The Kryptonite of Player Development – Stroke Mechanics.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr. Brian Gordon and do not necessarily reflect the position of TCPR, it’s specialists or it’s partners.

Background

From a very early age, long before I heard the term “Biomechanics”, I found technique in sports fascinating. My childhood was spent going from sport to sport, season to season. It was an era long before specialization in one sport for kids. During that time I spent countless hours thinking about and experimenting with technique in many sports to find what worked best. It seemed obvious to me: to be the best I could be the technique I used had to be great – everything else was secondary.

The fascination continued into my early coaching which in turn led me into graduate studies of what I then knew to be “Biomechanics”.  I returned to full time coaching after many years of study and research in human biomechanics (Ph.D.) focusing on it’s application to tennis stroke mechanics. At that point I had developed a deep understanding of how high-level strokes worked from a neuromuscular-skeletal perspective. I had also created very sophisticated tools to analyze mechanics. Naturally I thought players and coaches would be very interested in the intellectual and assessment advances I had made. Boy… was I wrong.

What is the Big Deal?

It seems that the primary segment of the tennis world interested in stroke mechanics resides in faceless chat rooms and in endless videos peddled to unsuspecting recreational players. From a high-level player development perspective stroke mechanics is kryptonite in a large number of programs. To me this defies logic since the ability to hit high quality shots is the most important skill required to succeed and technique is explicitly linked to high quality shot production. Movement is just a prerequisite (albeit an important one) and conversations about tactics start (and often end) with the ability to hit certain shots.

I’m often amazed when a player comes to my court only to produce an epic meltdown at the mere suggestion of an even minor change to their technique. High-level young players by ranking that clearly will ultimately be limited by obvious debilitating flaws in their strokes. These players have apparently been indoctrinated by a tennis culture that has downplayed the significance of organized stroke mechanics intervention much as it has preached game based development. Tennis has created its own set of rules that seem to be in contrast to the rest of the sporting world. But the interesting question is why… why the aversion to defining proper technique and building it into players as a point of emphasis?

Possible Explanations

I suppose the answer is complex and multifaceted. Given my position as a coach and sport scientist, and based on my publications on the subject of stroke mechanics, I’ve been subjected to many of the arguments against systematic building of technical skills. Some are explicit and some are implied but among the main points are:

Lack of Understanding – Stroke mechanics is often associated with only the technique used on tennis strokes. What many fail to realize is the important link between technique and shot output (speed, spin, direction and trajectory). So stroke mechanics is really building the base and adaptive techniques TO PRODUCE high-level shots under variable and extreme conditions. The technique and shot outputs are inseparable and are trained in tandem by design in a credible stroke mechanics program.

“Paralysis by Analysis” – Technical focus interferes with a player’s ability to play. The underlying assumption is that thinking about technique precludes one from thinking about more important factors and thus “locks up” performance. It implies tennis players are inherently stupid and not capable of moderate levels of complexity or multitasking in their development. I reject that implication.

Technical Expertise – The skill set required for a coach to address stroke mechanics in a meaningful way is more extensive than for other areas of tennis performance. To do so properly requires at least moderate background in biomechanics and muscle physiology and extensive study of the history and evolution of stroke mechanics at high levels. In the absence of that knowledge it is simpler to just write off stroke mechanics as simple and not that critical.

No Right Way – Admittedly there are many ways to hit a ball into the court. There is not much consensus on if there is a better or best way to execute a given stroke. Therefore, even in the face of compelling evidence that certain attributes of strokes are biomechanically superior, it is often simpler and safer to just say a player should do what feels best naturally and not worry about the details.

Complexity of Training – Systematic focus on stroke technique is very difficult, tedious work requiring a lot of individual attention and often player frustration. Most coaches and many players simply don’t have the patience for this. A technical approach also introduces a much higher level of accountability for the coach. If I change a kid’s forehand and she tanks 50 balls into the fence in her next tournament I’m getting a call.

Game vs. Skills based Philosophy – As I explained in a previous article (“Game” or “Skills” Based Player Development”) the high performance training approach these days leans towards game based training. This training approach is in conflict with extensive training in the primary tennis skill – stroke mechanics. Therefore, proponents of game based systems must by definition down play stroke mechanics as a significant part of the player development process.

The Current Environment

To be fair, the aversion to stroke mechanics in player development is not universal. Some programs put a greater emphasis on stroke mechanics than others and this varies by geographic location. The problem is, in my experience, that the technical instruction is not based on empirical evidence or formally educated thinking. Rather the instruction is based on questionable interpretation of top player’s technique, based on the opinion of well-known coaches, or based on outdated age-old concepts passed down through the generations. The credibility of this instruction is, in many cases, at best dubious and at worst stifling to innovation. Either way it tends to predestine certain demographics into a infinite cycle of “follow the leader”. A case in point is the mechanical evolution of female athletes that I will address in another article.

I would argue based on my experience that the predominant approach to stroke mechanics in player development is trending toward the philosophy that “strokes should develop on their own”. This philosophy is consistent with the “game based” player development approach and, at it’s extreme, assumes that if a player simply plays enough they will figure out a way to hit the ball at a high-level. While this may be true for a minuscule proportion of players, I never cease to be amazed when players training at some of the most known and prestigious academies show up at my court with some of the worst mechanics imaginable.  When I query as to if these obvious flaws are being addressed at their academy they generally reply: “we don’t talk about technique there”.

Conclusion

Obviously I am not an unbiased observer to this issue. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life working to understand stroke mechanics and build credible solutions into players of all ages and genders. I strongly believe that the ceiling to the player development pathway should be based on genetics, not deficiencies in technique – something I see at every level of tennis including the pros. The only way to do this, in my opinion, is with an extensive focus on building stroke mechanics (swing technique and the associated shot outputs) as the foundation of a development program – not as an afterthought or prayer.

At the same time I am mindful, and reminded on a regular basis, that my position on this subject is controversial and not necessarily in line with a large segment of the tennis establishment except in a very abstract way. But… the devil is in the details. As a player or parent navigating the player development journey I think it is important to understand how a program views stroke development – the approach may not be readily apparent so ask specific questions to make sure their philosophy is consistent with yours. The debate continues – there is too much at stake and too many deeply rooted and long held “truths” for this one to be figured out anytime soon. Stay Tuned.