Learning A Tennis Serve The Natural Way

The common approach to improving your tennis game is to improve your technique. But there is the right way and the wrong way of learning tennis technique.

I will illustrate this point on the serve where a club player – Carol – was looking to improve her tennis serve.

I would also like to thank Carol for allowing me to use her videos to show what most club players (in my opinion) need to work on and where most club players go wrong.

The following video is split in two parts:

1. The first part is Carol serving the way she serves at the moment.

2. The second part is Carol throwing the racquet.

The Analysis

When you look at Carol's serve from the side it looks good – for a club player. The technique is roughly there but something is not right.

You might get into small technical details and try to correct her knee bend, have her add more body into the serve, add more wrist snap, have a looser grip, etc.

But what you notice in the second part of the video where Carol is throwing the racquet is that everything I mention above as missing is now there!

While her movement when serving is tight and somewhat "mechanical", her movement when throwing the racquet is fluid and the whole body is now almost perfectly coordinated in order to achieve what she wants – to accelerate the racquet head.

The only instruction I gave her is to throw the racquet far with a throw above her head.

I did not tell her to bend her knees, or to push from the ground (or even jump), to rotate her shoulders, to hold the racquet loosely or to snap the wrist. I didn't say any of that.

She simply wanted to throw the racquet far and everything else HAPPENED naturally!

Of course, Carol has good throwing skills but she learned those as a child. She didn't train any sport but she was active and obviously she threw some stones in the river ;) or did something similar to develop good throwing motion.

Let's look at the racquet drop which is the result of how low her elbow drops which is the result of how loose she is – or in other words: unhindered by ideas of what is correct technique.

Both pictures were taken at the moment of the lowest racquet head drop during Carol's motion.

Racquet drop when throwing
Racquet drop when serving

Notice how much lower the racquet head is and how much lower her elbow is – as a consequence of the different angle of the upper arm - which is a consequence of more relaxed and natural movement.

Again, a typical (and wrong) instruction would be to "lower the elbow", "drop the racquet lower", etc.

Even if Carol would succeed that would again produce mechanical, uncoordinated movement that would give Carol no extra power – as she would move arm there consciously WITHOUT the connection to the rest of the body.

Our conscious mind CANNOT coordinate our body.

The movements happen to fast and there are over 600 muscles in our body – where most of them are used in a movement like the serve.

Are you able to consciously fire 600 muscles in the exact right sequence in about 2 seconds?

Definitely not. Therefore you shouldn't even try.

It is the job of the cerebellum. It's a part of the brain responsible for motor control and motor learning.

(Please follow the links to learn more about the cerebellum and motor learning. The wikipedia page explains both in great detail.)

When you watch Carol's serve, you see conscious control of movements. Her serve looks good but it is merely a sequence of learned movements which Carol still consciously controls.

Since this movement is complex she is unable to coordinate many muscles consciously in order to produce greater speed of the racquet.

(Note: the reason she wanted to improve her serve with me was that she felt her serve was not fast enough – she felt she couldn't hit any faster.)

When Carol throws the racquet in the second video, she is not telling her body what or how to perform the throw, she only focuses on the result.

The result being the racquet thrown very far for which she needs to generate more force. Her cerebellum KNOWS how to coordinate hundreds of muscles in the right sequence and her throw looks very fluid and it produces a lot of racquet head speed.

The Natural Way Of Learning A Tennis Serve

So how do we learn a tennis serve for example? Do we just think about the throwing of the racquet and the tennis technique will magically appear?

Not exactly.

Although talented people have developed great serves simply by focusing on the end result - hitting the ball fast towards the service box – and allowing their body to adapt to that.

But in most cases we need to learn some technique – which is a series of movements.

Where most club players go WRONG is that they SACRIFICE their natural ways of generating force for the sake of correct technique.

A technique is nothing else as the most efficient way to generate controlled force into the ball.

It's a (controlled) force that you're looking for which will project the ball towards the target. And it's not a set of mechanical movements that are supposed to be "correct".

So what we need to do is to COMBINE the movements we learn with the natural way of generating force.

And not only that, the natural way needs to be more dominant while you're learning.

So you need to keep natural way of generating force (which in case of the serve is an overhead throw) and only GENTLY introduce certain new learned movements into that overall throw.

You must never abandon the throw (or any other natural way of movement) for the sake of technique. If you do, you'll realize that the technique will not make your serve faster. On the contrary, it will kill it.

Two Reasons Why Club Players' Serves Are Not Fast

There are two main reasons why your serve is not as fast as you're actually capable of.

1. You're learning technique and consciously controlling your movements
2. You're trying to hit the service box

These two stifle your service motion so that eventually you're probably serving with 40-50% of what you're actually capable of.

Both problems are solved with one solution: serve as if you're throwing the racquet at the ball without any target. Your only goal is to hit the ball fast and far.

It is critically important that whenever you think about shots in tennis played with higher speed, you think FAST instead of HARD.

We don't hit the ball HARD, we hit it FAST.

Your mind has made an association long time ago with the word hard. Whenever you hit something hard, you will tense your muscles.

Hard equals strong. And strong equals tense muscles - which prevents them from contracting fast.

But in tennis the goal is not to be strong but to move the racquet head through the air very fast in order to transfer that speed into the ball – so that the ball will then go fast.

Fast equals relaxed.

Swing a few times with your racquet through the air and try to move it fast through the air (so that you hear the sound of strings whooshing through the air) with as little effort as possible.

That's fast and that's the approach with groundstrokes, serves and overheads. Only a volley is more of a pushed or sometimes punched feel.

Back to serving and how we need to learn it the natural way...

Your serve may lack some technical elements that would help you hit the ball faster, with more control and less effort.

So while you're taking tennis lessons on the court or you're using tennis instruction videos (DVDs or online), you need to COMBINE the conscious part of learning the serve mechanics with your natural way of accelerating the racquet head.

The worst thing you can do is to try to consciously perform the mechanical (learned) movements AND at the same time try to hit the service box.

That's a guaranteed way to completely stifle your serve and lose all natural ways of generating force.

A Three Step Process Of Learning To Serve Fast And Effortless

Most of you reading this article already have some serve technique and the following three drills apply exactly to you.

The purpose of these three drills is to release the natural way of generating force that you’ve had for many years but you’ve sacrificed it for "correct" serve technique.

Here’s what you need to do to improve your serve speed and serve with less effort:

Step 1: Find a safe place (a lawn) to throw the racquet. Simply throw the racquet far. (as Carol did in the video above) Keep doing that for about 20-30 throws.

Step 2: Go back to the court and stand a few meters behind the baseline. (so that you really feel you have to hit the ball well to make it fly past the opposite baseline)

TThrowing position for learning a tennis serve

You can start your "throw" from the trophy position (I prefer to keep the racquet more dangling at first – see picture) and simply "throw" it (don’t release it now ;) ) into the ball.

So you’re tossing the ball up and not thinking about serve technique but you’re trying to keep the feel of throwing the racquet while you’re hitting the ball far over the opposite baseline.

Keep doing that for a few minutes until you can feel that you’re not performing serve technique but rather throwing the racquet at the ball and allowing it to go whenever it wants to go.

The key is to let go of control. Control is what slows down your serve.

Step 3: Keep feeling the "throw" into the ball and now simply aim at a steeper angle towards the service box. Do not try to control the serve and make it go in.

At this stage you simply need to get lucky here and there when you hit the box. Most serves should miss – as you’re not really controlling the racquet and you’re still freely letting go and throwing the racquet at the ball.

You’re only aiming in your mind – wishing that the ball goes lower, but you don’t sacrifice the "effortless throw motion" for the result.

If you keep doing that you’ll notice that you hit the service box more and more times.

If you add some slice to the ball and throw the racquet at the ball hitting the ball slightly on the side you’ll gain more control. Ball will rotate and will tend to go down sooner.

By now you should already feel that this is the right way to serve – as you will feel lots of energy transfer into the ball and how effortless it is compared to your previous serving.

With practice you’ll start hitting the service box regularly.



Win More Matches When It Matters Most

Most tennis matches are decided not by a better stroke but by a better tactical play and by a stronger mind.

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