Recreation and Parks Department
Is Your Brain Hard-Wired to Hit a Tennis Ball Incorrectly?
(or How Monkeys Can Teach You Proper Stroke Technique!)
Dr. Keith Coleman, LMHC, USPTA Pro 1
The theory that your brain is hard-wired, in it's relation to your wrist, to hit a tennis ball incorrectly was the idea that Joseph Cohen (and his colleagues) intuited when they set about to develop the teaching aid, "The Racket Bracket". Bow Rodgers, the developer of "The Wrist Assist", must have reached a similar conclusion through observation and experience.
The wrist, in concert with your brain, when left to its own devices will flex and make numerous adjustments to hit the tennis ball at multiple contact points. Thus, exponentially increasing your inconsistency. It also, inadvertently, "trains" your body NOT to prepare for the ball appropriately and your feet NOT to get into the proper position for consistent ball striking (the bane of most players from beginners to pros).
Tennis pro, John Yandell (and others) have proven through high speed digital photography (up to 250 frames per second) that, "there is NO wrist snap involved in pro forehands." But if the brain and wrist are hard wired for excessive wrist flexion (snapping the wrist), what's a player who wants to improve to do? Up until recently, the answer was to hit thousands of balls under the watchful supervision of a certified pro who understood proper stroke bio-mechanics, until a new neuronal and muscle pathway developed.
So where do the monkeys fit in? From the 1960's through the 1980's, *Edward Taub, Ph.D., worked with monkeys to study the effect of deafferenting one of their arms (severing the nerves in that arm that communicate with the brain), binding the undamaged arm, in the hope that the brain could "re-train" the damaged limb to work again. Against all odds and hundreds of years of inaccurate neuroscience, Dr. Taub proved that the brain is "plastic" (capable of making enormous changes in neuronal connections when forced to do so). This amazing discovery revolutionized the treatment of many stroke victims. The treatment involved constraining the healthy limb (side) of a stroke victim and forcing them to use the "damaged" side. The results were phenomenal!
Previous therapies had averaged 15-20% gains in re-usage of the effected limbs. Taub's new treatment, Constraint Induced Movement Therapy (CIT), resulted in 80-90% re-usage gains by numerous patients. So what does this have to do with tennis technique?
Both the "Wrist Assist" and "Racket Bracket", effectively "constrain" the action of the wrist. In essence, they "re-wire" the neuronal and muscle pathways to develop the correct stroke technique. Unknowingly, Rogers and Cohen both intuited the application of Constraint Induced Therapy to tennis bio-mechanics.
I was trained to teach tennis by tennis legend, Don Budge and due to his enormous influence had been extremely skeptical of teaching "gimmicks" for the past 35 years of teaching, but I had also trained in cognitive neuroscience during those years.
I was reading Dr. Jeffery Schwartz' book, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force when I first saw advertisements for the "Racket Bracket" and "Wrist Assist" and it hit me that "they are both using CIT".
Obtaining each product, I was able to use them with numerous students over the summer in my role as the Head Pro at the Ocean City Tennis Center in Ocean City, Maryland. I was amazed at how quickly students began to "automatically" use the proper footwork, balance and kinetic chain to strike the tennis ball. Anecdotally, students preferred each product equally. Therefore, it is not my intention to endorse one product over the other, but to endorse the development of two effective teaching aids in stroke development that are supported by the best and most current cognitive neuroscience.
Do you want better strokes? Perhaps, a type of "constraint induced movement therapy" is just the answer! Try a "Wrist Assist" or "Racket Bracket" and re-train your brain to improve your game!
* PETA did castigate Dr. Taub for his treatment of the Silver Spring monkeys, but I believe he was exonerated by his contribution to the treatment of thousands of stroke victims and numerous other applications of CIT (tennis being only one of many)!
Becoming a Tennis Jedi Versus Always Opting for the Blaster.
(by Dr. Keith Coleman, USPTA, May 15, 2007)
Obiwan Kenobe told Luke, "the light sabre is a much more elegant and precise weapon than the blaster". Many tennis players could learn from that same adage from Star Wars.
My mentor, Don Budge, the former Grand Slam Champion, used to say all of the time that the lessons of tennis are best learned when simplified and concise. Today, many players have fallen in love with complicated (and sometimes, physiologically harmful) techniques for striking the ball in order to emulate the power game of the pros. If you are not above a 4.5 player or a regionally ranked junior player, your game will show much more improvement if you concentrate on the basics of efficient techniques (i.e. wrist firm through the hitting zone, long follow through, using your legs and hip rotation for power), than blasting every ball for a potential winner.
At these levels, the game is about eliminating unforced errors (not necessarily increasing your number of winners). Though try and tell any junior that truth. Greg Moran has recently written a wonderful book entitled, Tennis Beyond Big Shots, that I would enthusiastically endorse and encourage all players to add to their tennis libraries. "Tennis Magazine" recently had an excellent article by that 'ol "moonballer" himself, Harold Solomon on "10 Ways to Decrease Your Unforced Errors". These efforts to reign in the the "grip and rip" philosophy that is so rampant today should reap tremendous rewards as you hit the courts.
Muscle Memory and Stroke Production
(by Dr. Keith Coleman, USPTA, June 6, 2007)
Imagine a small bit of rain water running down the side of a mountain. Over a period of time and increasing rains, a small rivulet forms, then a stream, then a river! In some ways, this is a good analogy of what happens when tennis players practice effective technique and stroke production. Over a period of time, the muscles and the brain begin to "remember" the pathways that the arm (and feet, and core) and the racquet are taking toward the ball on various strokes. Therefore, especially when working with beginning students I try to get them to resist the temptation to get the ball back anyway that they can and focus on the motion of the stroke. Bobby Riggs reportedly said, "Practicing incorrectly is simply a way to perfect making errors". In sport psychology, we talk about learning versus performance goals. Clearly, most players step on the court with a desire to win. Beginners have a desire to keep the ball in the court, but if they could see that the learning goal of reproducing a fluid and reliable motion would achieve that goal faster than the myriad ways of blocking, shoveling, chopping the ball back to the other side of the court they would improve at a much faster rate of development. Focus on your beginning point and ending point of each stroke and with the exception of some minor racquet face corrections, you will be well on your way to dependable and reliable strokes! Let the "river run through it"!