Is Racket Head Speed the Problem Here?
In my recent article on FACE IT, I used my extensive catalog of professional forehands to show how leverage is established on contact with the ball. By establishing a hitting structure, by turning the hips and torso and hitting structure into the ball, and by pulling the arm forward in front of the body, professional players meet the ball in an ideal position where the hand, arm structure, and shoulder are all powerfully positioned behind the ball at contact.
Imagine pushing a heavy object - like a door or a barrel of water - and imagine what it would be like to push that object with your arm at your side. Now imagine would it would feel like to push it with your hand and arm well in front of your body. Just by changing this position of contact, the amount of force you can apply changes dramatically due to leverage.
With leverage on your forehand, you essentially create a leveraged wall of your arm and racket behind the ball so that the ball can compress into the string bed and then spring back out. As the ball starts to spring back, these players push the entire arm from the shoulder forward as they also lift upward and rotate the wrist/hand/forearm for topspin. When you hear the distinct deep loud pop as pro players hit the ball, this sound comes largely from having the arm and shoulder positioned behind the ball at a position of maximum leverage
All Speed, No Leverage
I saw a recent instructional video from Topspeed Tennis, that highlighted the player in blue (top right animation). The instructor, Clay Ballard, used this player's forehand as example of not "snapping the cap". And his conclusion was that by not snapping the cap, this player was losing racket head speed and was at risk for tennis elbow. Now when I watch this stroke I clearly see the stretch shortening cycle happening. The problem is that it happens so early in the stroke that the racket head speed actually hijacks the stroke and ends up causing the elbow to break which leads to a very late contact point too close to his body.
Clay does one of the best jobs I've seen of explaining how the stretch shortening cycle works - and I've learned a good deal from his explanations - but his hyper focus on this one element reminds me of Abraham Maslow's phrase "if all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail". In other words, Clay is so focused on this one piece that he is missing the much larger context within which the wrist action needs to happen. And by telling this player he needs to "snap the cap" (which he already does), he is leading down the wrong path.
The huge problem with this player's forehand is that he is not pulling his arm in front of his body plane. Instead of pulling his arm forward like the pro players, his arm breaks at the elbow coming into contact. Pro players NEVER alter the angle of the elbow as they pull forward to contact. And from my experience, this breaking of the elbow coming into contact is a problem I see over and over again with club level players. It's an absolute stroke killer for four reasons. First, by breaking at the elbow coming into contact, the lever that is created from the shoulder, through the arm, and to the hand, get's broken. Any force you could apply from your shoulder, through your arm, and to the hand and racket, gets lost completely. It would be like trying to use a pole as a lever and having it break in half.
The second problem with breaking at the elbow is that it results in a steep upward motion of the forearm and racket. You can't move through the ball at all because the bending elbow is directing everything upward, not through the ball. So it's a very weak movement from the elbow to the hand in an upward direction - like curling a barbell.
The third problem with breaking at the elbow before contact is that it will cause the racket to come in close to the body. You can see how the student is hitting the ball right at his side. There is no spacing between his body and contact point.
The final problem here is that by snapping at the elbow with the contact point so close to the body, this player is at a very high risk in developing tennis elbow. With a good forehand, the shoulder, arm, and hand all form a lever all the way to contact. So on contact the ball is pressing into the racket, the hand, the arm, all the way up to the shoulder. So force doesn't impact the elbow at all. But when you snap at the elbow, the elbow is absorbing all the force of the ball.
Interestingly, in the video Clay suggests that he is in danger of developing tennis elbow - but the reason he gives is "because the player's forearm muscles are too tight" causing him to not get lag and snap of the racket. Clay intuitively senses that this guy is at a huge risk for developing tennis elbow, and he is right on the money there. But he attributes it, I think incorrectly, to a tight wrist. Instead it's the breaking of the elbow and the weak contact point that will almost surely lead to tennis elbow here.
In the end, this snapping at the elbow results in a weak and erratic shot that has no weight behind it. Even better, it's the fastest way to develop tennis elbow.
Let's compare this player to two pros after the ball is long gone. The first thing you'll notice is the massive difference in spacing. The blue player's elbow is pressed up tight against the side of his body. Muguruza and Raonic have their elbows well in front of their body with great extension forward. The second thing to notice is that the strings on Muguruza and Raonic's racket are still facing the net, and the racket is still on the right side of their bodies, long after the ball has gone. The blue player's racket, in contrast, has shot forward - with the tip of his racket pointing towards the net. And his strings are facing the side fence while the pro player's strings still face the net. This is from coming across the ball not through the ball.
In this scenario of the student focuses on "snapping the cap", as suggested in the video, it won't help him because the leverage problem is primary. Instead of getting leverage and power and push of the ball, snapping the cap in this case will just increase the elbow snap. So he will get more speed, but even worse connection with the ball.
In a previous article I used the image on the left to show another example of how focusing on racket head speed at all costs can be very destructive when a player doesn't meet the ball in front of his body. In this picture, the coach had a radar gun out and told the student to just swing as fast as possible to see how fast he could swing. While he might be swinging fast, look at how horrible this would be if he were actually hitting a ball. His elbow is at the side of his body, not in front, and his arm extends straight out to the side fence. If a ball was coming into his strings at any speed here, there would be absolutely nothing behind the racket to support it.
So to sum this up, if you aren't getting proper leverage with the ball. If your arm isn't well in front of your body on contact, and you don't feel your shoulder pushing the hand through contact to some degree, then increasing racket head speed will not help you. You must establish proper leverage first. You want to feel the easy power that comes from meeting the ball in front. You want to use your shoulder to push the ball. And only then should you move onto adding the stretch shortening cycle. The trend I see in online instruction is to hyper focus on the stretch shortening cycle, and to ignore the importance of establishing proper leverage. Leverage is one of my master principles and accounts for so much of the spring and power in forehands, backhands, and volleys. Click here to read more about this master principle.
In the next article I am going to show how two pro players actually suffer from a late contact point (compromised leverage). Heather Watson, whose career was derailed by tennis elbow caused by late contact, has thankfully fixed the problem and I will use video to show the before and after. The other player, Dudi Sela, has a nice hitting structure but doesn't pull forward. It results in a late contact that is highly unusual for pro players. And I will also show an example of someone I taped who had a near professional level game and trained with Roddick as a junior, but whose forehand was marred by this problem of compromised leverage.