I have players from all over the world coming to me to learn the secrets of movement and footwork in the Spanish system. On the pro tour, Spanish players are known for being the best movers … think Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and many others.
How do the Spanish teach footwork and movement so well? They start with the concept of "Receiving" and "Sending" the ball, which are important common phrases in the vernacular of the Spanish coach. Receiving the ball well means adjusting the body during the flight of the incoming ball in the most economical way and to achieve optimum balance in the shot. Sending the ball well means maintaining good posture and body control during the hit itself.
"Reading" is another common term in Spanish coaching. One of my longtime mentors, the legendary Spanish coach Lluis Bruguera, is obsessed with the way the eyes track the incoming ball and the quick reaction of the feet to get into position to “Receive the Ball.”
The player must see the ball coming off the opponent's racket very early and send a signal to the feet to move in a quick manner. Spanish players practice reading and reacting with many hand-fed and racket-fed drills that develop these skills.
Players must be able to move well, 360 degrees. If the ball is coming deep, they must be able to give ground and retreat, or defend effectively. If the ball is coming shorter, they must be able to take ground, move forward and attack. The ball should generally be received between the "hip and shoulder," a commonly used saying in Spain, which means in the best possible strike zone.
Players must maintain perfect balance with the back straight and head still during the hit. Spanish coaches often talk about not excessively "using the body." They want the player to organize the body well to send the shot in the most efficient way, and to create acceleration using the kinetic chain, but without excessive body noise or a loss of balance.
With this simple framework of Reading, Receiving and Sending, Spanish coaches are able to build players with the best movement, footwork and balance. The results are players with impeccable efficiency and grace as they move around the court with incredible consistency. Spanish players get to a lot of balls and rarely give away unforced errors. Moving well and consistently are key pillars of the Spanish style of training
While many systems I have studied teach footwork techniques very well, they are complicated and skill-focused. Russian, Eastern European and Israeli styles do an excellent job building individual footwork skills, such as general coordination, recovery, adjustment steps, split-steps and other specific movement patterns. The Bailey Method, developed by David Bailey from Australia, is another excellent system of teaching the various skills needed to move around the court. Developing these specific skills, especially at a young age, is very important.
In Spain, however, the coaches tend to focus on the big picture of movement: Reading, Receiving and Sending. Perhaps because the players grow up on slippery red clay, many of the important skills and coordination steps are helped naturally by the surface, and are not needed to be taught as specifically as other systems in other regions of the globe.
In my teaching here in the United States, I like to emphasize the Spanish approach with players who are natural movers with good overall coordination and a good mastery of the essential specific footwork patterns needed to succeed at a high level of tennis. In my experience, some children are blessed with naturally good movement instincts and skills, and do not need as much footwork training as players who are less gifted.
But for most players, movement and footwork on the court can be a struggle. If general coordination is lacking and the player does not have a complete mastery of the essential skills, I like to pull from the Russian, Israeli or Eastern European approach, or the Bailey Method, to help those players with specific skills. However, I strongly believe that there is a danger in getting too complicated in footwork training and wasting a lot of time teaching and repeating skills that are not necessary or already acquired. I also see many coaches who are too rigid when they teach footwork and they try to force all players into one cookie-cutter form of moving on the court. Some coaches who are good at teaching footwork are obsessed with it and waste valuable time teaching skills that are not essential, or they reinforce skills that are already mastered.
One aspect of Spanish footwork training that I love is that it's flexible—not dogmatic or rigid. So long as players move fast, efficiently and with balance, they are allowed to move in distinct ways that support their individuality. Spanish footwork and movement training is also very simple and easy to learn. It is a system that gets players moving well faster than other approaches.
If a child is struggling with their movement, parents need to assess why this is. Does the player need help with coordination, split-step, recovery step and other specific footwork techniques? Does the player struggle with eye-tracking, reaction and balance? Whatever the movement issue, try to find a coach who is an expert in teaching the various individual skills, as well as the big picture Spanish concepts of Reading, Receiving and Sending to get your player on the path to better consistency!