December Challenge: Shadow Swings

Here’s an actual transcript from every tennis lesson I’ve ever had:

Me: [hits the ball in the net]

Coach: Watch the ball.

Me: I did watch the ball.

Coach: No, you didn’t.

Me: Yes, I did.

Coach: Did you see the ball hit the net?

Me: [Thinking to myself, “Yup.”] I’m not sure. Maybe.

Coach: Then you weren’t watching the ball.

Me: [Thinking, “Well, maybe I watched the ball hit my strings and then followed the ball with my eyes until it hit the net.”] Okay.

Coach: Now keep your head down and watch this ball.

Me: [hits the ball in the net]

Coach: Did you watch the ball?

Me: [“No.”] Yes.


Well, you get the gist of it.

You’ve probably seen those incredible photos of Roger Federer after he’s completed a forehand. His right arm is whipped fully across his body, but his head is still turned to his right shoulder, eyes drilled on the empty space where the ball used to be. Now that’s watching the ball.

I know I’m supposed to look like that. So why don’t I? It’s something people at my level laugh about all the time–how can we still not be watching the ball after all these years? We may think we’re watching the ball, but all we’re really doing is glancing in the general direction of our racquet.

Today I was researching an upcoming post when I stumbled upon a phenomenal youtube video about watching the ball. It’s so good I just had to share it with you. I can’t embed it, but here’s the link:

How to keep your eye on the ball

Now, I know some of you aren’t going to click that link. And some of you will go there, see the video is twenty minutes long, and say, “No frickin’ way.” I hear you. I don’t have much patience for videos, either, although this one really is worth it.

So let me give you an overview. The video’s broken down into three parts. First, the coach in the video, Tomas Mencinger from Slovenia, describes the terrible things that happen to your shots when you don’t watch the ball. He makes an interesting point that many of us, deep down, don’t truly believe we need to watch the ball. We think we’re getting away with our inattention because we never totally whiff.

What we don’t realize is that we’re not connecting reliably with the racquet’s sweet spot, leaving us with far weaker shots than we could be producing. You know that bullet forehand you sometimes hit, leaving you looking at your racquet and wondering, “Now, where’d that come from”? You could be doing that a lot more if you watched the ball.

Of course, an even worse outcome of not keeping your head down is that you follow it with your body. You open the body too soon, causing you to hit the ball out.

The second part of the video gets a little long, frankly. Mencinger explains the four reasons why it’s hard to watch the ball. Of the four, two struck me as most important: One, it’s physically unnatural and a little uncomfortable to rotate the body and not the head. (Even the Swiss maestro doesn’t look all that comfortable.) And two, we don’t trust that we can hit our targets without looking at them.

The final, shortest part of the video is the all-important HOW–how do we fix the problem? Mencinger recommends making shadow swings (i.e., without the ball) to help develop the muscle memory of keeping the head still. He also suggests heading out to a court alone and practicing keeping the head down while hitting to targets. As long as the target isn’t ridiculously small–like six inches from the sideline–we’ll discover that, yes, we can hit accurately without looking at where we want the ball to go.

Watching the video helped me to better appreciate why I keep screwing this up. I think Mencinger is right about not genuinely believing I need to watch the ball. Deep down, I haven’t taken this most fundamental skill seriously. In all my efforts to improve my game, I’ve never prioritized simply watching the ball. I give it some lip service before a match, but once the points get started, I forget all about it in pursuit of the win.

Mencinger says watching the ball isn’t a habit that can be developed in a week. That’s probably true. I’ll have to wait until the summer to get some free court time for Mencinger’s shot accuracy exercise. Look for that drill to show up as a monthly challenge come June.

But before then, I can work on developing my muscle memory by taking some shadow swings before playing. I’m not sure how many repetitions are needed in order to develop muscle memory. I suspect more than I really feel like committing to. I’ll try five each for the forehand and backhand groundstroke. What the heck–I’ll throw in the volleys, too. So that’s twenty shadow swings each time I play for the month of December.

And maybe I’ll take some more lessons and surprise my coach by really (no, REALLY) watching the ball.

Do you have trouble remembering to watch the ball? What tips work for you?

4 thoughts on “December Challenge: Shadow Swings

Add yours

  1. In my lesson today, my coach again said: you’re looking where you want the ball to go, not watching the ball. You pegged it perfectly.

    You also pegged that I’m not going to spend 20 minutes on that video. So thanks for sharing the highlights!

    But I’m confused. If Federer is watching the ball, why is he still looking at his racquet after the ball is gone? You just stop watching once you hit it? (And yes, your description of his contorted stance sounds, well, contorted.)

    OK. So I’m not playing to look pretty. I’m playing to win. Thanks for the tips. And good luck with the December challenge!

    1. Interesting that you use the word contorted. That was in a draft of this piece but got axed later on.

      I was wondering if that description of Federer would be confusing. You need to watch the ball hit the racquet. And then you need to keep your head still until you’ve finished your shot. If you try to follow the ball with your eyes/head as it leaves your racquet, you’ll throw your entire swing off. The body naturally follows where the head goes, so when you pick your head up, your body opens up, almost always too soon. You end up hitting the ball long or wide.

      I know this because I do this a lot. I’m something of an expert on what we’re not supposed to do.

  2. I watched the video (actually I found it this weekend when I was frustrated about my own play) and agree that it’s very worthwhile. I’ve signed up for the ball machine this week, just to see if I can get a head start on undoing a lifetime of bad habits!

    1. I’m so glad you saw this video and can confirm that it’s good. And I want to hear how your session with the ball machine goes! Please post again and let us know!

      (My apologies if this is a duplicate comment. My first one disappeared, but maybe will reappear after I post this…)

Let me know what you think!

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