Today, I’m going to give you three quick tips to improve your Spec Tennis game without having to change your swing. We’re going to talk about the split step, recovery, and how you move to the ball.
#1 The Split Step
The first tip is the split step. In case you don’t know what it is, it’s a fancy word for a hop, and you always want to split step just before your opponent is about to make contact with the ball.
So this means that they’re setting up for their shot, right when their paddle starts moving forward, just before they contact the ball, you want to do a little hop in place. You don’t have to get very high off the ground, but you do want to land very softly.
Your heels should stay off the ground, putting you in a very athletic position, which allows you to change direction quickly, and take a big first step. The split step should take precedence over everything else at the moment that your opponent is about to make contact with the ball.
Oftentimes I see players recovering, or running somewhere, and their opponent is hitting the ball but they’re still in motion and it doesn’t allow them to change direction quickly. It’s common to see a player running from the baseline up to the net for the first volley, they’re trying to get pretty close to the net so they can have an easy volley, but their opponent is about to hit the ball, so they actually need to stop for a second and do the split step so that they can change direction.
Or another example is you might be running to the left, but your opponent hits the ball to your right, and if you don’t do a split step, you’re not able to change direction quickly enough to get there.
So here’s the proper way to do it. Let’s say you’re recovering to the left after your shot, but your opponent’s about to hit the ball. You need to actually do a 90 degree turn to face the court, to face your opponent, do the split step, and then move again in the direction that they hit the ball.
The split step is especially important if you’re in motion prior to your opponent hitting the ball; if you’re already in the location that you want to be in, oftentimes just bending your knees will achieve the same goal as a split step, as long as you’re in a good athletic position. This is because if your feet are shoulder width apart (or maybe a little bit wider than that) when you bend your knees, your heels typically come off the ground, so you’re in a good athletic ready position.
How to Practice the Split Step
If you want to go out and practice the split step, I recommend just simply hitting the ball down the middle of the court, nice and easy, and focusing on the moment when your opponent’s paddle starts moving forward to the ball, that’s when you do the little hop.
Now there’s two ways that you can do it. Option #1 is you can do one hop at the moment just before your opponent makes contact. Option #2 is after you hit your previous shot, you can hop nonstop until that moment when your opponent’s paddle moves forward. Sometimes this one’s easier because then you don’t have to think about it as much. If you just start hopping nonstop, you’re always ready. You stop hopping when they’re about to hit the ball so that you can move and react to the shot.
And it doesn’t take that much effort. You might be thinking initially, this is going to take a lot of work for me to just hop nonstop, but once you do it a little bit, you don’t even have to really think about it anymore.
Summary of the Split Step
Remember you want to do a hop, or do multiple hops with the last one being when your opponent’s paddle starts moving forward on every shot, not just some shots.
And the idea being that you’re in the air and as you’re landing, you’re recognizing where your opponent’s shot is going so that you can take off immediately to that next ball.
#2 Recover Faster Than You Move To The Ball
The second tip that will improve your Spec Tennis game without changing your strokes, or shot selection is recovering faster than you go to the ball. A lot of players run to the ball really fast, but then they recover really slowly or they don’t recover at all.
This makes it so that they’re always in a rush to the next ball, because they’re not in the best place waiting for their opponents shots, so then they have to scramble to the next ball. When you have to scramble, you typically do worse than when you’re nice and relaxed, arriving to the ball with plenty of time.
So, we want to be in that situation where we don’t have to scramble to too many balls, and how that’s achieved is by recovering faster.
What Is Recovery?
Now, if you don’t even know what recovery means, that’s okay too, I’ll explain that quick. It simply means moving to the best possible position after you hit the ball. After you hit a shot you’re not usually standing in the best possible position to receive your opponent’s next shot, so you need to recover.
Recovering to the ‘Middle’ of the Court Is Often Wrong
Where people get this wrong is they recover to the center of the court, to the middle. And I even see coaches telling players to recover to the middle of the court after they hit their shot, but that’s wrong.
When you’re at the baseline, you want to stand opposite angle from where you just hit the ball. So in other words, you want to stand crosscourt from the ball that you’ve just hit.
This is because you are bisecting the angle of your opponent’s two best shots. So if you hit a shot that is wide to your opponent’s forehand, then you want to shift slightly to your forehand side (if you’re right-handed) so that you’re standing crosscourt from that ball.
In that scenario, your opponent’s two best options are they can hit a wide angle shot back to your forehand side, or they can hit down the line. So cut the distance between those two shots in half and that’s where your recovery spot should be in, it’s not in the center of the court though.
When Should You Recover to The Center?
The times when you should recover the center of the court are when you hit in the center of the court, or if you’re playing a specific strategy, like maybe you’re trying to take more forehands and backhands. A final reason could be if your opponent is not very good at hitting angles or something like that. But assuming that your opponent can hit the ball at an angle, you want to stand crosscourt from the ball so that you’re not slow getting to that next ball.
So being aware of where you need to recover to is number one, and then recovering fast is number two. You don’t want to conserve energy when you’re recovering, because it’s going to put you in a more advantageous position if you’re waiting in that recovery spot before your opponent hits the ball.
Don’t Shuffle When Recovering
Now I see a lot of people shuffling when they’re recovering and this is also wrong if you are more than a step or two from away your recovery spot. You need to turn and run so that you can get there faster and with less effort. ‘Turn and Run’ is just like it sounds, if I’m facing forward and I need to recover to the right, I’m going to turn to the right, and then just do regular running steps. My feet are crossing over each other each time.
And the same thing is true when you’re playing from the net, except the only difference is you don’t stand crosscourt from the ball, but you follow the ball. So if you hit the ball to the left side (from your perspective) then you’re going to recover slightly to the left of the center, versus if you hit it to the right side you’re going to recover slightly to the right side of the center line.
Say you’re hitting a series of volleys and then you change direction of the ball, you quickly need to get to the other side so that you’re ready for the next shot.
This also applies if you move forward for a volley. So oftentimes people get close to the net for a volley, which is good— you want to put yourself in an advantageous position to close out the point and the closer that you get to the net for the volley, the more likely you are to be able to earn a point. But after you hit that volley, you often need to back up so that you’re not so close to the net for the next shot so that you can still handle the lob.
And so, #1 we talked about the split step, number two, we talked about recovering faster than you run to the ball. And so how do these work together? Well, the split step should happen either after your recovery, or during your recovery. Sometimes you might not have time to recover to the best possible place, but it’s important that you split step at the exact moment that your opponent’s paddle starts moving forward. So these two things work hand in hand.
#3 How to Move to the Ball
The third and final tip that I’m going to give you today on how to improve your Spec Tennis game without changing your swing is how you actually move to the ball. And all of these tips will apply to tennis as well, so if you’re trying to improve your tennis game, I would suggest trying these in Spec Tennis first, because they’re going to be easier to execute, and then doing the same thing on the tennis court.
When it comes to moving, I see people mess this up all the time. When you are moving to the ball, you want to think like you are walking to the ball. I want you to imagine for a second, that you just placed a ball on the ground, near the right corner of the court, near the baseline. Now walk back to the center of the court and face forward so you’re facing the net, and then turn to the right and walk to that ball that you just sat on the ground and pick it up.
Now, I can almost guarantee you that the steps that you took to go pick up that one ball are correct steps, in Spec Tennis, and in tennis, you probably turned to your right, and then your steps were going parallel to the baseline, using a normal step size. This is how you want to move when you’re playing.
Obviously you’re not going to do it walking most of the time, so you might just have to speed that up a little bit, but this is the feeling that you want to have when you’re playingi The reason is because when you do that, you’re taking normal size steps. So you get to the ball with plenty of time, you don’t have to provide a lot of effort to get to the ball. I see so many players taking a million little steps, which number one, they have to go faster because they’re covering less distance with each step. And like I said earlier, the faster that you have to go to the ball, the less relaxed you’re going to be, the more tense. So you’re probably not going to perform the shot as well. Plus you’re taking a lot of effort, and there’s a better chance of you getting to the ball late.
But if you take steps that look like walking steps or running steps, you’re going to get there more efficiently, and exhaust less energy, and you’re also going to be able to perform a better shot. And the same thing is true when you’re moving forward for most shots that’s, unless it’s really short, where you might just have to run, and not get turned sideways to hit it. But for most shots, when you’re moving forward, if it’s a comfortable shot, you’re going to turn sideways to hit the ball.
So let’s say you’re right handed, hitting a forehand, you’re going to turn to your right as your first step, and then do walking steps going forward while you’re facing sideways. Now the final aspect of movement that I want to talk about, and this really fires me up is, when people are moving backwards, they usually do it. One of two ways: They either back pedal, which is bad, or they shuffle, which is also bad.
Backpedaling is dangerous, I’ve seen players fall and hurt themselves, they can fall on their head, they can fall on their wrist, very dangerous to backpedal because most people aren’t doing it from an athletic position. And it’s also very slow when you backpedal, and your shoulders don’t naturally turn when you backpedal to hit the shot, and so you’re not going to hit as good of a shot. Now shuffling backwards is better than backpedaling, but it’s still not good.
It’s not as dangerous as backpedaling, but again, it’s going to take a lot longer to get to the ball when you shuffle, you have to do a much faster movement, exert more energy than if you simply turn and ran. A good example I like to use of turn and run is, imagine in a outfield or in baseball, chasing down a ball that could maybe be a home run ball. They are turning towards the back wall and they are running, but they are looking at the ball that’s coming in at them. So their eyes are facing forward at the incoming ball, but their feet are facing the opposite direction.
That’s the same thing you want to do in Spec tennis or tennis, is to turn your feet towards the back fence, and be moving in that direction, but have your head turned at the incoming ball so that you can track it. So this is great for overheads, this is great for deep groundstrokes, where you have to move back. Anytime you have to move backwards more than one step, you want to do this. And so if you’re not quite getting this, and you want to see a visual example, go ahead and place a ball near the back fence on the spec tennis court, then go up to the baseline to the center again, facing forward, facing the net, then go pick up the ball from the back fence. What you’ll naturally do if you’re turning to your right is you’ll probably bring your right foot backwards, then your left foot will cross over that. Just like you’re walking back there and you’ll go pick up the ball.
And again, doing it this way is going to get you there a lot faster, so you’re going to get to more balls, you’re going to be more relaxed when you get to the ball, and nothing is dangerous about this. I hear all the time, coaches, people saying, “Move your feet, move your feet.” But what I want you to get from this episode is you only want to do the minimum required to hit the shot, you don’t want to take extra steps, because that takes more energy, that often puts you too close to the ball, you’re not taking strong steps. So you want to get to the ball with the fewest amount of steps possible. So oftentimes going from the center of the court to the corner should take about three steps. And so I don’t like when people say, “Move your feet”; it’s not specific enough.
“Move your feet.” What does that mean? Move my feet in place? Take extra steps to get to the ball? Or I try to have more intensity when I’m running to the ball? That’s the opposite of what you want to do. You don’t want to have fast feet when you’re getting to the ball, because like we’ve said, before you get tense and you don’t hit as good of a shot. The looser you are when you hit your shot, the better you’re going to be able to perform it.
And so to recap today, the three tips that are going to help your spec tennis or tennis game without having to change your shots, are #1 the split step. You want to do a hop at the moment when your opponent’s paddle starts moving forward on every shot.
#2 you want to recover faster than you run to the ball, if you do it this way, you’re going to be more relaxed, getting to the ball, you’re going to get to more balls, you’re going to exert less energy.
And #3 is when you move, you want to make it look like you were walking, or doing a fast jog, or run to the ball. These all look exactly the same, walking, running, jogging, it’s just at a faster pace. Now, most people don’t do these three things, because they’re not that fun to practice. They might go out there and say, “Let me try to hit my forehand harder.” But they’re not going to devote any time in their practice session working on the split step, because it’s not that fun. But if you do these three things, I guarantee you it’s going to improve your Spec Tennis game, and you’re going to have the opportunity of winning more matches.