookout for stiff two-handed backhands on the run and make sure your player is comfortable loading with an open stance when necessary in emergency situations, especially laterally. Moreover, sliding and lateral movement forwards to short balls is another commonly-neglected area of movement skills that needs to be improved upon.
When a country comes together to build better movers and stresses greater emphasis on the importance of movement and footwork skills, players at all levels will improve. A rising tide will lift all boats.
Chris Lewit, a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player, coaches in the New York City area and also runs a high-performance boarding summer camp in Southern Vermont. He specializes in training aspiring junior tournament players using progressive Spanish and European training methods. His best-selling book, Secrets of Spanish Tennis, has helped coaches and players worldwide learn how to train the Spanish way. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail ChrisLewit@gmail.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.