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Stay Loose: Add control to your shots, take a lesson from the NFL and hit the ball easier

Keep your arm and racquet hand relaxed and flexible during your strokes.
By Allen Fox, psychologist, coach, former Wimbledon quarterfinalist and author of Tennis: Winning the Mental Match.
I want more control.
Some time ago I was watching a show on ESPN about the famed football coach Bill Walsh, who was known for his success in producing great quarterbacks, none more famous than Joe Montana. In describing Walsh’s coaching techniques, one young quarterback told of how Walsh stood directly behind him in an early practice session and kept telling him to throw the ball "easier."
When one’s muscles are tense and stiff, coordination is adversely effected.
As he mastered the ability to throw the ball "easier" while under pressure, the young man commented that it made his passes more accurate in addition to making the ball easier for his receivers to catch. What, you may ask, does this have to do with tennis? A great deal, it turns out.
Walsh was really suggesting that the quarterback be more relaxed and smooth when he threw, and that forcing the toss—"muscling" the ball by trying to throw it too hard—made it more difficult to control. When one’s muscles are tense and stiff, coordination is adversely effected. And it is smooth coordination, rather than sheer muscle power, that allows athletes in many sports to generate great power with little effort—and to control that power. The same factors are at work when one hits a baseball, throws a javelin, swims, sprints or hits a tennis ball. In all of these activities, relaxation and smooth coordination produce the best results.
Most tennis professionals accept the idea that racquet velocity on your groundstrokes is largely generated by rotating your upper body forward. This whips your arm forward to power the stroke. But a crucial additional factor is to keep your arm and racquet hand relaxed and flexible during the stroke. This improves control and "feel." It allows you to smoothly adjust to awkward positions, bad bounces or misjudged ball velocities or trajectories. In contrast, when you use your arm muscles to power the stroke, or if these muscles become tense and stiff because you are trying to hit the ball too hard, you will sacrifice control, flexibility and, ultimately, power.
Since most people are not naturally relaxed and graceful on the court, they must make a conscious effort to remain loose. It’s an important addition to developing proper technique. When you are working on your strokes, make relaxation, smoothness and good balance part of your agenda. On all strokes, watch the ball while deliberately keeping your arms and hands (your whole body, for that matter) loose and flexible.
Most of us have been taught the virtues of effort and hard work, so there is a tendency to push ourselves over the top, both physically and emotionally. On big points we may simply want it too much and stiffen up with determination. Recognizing this danger, it is useful to pull back slightly in these situations. Instead, keep your eyes wide open and alert to the whole court situation, while you remain, above all, loose and flexible— and in control.


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