I can always spot a tennis pro on the court before she even hits the ball. How? She split steps. More than power and spin and aces, it’s that little hop that distinguishes the serious player from, well, me. (The power, spin, and aces just confirm it.)
I have no trouble chasing down lobs or sprinting to cover a drop volley. And I can usually master the little adjustment steps needed to set up for a groundstroke, at least on a good day.
But the split step, the smallest of the tennis footwork repertoire, always trips me up. For the life of me, I can’t remember to do it. Even if a coach prompts me to split step, I feel clumsy and stupid. I’m sure I look ridiculous as well.
I was thinking about the split step this morning and realized something. There’s a reason why hustling around the court feels natural while the split step doesn’t. The split step is a two-footed hop. I take one-footed strides all day long–walking the dog, climbing stairs, running on the track. But two-footed movements? I can’t think of a single instance in my day when a two-footed hop is my best option for getting from point A to point B. I probably haven’t made that move since playing hopscotch at recess.
Small though it may be, the split step can really boost your game. It provides a momentary pause to assess where the ball is going, as well as a stable platform to launch yourself to that spot. When done correctly, the split step can make you feel like you have more time to get to the ball.
So how can I make it a more natural part of my game?
Somewhere in the morass of websites, forums, and chat rooms, I came across a suggestion of jumping rope to train your leg muscles to make that small hop. That makes sense. It’s at least worth a try–all it costs me is a jump rope.
I didn’t have one, so I headed over to Dick’s Sporting Goods and bought a speed rope for $12. (A speed rope is your basic jump rope, perfect for beginners like me. Weighted jump ropes are heavier (duh) and harder to use. Why make life harder than I have to?)
Yes, I could have used any old piece of rope from my garage. No doubt that will be my husband’s position when he sees my new toy. But a real jump rope truly is better. The handles are more comfortable to hold and make the rope easier to turn. A real jump rope also hits the ground with a satisfying thwack. Plus, I just like buying shiny new stuff.
I figured I’d make November’s challenge easy: Jump rope for five minutes a day. After all, I’m not doing it for fitness. I just want to practice the hop.
Armed with my new jump rope, I went right down into the basement to give it a whirl. Two things became immediately apparent. One, I need a better sports bra. And two, I vastly underestimated the workout a jump rope gives. After about thirty seconds, I knew I’d never last five straight minutes. How can this be so hard? I’m only jumping two inches off the ground! I swear it wasn’t this hard in second grade.
So here’s the revised November challenge: Every day I’ll jump rope for two (not necessarily consecutive) minutes. If I’m playing tennis, I’ll squeeze in my jumping right before I take the court. Otherwise, I’ll do it at home. (I’ll have to remember to lock up the dog and cats first, or I’ll be writing my next post from my hospital bed.)
I don’t expect to be a split-stepping master at the end of the month. My goal is just to feel a tad less awkward doing it. Baby steps, people.
Who’s taking up the jump rope challenge with me?