November’s Challenge: The Split Step

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?

11 thoughts on “November’s Challenge: The Split Step

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  1. Oh, yes, I guess I should be worried about hurting them. But I think it’s more likely they’ll go after the rope as a new toy and end up tripping me up! I’d be flat on my back, but they’d probably be fine. They’re a lot more agile than I am! (Maybe they split step!)

  2. pound, pound, pound 4two minutes a day? Deb, now you will need new tennis shoes even MORE often!
    But seriously, aren’t you worried about all of that extra impact on your legs and back?

  3. I don’t know—am I going to regret this challenge? Probably the basement’s cement floor isn’t the best surface for it, even with brand new cushy sneakers. But…we’ll see. If I have to abandon it early, so be it.

  4. I was wondering how you would fare with 5 minutes! My son used to jump rope for his warm-ups for fencing, and it was so hard! I did it for a while with him. Jumping rope is an amazing workout.

    There aren’t too many places I can picture jumping that don’t have hard landings. Maybe the back yard?

    As for the split step looking silly, I know it really feels that way, but do you think the pros look silly when they do it? No. They look masterful. And you will too. Good luck with the challenge.

    I was thinking I might do some sideways jumping challenges (one leg, not two), which I think would be good for core and thigh strength for tennis and skiing — and firm up my legs.

    1. It’s only MY split step that looks silly. The pros look graceful and fluid. And maybe on November 30th, I will, too, although I suspect it will take a bit longer.

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds the jump rope hard!!

      What would the sideways jumping look like? It does sound like a good toning exercise.

  5. I’m in with you!!! I bought a rope several months ago and it is still brand new, shiny, in my drawer. So let’s do it.
    For the surface, maybe we can use a sport mat just to make the surface a little softer…

    1. Yay! Someone’s doing the challenge with me! I love company on my challenges!

      A sports mat would be a better surface. I can’t have one in my house, though, because I have a cat who would eat it. (No, really. He eats insulation and plastic bags and cushions. He may be part dog.) I’ll have to use one at the gym.

  6. All good ideas get recycled and appear new 🙂 I bought a jump rope 10 years ago with the explicit goal of better feet on the tennis court and the addition of a split step. It was a very tiring workout, but mostly after a week my knees said no 🙁 I have to respect the aging body, so sadly I can’t sign up for this specific approach but I can promise to be more mindful of the split step. I think I will write the word “split step” on my left hand, near the wrist so that I will see it as I look down at the ball, and it will be a gentle reminder. You are right that this small step separates us from the pros (along with a few others).

  7. So many naysayers on this blog post! So far my knees are holding up, but my Achilles’ tendons are protesting. I haven’t tried jumping rope on the sports mat at the gym yet. I’ll try that tomorrow. If the cushioning doesn’t make a difference, I’ll have to abandon this challenge. I suffered with Achilles pain for years, and I do NOT want to go down that road again.

    I’m impressed that you came up with the jump rope idea on your own! I have to steal all my good ideas from other people. (Of course, the jury’s still out on whether this is actually a good idea.)

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