Effective coaches use words strategically so that their message has the greatest positive impact and throughout my career, I have looked to find a better cue or phrase to coach with clarity. Sometimes the improvements that I have found are subtle yet they can be meaningful. I've developed a better ability to adapt to the unique learning style of each student by focusing on my communication skills and further, I've come to recognize that the most knowledgeable coaches are lifelong students who are always leading by example and reinventing themselves.
Below are some common tennis instructional phrases, or cues, that I often hear, and also my recommendation for what I believe to be better cues.
►Common Cue: "Bend your knees"
►Better Cue: "Hinge your hips" or "Get your butt back"
►Why: The purpose of bending is to lower your center of gravity so that your first step is quick and balanced. A focus on bending your knees may pitch you forward but an emphasis on pushing your butt back and hinging your hips will automatically lower your center of gravity and put you in an optimal starting position .
►Common Cue: "Reach up on your serve"
►Better Cue: "Push into the ground on your serve"
►Why: You get power from the ground as force is the result of an "equal and opposite action and reaction" Extension is not the goal of the serve but rather it is the result of strong mechanics as well as a great assessment that force has been delivered to the hit. Pushing into the ground will help extension to happen naturally and encourage maximum power delivery into the hit.
►Common Cue: "Punch the volley"
►Better Cue: "Catch the volley"
►Why: The ball and the racket are lively and reliability and stability of your racket rather that power is the most important attribute of a volley. Be like a wall and let the ball mostly reflect off of your strings. Then move to your target to add force. This method takes away the critical timing needed to execute the shot because it keeps the racket face in the path of the ball and promotes a compact, reliable and consistent movement.
►Common Cue: "Brush the ball"
►Better Cue: "Soften your grip"
►Why: When your racket exerts a force on the ball, the ball is also exerting a force on the racket. Brushing the ball takes split second timing and is very difficult to modulate for all but the most expert player. In contrast, allowing the ball to compress on your strings and slightly alter the racket angle to elicit spin is passive, reliable and therefore easier to execute.
►Common Cue: "Run as fast as you can to the ball"
►Better Cue: “Run as fast as you need to the ball"
►Why: Sprinting to the shot requires a lot of energy and slowing abruptly before the shot takes even more energy and usually causes you to lift your body at the worst possible moment. Sure you don't want to be late to the shot, but equally true and almost as disruptive to a good hit, you don't want to be early. The goal is to be on time so move smoothly, efficiently and as fast as needed.
►Common Cue: "Recover fast"
►Better Cue: “Finish the hit and recover fast"
►Why: The most important shot in tennis is the one you are hitting, not the shot that might or might not occur. Finish first before making the common mistake of recovering before finishing the hit. Smoothness and rhythm as said above are vital when executing the shot but less important when recovering from the shot so use the energy you saved running to the hit for a full effort from the hit to enhance your readiness for the next ball.
►Common Cue: "Step in"
►Better Cue: Step forward to the net"
►Why: Why use vague language when you can use specific language? Say exactly what you mean and don't assume that the student knows what you mean.
►Common Cue: "Low to high"
►Better Cue: "Drop your racket head and raise it as you swing forward"
►Why: See above and say what you mean.
►Common Cue: "Toss the ball"
►Better Cue: Place the ball"
►Why: The word "toss" is often interpreted to mean "use your arm" because that is how most people toss an object. The "serve toss" is more of a full body movement using your arm, torso, hips and legs. Saying "place the ball" conveys the message that using your full body is the goal.
►Common Cue: "Racket back early"
►Better Cue: "Coil your torso, early"
►Why: If you want to teach a unit turn it's best to not use language suggesting that the racket is prepared without the body. Further taking the racket back fast often causes the student to take the racket back with force which can cause many to believe that they are "late" when in fact they are simply mechanically disadvantaged. Finely referencing cues with body parts rather than racket parts are often easier for beginners.
►Common Cue: "Snap your wrist on your serve"
►Better Cue: "Relax your elbow and allow your wrist to flex"
►Why: The wrist movement on a serve is a very natural movement which will enviably happen if it is not prevented by tensing during the hit. It's a passive, not active movement because the wrist is primarily a transmitter and not a generator of force. Keep your arm loose and let the snap just happen.
►Common Cue: “Get into the ‘trophy position’”
►Better Cue: "Keep making circles with your elbow"
►Why: Trophies are stationary objects and the goal of the serve is to be as dynamic as possible. The reference to the static moment in time that a trophy represents can cause the serve to be choppy and disconnected. By making continuous circles with your elbow you will ensure that your serve is a connected part of the kinetic chain.
These cues should be adapted to the age and experience of the student. "Push into the ground using your ankles" might resonant with a Division I college player but "squish a bug with your foot" might be simpler cue for a nine-year-old beginner.
Furthermore, while not the main focus of this article, it should be noted that language cues work best when paired with object lessons. For example, before teaching someone to catch the volley, I might toss them the ball so that they can experience how much easier it is to allow the ball to be received into their hand then it is for them to dart their hand forward to intercept the ball.
Telling a student is not the same as coaching a student. The best coaching practices are the ones that are a good match to the student’s learning preferences.
Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.