by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
Most players have at least one technical or movement flaw that hinders performance: a hitch in the forehand, backhand, or serve, an ineffective swing path, incomplete unit turn, or poor setup with their feet before hitting the ball. These flaws are usually obvious, but sometimes they are subtle enough that they are rarely a focus during practice. The flaws might not be impacting the player’s performance too much at the moment, but as the player develops and becomes physically stronger, the opponents become stronger as well. As opponents get stronger, the speed and weight of shot increases dramatically—the game becomes much faster. At higher levels, players have to move much more quickly and efficiently, and the strokes need to be compact, simple, and clean. Flaws or inefficiencies in strokes and movement are quickly exposed at higher level of the game, putting an instant ceiling on the ability to improve and get better results.
Most coaches recognize the impact small or large flaws will have on future results, but many don’t realize how powerful muscle memory is and what is required to overcome it. The neuro and muscle physiology of muscle memory is intricate and complex, but the important takeaway is that although muscle memory becomes deeply ingrained, it can be permanently changed with focused, and most importantly, extended attention.
Let’s take a simple hitch or ineffectiveness in the forehand swing as an example. Many coaches will help the player shadow stroke a more effective swing, and then work to implement that swing while feeding balls to the player. After the player does this for a few minutes or over the course of the lesson, the coach moves on to something else, or at least temporarily focuses on another aspect of the player’s game, before returning to the swing path later on. This usually does not get the desired results, especially if the flaw is significant and/or been present for a long time. Such is the power of muscle memory.
The reason this method does not produce results comes down to the physiology of muscle memory. If a player learns a new pattern of muscle movement (e.g. a new swing, different movement, etc.), the pattern will be remembered many hours later. But, if the player focuses on another aspect of muscle movements (his or her backhand, movement, or another aspect of the forehand, for example) soon after working on the forehand swing, the brain and muscles will forget much of what was learned with the forehand.
There is only one effective way to bypass this problem and achieve permanent and relatively quick results. As mentioned earlier, changing muscle memory requires focused and extended attention. If a coach or player truly wants to make a significant change to a stroke or movement pattern, make this essentially the sole area of focus until the change is solidified. The entire practice should be spent shadow-stroking or gently hitting feeds with the altered stroke. The player should spend an hour or two each day outside of practice hitting this same shadow stroke. How long should the player continue only focusing on this one aspect? For as long as it takes. I recently worked on the forehand swing of a top ITF junior who plans to turn professional in the near future. We smoothed the forehand out by making it more compact and removing unnecessary movements in his arm during take- back and acceleration—we both knew that his old forehand swing would make handling fast shots extremely challenging at the professional level. For two straight months he did nothing during his 4 hours of daily on-court practice other than focusing on this swing path. Further, every evening during those two months he would do two straight additional hours (literally) of forehand shadow strokes with his new swing. After the two months, his old muscle memory was fully replaced by his new and improved stroke.
It may seem too challenging and unnecessary to focus exclusively on one aspect for such an extended time, but the impact of a flaw or ineffective stroke is too detrimental to performance at high levels to ignore, two months in nothing in the lifetime of tennis development, and the science of muscle memory requires it.