How to Return a 147mph Serve
Watching the Andy Murray returning master class while dismantling Milos Raonic during the 2016 Wimbledon Final it is tempting to think he must be a freak of nature. That he has the reaction speeds of a superhero to return serves approaching 150mph.
This is the common belief, that the elites of the game have special genetic gifts like incredible reaction speed which separates them from the average player and allows them to perform at another level. This is actually a misconception and the best tennis players actually have no better reaction speed than the rest of us [at 200 milliseconds], so what is the secret to returning a 200km/h serve as easily as Federer makes it look.
In David Epstein’s fascinating book “The Sports Gene” [well worth a read] he reveals that what Murray and his cohorts have is incredible anticipation. They can read the body movements of their opponents, recognise the key cues and begin reacting earlier, not quicker, than the average club player.
The great news for coaches is that anticipation is a perceptual skill that anyone can learn. In fact a perceptual motor skill sport like tennis, learned perceptual skills are actually more advanced in top players than genetic factors like fast twitch muscle fibers and therefore in the right environment a young athlete can flourish as a tennis player.
No one is born with good anticipation skills. Everyone must go through that novice phase where they have the think and process the information slowly before reacting. So what can we, as coaches, do to develop the skill of anticipation in our players?
The first thing we must understand is that Murray’s anticipation is based on a vast database of experience that he calls upon every time he receives a shot, experience and not genetic gifts it turns out is the foundation of Murray’s mastery. The second thing is that elite players are unlikely to be able to describe the process of anticipation – this would defeat the purpose of great anticipation. Great anticipation involves acting instinctively, not thinking, so we have somewhat of a lack of information on the process of developing great anticipation skills.
So our first action can be to create an environment where players get heaps of opportunities to practice anticipation.
Beware the Ball Machine
Elite cricket outfits are beginning to move away from using ball machines during their training because they don’t train the body recognition skills needed for anticipation. Ball machines can be valuable for honing strokes and building up reps, but if possible create realistic receiving situations for your players from the beginning. Just like stroke technique needs repetition, anticipation needs repetition so the more game like situations created the better.
Ball machines aren’t always “Lobsters” or “Silent Partners.” When a coach feeds they can have the effect of ball machine if they churn balls out like a factory. When feeding can you:-
- Vary the length of your backswing ie. Bigger loop for a deep feed
- Manipulate the spin ie. topspin to keep a player on the baseline
- React to the players previous stroke ie. If a player hits a weak stroke, feed the next ball in aggressively to simulate the actions of an opponent during a match
Think before you feed to create realistic situations and ask yourself why are you feeding? Can the players feed to each other? This will bring the benefits of allowing the coach to concentrate on the key skills of observing and instructing; build independence and co-operative skills in your group; allow for more practice; AND create varied and realistic receiving situations.
Grow the Bubble
Anticipation involves reading the body movements of the opponent, we know that most young tennis players don’t have awareness of their opponent and in fact don’t track the ball unless it is on their side of the net. A simple game to help improve their awareness is to ask them to call the “HIT” of their opponent, growing the bubble they are playing in to include the other side of the net. If their attention is on the contact point of their opponent they may observe a range of critical cues. You may even progress this game so players call out “TROUBLE” if their opponent contacts the ball while off balance or out of position.
Developing anticipation skills can start from the beginning of a child’s red – orange – green journey. These simple activities discussed can be included in your favourite games and drills to add depth and complexity. If you have a top little player who is a little slower than you would like, train their speed and anticipation skills simultaneously to create a compounding effect on their reception skills around the court.
For some more great practical ideas sign up to an evolve9 membership to download “Accelerating Anticipation”