Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Aug 1, 1995 – Dr. John F. Murray – Would you like to improve your overall quickness on the tennis court? If so, some physical means are available through improved conditioning, agility and footwork. After that, you may need to choose faster parents to gain a sizeable physical advantage, since genetic factors (e.g., muscle characteristics) place an upper limit on your movement ability.
What may surprise you is that quickness in tennis has less to do with the ability to move, or even run as fast as Forest Gump, than mental skills! Although physical proficiency is desirable, and necessary at the higher levels of play, mental superiority in the form of anticipatory skills is far more meaningful in achieving quickness in tennis.
Visual scanning research in racquet sports has shown that experts differ from novices in eye fixation patterns and perceptual strategies. For example, whereas experts focus consistently on proximal cues (e.g., angle of racket prior to contact, position of server’s shoulder), novices display less controlled fixations and focus on more distal cues (e.g., position of ball after contact). The ability to attend to relevant proximal cues and interpret them accurately is the hallmark of superior anticipation … and quickness.
In short, tennis quickness involves being prepared, knowing what kind of shot to expect from early visual cues, and acting accordingly on that knowledge. If you have poor anticipatory skills and are constantly late in reacting to your opponent, your world class speed will be useless.
Can anticipatory skills in tennis be taught? The exciting news is that a pioneer study here at the University of Florida shows that the answer is yes! In this study, novice and intermediate tennis players learned to make faster and more accurate decisions regarding the type and direction of shots following a mental quickness training program. Further research is certainly needed, but these results are encouraging.
In my opinion, there are two areas of knowledge where improvements will lead to enhanced anticipatory skills and greater tennis quickness. The first, already discussed, involves helping players recognize the meaning of appropriate proximal cues, and implementing this knowledge in game situations. The second area is more traditional and involves reviewing the fine points of timing and court positioning as they relate to the type of shot hit, position of the player, and position of the opponent. Very few club players have mastered these skills. While watching the US Open, it appeared that some professionals would benefit from refinement in this area as well.
I hope this brief review has helped you realize that quickness in tennis involves far more than swift movements or a new pair of Nikes. Quickness may not be directly observable, since the processes contributing to it (e.g., scanning, recognizing, interpreting) are mental operations. Don’t worry though, the difference will be clearly evident in the score!