Good balance is one of the most fundamental elements that separates mediocre from great players, as it’s important for reliable and consistent precise movement, fluid strokes, solid contact, accuracy, and power. Frequently a consequence of poor balance, hitting off the back foot is a common problem that prevents forward weight transfer, which robs the shot of depth, weight, and power. Both issues are usually related and can be permanently solved with a simple intervention.
I have heard numerous coaches over the years attempt to rectify these issues which intermittent commands during practice such as, “Don’t hit off your back foot”, or simply, “Stay balanced.” From experience and observation, this has minimal impact. It’s challenging to just “stay balanced” without a specific technique or plan to actually remain balanced. It’s often just as difficult to not hit off your back foot if the player doesn’t understand the underlying reasons why he or she is hitting off the back foot to begin with. The player will often forcibly try to improve his or her balance and/or not hit of the back foot temporarily, but once the coach moves on to something else, prior muscle memory takes over and the player usually reverts back to poor balance and hitting off the back foot. Check the blog The Power of Muscle Memory for more information on this area.
What is an easy way to improve both of these issues? Force the player to keep his or her feet completely planted right before, during, and after contact. If a player keeps both feet truly planted during contact, it’s impossible to hit off the back foot without falling. Try it out by hand-feeding balls and moving the player forwards, backwards, and side-to-side. Give no other instructions other than to keep the feet 100% planted. After hand-feeding, move to feeding with the racquet and then to live ball. You’ll notice that the player’s balance will improve quickly. The player will automatically, and often unconsciously, make small adjustments with his or her footwork to remain balanced while following the new rule to keep the feet 100% planted right before, during, and after contact.
Keeping the feet planted (especially after contact for more advanced players), works wonderfully to improve balance even if the player doesn’t have an issue with hitting off the back foot. Of course at the higher levels of the game, players often lift several inches off the ground after contact, especially when hitting hard forehands. Roger Federer’s feet certainly come off the ground on many of his forehand winners. But, Roger Federer has already developed impeccable balance. His feet, and the feet of other top players, come off the ground because the momentum from their swing speed and swing path lifts the body upwards, but they remain completely balanced.
If a player does not already possess professional-level balance, forcing him or her to keep the feet planted will accelerate the development of this process rapidly. Consider making this a primary focus until the player does it without instruction and until new muscle memory is solidified.