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Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Tim, a subscriber to this blog, asked a great question about learning technique at an older age.

Here is what he said.

"It seems to be easier to learn new tennis techniques if you have not already fossilized years of bad habits. I always realize what I did wrong after every shot because I got excited and automatically went back to old habits. I shadow swing every day and practice 3 times a week against a wall or a partner if I can find one. That didn't seem to help me . Any advice on how to get rid of nasty bad habits forever?​"​

There are many of us with the same issues as Tim yet it's harder than it sounds to find a solution. First, it takes honest reflection to tackle your faults. To let go of the ego and find your weaknesses is not an easy task. Then to create and follow a disciplined practice schedule to work on these weaknesses takes extreme perseverance. With that said, let's dive into some ideas that might help you learn some new technique in tennis you've been struggling with.

My Response to Tim:

I love that you're willing to change some of your technique to improve your game! This is a very good question and am glad that you're being honest with what hasn't worked with you. I'll list some pieces of advice to try out but there is some piece of information missing from your description to really know what's going on. When you say you've done shadow swings and practice with hitting partners, you left out how long you've done this for. You're right, as you get older it's harder to change things but it is doable. In fact, this TED talk is something that puts it into perspective. Meaning, the amount of time you need to learn something new is independent of others. It may take me 2 days to learn something while it takes you 2 minutes. It's all relative. It sounds like your process is going to take longer than anticipated. With that in mind, here is what I recommend:

First you need some data (observations):

  • Shadow swing with mirrors. You may be surprised to learn what you really look like versus what you think you look like. Watch one thing at a time (racquet, dominate hand, feet, etc) to find out the root causes of your technique problems.

  • Video when hitting. This will give you a better idea of what you're looking like when you play. It's easier to look good without a ball coming at you that you need to hit :)

Next, you need to start with the reaction:

  • When you are startled, you have a natural reaction to that (fight or flight). The same happens when you start your swing in tennis. What is your FIRST reaction to the ball? Whatever that is, you can figure out what needs to change to get you in the proper position before you hit the ball. I cannot stress enough how important it is to set up correctly before you start your swing. This will make or break your swing!

Next you need to do the practices in a systematic way:

  • Start with shadow swinging like you have done. Start out slow and watch the racquet (if you do not have mirrors).

  • Next drop feed and hit the ball. Again, nice and slow to get an idea for what it should feel like.

  • Next hit against a wall or get balls fed to you from a ball machine or friend. The idea is the ball is predictable when it comes to you. This way you can practice your preparation without thinking about where the ball is going to be hit to you.

*Go back to the first step (shadow swinging) if you struggle in any of the steps. The best way to tell if you are struggling is if you do not know why you missed a ball after you swung. If you can "feel" the mistake then you are on the right path towards improvement!

Next you need to add variety to the balls you see:

  • Hitting with someone will make the ball coming to you unpredictable so that will make you have to work on your reaction to the ball. This is where you go back to the beginning of this email to read again if you react poorly to the ball while you hit (as indicated in the video of yourself after you look at it).

  • Add stronger players to hit with as you are getting the technique down.

This might take a few days, months or years! It can happen if you stay systematic with it. A good rep (swing) done correctly is worth 100 reps (swings) done incorrectly!

Thank you again Tim for this thought provoking question that started this blog :)

Best of luck and happy hitting!

Having trouble hitting cross court? Check this video out:

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