What Can Tennis Players Learn From Bruce Lee


Bruce Lee
Picture from Wikipedia
Surely you've heard of the legendary Bruce Lee, the great martial artist.

You may have seen some of his movies and saw his fighting and acting skills.

But what you may have missed is that Bruce Lee was an extraordinary person with great insight into the art of fighting.

What has this to do with tennis?

Well, tennis is fighting on distance and the philosophy of fighting is almost the same - whether it's a full contact art or art of outplaying your opponent with a racquet and a ball.

I also wasn't aware of the deep insights of Bruce Lee into the human psychology and the art of fighting until I saw a video interview with Bruce.

His explanation of fighting technique was very similar of what I personally think about tennis technique.

I've found a website that lists Bruce Lee's quotes about his Jeet Kun Do (JKD) fighting style and I'll try and show you the analogy between his view of fighting and how this applies to tennis.

On JKD not being a style

I have not invented a "new style," composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from "this" method or "that" method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds.

Tennis technique and teaching methods do not have to cling to certain styles, patterns or molds. You are free to use your body, racquet and the ball in any way you like in order to achieve your goal.

There are no points in tennis for correctly executed follow-through.

There is no mystery about my style. My movements are simple, direct and non-classical. The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity. Every movement in Jeet Kune-Do is being so of itself. There is nothing artificial about it. I always believe that the easy way is the right way. Jeet Kune-Do is simply the direct expression of one's feelings with the minimum of movements and energy.

Your tennis movements need to be simple, direct and non-classical. There should be no artificial part about your technique. And yes, the easy way (meaning the most comfortable way) is the right way.

Andre Agassi's technique is simple and non-artifical. His arms coordinate in a natural way with the legs and body.

On Martial Arts Styles

To reach the masses, some sort of big organization (whether) domestic and foreign branch affiliation, is not necessary. To reach the growing number of students, some sort of pre-conformed set must be established as standards for the branch to follow. As a result all members will be conditioned according to the prescribed system. Many will probably end up as a prisoner of a systematized drill.

Typically, tennis technique is taught is certain procedures and drills. The end result is that most people end up conditioned as prisoners of this limited teaching method.

Styles tend to not only separate men - because they have their own doctrines and then the doctrine became the gospel truth that you cannot change. But if you do not have a style, if you just say: Well, here I am as a human being, how can I express myself totally and completely? Now, that way you won't create a style, because style is a crystallization. That way, it's a process of continuing growth.

The game of tennis requires you to hit the ball with the racquet over the net into the marked area. How can you express yourself totally and completely in attempting to hit the ball with the racquet over the net into the marked area?

That is the way to develop your personal and most effective technique and consequently the most effective way to win the game.

On adapting to each student

I believe in having a few pupils at one time as it requires a constant alert observation of each individual in order to establish a direct relationship. A good teacher can never be fixed in a routine... each moment requires a sensitive mind that is constantly changing and constantly adapting.

A teacher must never impose this student to fit his favourite pattern; a good teacher functions as a pointer, exposing his student's vulnerability (and) causing him to explore both internally and finally integrating himself with his being. Martial art should not be passed out indiscriminately.


Read the above two paragraphs again and imagine a tennis teacher / coach every time your read the word "teacher".

On creating your personal way of fighting

Learn the principle, abide by the principle, and dissolve the principle. In short, enter a mold without being caged in it. Obey the principle without being bound by it. LEARN, MASTER AND ACHIEVE!!!

Learn the principles of tennis - understand the relationship between the ball and the racquet, the speed, height, angle and spin and play the game using these principles without being molded into a limited technique.

To me, ultimately, martial arts means honestly expressing yourself. Now, it is very difficult to do. It has always been very easy for me to put on a show and be cocky, and be flooded with a cocky feeling and feel pretty cool and all that.

I can make all kinds of phoney things. Blinded by it. Or I can show some really fancy movement. But to experience oneself honestly, not lying to oneself, and to express myself honestly, now that is very hard to do.


Is it also very easy for you to be cocky with the racquet and pretend with some fancy moves that you know how to serve? What is you try not to lie to yourself and others and just express yourself honestly with movements which you feel are needed to direct the ball into the service box?

On the power of the fluid

Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.


Follow Bruce Lee's thoughts above and imagine yourself on a tennis court playing against an opponent. How would you play if you thought of yourself being like water?

On reacting to the opponent

The highest technique is to have no technique. My technique is a result of your technique; my movement is a result of your movement.

Exactly. The tennis technique is the consequence of the type of the incoming ball and the type of the ball you intend to hit.

A good JKD man does not oppose force or give way completely. He is pliable as a spring; he is the complement and not the opposition to his opponent's strength. He has no technique; he makes his opponent's technique his technique. He has no design; he makes opportunity his design.

A good tennis player is able to use opponent's power to neutralize the ball (slow it down) or use opponent's power to hit fast without effort.

One should not respond to circumstance with artificial and "wooden" prearrangement. Your action should be like the immediacy of a shadow adapting to its moving object. Your task is simply to complete the other half of the oneness spontaneously. In combat, spontaneity rules; rote performance of technique perishes.

One should not respond to each incoming ball with artificial and "wooden" prearranged tennis technique.

On readiness

Do not be tense, just be ready, not thinking but not dreaming, not being set but being flexible. It is being "wholly" and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.

This applies 100% to tennis too.

The danger of training with the heavy bag is that it doesn't react to one's attack and sometimes there is a tendency to thoughtlessness. One will punch the bag carelessly, and would be vulnerable in a real situation if this became a habit.

The danger of training with a ball machine or with someone feeding balls to you is that they don't react to your attackes and there is a tendency of thoughtlessness. One will hit the ball carelessly and would be vulnerable in a real situation if this became a habit.

On simplicity

In JKD, one does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.

The mastery of tennis technique runs towards simplicity not towards more complex movements.

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick.

The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation. Jeet Kune-Do is basically a sophisticated fighting style stripped to its essentials.


Before someone understands tennis technique, a forehand looks like a simple forehand. After you learn the art of tennis technique, a forehand is no longer just a forehand.

But once you understand the art of tennis technique, the forehand again becomes a simple forehand shot - the ability to hit the ball in a desired way with utmost simplicity.

A mastery of tennis technique is merely a sophisticated set of movements stripped to its essentials.

Sampras' forehand technique is stripped down to a simple movement and yet it was one of the most effective shots in men's tennis.

Art is the expression of the self. The more complicated and restricted the method, the less the opportunity for expression of one's original sense of freedom.

Though they play an important role in the early stage, the techniques should not be too mechanical, complex or restrictive. If we cling blindly to them, we shall eventually become bound by their limitations. Remember, you are expressing the techniques and not doing the techniques. If somebody attacks you, your response is not Technique No.1, Stance No. 2, Section 4, Paragraph 5.

Instead you simply move in like sound and echo, without any deliberation. It is as though when I call you, you answer me, or when I throw you something, you catch it. It's as simple as that - no fuss, no mess. In other words, when someone grabs you, punch him.

To me a lot of this fancy stuff is not functional. A martial artist who drills exclusively to a set pattern of combat is losing his freedom. He is actually becoming a slave to a choice pattern and feels that the pattern is the real thing.

It leads to stagnation because the way of combat is never based on personal choice and fancies, but constantly changes from moment to moment, and the disappointed combatant will soon find out that his 'choice routine' lacks pliability. There must be a 'being' instead of a 'doing' in training. One must be free. Instead of complexity of form, there should be simplicity of expression.

To me, the extraordinary aspect of martial arts lies in its simplicity. The easy way is also the right way, and martial arts is nothing at all special; the closer to the true way of martial arts, the less wastage of expression there is.


In readind the above paragraphs just keep in mind a tennis player and his technique.

In building a statue, a sculptor doesn't keep adding clay to his subject. Actually, he keeps chiselling away at the inessentials until the truth of its creation is revealed without obstructions. Thus, contrary to other styles, being wise in Jeet Kune-Do doesn't mean adding more; it means to minimize, in other words to hack away the unessential. It is not daily increase but daily decrease; hack away the unessential.

Your goal as a tennis coach and a player is not to add more to you the complexity of the tennis technique. Your goal should be to exert less energy, move less and still achieve the same or even better effectiveness of your shots.

On form, no - form

Too much horsing around with unrealistic stances and classic forms and rituals is just too artificial and mechanical, and doesn't really prepare the student for actual combat. A guy could get clobbered while getting into this classical mess. Classical methods like these, which I consider a form of paralysis, only solidify and constrain what was once fluid. Their practitioners are merely blindly rehearsing routines and stunts that will lead nowhere.

Could this apply to tennis coaching and tennis technique too?

I believe that the only way to teach anyone proper self-defence is to approach each individual personally. Each one of us is different and each one of us should be taught the correct form. By correct form I mean the most useful techniques the person is inclined toward. Find his ability and then develop these techniques.

I don't think it is important whether a side kick is performed with the heel higher than the toes, as long as the fundamental principle is not violated. Most classical martial arts training is a mere imitative repetition - a product - and individuality is lost.


The only way to teach anyone proper tennis is to approach each individual personally. It's not important whether a forehand follow-through is above the shoulder, below the shoulder or near the hips as long as the fundamental principles are not violated.

Most classical tennis technique is a mere imitative repetition and individuality is lost.

When one has reached maturity in the art, one will have a formless form. It is like ice dissolving in water. When one has no form, one can be all forms; when one has no style, he can fit in with any style.

Can this apply to tennis too?

Roger Federer's follow-through on this forehand is not artificial in any way. The incoming ball, his position on court and the type of the ball he wants to play automatically determine his technique.

On efficiency and flexibility

In primary freedom, one utilizes all ways and is bound by none, and likewise uses any techniques or means which serves one's end. Efficiency is anything that scores. Efficiency in sparring and fighting is not a matter of correct classical, traditional form. Efficiency is anything that scores.

Creating fancy forms and classical sets to replace sparring is like trying to wrap and tie a pound of water into a manageable shape of paper sack. For something that is static, fixed, dead, there can be a way or a definite path; but not for anything that is moving and living. In sparring there's no exact path or method, but instead a perceptive, pliable, choice-less awareness. It lives from moment to moment.

When in actual combat, you're not fighting a corpse. Your opponent is a living, moving object who is not in a fixed position, but fluid and alive. Deal with him realistically, not as though you're fighting a robot. Traditionally, classical form and efficiency are both equally important.

I'm not saying form is not important - economy of form that is - but to me, efficiency is anything that scores. Don't indulge in any unnecessary, sophisticated moves. You'll get clobbered if you do, and in a street fight you'll have your shirt zipped off you.


Efficieny is anything that scores. You don't get any points in tennis for performing a correct follow-through.

When in actual play, you're not fighting a corpse. Don't indulge in any unnecessary, sophisticated moves. You'll get clobbered if you do, and in a tennis match you'll be blown off the court.

On the tools of the trade

I refer to my hands, feet and body as the tools of the trade. The hands and feet must be sharpened and improved daily to be efficient. It is true that the mental aspect of kung-fu is the desired end; however, to achieve this end, technical skill must come first.

The techniques, though they play an important role in the early stage, should not be too restrictive, complex or mechanical. If we cling to them, we will become bound by their limitation. Remember, you are expressing the technique, and not doing Technique number two, Stance three, Section four?


Remember, you are expressing the technique, and not doing the Footwork: semi-open stance with a gravity step that transfers into a recovery step afterwards.

Situations in tennis require that you quickly adapt your footwork and strokes which don't fit into any of the typical techniques taught in lessons.

Practice all movements slow and fast, soft and hard; the effectiveness of Jeet Kune-Do depends on split-second timing and reflexive action, which can be achieved only through repetitious practice.

When performing the movements, always use your imagination. Picture your adversary attacking, and use Jeet Kune-Do techniques in response to this imagined attack. As these techniques become more innate, new meaning will begin to emerge and better techniques can be formulated.


Practice tennis movements slow and fast with many repetitions. Always use your imagination and picture your opponent attacking or being on defense and use your strokes and movements in response to this imagined attack or defense.

On toughness

A fight is not won by one punch or kick. Either learn to endure or hire a bodyguard.

Forget about winning and losing; forget about pride and pain. Let your opponent graze your skin and you smash into his flesh; let him smash into your flesh and you fracture his bones; let him fracture your bones and you take his life. Do not be concerned with escaping safely - lay your life before him.


A tennis match is not won by one winner or ace. Learn to endure the number of winners from your opponent and mistakes on your side.

Let your opponent break your serve and you breaking back. Let him take a set and you take the second set. Do not be concerned with winning safely - you can't beat good players on 0.

On sparring

The combatant should be alive in sparring, throwing punches and kicks from all angles, and should not be a co-operative robot. Like water, sparring should be formless. Pour water into a cup, it becomes part of the cup. Pour it into a bottle; it becomes part of the bottle.

Try to kick or punch it, it is resilient; clutch it and it will yield without hesitation. In fact, it will escape as pressure is being applied to it. How true it is that nothingness cannot be confined. The softest thing cannot be snapped.


Your sparring partner should be alive and not a co-operative robot. He should be attacking with serves, returns, aggressive play from the baseline and pressure play on the net.

Like water, sparring should be formless. Do not limit yourself into hitting cross court shots for 10 minutes. This never happens in a match. Rather play a sparring match with no limitations and adapt to your opponent's tactics like water to its surroundings.

In summary

Bruce Lee has gone through his journey of learning martial arts technique discovered, that the best and most effective technique has no form. It is merely a result of the current circumstances.

While learning the fundamentals is important, it is also important to let go of the limitations of and form and use the hands, body and feet to achieve the most effective outcome.

I believe that the approach in learning and teaching tennis technique needs to be same. There are infinite ways of shots coming towards the player and infinite ways of hitting the ball.

Therefore, there must also be infinite ways of movements based on biomechanical fundamentals and not on finite ways of co-called proper form.


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